The 7 Myths of Weightlifting

woman weightlifter

Evan Stevens

There are common utterances when the conversation shifts to weightlifting and why people don’t do it. More so than any other form of exercise, lifting has a near infuriating amount of misinformation and myths surrounding it that steers people away. Yet it remains that lifting is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy, strong body as we age and is an integral part of peak performance for those of us who are more competitively minded. Here are some of the most common myths that remain about lifting, and why they are just that – myths.

1. I will get too bulky.

mature woman liftingWhile an old one, this myth is one of the most common misconceptions still out there, predominantly with women. Woman seem to be afraid that they will put on too much muscle, gaining wider, broader shoulders and an “unfeminine” muscle shape and tone. However, the reality is that it simply isn’t true; the act of lifting is not enough to cause you to bulk up. Muscle mass and growth is directly linked to the number of calories you are able to consume immediately post workout, and building the type of bulk that most of us are apprehensive about requires more calories than most of us care to eat. As well, women are naturally more resistant to building bulk than men. Higher levels of estrogen and lower levels of testosterone mean most women are physiologically unable to build bulk like men are able to.

Indeed, lifting weights is actually hugely beneficial in women, especially as we age. Lifting weight helps to strengthen muscles as well as bones, meaning that they are more resistant to age-related density and stress issues.

2. Muscle turns to fat too quickly if I stop and it’s too difficult to regain muscle once it’s gone.

man bench pressingAnother common myth that some people seem to believe is that if you stop lifting for whatever reason, the muscle that you’ve built will magically turn to fat. Where this myth came from is anyone’s guess as some serious freaky magic would have to be going on to turn muscle into fat. They are two physiologically distinct tissues. Now, if you stop lifting, muscles can weaken, sag, and lose their tone and strength. As well, if you stop exercising all together for whatever reason (injury, burnout, etc.) but continue to consume the same daily calories, you are liable to deposit more fat, which can “hide” the muscles you had worked so hard to build.

In fact, muscle mass helps you burn fat. Some studies show that after a very hard lifting session metabolism remains high and the drive to “burn” fat remains high up to 24 hours post workout. However, once you stop working out for an extended period of time and lose some muscle mass, you lose this ability for your muscle to burn fat as well as they once could.

And the myth that building muscle is too difficult once it’s gone is pure hogwash. Truly, its easier to maintain muscle once you have it, but in one study, researchers showed that in as little as 10 weeks of weight-bearing exercise, participants replaced on average 3 to 5 pounds of muscle that had been lost over the past 20 years of inactivity/lack of training. 

3. You should only workout one muscle group a day.

Pause in any gym locker room and you are bound to overhear someone proclaiming that “its leg day,” or “I’m just going to do my back today.” Unless they are a professional bodybuilder, adapting to this kind of regimen doesn’t help you in really any of your fitness goals. Bodybuilders work specific muscle groups on specific days to maximize growth and tone of that specific region of their body. But most of us are trying to improve strength and fitness and the best way to do this is to employ a series of higher intensity, full body workouts, designed to improve our aerobic capacity, burn calories, and improve strength.

Muscles typically need a day to recover from strenuous exercise, true, but by varying our workouts and doing different exercises (not the exact same ones day in, day out) we are able to maximize our ability to work out. This also helps to keep working out “fresh” and avoid getting to training plateaus and suffering burnout as quickly as if you do the same workout all the time.

Related Video: The Best Exercises for a Strong Foundation

4. Weight lifting is bad for your joints.

Another common myth is that lifting puts unneeded stress on your joints. However, multiple studies have shown this not to be the case; just the opposite seems to be true. A study published in the Journal of Rheumatology showed that patients suffering from knee pain experienced a 43% reduction in pain severity after four months of weight-bearing exercises. Exercises, when done properly using correct form and technique, should never strain or stress your joints. Indeed, weight-bearing exercises help to keep joints moving smoothly by increasing the amount of synovial fluid within the joint (a fluid with egg white-like consistency which lubricates joints and allows the cartilaginous heads of joints to run over each other smoothly).

5. If you want to see results you need to lift heavy weight.

Another myth that floats around from time to time is that if you want to gain muscle and see results, you need to lift heavier weights. Now, this is a myth that is both true and untrue, and it depends on your definition of “results.” If your result is to bulk up, then lifting anything is going to work; you don’t need to lift heavy. The key to getting big with light weight is the same as getting big with heavy weight – the number of reps and going to failure. You can see that same results with light weight as with heavy if you do more reps and push your muscles to the point of exhaustion (the failure point or when you can no longer lift the weight with proper form).

However, if your goal is to improve your strength and not so much get bulky, then yes, you do need to lift heavier weights. Yet it’s not like you go out and lift your max weight every time. The best way to improve your strength is to perform your lift or exercise 6-10 times with full rest. Full rest means upwards of 3 minutes between sets, which allows your ATP (adenosine trisphosphate – our body’s energy) reserves to cycle and build back up. If rest is too short you aren’t getting the strength building effects of lifting heavy.

6. Machines are just as good as free weights.

Free weights will be forever king of lifting. Machines confine the body to one plane of motion whereas free weights force the body to use multiple muscle groups. Free weights cause the firing of connections in the brain to recruit small and individual stabilizing muscle through the back, ankles, legs, etc. Free weights can have upwards of 43% more muscle activity and activation than weight machines, as well as have beneficial effects on the brain and neuromuscular connections.

7. Cardio is better – it takes less time to burn the same amount of calories.

running on treadmillSome people believe that to get an adequate workout with weights that they need to spend two hours at the gym and that their time would be better spent on the treadmill, running for a half hour because they burn the same amount of calories in a quarter of the time. Firstly and lastly, no, none of that is correct. As we’ve discussed before, one of the greatest benefits to weightlifting is the post-exercise fat burn or the increase in resting metabolism. So while initial cardio work gives you a flat number of calories burned, 30 minutes on the treadmill at a steady pace does not have the same effect on long-term metabolism (if you are on the treadmill for 30 minutes and want to see results, you need to push the pace at different inclines and intensities – 5 to 6 mph isn’t going to cut it). Lifting increases your lean muscle mass which can burn 50% more calories overall than running or walking at a steady pace.

As well, weight training can be done in short, intense bursts, using any kind of HIIT model. By doing short, intense bouts of heavier weight, you can maximize your lean muscle growth without sacrificing too much out of your day. Indeed, several studies suggest that a 30-minute weight workout three times, or even twice a week can improve your resting metabolism and lean muscle mass.

Related Article: What is a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) Workout Anyway?


The above are some of the most common myths surrounding lifting. Lifting is not scary and isn’t as daunting as it may seem (or even as many make it out to be). Gyms can be intimidating places, especially if you are just getting back into things or venturing out for your first time. But everyone there is there for a purpose, their own purpose, and they have their own workouts they are doing and shouldn’t be concerned with what you are doing. You do you and don’t buy into the many myths that still seem to be whispered in hushed tones between the weight machines by the less informed.

Hear about a myth that we didn’t cover? Let us know! Tweet us or message us on Facebook and we will be sure to do a follow-up on some of the myths we may have missed.

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Baker, K., Nelson, M., Felson, D., Layne, J., Sarno, R. and Roubenoff, R. (2001). The efficacy of home based progressive strength training in older adults with knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Rheumatology, 28(7), pp.1655-65.

C. J. Mitchell, T. A. Churchward-Venne, D. D. W. West, N. A. Burd, L. Breen, S. K. Baker, S. M. Phillips. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2012.

Schwanbeck, S., Chilibeck, P. and Binsted, G. (2009). A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(9), pp.2588-2591.

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