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Fitness Myth Busting: Can Lifting Weights Make Me Bulky?

The truth about lifting weights via Dr. Hunter Vincent

We get questions all the time regarding basic health concepts and fitness fads, and whether they are filled with more fact or fiction. Over the next couple months we are going to start setting the record straight on some common fitness and health myths with help from our health expert Dr. Hunter Vincent. Now, when it comes to breaking down the science, things are never so simple, and there are always exceptions to every rule. It is also important to remember that not every body is the same—each person has a unique recipe for health and fitness success. That said, our first question to address is… Will lifting weights make me bulky? The immediate answer is NO. Keep reading to see Dr. Hunter debunk this common fitness myth (apologies for some of the overly scientific content ahead!)…

Strength training has undeniably been shown to have many health benefits, ranging from improvements in function, preventing osteoporosis, sarcopenia with aging, lower-back pain, as well as positively affecting insulin resistance, resting metabolic rate, glucose metabolism, blood pressure, body fat, and even your GI tract, all of which are associated with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. But, strength training often gets a bad rap, because many people believe that lifting weights makes you big and bulky. Obviously every person is different, and every body reacts differently to different exercises. Here are four reasons why we disagree with this common misconception that weights “make you bulky”…

1. Burn, baby, burn!

Did you know… Muscle burns more calories than fat! The American Council of Exercise says that 1 pound of muscle burns 7 to 10 calories per day, while 1 pound of fat burns only 2 to 3 calories. So, in very basic terms, this means that the more lean muscle you have, the more calories your body “burns,” which equates to more calories that your body requires. Which is why many research studies have shown that successful weight loss programs combine both calorie restricted diets with strength training. This is because when a person loses fat, but maintains their lean muscle, they actually keep their body’s calorie requirement (also known as Resting Metabolic Rate) higher, which allows them to technically eat more while still losing weight. But let’s get something straight: This doesn’t mean you can do some dumbbell lunges and then go straight for In-N-Out Burger.

2. You’ve gotta eat to be big.

You’re not going to pick up a barbell or some dumbbells and wake up with muscles. The human body doesn’t work like that. Muscles need calories and nutrients to grow. If you don’t feed them, they won’t grow. Just like a plant won’t grow unless it gets sunlight and water. A recent study illustrated that resistance training in combination with a calorie-restricted diet (including low carb diets) resulted in not only weight loss and fat loss, but improvements in strength without any change in muscle size. To sum it up, by keeping your calories in check, lifting weights can actually help you become leaner and stronger, without increasing muscle bulk. This is one of the many reasons why nutrition is such a key component of a healthy lifestyle.

3. Don’t lift too much.

When you see people in the gym with muscles bursting out of their tank tops, you have to realize that in order to get to that point, they had to put in a high volume of training (which includes reps, sets, & weight) and most of the time, some serious consistency (usually 5+ days per week). These bulky gym goers who get their bodies to look like this basically treat weight lifting like a part-time job. But YOU don’t need to lift weights 5-6 days per week to get many of the benefits of strength training, without the muscle bulk. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 2-3 days of strength training per week for maximal health benefits. Having a balanced exercise plan which incorporates interval training, strength training, and aerobic exercise can provide you with a well rounded regimen, without causing large muscle growth.

4. Heavy vs. Light Weights…

For a long time, it has been thought that lifting heavy weight for less reps will cause your muscles to hypertrophy (get big) more so than light weight for more reps. Although research shows some validity to this, there is a substantial amount of research that shows that hypertrophy can actually occur from both light and heavy weight. So, why don’t Pilates peeps and gym rats both get big? Because there are so many reasons why a muscle gets bigger—some of which are discussed above. There is also a very complicated mixture of factors that can be different for each individual’s genetics. However, two of the main concepts that are most often discussed are: one, exercising to “contractile failure” (meaning…burning out, or until you literally can’t lift the weight anymore) and “maximal motor unit recruitment” (using all of the tiny contracting parts within the muscle). Both of these concepts highlight the obvious fact that gaining muscle is also dependent on how strenuously you lift weights. In short, getting muscle bulk doesn’t happen quite as easily as you’d think—you have to really work to get there!

So, here’s the deal. There is a ton of research and science to support the benefits of resistance training. Although it is a method used for getting big muscles, you have to remember that getting bulky is a combination of many factors working together. The most important part about any resistance training program is keeping good technique and minimizing risk of injury. Because if there’s any guaranteed way to get “bulky,” it’s not exercising at all!

Did you learn something new about lifting weights?

We sure did. Thanks again to our favorite personal trainer and resident LaurenConrad.com fitness expert, Dr. Hunter Vincent, for all of this information! Now, time to hit the gym…

XO Team LC

Photo: Jessi Burrone for LaurenConrad.com

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