Among fitness circles the idea that you are going to get big and bulky from lifting weights is a long-debunked myth. So much so that I don’t bother to talk about it very often. Step outside of my fitness bubble though, and I realize that this thought is still prevalent and a worry to many.
“I don’t want to get big and bulky or look like a bodybuilder.”
That’s what this prospective client told me.
He wanted to get stronger, and lose fat, and feel confident in the way he looked, but was afraid of getting “too big”. He had avoided lifting heavy weights and other forms of resistance training for fear of bulking up too much and becoming the Incredible Hulk. This same mindset is common among women as well who are afraid that lifting weights will give them an overly muscular physique.
I still hear phrases like “I just want to get toned” or “I want learner muscles” or “I don’t want to add any muscle, just sculpt what I have” I see people toiling away for hours doing “cardio” or using yoga to lean up. That’s not a knock against either of those, or any, forms of exercise. I’m a firm believer in enjoying exercise, it keeps you coming back for more, so if that’s your passion please continue. But, it’s important to understand your goals, exercise choice, and the effectiveness it has towards reaching those goals.
You don’t hammer in nails with a screwdriver. Could you? Sure, but there’s a more effective tool for the job.
where did this idea come from?
I blame the fact that most fitness advice used to come from the body building world. Where 2-hour workouts and 5,000 calorie days are the norm. What should you do if you want to improve your physique? It’s working for them so it must work for you too. But that’s like performing a marathon runner’s workouts so you can run a mile around the block. It doesn’t make any sense for you.
This article isn’t here to tell you you’re silly for worrying about getting too big or adding too much muscle from lifting. The goal here is to help you understand what you truly want from your fitness routine, choosing the best option to get there, and debunking some myths along the way.
What do you do if you have this worry?
Understand this mindset is common and explore your concerns
What makes you nervous about lifting?
Maybe you are nervous about exercises you’re not quite sure how to perform correctly. Or getting on the weight floor around experience lifters. Maybe you’re unsure of the science behind lifting and are unsure what you’ll look like after a few months or resistance training. Maybe you’ve had some bad experiences in the past.
All of these are valid concerns and understanding your anxiety about lifting will help you overcome it.
Understand what your goals are and what you want to achieve
Hash out what “tone” or “athletic” means to you. Those words have a different meaning to everyone so instead formulate goals that have metrics you can track. “I want to gain 5 pounds of muscle and lose 10 pounds of fat.” Now you have something you can measure and understand the progress you’re making.
Once you know what you really want to accomplish figure out why you want to get there.
Why is it important to you?
How will your life be better if you achieve your goal?
How will you maintain or continue to improve once you reach your goal?
Understanding what your goal really is and your true motivation will help you choose an exercise modality that is right for you. Maybe you are happy with your physique and just want a place to mellow out with friends, yoga could be perfect for you!
You can’t “lengthen” or “tone” your muscles
There’s still a misconception that you can lengthen or tone your muscles and create an appearance that is sleek and lean but not bulky. It’s perpetuated by fitness companies and coaches that recommend light weight, high repetition training that will “lean” out your muscles.
Contrary to these marketing ploys, there aren’t any types of exercises that can lengthen your muscles. Your muscle fibers have a point of origin and a point of insertion (where they attach to bone) and these are fixed positions. Stretching, yoga, or Pilates does not actually change the length of your muscles, but instead changes the way your nervous system controls the muscles. Therefore, you feel “looser” after these activities.
The truth about resistance training
Instead of performing endless repetitions with light weight, you should focus on progressive overload. Progressive overload means increasing variables like weight, reps, volume, and tempo to increase muscle strength. Getting stronger is a measure of how many neural connections are available in your muscles, not necessarily how much muscle you have.
Adding muscle mass is dependent on other factors like calorie consumption, age, training experience, biological sex, consistency, and more, not just your training. The table below can help you to determine of progress is possible and probable each month depending on those variables.
If you have been doing a certain type of exercise for a while and are struggling to reach your goals, consider changing things up. Understanding your concerns, goals, and the science of your body will help you create a program ideal for you.
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