Jumping into any new workout regimen can feel daunting. But with strength training, the intimidation of the weight room, coupled with an overabundance of misinformation, can be enough to stop you from even beginning. You may be aware of the many benefits of strength training, but now let’s delve into the myths that might still be holding you back.
Lifting weights is bad for your joints
Why this myth exists: Many believe that repeated pressure on your joints in the form of heavy deadlifts, squats and presses can cause stress and degeneration in the form of osteoarthritis. Older populations, and people with arthritis in particular, have been told that lifting weights could cause further joint damage and bring on severe flare-ups.
Why it’s wrong: If your joints hurt while lifting or after, you may be adding weight too quickly or lifting with incorrect form. According to a study published in the Journal of Rheumatology, strength training can help ease arthritis pain and stiffness, not lead to a worsening condition, because building muscles helps support and protect joints, whereas weak muscles put more stress on joints. In a study focusing specifically on individuals with knee osteoarthritis, researchers found that resistance training improved pain and physical function. In another that looked at older adults with osteoarthritis, researchers learned that benefits were particularly impactful with programs that focused on progressive overload (gradually increasing the intensity or difficulty of workouts over time).
You have to lift to failure
Why this myth exists: The basic idea behind lifting to failure is that instead of doing a specific number of repetitions of a lift and stopping when finished, you keep going until you are physically unable to perform another one. Then you rest before doing it again. Advocates of this type of training suggest that it’s the optimal way to encourage muscle growth.
Why it’s wrong: While training to failure can promote gains in muscle strength and size, it’s not clear that it does so in a better or more efficient way than regular strength training in which you perform a prescribed number of reps and sets. More importantly, it’s not necessarily a safe method. “Training to failure consistently can lead to fatigue, increased injury risk and slow recovery,” says Sean Blinch, CrossFit coach and co-founder of Toronto’s RedLeaf Fitness. Progressive overload can lead to strength gains without the risk of overtraining.
You have to train just one muscle group at a time
Why this myth exists: You’ve heard it in movies and in gym locker rooms: “It’s leg day” or “It’s chest day.” Bodybuilders, in particular, subscribe to this type of training because it can help maximize muscular gains and minimize the number of rest days they need to take (if your back is sore, train legs tomorrow).
Why it’s wrong: If bodybuilding is your goal, this may well be the right approach for you. For the rest of us, “this approach isn’t necessary,” says Blinch. Full-body workouts allow us to avoid spending endless hours in the gym while still seeing strength and fitness gains. “Compound exercises, like deadlifts, squats and presses, can target multiple muscle groups simultaneously and offer efficiency and effectiveness,” says Blinch.
It will make you bulky
Why this myth exists: Women often hear one of two protests when they start lifting weights: Don’t lift too much or you’ll get bulky. Or, if they’re talking to a lifting devotee: Don’t worry, lifting won’t make you bulky! In both statements, the suggestion is that bulkiness is bad. But why? This might offer a clue: The dictionary definition of bulky is “Taking up much space, typically inconveniently.” We can chalk the existence of this myth up to a century of diet culture perpetuating the ideal of the thin body for women. If someone is telling you to be wary of taking up space, be wary of why they’re concerned.
Why it’s wrong: Muscle mass and muscle strength are beneficial in so many ways, from making it easier to do everyday tasks, to encouraging longevity. Not to mention that visible muscles are cool (ask any superhero).
Mass doesn’t magically happen. “Building significant muscle mass is very hard; it involves a high focus on training intensity, which most gym-goers need help to achieve,” explains Blinch. To purposefully put on mass, you need to be engaging in a specific type of training called hypertrophy, as well as consuming more calories than you burn, with a specific focus on your protein and carbohydrate intake.
You’ll become “muscle-bound”
Why this myth exists: According to the late Terry Todd, an accomplished powerlifter and physical culture historian, there are two equally comical reasons why we think muscle will make a person inflexible and slow, and both can be traced to the early 1900s.
The first: At the time, people knew a shocking amount about horses, and they understood that saddle horses (small, light) moved faster than draft horses (bigger, known for carrying heavy loads).
The second was all about shrewd business. Self-proclaimed fitness experts discovered that shipping heavy weights was expensive. So they vilified weight training, suggesting it made one rigid and unathletic, and mailed how-to pamphlets about body weight training instead.
Why it’s wrong: Studies (and a century of our own lived experiences) have shown that strength training can actually make you faster. A 2017 study of trained runners, for example, showed that adding two or three strength training sessions per week (including heavy lifting) was likely to provide benefits to middle- and long-distance runners’ performance and running economy (the amount of oxygen your body needs to maintain running pace). That’s likely owing to a number of benefits of strength training, including improved co-ordination and power, and increases in VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen you can use during intense exercise).
There’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to lifting heavy and much of it (like, ahem, basing our understanding of the human body on an equine one) is woefully outdated and in some cases, dangerous. As with any new program, working with a certified professional can help cut through the noise.
Alyssa Ages is a journalist and the author of Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength, published by Avery/Penguin Random House in September, 2023. She is also a strongman competitor and endurance athlete, as well as a former personal trainer and group fitness instructor.