Whenever you turn on the TV, open a magazine or scroll through your newsfeed, you’re bombarded with fitness information. Some of it’s great; a lot of it isn’t. How can you separate fact from fiction?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to fitness, so there’s bound to be differing opinions on how to exercise. While it’s important to have an open mind, there are still some strength-training myths out there that we want to put to rest for good.
Women are embracing strength training thanks largely to CrossFit and celebrities like Kate Upton speaking publicly about her strength-training routine. Gone are the days of endless cardio and little pink dumbbells. Yet, there are still people who believe that if a woman touches a weight, she’ll magically turn into the Hulk.
First of all, women don’t have the same hormonal profile as men, making it much harder to build lots of muscle. Primarily, women have much less testosterone, the male sex hormone that sets the pace at which people add new muscle. Ladies can certainly build muscle with strength training, but do so at a slower pace than men.
Second, it takes years of hard work in the gym — and the kitchen — to build a head-turning physique. It doesn’t happen overnight, so don’t be scared to get started on a strength-training routine.
Many people lift weights to “tone” their muscles. They envision long, lean muscles that have shape and definition without the bulk of a bodybuilder. That’s a fantastic goal, but the way most people try to get there — light weights for high reps — is misguided.
The reality is this: “Tone” is a combination of decreased body fat and increased muscle size. You can’t make a muscle longer with strength training. Your muscle origin and insertion points are predetermined, its length won’t change, but you can make a muscle bigger by training it hard in the gym and you can decrease body fat with sensible nutrition.
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So what’s the best way to get that “toned” look everybody wants? Lift weights 3–5 days per week, perform cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) 2–3 days per week and eat high-quality food focusing on lean protein, vegetables and the right amount of carbohydrates for your activity level.
Squatting isn’t bad for your knees; squatting incorrectly is bad for your knees. Assuming you don’t have any pre-existing injuries, your knees should be just fine as long as you:
- Use an appropriate amount of weight
- Keep your knees in line with your pinky toes (i.e. don’t let them cave in)
- Keep your heels on the ground
If you’re new to squatting, start with a basic variation like a goblet squat and use a light weight until you get the form down.
Squats are hard to beat when it comes to building shapely thighs and a curvy backside, so take the time to master your technique and reap the benefits.
Deadlifts are awesome for building full-body strength, and deadlifting incorrectly can certainly put your lower back at risk. But just like squats, if you focus on proper technique and always use an appropriate amount of weight, they’re perfectly safe.
Again, deadlifts are all about proper form. Here are a few tips to keep your lower back healthy and happy:
- Learn to hip hinge first (check out these hip hinge drills).
- Pick the right deadlift variation for your experience level.
- Keep your chest up and your lower back flat.
- Focus on pushing with your legs, not lifting with your arms.
Lifting heavy is a must if you’re a powerlifter, but what if you just want to be healthy? Turns out novice lifters can get stronger with as little as 40–50% of their 1-rep max. That’s pretty light. To put that in perspective, that’s a weight most people could lift for 20 or more reps at a time.
So if you’re just starting out, choose a light weight that lets you use perfect form on each exercise. Gradually increase the weight each workout and don’t be in a hurry to go too heavy. Slow and steady wins the race.
Free weights can be intimidating. It feels a lot safer to hop on a machine where there’s no risk of dropping the weight or tumbling over. But like so many situations in life, the magic happens outside your comfort zone.
Machines aren’t necessarily safer than free weights, assuming you’re using proper form on a given exercise (are you noticing a common theme here?). In fact, some machines aren’t a good fit for people with certain limb lengths and force you into an awkward range of motion. For example, a leg press may feel safer than a free-weight squat, but longer-legged lifters may struggle to fit into the leg-press seat without putting uncomfortable pressure on their lower back.
The good news: You can get strong and build muscle with machines and free weights. Pick the option that feels best.
READ MORE > IDEAL REP RANGES FOR WEIGHT LOSS & 4 MORE GOALS
You may have heard that holding your breath while lifting is dangerous, but if done properly, it’s actually the best way to protect your lower back and engage your core muscles.
Holding your breath is called the Valsalva maneuver, and it involves taking a breath of air into your stomach and breathing out with your mouth closed during the most difficult part of an exercise. You do it naturally when lifting heavy weights, and, believe it or not, when you go to the bathroom.
The Valsalva maneuver increases intra-abdominal pressure, which turns on your core muscles and protects your spine. It does, however, increase blood pressure momentarily, so limit your use of this technique if you have a history of high-blood pressure or cardiovascular issues. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor.
As a general rule:
- Inhale before each rep.
- Hold your breath through the most difficult part of the rep.
- Exhale at the end of each rep.
If you’re worried lifting weights will turn you into the Tin Man, here’s some good news: research shows that strength training can actually increase flexibility.
Here’s the kicker: You have to perform exercises through a full range of motion. That means no half-reps if you want to stay limber. And don’t give up your stretching routine just yet. A combination of strength training and stretching provides the best of both worlds, giving you strength and control through full ranges of motion.
DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE
Many of these myths are designed to deter you from using some of the most effective exercises and techniques for reaching your goals. With a little knowledge and some critical thinking, you can decide for yourself what to believe. Knowledge is power, so don’t let these myths prevent you from being the most powerful lifter you can be.