6 Myths about Resistance Training

Resistance training with bands.
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It should come as no shock to anyone that we here at Petersen Physical Therapy are big supporters of getting regular exercise. In our examination of how much exercise we should be getting, we saw that it doesn’t need to be a complex operation, either.

This post will be the start of a 3-part series on exercise. We’ll start by covering the often-misunderstood topic of resistance training.

Do you believe any of these myths? If so, don’t sweat it, just take it as a good chance to increase your knowledge. If you have any questions about how to get started, feel free to check out our micro-workouts series, as well as asking questions to your physical therapist when you come in for your next visit!

Myth #1: Resistance training is dangerous, or beats up your joints

There’s an old line of thinking that the heart only has so many beats before it quits – the number being “predetermined” before we are born. Well, if that were true, then anyone who exercises regularly would likely drop dead at 40. So … most of us (hopefully) understand that this belief is a non-starter.

The trouble is that, for some reason, we apply the same logic to our joints. Some people seem to hold onto the illogical belief that if I use my joints, they will “wear out” faster, right? Well, if that were true, then the healthiest life-extending activity we could do would be laying on the floor. If that seems silly to you, let’s look at what the numbers actually tell us:

The Truth: Resistance training is safer than team sports, and many other forms of exercise

Of course, no activity is risk-free, but it turns out this has actually been studied. In 2004, Parkkari et all studied the injury rates per 1000 hours of participation in various physical activities, including team sports, exercise, and daily activities (walking, gardening, etc). If you’re interested in seeing the entire breakdown of injuries in physical activity, go here. Some highlights from the study:

ActivityInjuries per 1000 participation hours
Wrestling3.8 – 21.8
Basketball6.3 – 12.9
Soccer6.3 – 9.7
Track & Field1.8 – 8.0
Running2.9 – 4.4
Gym training2.5 – 3.8
Walking1.0 – 1.3

So … if we go by the numbers, it would appear that “gym training” is somewhere between walking and running where injury risk is concerned. I sometimes find it humorous when people avoid resistance training due to perceived “injury risk”, but then they play team sports regularly or go on runs in their spare time. News flash – if we go by the numbers, both of these activities are more likely to injure you than resistance training.

This is NOT meant to be a knock on team sports, running, or any other activity. Sports are great! I highlighted the above to prove a point – perceived injury risk from lifting weights tends to be a boogeyman for many people. It’s risks are far outweighed by the many well-known and well-documented benefits:

  • Strong bones
  • Strong muscles
  • Improved ability to complete daily functional tasks
  • Lowered risk of injury in daily life

So … don’t let the injury risk boogeyman keep you from resistance training.

Myth #2: “Resistance Training” means “Lifting Weights”

We’ve all seen the old videos of Arnold pumping iron on muscle beach in the 70’s. As these iconic images became burned into our brains, somehow we got the impression that resistance training and pumping iron must be the same thing. While free-weight training is still one of the most efficient methods of improving strength or general fitness, this belief has led to a misconception that other forms of resistance training are nothing more than a less effective alternative. Wrong.

The Truth: Lifting weights is beneficial, but not mandatory

Lifting weights is just one style of resistance training. Other forms include calisthenics (bodyweight exercises), resistance band training, TRX training using a suspension system, or kettlebell training. Still worried that these other types of training aren’t as “good” as lifting weights? Think again:

In this 2018 study, Kotarsky et al compared progressive bench press training with progressive push-up training over 4 weeks in intermediate lifters. At the end of the 4 weeks, they tested the lifters’ max pushups, med ball throw, muscle growth, and bench press 1-rep max (1RM). What they found:

  • Both groups improved their med-ball throw, with no statistical difference between groups.
  • Both groups improved their muscle thickness, with no statistical difference between groups.
  • Both groups improved their bench 1-rep max, with no statistical difference between groups. I was surprised by this one …
  • Both groups improved at pushups, but the pushup group improved significantly more. No surprise there.

Note – there’s nothing wrong with lifting free-weights. However, rest assured that if pumping iron is not your cup of tea, it is not mandatory. You can still receive all the benefits of resistance training by choosing a modality that fits your lifestyle and schedule.

Myth #3: Resistance training makes you bulky

This is still one of the most cited reasons for aversion to resistance training, and it’s not hard to see why. For many of us, the term “lifting weights” brings to mind images of pro bodybuilders and top-level CrossFit athletes whose arms are the size of most people’s thighs.

That being said, many people who actually resistance train regularly laugh when this concern is brought up. If only it were that easy …

The Truth: You won’t get bulky. Really, you won’t.

It’s extremely difficult to get “bulky”. Like … really, really hard. Think about it – getting “huge” is unnatural. The body doesn’t like carrying around muscle mass that doesn’t get used because it’s metabolically costly. Building and maintaining a very large amount of muscle mass requires:

  • The person to eat more calories per day than they need to maintain their weight, which keeps going up as the person gets bigger.
  • It also requires an extremely focused effort on hard resistance training week in and week out for years in a row.
  • Lastly, there’s the “open secret” that many of these pro athletes are using performance enhancing drugs to allow them to carry more muscle mass than their genetic ceiling will allow.

Even people who are actively trying to get huge have a hard time getting it done. So … if that doesn’t describe your lifestyle, rest assured you won’t get bulky, no matter what you do.

Think about a few people in your life who go to the gym 2-3 times per week, who you know aren’t using any PED’s. If you adhere to the physical activity guidelines for Americans (resistance training 2 or more times per week), you’re more likely to look like those people than you are a pro bodybuilder.

Myth #4: Light weights for high reps get you “toned”

There is a long-standing misconception that lifting light weights for a zillion repetitions will get you toned (whatever that means), whereas heavy weights increase strength or size. This belief has led legions of people to lift little pink dumbbells for rep after rep, with seemingly no effect. In the fitness community, this is commonly referred to as “junk volume” – doing sets at an intensity that is too low to drive progress.

The Truth: If the intensity is too low … nothing happens

Your muscles don’t know whether you’re lifting a light weight or a heavy weight. They just know how hard they are working. We cannot control the “shape” our muscles assume as they grow.

Some fairly well accepted science has shown that proximity from failure is the main driver of muscle growth in a given session. The conventional wisdom is that 8-12 reps is optimal for muscle growth, 1-5 reps is for strength, and anything above 15 is just building endurance. However, the current science is saying something completely different: how many reps you do doesn’t matter that much, since the last 4-5 repetitions before failure are the ones that drive progress.

The inverse is also true: if we’re not getting within 4-5 reps of failure on our resistance training sets, then the sets are not doing anything other than making us sweat. Hence, the term “junk volume”.

So yes, this means that if you do 100 bicep curls with three-pound dumbbells, but you could have done 50 more, then you just wasted your time. A far better approach would be to choose an exercise that you will eventually hit a “failure” point on (such as pushups or inverted rows), and then complete reps of that exercise until you know you are 2-3 reps from failure. Wait 2-3 minutes, and then repeat for 2-3 more sets.

As a bonus: this more “effective” methodology takes far less time.

Myth #5: You must resistance train 4-6 days per week to see results

Many people seem to believe that they have two options: a.) live in the gym, or b.) quit. It’s true that many enthusiastic lifters train 4-6 days per week. However, what you’ll find if you examine some of these plans is that most people who do this are splitting the workouts into parts. An example would be someone who does upper body exercises on Monday and Thursday, and lower body exercises on Tuesday and Friday – they are still really only training the full body twice per week.

Provided that their plan is solid, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach – if someone just enjoys the gym, then more power to them. The trouble is that as our lives get busier, many of us simply struggle to “find time” for the gym and become discouraged.

The Truth: Full body training twice per week may be just as good.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the physical activity guidelines for Americans specifically recommend two or more resistance training sessions per week. And there are good reasons for this:

In a 2016 systematic review, Schoenfeld et all examined the effects of resistance training frequency. Their conclusions:

“… the current body of evidence indicates that frequencies of training twice a week promote superior hypertrophic outcomes to once a week. … whether training a muscle group three times per week is superior to a twice-per-week protocol remains to be determined.”

This recommendation falls in line with other expert opinions which seem to say:

  • Once per week is significantly better than nothing.
  • Twice per week is significantly better than once.
  • Three times per week might be better than two, but only slightly.

Personally, I like to do a full body routine, three days per week.

Myth #6: I am to old for resistance training!

This is an interesting one, as an argument could easily be made that exercise is more important the older you are. Take the following two CDC statistics into consideration:

  • Fact #1: The CDC reports that the leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease – a condition whose risk is significantly lowered by basic behavioral changes such as reducing alcohol consumption, improving diet, quitting tobacco, managing stress, and (you guessed it) getting regular cardiovascular exercise.
  • Fact #2: The CDC reports that the third leading cause of death in the United States is “accidents” – unintentional injuries such as falls. Recent research suggests that many of these accidents are linked to a condition known as sarcopenia, wherein adults over the age of 40 experience a 3-7% loss of skeletal muscle mass each decade until death. How do we combat sarcopenia? Again, you guessed it – by consuming adequate protein and engaging in regular resistance training two or more days per week.

Some people seem to insist that the day you hit the age of 41 you are doomed to a life of achy joints and diminishing usefulness. Not only is this an extremely depressing conclusion, it’s simply not true.

The Truth: You’re too old NOT to resistance train

We’re too old to skip resistance training. By adhering to a simple, regular routine of cardiovascular training and resistance training, we mitigate our chances of two of the three leading causes of death in the United States.

In Conclusion

We hope this helps dispel some of the myths and rumors around resistance training. Our recommendation would be this – find something fun, that you enjoy, that fits into your schedule, and then start working on it! If you have any questions, please ask us next time you’re in the office or contact us.

We’ll see you in a few weeks with the “Myths about Cardiovascular Training!”

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