10 Reasons To Lift Weights, Even If You Don’t Want To Build A Lot Of Muscle
Historically lifting weights has been restricted to two pretty similar populations: Wannabe Arnold Schwarzeneggers and dudes (Let’s face it, it’s basically always dudes) that just want to help their own ego by lifting and then slamming down the biggest weight available and showing everyone else how alpha they are.
Times, thank God, have changed.
Now resistance training has become pretty mainstream. For those of us in the fitness world this has two clear causes, namely the rise of Crossfit and the popularity of social media (especially Instagram). Thanks to Crossfit the normalisation of women lifting weights has undergone a huge up swelling.
Not only that, but the idea of athletic but somewhat NORMAL looking people doing pretty cool fitness based things is starting to seem far more plausible. Then thanks to Instagram – everyday people who aren’t conventionally famous are able to post workouts, gym selfies and healthy food and gain gratification from potentially millions of adoring followers (adoring used very loosely, of course).
Fitness, in short, has become cool.
This still leaves a HUGE swathe of people by the wayside, though. Sure, the folks at your local crossfit box don’t look like the 350lbs, steroid-infused mass monsters of the 90’s, and they don’t act like the egotistic weight-slammers, either. And sure, those people that have multiple thousand followers on Instagram aren’t really famous – not in the conventional sense of the word, anyway, but they STILL have some key things in common that aren’t all that relatable for many of us:
They LOVE fitness. This is blasphemous in some circles, but the fact of the matter is that some folks just don’t like going to the gym. It’s hard to relate to someone who trains 5+ times per week and seems to love it when the thought of attending 3 spin classes is a bit daunting.
They have high-reaching goals. Social media ‘motivational memes’ tell us to shoot for the moon, to reach our greatest potential, to never give up until we are at the pinnacle of success. If you couldn’t give less of a toss about being the fittest in your gym, then why should you listen to folks, for whom that seems to be the only real purpose in their life.
They often have a lot of time to devote to training. Now, sure, most people are busy these days and the individuals in question aren’t any different – but someone who is able to train for two hours per day and still make beautiful looking meals for their followers to like DOES have more free time than someone who has to consciously make time to fit in a 45 minute workout and make anything other than a ready meal. We all have to fit in what we want to do in amongst what we need to do, but those who can free up 3 hours per day have it a little easier than those who can maybe fit in 1 a couple times per week.
They are often genetically gifted, though they will of course deny this as if genetic potential and hard work are mutually exclusive
So what does this mean? It means that for many a bodybuilder or powerlifter isn’t much motivation, but neither is the “normal” person who has the gym as their main hobby. Because these people aren’t relatable, it’s completely understandable for many to have the impression that they shouldn’t partake in resistance training because these people’s lifestyle, physique and diet isn’t something you aspire to do, too.
So, below are 10 reasons that you should lift weights, even if you don’t want to end up highly muscular, even if you’re not bothered about being an athlete, and even if you don’t want to spend a bunch of time in the gym.
1 – Lifting weights can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the single biggest killer globally (1). Higher than cancer, higher than war, higher than poverty, higher than everything else – that means it’s kinda serious. Fortunately, resistance training can help by a pretty significant degree, probably due to it’s ability to normalise resting blood pressure, reduce LDL cholesterol, increase HDL cholesterol and decrease total triglyceride levels (2). These effects helps both those who are healthy right now by reducing risk (3) and those who have already had a CVD event by reducing risk factors and increasing quality of life (4).
Clearly, adhering to an active lifestyle in general is a good idea, as is eating a balanced diet, but even independent of these – resistance training is massive in reducing your risk of CVD and according to the WHO, just two resistance training sessions per week are needed to benefit (5).
2 - Lifting weights can preserve lean muscle mass as you lose weight
Losing weight is a pretty common goal for most folks. In the UK around 58% of women and 68% of men were overweight or obese in the UK (6) and the dieting industry is worth millions of pounds per year, but the focus on ‘weight loss’ specifically may be misguided. What people would like to lose is not weight, it’s fat, and that’s a pretty important distinction.
Losing muscle alongside fat is a pretty bad thing. It leaves you weaker, with less energy and (upsettingly) not really looking all that different to before you lost weight. Think about it, if you lose weight and there’s muscle alongside the fat, then you won’t really change shape – you’ll just get smaller. You may not want to be ripped (God knows I don’t…) but I’d wager that most folks want to look pretty good at the end of a weight loss journey. Preserving muscle mass is key here.
Resistance training performed during periods of caloric restriction preserves lean muscle mass (7). This doesn’t mean you have to go bodybuilder, but it does mean you need to challenge your body to hold on to the muscle mass that it has. This is often not spoken about in Slimming clubs, and the idea that “I want to lose weight before I start the gym” is totally understandable, but there is something really important to consider here.
Slimming clubs are there for one thing – weight loss. You ‘succeed’ if you weigh less this week than you did last, and they don’t really differentiate between muscle mass and fat mass. Due to some cool physiology and maths, we know that one pound of stored muscle mass contains WAY less energy than a pound of stored fat, and that means that muscle loss can happen pretty quickly and cause big shifts in your scale weight.
The issue is it won’t make you feel or look better, and it’s not great for health either.
So, start resistance training now – even if you’re not at your goal weight. It might slow the weight loss down, but that’s only because you’ll be doing as much as you can to make sure it’s only fat you’re losing.
3 – Lifting weights is a lot less time-consuming than you think
Thanks in some part to the folks I spoke about in the introductory paragraphs, there is a stigma around resistance training that makes the assumption that it’s a massive time sink. You need an hour, plus, per day, 4-5 times per week to make progress. This isn’t actually true.
Now, sure, after the first year or so of training as hard as possible, you might need to increase your training time to keep making progress, but if you’re not bothered about that it’s not a problem. Just like you don’t need to sink two hours into cooking every day if you’re not bothered about making your dinner gourmet.
A 45 minute training session 2-3 times per week is perfect, but even a half hour twice per week wouldn’t be a bad start. Simply going to the gym, doing three rounds of squatting, three rounds of pressing something over your head and three rounds of picking something up off the floor isn’t a bad start at all, and you’d be in and out a lot faster than you would expect.
4 – Lifting weights can prevent osteoporosis later in life
Osteoporosis is the slow, progressive loss of bone mass that occurs in older age. It happens in both sexes but is far more prevalent in postmenopausal women due to the hormonal changes associated with this part of getting older. It’s effectively the process of your bone structure becoming more porous and therefore weaker and more brittle, leading to a hugely increased risk of fracture.
Resistance training provides a loading stimulus, which promotes increased mineralisation and therefore strengthening of bone (8). When done in young age this can of course minimise osteoporosis risk later, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever too late to start! Starting to lift weights late in life can help to halt the progression of osteoporosis – while also reducing fracture risk by improving balance and increasing muscle mass necessary for a proper walking gait.
5 – Lifting weights can help reduce lower back pain
Back pain is by far the most common form of chronic pain, with chronic pain in general being one of the leading causes of missed work time. In fact, in 2013 chronic back pain was responsible for 15 million lost workdays in the UK (9). Many with back pain would assume that lifting weights is just about the worst thing they can do, but this is not entirely true.
In fact, resistance training in conjunction with walking can reduce markers of pain and improve back mobility (10) while some patients with lower back pain even benefit from the king of ‘that can’t be good for you’ exercises, the deadlift! (11)
One large factor in back pain is reduced range of motion, caused by fear of moving due to pain. It’s like a vicious circle: back hurts, move less, back hurts more, move less. Many people with chronic back issues do not have any physical causes of pain, and in one study of people who had no pain at all (12), 36% had a herniated disk, 21% had spinal stenosis and 90% had a bulging or degenerated disk! This means that back pain is really, really complicated and often not due to damage, or problems that can become damage due to movement.
Don’t fear exercise, revel in it – so long as you have a professional guiding you your injury chance is minimal, and potential for benefit is through the roof.
6 – Lifting weights can help manage diabetes, or reduce your risk of getting it
Diabetes type 2 is characterised by insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that helps cells to absorb glucose from the blood, and this ‘sensitivity’ refers to the ability of cells to react properly to insulin that is circulating. This means that when blood glucose increases after eating, it stays in the blood longer than it should – this can cause a host of problems including organ damage, nerve damage and damage to blood vessels.
Resistance training makes muscle cells more able to absorb glucose independent of insulin, thanks to it’s impact on a little protein in the cells called GLUT4 (2). Not only this, resistance training can reduce abdominal fat storage, another risk factor, and ultimately reduce HbA1c levels (a common marker for diabetes). Lifting weights can therefore minimise diabetes risk AND help manage it if you have it already – not bad in exchange for up to a couple of hours per week.
7 – Lifting weights can increase your confidence
Weight loss is a negative thing. You set a goal to move ‘away from where I am now’ and towards a ‘place that would be less awful’. Folks have a number of individual reasons for wanting to lose weight, but it always comes from a dissatisfaction with the present and a hope that the future will be better. Unfortunately weight loss goals like this make the assumption that the present isn’t ‘good enough’ and that the future, rather than being amazing, will just be ‘back to normal’. This is hardly something that instils motivation and self confidence in you.
Training to become strong, however, puts a whole new slant on it even though it can (alongside a good diet) achieve the same thing. Imagine going to the gym one month and being able to lift a certain amount of weight. You’re happy with it and feel awesome when you leave, but you think that if you really try you’ll be able to better your personal best soon. A little while later you are stronger and more capable and so you lift more weight – that is real empowerment!
You’re not progressing away from a present that is insufficient, you are progressing from a present which is great, to a future that is even better. And once you have dominated a target weight, you will feel like nothing can stop you.
8 – Lifting weights can be started off at home
You don’t even need a gym membership to get started. Sure, a gym membership is going to be really useful sooner or later, but if you’ve never touched a weight before you can get a hell of a workout done in your front room. Pressup, squat, lunge and pullup variations, perhaps paired with a kettlebell that you can swing will get you a really long way when you first start out, and of course you don’t have to factor in commuting or childcare if either of those are an issue. Pullup bars will cost less than £20, and a kettlebell might be a little more. That’s all the equipment you need for the first three months or so, at half the price of a gym membership for the same time period.
And hell, if you don’t like it, there’s always Gumtree…
9 – Lifting weights can be extremely cathartic
Catharsis is the process of ‘letting out your emotions in a satisfying manner’. Some people shout, some hit things, some break stuff, lots of folks lift weights. Ask 10 people why they lift weights and I GUARANTEE that at least 6 of them will tell you that it makes them feel better, it relieves stress and it overall allows them to release whatever is going on.
“Training is therapy” is a somewhat trite catchphrase, but for many folks it’s really true.
Meditation and other methods of stress relief are impactful and important, but catharsis is another really important aspect of daily stress management. Resistance training can improve feelings of subjective well being and body image (13) and even reduce anxiety (14) – on a personal note; pairing your training sessions with Metallica hasn’t really been studied, but it certainly can’t hurt!
10 – Lifting weights will make day to day activities far easier
Activities of daily living require a lot more strength than you may think. There’s the stereotype of opening jars, of course, but then consider how often you need to pull a heavy Wheelie bin, lift yourself out of a bath, move a piece of furniture, hoover the stairs or do some digging in the garden. These things are often relatively easy in your youth but over time they can become more difficult, and that necessarily decreases your independence.
Resistance training can help mediate the muscle loss associated with aging (15) but more than that, it will make these things even easier to do in your youth. “No thanks, I can lift it” is a pretty cool phrase to be able to say, so why not increase the frequency with which you get to use it?
Resistance training is a tool, just like any other. It has certain features and it does certain things, but the outcomes you get largely depend on the manner in which you use it. A hammer could help put nails in wood, take nails out of wood, put pegs in the ground or a host of other things, and just like a hammer, resistance training can be applied to a multitude of different situations depending on your needs.
If you don’t want to make #MadGains and you’re not bothered about being able to pick twice your body weight off the floor that’s fine. It doesn’t make your goals any less valid than someone who does – but it also doesn’t mean that resistance training has nothing to offer you.
If you’re a resistance training skeptic, I urge you to give it a go. You never know, you might even enjoy it a little – it’s certainly more fun than jogging!
Tom Bainbridge is the Manager of the Body Type Nutrition Academy: an online course aimed at the general public and personal trainers alike, to improve nutritional knowledge and hone your ability to use food to achieve whatever goal you may have. If you’d like to know more about nutrition – for yourself or for others – check out their work at www.bodytypenutrition.co.uk.
If you’d like to get more of Tom’s musings, he writes regularly for the BTN blog, as well as that of Awesome Supplements (http://awesomesupplements.co.uk/), and the BTN Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/BodyTypeNutrition)
Thanks for reading.
1 - World Health Organization. (2017). Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). [online] Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs317/en/ [Accessed 5 Oct. 2017].
2 - Westcott, W. (2012). Resistance Training is Medicine. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 11(4), pp.209-216.
3 - Yu, C., McManus, A., So, H., Chook, P., Au, C., Li, A., Kam, J., So, R., Lam, C., Chan, I. and Sung, R. (2016). Effects of resistance training on cardiovascular health in non-obese active adolescents. World Journal of Clinical Pediatrics, 5(3), p.293.
4 -Adams J, Cline M, Reed M, Masters A, Ehlke K and Hartman J. (2006) Importance of resistance training for patients after a cardiac event. Proceedings (Baylor University Medical Center), 19(3), p.246-248.
5 - World Health Organisation (2011). Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health. [online] World Health Organisation. Available at: http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/physical-activity-recommendations-18-64years.pdf [Accessed 5 Oct. 2017].
6 - NHS (2017). Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet. [online] NHS Digital. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/613532/obes-phys-acti-diet-eng-2017-rep.pdf [Accessed 5 Oct. 2017].
7 - Ballor, D., Katch, V., Becque, M. and Marks, C. (1988). Resistance weight training during caloric restriction enhances lean body weight maintenance. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 47(1), pp.19-25.
8 - LAYNE, J. and NELSON, M. (1999). The effects of progressive resistance training on bone density: a review. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 31(1), pp.25-30.
9 - Filcher, A., Hubs, 3., Hubs, L. and Hubs, C. (2017). Back pain causing 3 million people to take time off work - HRreview. [online] HRreview. Available at: http://www.hrreview.co.uk/hr-news/wellbeing-news/back-pain-causing-3-million-people-take-time-off-work/57123 [Accessed 5 Oct. 2017].
10 - Lee, J. and Kang, S. (2016). The effects of strength exercise and walking on lumbar function, pain level, and body composition in chronic back pain patients. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, 12(5), pp.463-470.
11 - Berglund, L., Aasa, B., Hellqvist, J., Michaelson, P. and Aasa, U. (2015). Which Patients With Low Back Pain Benefit From Deadlift Training?. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(7), pp.1803-1811.
12 - Allegri, M., Montella, S., Salici, F., Valente, A., Marchesini, M., Compagnone, C., Baciarello, M., Manferdini, M. and Fanelli, G. (2016). Mechanisms of low back pain: a guide for diagnosis and therapy. F1000Research, 5, p.1530.
13 - Tucker, L. and Maxwell, K. (1992). Effects of weight training on the emotional well-being and body image of females: predictors of greatest benefit. American Journal of Health Promotion, 6(5), pp.388-344.
14 - Strickland, J. and Smith, M. (2014). The anxiolytic effects of resistance exercise. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.
15 - Law, T., Clark, L. and Clark, B. (2016). Resistance Exercise to Prevent and Manage Sarcopenia and Dynapenia. Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 36(1), pp.205-228.
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