Strength training: Why you shouldn’t be afraid of it
I have heard it many times: “I don’t want to lift heavy because I don’t want to get too big.”
In today’s post, we are going to discuss why this statement is false, and why everyone should incorporate strength-focused work into her/his training!
WHAT IS STRENGTH TRAINING?
Put simply, strength is defined as a measure of the maximum force your muscles are able to apply to objects. Our muscles are amazing and complex, and they will adapt to exercise differently based on what you do with them. This is the basis behind the different types of training – depending on our specific intentions, we can work on our muscles to make them better in one of these aspects:
Strength the force that can be applied to an object
Endurance the ability to maintain muscular work for extended periods of time
Speed the quickness of muscular contractions
Power a combination of strength and speed (force per time)
Strength primarily comes from type II muscle fibers, which are indeed the muscle fibers that grow in size (hypertrophy) more than type I fibers (which primarily confer endurance).
WHY IS STRENGTH TRAINING IMPORTANT?
If we improve the strength of our muscles, we increase the force we can apply to objects. That means we can lift heavier weights in the gym… but also heavier suitcases or backpacks when travelling, heavier furniture when moving, heavier kids when they start growing like trees, or a vending machine that falls on us when we ignored the warnings. But that’s not all! (Don't worry this isn't an infomercial) Without going into detail on each point, here are some of the proven (researched) benefits of strength training:- Better posture
- Stronger and more stable ligaments and tendons
- Decreased likelihood of injury
- Increased bone density (lower risk of fractures and breaks)
- Improved joint health
- Better cardiovascular health
- Faster metabolism*
*Heavy resistance training (as well as HIIT) not only burns calories during the workout, but actually increases the amount of calories you will burn at rest for up to 48 hours post-training.
Sounds awesome, right? Indeed it is pretty awesome. First, let’s get some concerns out of the way and explain why you should not be afraid of strength training.
ROADBLOCK 1: "I am worried about getting too big!"
A common misconception for people interested in general fitness but not bodybuilding specifically, is that through lifting heavy you will wake up one day and be the hulk by accident. The bottom line is that no one will look like Arnold Shwarzenegger by accident. Professional bodybuilders follow very intense training and diet regimens, and are in most cases genetically oriented toward being able to build big muscles. It is theorized that our bodies have an inherent, genetically-determined limit for the size of our muscles. If we don’t push ourselves way, way beyond these limits (often requiring the addition of anabolic steroids), (un)fortunately we are unlikely to transform into muscular gorillas overnight.
In fact, strength training is most likely to lead to improvements in muscular density. It will not create puffed-up muscles as effectively as hypertrophy (size) – focused workouts, but will certainly help in forming a strong, toned, and balanced physique. Strength-based workouts are an integral part of balanced training programs - that is, as long as they are done safely! ...which brings us to
ROADBLOCK 2: "Won’t I hurt myself?"
The answer is a resounding NO! However, when training with heavy weights it is absolutely essential to learn, use, and adhere strictly to perfect form for every exercise. While this is true for all types of exercises, it is especially important when dealing with heavy weights. Please ask a personal trainer to walk you through exercises, study them on fitness channels on youtube, and it is a great idea to have a training partner or knowledgeable spotter!
(I underlined knowledgeable because I once asked a staff member at my University gym to assist me with a heavy bench press, assuming this staff member was trained appropriately for his/her position, and proceeded to tear the meniscus in my right shoulder when this staff member shifted the loaded bar about 6 inches to the side.)
So, why shouldn’t you be afraid of strength training? Follow these guidelines, and you will begin to reap the benefits that accompany the simultaneous strengthening of your muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, and mind-muscle connection!
HOW DO I GET STARTED?
The basic principle behind strength training lies in the structure of sets and repetitions (reps) used for each exercise. A basic protocol to keep your muscles in strength-improvement mode is as follows:
*1-repetition sets should be performed with a spotter, after proper warm-up sets, and only infrequently in order to assess maximum strength
Keeping the rep range low and weights heavy is the key to building strength. Weights should be selected such that you can safely perform the instructed number of repetitions, without having enough energy left over to do more than one more rep.
For example, if you can lift 20 lbs for 7-8 reps before complete fatigue, then 20 lbs is an appropriate weight for you to train with at 6 reps.
Reps should be performed in a slow and controlled motion, for example using the 2-1-2 method*, never bouncing or losing control of the weight.
*The 2-1-2 method involves 2 seconds in the eccentric phase (lowering into a squat), a 1-second pause at the bottom, and 2 seconds in the concentric phase (pushing up out of a squat).
*For pulling exercises, the order will be 2 seconds concentric (pulling yourself up to the bar), 1-second pause at the top, and 2 seconds eccentric (lowering yourself back down)
REMEMBER: The eccentric phase is thought to be the most important part!
That's it for now! If you have any burning questions, please do drop us a line! Do you already incorporate strength training into your routine? What improvements in your overall health have you noticed? We would love to hear about your experiences in the comment section below 😊
You can also follow Sami's workouts on Youtube!
Peter is a travelling fitness junkie, always on the search for new opportunities, places, and optimal physical and mental health. He has an academic background in chemistry and environmental science, and a passion for music, creating, and exploring!
Hey Callie! Great question!
It does not sound strange – if you notice I even mentioned this in the article that we all have a somewhat pre-defined limit to the size and strength of our muscles.
I would call your current issue one of reaching a plateau. This is an entirely normal part of training. Despite these “limits,” there are luckily various ways to break through plateaus and get to the next level, which seems like your goal.
The most common way to break through a sticking point is to change up your training. If you have been doing strictly strength-focused work for months, take on a high-rep endurance-focused program for a month, switch the exercises you do, switch their order (do the ones you typically do last first, allowing you to do them with heavier weight), switch the time of day you train at, etc. Basically, if you can think of it and it is a variation from your current routine, try it out. The idea is to “trick” your body beyond the stimuli it has become accustomed to adapting to!
In your case specifically, I would suggest focusing on hypertrophy-focused workouts. These would involve somewhat lighter weights than pure “strength” training, centering on the 8-12 rep range (6 at the lowest; still use weights heavy enough that you don’t have too much fuel left in the tank) with shorter rest periods between sets. The lactic acid buildup and engorgement with blood, combined with minor tears in the muscle, is what triggers your body specifically to re-build that muscle stronger, bigger, and ready to tackle that stimulus in the future. If you have further questions regarding this please let us know, and we could even consider writing another article on the topic.
Regarding creatine, it is basically the only bodybuilding supplement that is backed by numerous reputable scientific studies. It is considered very safe, it is inexpensive, and it has benefits that exceed far beyond those you will feel at the gym. I suggest you read through the entry for creatine over at examine.com, an amazing website that compiles up-to-date research and provides an honest overview of common supplements, vitamins, etc. Check out the safety, various benefits, and decide for yourself if creatine is indeed something that could give you that extra kick to break through to a new level: https://examine.com/supplements/creatine/
Thanks for sharing. Hope we have helped and all the best with your goals!
Peter C. from P’tula
So y’all know I strength train( have been for years)… but I’m not seeing results anymore. I’ve increased my weight…I’ve switched protein…I’ve cut stuff outta my diet. So now I’m starting to wonder if creatine is my next step?? I don’t really know a lot about it except body builders do it…but (this might sound strange) I don’t think genetically I would ever be able to get “huge”. But is it a good option with the training I do now? AND is it something I would have to continue to take?? I’m wanting more defined muscles and obviously for some to grow more. #help