Building muscle happens far more slower than you think. Picture: 123RF/WARAKORN HAMPRSOP
Building muscle happens far more slower than you think. Picture: 123RF/WARAKORN HAMPRSOP

Q. I am a woman trying to lose weight and don’t want to become big and muscle-bound. Why does my personal trainer insist on weight training?

A. The idea that weights can miraculously add layers of muscle and turn you into the Incredible Hulk just by lifting them is the biggest exercise myth. The best-kept secret is that strength training, of which weight lifting forms a part, is one of the most effective weight-loss tools available to us.

The theory behind gaining muscle is simple: exercise the muscles with progressive overload, eat the right food and get enough rest. In practice, it is much, much harder and requires dogged commitment and consistency. The rapid gains and unrealistic physiques you fear are likely a combination of excessive eating, abnormal training loads and drugs.

To build abnormal, or even appreciable, muscle mass, one must train consistently for many years. Even then, the deciding factors will be diet, lifestyle, genetics, age, sex and, very importantly, hormones. Ever wondered why anabolic steroids are synthetic variations of the hormone testosterone?

If you eat properly, train hard and correctly, you will not become muscle-bound. As counterintuitive as it seems, the weight training your personal trainer is trying to get you to do will most likely make you become smaller, which by the sounds of it, is what you want. 

Strength training is a vigorous activity, and if done correctly and with the right intensity, burns a significant number of calories. However, beyond this, there is a weight-training effect called post-exercise oxygen consumption. This raises your metabolism as your body works hard to return to its pre-exercise state. This lasts for up to 24 to 48 hours. 

Sometimes the truth is so obvious most people refuse to see it
Devlin Brown

This increased metabolism after a workout means that even when you have stopped exercising, you are still burning more calories than you would at rest. This alone should give you peace of mind that your trainer is onto something, especially if the weight training forms part of a bigger training regimen that includes regular cardiovascular exercise.

As you’d have read in our sports science features in the Active newsletter, leading biokineticists and trainers, who work with cyclists and runners, all advocate strength training - which leads to the use of weights as a trainee’s experience grows - to improve running or cycling performance.

Not one of their elite athletes are muscle-bound oafs - yet they do squats, deadlifts, pullups and presses. Sometimes the truth is so obvious most people refuse to see it.

Beyond this, by strengthening your muscles, joints and tendons, you are working towards injury prevention - meaning you can do more of the activity that you love the most, whatever that is.

Strength training helps to preserve muscle tissue when you are eating to lose weight. Why does this matter? All movement - such as climbing stairs, playing with children, riding a bike or swimming in the ocean - is improved when the muscle systems in the body are strengthened. It is no coincidence that aging and a decrease in muscle are related.

Perhaps the biggest motivation, for you specifically, lies in what the Water Cooler will call the secret magic pill everyone has been looking for. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn because of the metabolic cost of sustaining that muscle. 

As WebMD writes: “When you increase your muscle mass, you boost your resting metabolism - and that makes your body burn more calories, says [exercise physiologist Katie] Heimburger. "That's why we recommend adding weight training to an exercise program.”

It's obvious why your trainer insists on it. If lifting weights scares you or turns you off, speak to your trainer about incorporating another type of strength training such as bodyweight exercises or work with bands.

But don’t resist it, you’ll be grateful in a year. 


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