I have a bone to pick with fitness marketing that is targeted toward women. Workouts and diets out there that claim to create "flat bellies, toned arms, and long lean muscles without adding bulk" are so common in this country that it's hard to get through an entire day without seeing an ad or article that uses one or a combination of all of these buzzwords.
And what happens? We buy into it. The emotional side of our brain tells the part of the cerebral cortex that controls rational thinking to pipe down. Before we know it, we're a few Benjamin Franklin's deep into a gym membership we don't use, a workout program we don't enjoy, or some weird ab belt that "shocks" the fat away into a black hole. And yes, I get it.
Over the last decade, I have had HUNDREDS, if not more, conversations with women chasing the same image of "fitness" - one that has been manufactured and marketed to be desirable and beautiful. There's no need to post a picture of what I'm talking about, because there's plenty of that out there already and I know you've seen it. Despite all of my education, I know how powerful of an impact the emotional side of my brain has on my decision making. Fitness marketing knows that about you, too, to the tune of billions of dollars.
Your health and the way you feel about your body is certainly personal. That's an understatement based on the raw emotions I've experienced and seen over and over again regarding body image. Nobody likes to admit that they've been duped, but when it comes to our health, which is obviously personal, it's much easier to fall into these marketing traps than we'd like to admit.
Most of the readers of our blog are female. But, if you're a dude, stick around, because as always I assure you you'll learn something new. There's a lot of women I work with that I've had the privilege of training and teaching strength training to, and there's a lot who are interested in it but don't know where to begin because it just seems so overwhelming. Plus, there's a herculean amount of misinformation that exists regarding this topic. For these reasons, I'm gonna help clear up some of the misleading terminology and myths associated with strength training that makes this such a tough topic for women to navigate.
Myth number 1: In order to get "toned", stay away from heavy weights.
Look, I get why "toning" sounds cooler than "building". When we describe someone as "toned", the accurate meaning is that he/she has well defined muscles (according to the actual definition of "tone"). In order to see well defined muscles (tone), you must strength train (to build muscle) AND lose fat mass. Fat tissue lies on top of muscle tissue. The less fat you have, the closer the muscle is to the surface of the skin, and therefore, the easier to visualize.
Progressive overload (routinely increasing the weights you lift over time) is required to continue to change and shape your musculature without plateauing. Losing fat mass is what allows you to start seeing those changes underneath. The problem is that the word "tone" is used nowadays to describe anything that makes you sweat. Many different workouts promise "toning" when in reality, they have nothing to do with changing musculature because they do not incorporate components of strength training that are required to change muscle mass. Physical changes that come from these workouts have more to do with simply decreasing fat mass via increased calorie expenditure. Decreasing fat mass = you appear smaller. That does NOT mean you have changed your musculature. If your goal is to change the musculature and contours of your body, you must continue to increase the weights you are lifting over time. Lifting 15 pound dumbbells will result in changes at first, but if you want further change in musculature, you gotta step it up a couple of pounds. It's like training for a marathon. Let's say your goal on race day is to run every mile at a 9:30/mi pace. Why would you think that doing months of training at an average of a 10:30/mi pace is going to magically get you there? If you want the 9:30/mi, you need to practice a 9:30/mi. If you want the shredded muscles, you need to practice progressive overload.
Myth number 2: Lifting heavier weights will make you look "bulky"
"Bulky" is a relative term. One person's definition of "bulky" is another's "toned". Seriously. For most people I've talked to about this, the work "bulky" conjures up images of a particular physique that's automatically linked to picking up very heavy things, therefore, lifting heavy things must lead to this particular physique, right? WRONG. SO SO WRONG.
"Wrong. He was so wrong."
Listen, if you train for hypertrophy (muscle growth), it's really really hard, if not reckless, to do it while on a diet. Building muscle is not a vital process for your body, therefore it's lower on the priority scale. In order to build muscle at a reasonable and healthy rate, a lot of lifters will eat in a calorie surplus. In other words, they intentionally put on fat mass at the same time they are putting on muscle mass. They are providing their bodies with an excess of energy in the form of food in order to support muscle growth. Weightlifting in itself does NOT lead to increased fat mass. Eating in excess does. What most people see as "bulk" has more to do with increased fat mass than it does with changes in musculature. In order to see striations and contours and blah blah in muscle under the skin, the fat mass that lies on top of it needs to decrease. You can do that by cutting calories through diet and/or exercise.
Myth number 3: "This workout helps you build leaaaannnn muscle!"
.....as opposed to....fat..muscle? Again, it sounds swankier than just plain 'ole boring "muscle." But for reals, all muscle is lean. Period. Using the phrase "lean muscle" is like saying "muscle muscle." Don't fall for it.
Myth number 4: "This exercise will lengthen your muscles and/or body and/or make you longer and leaner!"
Can you change the length of your bones? Then you can't change the length of your muscles. Unless you're this guy:
Totally had a Stretch Armstrong doll.
The length of a muscle is defined by the bone/bones it is attached to. You can't change the length of your muscles. Muscles may stretch temporarily, but they will never be longer than the bones they are attached to. In other words, baby, we were born this way.
Myth number 5: "If it's burning, that means it's working! Bring on the muscles!"
Endurance based resistance training is one of my all time favorite ways to challenge my muscles. These are the types of exercises that are common in Pilates and barre methods that involve lifting very light weights/body weight for many reps under a continuous cadence, usually with a very small range of motion ("pulsing"). Sometimes, these exercises involve using body weight as a form of resistance as well. These exercises are often very unassuming but usually BURN LIKE HADES. Anyone reading this who has taken our classes knows these exercises well. Pilates ring. Miniband. 2 pound dumbbells. Evil.
Imagine performing arm circles for 30 seconds. Doesn't seem so bad. The only forces that your deltoids (shoulder muscles) are having to work against are gravity and the weight of your arm. Now imagine doing those arm circles for an hour or two. OUCH. You feel an intense burning sensation. The burn is caused by the breakdown of ATP (energy) in your muscles, which lowers the pH in the muscle tissue. These types of exercises are wonderful for muscular endurance, put less strain on joints and ligaments, and can help you get results...for a while. Without consistent and progressive overload (lifting heavier weights/adding more resistance over time), you'll plateau. In other words, you'll tap out your potential to increase strength and see additional aesthetic changes in musculature.
Optimally, any resistance training based programming should incorporate not only these endurance based exercises, but also exercises that will improve strength and power as well, which are different than endurance. Strength exercises typically involve lifting heavier weights for fewer repetitions, and power is the ability to move weight with speed (explosiveness).
Being strong does not always translate to being powerful. Being powerful doesn't always translate to having endurance. Having endurance doesn't always translate to being strong or powerful. They all work together, which is a wonderful thing because it totally forces me out of my comfort zone. Those of you who have taken class with us know we love to "pulse", but we also love to lift. Heavy. And now you know why. SCIENCE!
Life is too short to spend time worrying about which bandwagon you should jump on next. The information here is meant to be helpful to you. We incorporate years of experience and higher education to give you the simplest breakdown of topics that are intentionally made to seem far more complex than they really are. The purpose of this post is to address statements about the subject of lifting weights that are inaccurate and cause confusion. That being said, there's no need to panic if your current fitness routine isn't incorporating every single element of fitness into it. There's always something to work on - that's the beautiful thing about it. It never ends. The best thing is that you're moving, period. It's wonderful. So, do the workout that you ENJOY. For some, that's taking a sculpt class. For others, it's yoga. Who cares? Do what you LIKE - and know we support you 100%.
-Dr. Beatrice (: