"I don't want to bulk up!"
How many times have you heard this? How many times have you said it? Full disclosure: I've uttered these words myself. Then I met someone who taught me the error of my ways and it transformed my health, my physique, and my life.
Lifting weights, also known as strength training or resistance training, is not just about building big muscles. However, as a coach for women trying to lose weight and improve their general health, I run into this misconception all the time. Women with whom I work often approach me with the assumption that I will prescribe a strict diet and a healthy dose of cardio to help them meet their weight loss goals. They're right about the diet, but when I tell them they'll have to spend more time in the weight room than on the treadmill, they're incredulous. "But I don't want to bulk up, I want to lose fat!"
As a fitness competitor and coach, my personal and professional philosophy of training and health is centered on efficiency and effectiveness. I don't believe in wasting time, money, or energy -- my clients' or my own -- and the most effective and efficient way to lose fat and to improve and maintain one's general health is to combine the right diet with a workout program that focuses on strength training.
Strength Training for Fat Loss
The goal of strength training is to increase the amount of lean muscle tissue you have in your body. This isn't just to give you a muscular or toned look, it is to boost your metabolism and maximize your body's ability to burn calories and lose fat. Lean muscle is an active tissue that requires calories for energy beyond the moments you are actually exercising the muscle. The more lean muscle tissue you have on your body, the more calories you burn on an ongoing basis, which means more fat loss. With cardio, the calorie burn stops when you stop exercising. Not only that, while cardio burns fat, it simultaneously diminishes muscle tissue, which works against us in the game of efficient fat loss.
Strength Training for General Health
The benefits of strength training go far beyond just weight loss and weight management. Following a regular strength training program helps to prevent bone loss due to osteoporosis by causing muscles and tendons to pull on the bones, which in turn stimulates bone cells to produce more bone. It can also slow the effect of sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass. To top it off, strength training helps reduce the effect of many other chronic conditions associated with aging, such as heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.
The Myth of Bulk
Despite the common belief that lifting weights will make you too big, the truth is that your size is in your control. If you want to get bigger you can, but it's very difficult and time-consuming to do so, particularly once you are in your 30s and 40s. The default is that you aren't going to put on a lot of muscle size unless you intentionally try to do so with diet and special training. With a standard strength training program and regular, healthy diet, you will increase your lean muscle mass and your muscles will become more defined as you lose fat, but you will not "bulk up."
Dealing With the Weight Room
Unless you have a complete home gym -- not just a set of 5-, 10- and 15-pound hand weights -- a membership at your local gym is the best bet, but it can be intimidating to enter the weight room at the gym if you don't know where to go and what to do. Here are a couple ideas:
Hire a personal trainer: Most gyms employ certified personal trainers who can create a training program based on your specific goals, familiarize you with exercises and equipment, teach you proper form, motivate you, and help you feel less isolated in the weight room. Do your research on the trainer(s), be clear that you want a strength training program, and ensure that he or she is supportive of this type of training. You can opt for a package that is long term or purchase a few sessions to learn what you need to do and how to do it.
Buddy system: Chances are that you already know someone that strength trains. Find that friend or coworker and ask if you can join her. It would be hard to overestimate the value of a good training partner. Having to meet someone at the gym keeps you accountable, increases the likelihood that you'll show up, and you motivate each other, push each other, and teach each other.
Find a basic program: If you don't have a fear of trying new things and fumbling through a weight room on your own, you can do a little research and create a program yourself. There are books and online resources available that provide basic strength training workouts and describe proper execution and form. If you have a question, don't be afraid to ask a trainer at the gym for assistance.
Challenging yourself to step outside of your comfort zone, to move from the treadmill to the weight room, will have a positive lifelong effect, whether you are looking to lose weight or to improve your general health and the quality of your life.
Now that you know why weights... why wait?
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