Weightlifting gets a bad rap. Whether it’s intimidation by complicated equipment, fear of injury, or frustration from slow results, many gym novices might be tempted to skip the weight room and seek refuge in the reliable whirr of cardio machines or the simple pleasure of a run around the block. But according to Jessica Wilson, CSCS- and ACE-certified personal trainer and founder of Wilson Fitness Studios, these feelings are misguided. Here, she tackles five weightlifting myths to explain why strength training is nothing to be feared, and how it can actually improve your health for decades to come.
Myth #1: Weightlifting doesn’t help you lose weight, and losing weight is the best way to improve your appearance.
“Lifting weights is not a weight-loss program,” Wilson admits. But the number on the scale doesn’t necessarily determine the way your body looks. That’s where weightlifting comes in. “The only way to truly change the shape of your body through exercise is strength training,” she declares. “I say ‘shape’ because you can do a lot of different things that make you lose weight through exercise, but that’s not going to change your shape. Any type of weightlifting is supposed to reduce your body fat, make your clothes fit better, make your body look tighter—just make you look healthier.”
Myth #2: Weightlifting doesn’t burn many calories.
This one is a simple case of misperception. “The amount of calories that a piece of cardio equipment or those calorie counter apps say you burn—they’re all wrong,” Wilson says. “When people actually ask me, ‘How many calories does this workout burn?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know anything about what’s going on in your body. That’s not really a fair question to ask.’” According to Wilson, many cardio workouts that claim to burn 800 calories in an hour really burn about a quarter of that amount. But because the number is nearly impossible to check, it’s an easy thing to advertise. “Instead of saying drop 10 pounds in 10 days [...] now people are starting to break it down even further, saying you’ll burn 800–900 calories doing this workout.”
The fact of the matter is, bodies with more muscle burn more calories, even when they’re at rest. That means the more you hit the weights, the more calories you’ll burn beyond the weight room.
Myth #3: Weightlifting makes women bulk up.
“Genetically, you have a certain body,” Wilson explains. Limb length, bone thickness, and the size of a person’s “muscle bellies”—the pockets that house the muscle fibers—all play a role in how large they get through strength training. “Women specifically tend to have smaller muscle bellies and less testosterone within their system.” In short, that means that most women cannot bulk up to the level that men can, no matter how much they train.
“Most women that you know in real life that lift a lot of weights, or talk about lifting weights, are usually the ones that want to look bigger. They want that frame,” Wilson says. “I think that’s the biggest fear in women—the women that they know that lift weights. I think more women coming forward to say all they do is strength training [...] [would be] a big thing to help push it forward and make women less afraid.”
Myth #4: Weightlifting takes too long to show results.
If you feel like weightlifting isn’t getting you the body you want, chances are that you’re not exercising correctly. “I call it the difference between actually lifting weights and moving,” Wilson explains. “[When] most people [...] lift weights, they’re just moving. They think that lifting weights is getting on a machine, doing 10–20 repetitions, and then resting. You’re not doing anything.”
Instead, Wilson recommends a full-body approach that breaks each muscle down to momentary failure, one right after the other. Instead of focusing on repetitions, keep each muscle engaged for a certain amount of time—1.5–3 minutes with moderate resistance to build lean muscle mass, and 90 seconds or less with heavier weight to build raw strength. What’s most important is to keep the muscles engaged throughout the workout.
Myth #5: Weightlifting is hard on your bones and joints.
“It actually increases bone density,” Wilson says. “For longevity and quality of life, strength training is one of the single most important things you can do.”
In fact, certain cardiovascular exercises may be the true culprits of joint damage. “The constant and consistent pounding on your joints is actually really bad for you. But it’s so drilled into people’s heads...that cardio burns so many calories,” Wilson says. “This is a key point: whatever exercise you’re doing for your workout is not for the one hour that you’re working out. It’s about how that one hour impacts the rest of your day, the rest of your week, two weeks, a year from now. Whatever exercise you choose to do at the moment that you’re going to the gym, it should directly correlate with how you want your quality of life to be in the future.”