Until the last few decades, weight lifting was associated primarily with male bodybuilders or professional athletes. Since then, there has been significant research into the benefits of lifting weights and building lean muscle. And even though it was once a male-dominated area of exercise, an increasing number of women have begun to add strength training to their regular routines. Some estimates, however, show that only around 20% of women do actually lift weights, even though it has been shown to have a positive impact on many aspects of health, including weight loss.
Facts About Building Muscle
Muscle tissue is made up of fibers that are bundled together; when we lift weights, this causes small tears in the tissue. These small tears are essentially treated by the body as trauma, and therefore the immune system initiates an inflammatory response in order for the tissue to be repaired. The body then uses proteins to make the repairs and build the muscle back bigger and stronger. This process is called muscle hypertrophy, and it is the basic principle behind all weight lifting programs.
Weight Lifting vs. Other Types of Exercise
The terms weight lifting, strength training, and resistance training can all be used interchangeably, though resistance training is perhaps the most accurate. All resistance training—from weightlifting to exercise bands—is based on the idea that our muscles are contracting in order to resist the forces of gravity. Those contractions cause the very microtears that eventually lead to increased muscle mass. The benefits of an aerobic (cardio) workout plan, by contrast, mainly affect the cardiovascular system because of the increase in heart rate and the way oxygen is involved in meeting the body’s energy demands.
How Does Weight Training Affect Weight Loss?
Questions about how weight training fully impacts metabolism and body composition is an area of ongoing study amongst nutritional scientists. Yet even though the mechanism isn’t fully understood, there is a well established association between building muscle and increased body fat loss. This is due at least in part to the fact that the basic energy requirements of the body at rest are higher when muscle mass is increased. When paired with a healthy diet, then, weight lifting can help put you into a caloric deficit that will lead to weight loss.
Beyond weight loss, however, a strength training program can also lead to a variety of other health benefits. One important benefit is increased bone density; this is especially important as people grow older and bones have a tendency to deteriorate. There are also many chronic conditions like arthritis and heart disease that can be improved through strength training. There is even some research that suggests that lifting weights sharpens our mental abilities.
Exercises for Building Muscle
The good news about resistance training is that there are countless combinations of exercises that will help you gain muscle. You can customize the frequency, timing, movements, and number of reps to match your weight loss goals and preferences. Below are some common categories of exercise that all fall under the category of resistance training:
Body weight: Though weight lifting conjures images of elaborate equipment, there are many exercises that rely primarily on lifting or resisting your own body weight with little or no equipment. Examples include pushups, situps, pullups, squats, lunges, and planks.
Resistance bands: Rubber resistance bands or resistance tubing is an inexpensive option for getting a different kind of exercise. Movements with the band cause contractions of a muscle in resistance to the band, and this causes the same kind of microtears that come from lifting weights. Different thicknesses of band offer different levels of resistance.
Machines: Many gyms (and home gyms) offer numerous weight machines that are versatile in the number movements that can be done. Weight machines can be very beneficial, but they also often have limits on the maximum amount of weight that can be lifted.
Free weights: Free weights represent the traditional approach to strength training. The use of various barbells and dumbbells provides the most direct and targeted way of building muscle. However, free weights can cause injury more easily than other types of strength training, and should therefore be attempted with caution and with help from a personal trainer or other knowledgeable person. Examples include deadlifts, bench press, bicep curls, and back squats.
How to Get Started
For many people, it can be intimidating to think of going to a gym or even starting on your own at home. First, if you have a chronic condition, you should talk to your doctor before starting any new workout routine. There are many movements that can actually improve some chronic conditions, but there may be some limits you should be aware of. Weight lifting isn’t just for younger people, however; on the contrary, research has shown that lifting weights is important in maintaining quality of life as we age.
For whatever exercises you decide on, you should consider beginning with a brief warm up routine; for example, try jogging or brisk walking for five to ten minutes first. This will make your muscles less prone to injury. Early on, it may take time to find a weight or level of resistance sufficient enough to lead to hypertrophy. Try finding a weight that you can do for 12-15 reps before it significantly tires your muscles. You can also do multiple sets or increase the weight as it gets easier to do the lift.
A key element in the process of muscle building through lifting weights is working “to fatigue,” literally not being able to do another repetition of the given movement. This means that the muscle fibers have broken down and the body will repair them stronger and larger. Especially as a beginner, it’s a good idea to emphasize more reps at a lighter weight; this will help you maintain good form and be less prone to the injuries associated with heavy weights.
As you continue to lift weights, you’ll want to give your muscles time to rest at regular intervals. In general, it’s a good idea to rest a full day between working out a specific muscle group. Over time, you’ll want to build a routine that is sustainable and fits with your other daily and weekly life. As you’re adopting a strength training program, make sure you listen to your body and heed its warnings; if an exercise causes pain, for instance, stop doing the exercise and reevaluate your form or the weight.
Other Ways to Lose Weight
Resistance training is undoubtedly helpful when you’re trying to lose weight, but it can’t get the job done alone. Until you’re in a calorie deficit, you won’t actually burn any fat stored around the body. Lifting weights can help you build muscle and therefore burn calories at a higher rate in general, but unless your calorie intake is lower than what your body is burning, the fat won’t go away. It needs to be paired with a diet that includes less calories.
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