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Debunking 10 myths about strength training
A person lifting a kettlebell weight at an outdoor gym.
When it comes to avoiding strength training, you may draw on a mental list of excuses you’ve honed over the years: You’re too old, have no time, hate gyms, fear injuries, don’t want to “bulk” up, and on and on. Yet those excuses are not only off the mark; most have little or no connection with reality.
NNOXX compiled a list of 10 leading myths about strength training and debunked them using information from various scientific and medical sources. Freeing yourself from these myths should quash the excuses you’ve been making and replace them with the realization that strength training at any age is possible.
Strength training—also called weight or resistance training—is beneficial whether you’re young or old, weak or strong, and, unlike some other forms of exercise, can yield results in a fairly short amount of time, helping you burn more calories and reducing the odds of developing many major illnesses and medical conditions.
While it is common to worry about experiencing pain, developing injuries, losing flexibility, or getting too ripped, all are avoidable. And what’s more, the idea that you must pay for a gym or trainer to begin or sustain a strength training regimen is—you guessed it—simply inaccurate. So, pump it up!
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‘I’m too weak (or too old)’
Portrait of senior woman lifting dumbbells.
Anyone can enjoy the myriad benefits of strength training, even if they haven’t done anything to build muscular strength in decades or are middle-aged or older. Strength training is crucial for aging people because it helps retain muscle mass, which, as one gets older, diminishes along with bone density. “Use it or lose it” is real.
Loss of strength and muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, begins its steady decline in one’s 40s, the loss accelerating even faster by age 65. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put together a 12-week “Growing Stronger” plan for older adults that recommends strength training exercises two to three times per week. Just be sure to get a medical checkup if you’re older or out of shape before you start a program.
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‘I don’t have the time’
Man doing exercises with dumbbells at home.
Even if you only have time for an hour or two a week, strength training can deliver big dividends for your long-term health. One 2018 Iowa State University study involving 12,000 adults found that less than one hour of strength training per week reduced one’s risk of stroke or heart attack by 40-70%.
Strength training also correlates with reduced cancer risk, less arthritis and back pain, and better blood-glucose control. A further benefit is gains in bone density, which can help to assuage one’s risk of osteoporosis, which according to the CDC, affects 20% of women and 5% of all men over age 50.
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‘I can’t do strength training outside of a gym (and I hate gyms)’
Woman at home sitting on yoga mat with a laptop in front of her, holding a dumbbell with another dumbbell and resistance bands beside her.
You don’t have to join a fitness center to reap the benefits of strength training. You can build a home gym with as little as an exercise mat, dumbbells, and resistance bands. A simple Google search returns countless at-home strength training routines one can engage in, including dumbbell regimens and body-weight exercises requiring no equipment.
Or, if you like to exercise outdoors, join an outdoor fitness class (often called a “boot camp”) that uses natural features like tree stumps and boulders for fitness moves. Bottom line: You can get strong without setting foot in a gym.
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‘I’ll get injured’
Senior female doing push ups outside with a blue sky behind her.
Injuries are relatively uncommon in strength training, especially for those who don’t push themselves too hard. The myth that one is bound to injure themselves when engaging in weight or body-weight exercises is the complete opposite of the truth: Instead of producing injuries, this kind of training helps you avoid them by strengthening the bones and connective tissue that support your joints and boosting your flexibility by expanding your range of motion. Those improvements reduce injury risk in everything you do, making you less injury-prone.
Take a gradual approach that includes a warm-up routine to prepare your body and ensure you exhibit the correct form while performing exercises. While you can always consult a trainer, you can also refer to online resources, including YouTube videos of professional trainers, to learn the proper form of strength training moves. Weight or resistance should be increased only at carefully measured intervals once you can add weight or strain with the proper form.
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‘If I start strength training, I’ll be in constant pain’
Group of people exercising using dumbbells outdoors.
“No pain, no gain” is a tired slogan perpetuating the false notion that anything worth doing comes with significant discomfort. When it comes to strength training, this myth is pushed to extremes by images of bodybuilders and ultra-endurance athletes struggling their way through high-intensity exercise regimens that do not suit the average person.
There are, generally speaking, two types of post-workout soreness. The first, called acute muscle soreness, is the “burn” you feel in your muscles as you work them and occurs during and immediately after exercise. This soreness goes away very quickly after you’ve stopped exercising.
On the other hand, delayed onset muscle soreness doesn’t present until several hours, or even days, afterward. DOMS can make your muscles sensitive to the touch and temporarily reduce flexibility. One of the keys to effective strength training is not to strain so hard that you experience excessive post-workout soreness. Correctly performed strength training exercises should increase one’s feeling of strength and support while reducing—not aggravating—the types of pain the exercises will address, such as back and hip pain.
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‘I’ll look bulky’
Woman in sportswear lifting a dumbbell during a strength training session at a gym.
This myth tends to be more prevalent among women than men. But the fear that the simple act of lifting weights will automatically result in broader shoulders or an overall more masculine physique is misguided. Testosterone is the primary hormone associated with muscle growth; men have over 60 times more of it than women.
While strength training can certainly contribute to muscle growth, the actual cause of that growth is maintaining a surplus of calories. Muscle tissue is more dense than fat tissue and thus requires more caloric intake to sustain. Maintaining a reasonable, balanced diet alongside a regular strength training regimen can help you keep a lean musculature while losing body fat (and avoiding a bulky look).
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‘Cardio is all I need’
Woman doing push-ups while exercising in a park.
Cardiovascular activities such as cycling, running, and walking help strengthen your heart, improve stamina, aid in respiratory health, and burn calories. But strength training, in addition to burning calories, offers other benefits that cardio activities do not.
A 2021 review of 58 studies (54 of which provided metadata) found that strength training reduces body fat percentage, body fat mass, and visceral fat in healthy adults. Because muscle tissue is denser than fat, the body must burn more calories to maintain it. In this sense, strength work boosts your body’s metabolism long after the workout.
For those who want the combined benefit of cardio and strength workouts, it is possible to have your proverbial cake and eat it, too, by doing high-intensity interval training. This exercise form alternately engages in cardio and strength activities with minimal breaks. Whether you do HIIT workouts or separate your strength and cardio time, the most effective way to maintain or lose weight is to combine three elements: strength work, cardio, and a balanced diet avoiding excess calorie intake.
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‘It’s too complicated and expensive’
Two men squat with kettlebell equipment in a gym.
Depending on what you hope to get out of it, a strength training program can be complex as a systematized program that isolates individual muscle groups for rapid growth. Or it can be as simple as doing light dumbbell or body-weight exercises 10 minutes per day or 30 minutes twice a week, focusing on gradually increasing the weight or number of repetitions.
The American College of Sports Medicine offers a simple outline for anyone looking to incorporate a strength regimen into their lives. For older adults, the CDC’s Growing Stronger handbook features drawing diagrams of several exercises and an outline for building a consistent routine in your life.
As for the expense, you don’t need to hire a personal trainer unless your goal is to improve your strength dramatically through mass muscle gain. You can also keep costs to a minimum by joining an inexpensive gym or purchasing affordable home gym equipment, such as dumbbells, resistance bands, and kettlebells.
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‘It will make me less flexible’
Two women exercising with barbell in fitness class.
When you strength train, you extend your range of motion during exercises, resulting in better, not worse, flexibility. Squats, for example, extend the range of motion of your hips, knees, and ankles. As for the notion that muscle gains result in shortened ligaments or tendons or reduced flexibility, it’s simply untrue.
Strength training increases knee, hamstring, and hip flexibility as well as or better than stretching alone, in addition to strengthening the muscles around joints, which is critical to avoiding injuries. That’s why even athletes in sports where flexibility is essential, such as gymnastics, lift weights.
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‘Bodyweight exercises are just as good’
Group of people in fitness class, training with kettlebell.
Core strengthening moves like crunches and planks certainly improve stability and abdominal strength (and can help assuage flare-ups of pesky back pain). Yoga and Pilates also offer numerous whole-body strength benefits, as do swimming, rowing, and kayaking. But when it comes to muscle development, none build muscle as effectively as weight training.
Whether you’re using weight machines at a gym or lifting dumbbells at home, regular sessions with weights are your best ticket to a sustainably healthy musculature, especially as you age.
Story editing by Brian Budzynski. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.
This story originally appeared on NNOXX and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.