The Five Biggest Strength Training Myths

biggest strength training myths

Strength training, or resistance training, is often misunderstood. Too many people assume that walking or other cardio exercises offer a more comprehensive workout, while hitting the gym is just for building muscle. However, exercise plans that focus only on cardio (aerobic) exercise are actually pretty limited. While strength training has been shown to have a wealth of unique, and often overlooked, benefits. So let’s break down some of the biggest strength training myths you may have heard.

In order to benefit from strength training, it is important to do so safely and properly. The American College of Sports Medicine has a useful guide for strength training to follow if you do not know where to begin. It is also important to get cleared from your doctor for exercise when appropriate. Anyone can add in some level of strength training. You do not need to go to a gym or buy a ton of expensive machines and weights.

Let’s break down all the misinformation out there around weight training.

Strength Training Myth #1. I do not need to strength train; I do cardio.

This is probably the biggest myth people tell themselves about strength training: they do not need it if they do any cardio exercise. However, while cardio exercise certainly has health benefits, adding strength training with cardio workouts can provide many health benefits.

Cardio exercise alone has not been shown to reverse or halt the 4–6 pound (1.8–2.6kg) loss in lean body mass and the associated 2–3% loss in resting metabolic rate per decade associated with normal aging. This decline in muscle mass and resting metabolic rate over time results in a further increase in fat mass, dyslipidemia and reduced insulin sensitivity. Adding in strength training can fight this decline in muscle mass and increase in fat mass with aging.

A 2017 study found strength training independent of aerobic exercise has been shown to lower risk of metabolic syndrome. Researchers concluded strength training along with aerobic exercise should be recommended to reduce risk of metabolic syndrome. This is important because it is estimated one in three adults in the US has metabolic syndrome. The metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms including: glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, central obesity, dyslipidemia, and hypertension.

Don’t get me wrong, cardio is great for you. But don’t automatically assume it’s “better” than strength training.

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Strength Training Myth #2. The only benefit of strength training is building muscle.

Yes, strength training indeed helps build muscle and fight age related muscle loss. However, strength training can offer many more benefits than just building and maintaining muscle mass. It is a myth strength training is “only” for building muscle.

Additional Benefits:

Bone health

One often overlooked benefit of strength training is the role it has in bone health. Strength training  may increase bone mineral density by as much as 1–3%. Bone loss increases as we age beginning as early as in the 30’s. Women especially and those with smaller frames have a higher risk for osteoporosis, a condition where bones become too thin. Strength training and other weight bearing exercise helps keep bones strong by getting muscles to move against gravity and put a healthy strain on muscles and bones that promote bone growth.

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Lower risk of chronic disease 

Strength training, like cardio exercise, can also lower risk for many chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It has been shown to help protect against type 2 diabetes by decreasing abdominal fat. As well as reducing HbA1c levels, increasing the density of glucose transporters in cells and improving insulin sensitivity. 

Strength training has been shown to offer heart health benefits. A 2015 review on the benefits of strength training list the following heart health benefits shown from strength training:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving blood cholesterol
  • Lowering blood triglycerides
  • Increasing blood HDL (good) cholesterol

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Brain health

Strength training may specifically help individuals who already have mild cognitive impairment delay the onset of dementia. Similarly, a 2007 study with sixty-two elderly participants found moderate- and high-intensity strength training programs had equally beneficial effects on cognitive functioning.

Strength exercise can also have a positive effect on anxiety. A 2014 review concluded strength training can offer anti-anxiety effects across a diverse range of populations which suggests resistance exercise could be used for the management of anxiety.

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Strength Training Myth #3. Strength training isn’t important for weight loss. 

Yes, strength training can help build muscle mass. However, it IS an important component of sustained, healthy weight loss. You may equate weight loss with cutting calories and a lot of cardio exercise. While these, genetics and other factors have a role in weight loss, so does strength training.

Many people can shy away from strength training when trying to lose weight because they do not want to bulk up. Strength training does not alone make you bulk up like a bodybuilder. “Bulking up” from weight lifting can be from increasing muscle mass from a stringent weight lifting regimen and eating more calories than you take in. 

Strength training helps with weight loss by:

  • Increasing lean mass which can raise metabolic rate. This in turn can increase calorie burn when you are resting.
  • Increasing calories burned during exercise. The more intense the exercise, the more energy needed and used.
  • Creating excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) which is what keeps calorie burn high after exercise. 

A 2017 ACE Fitness article suggests the best way to utilize strength training for weight loss with EPOC is to incorporate exercises that use multiple joints and use coordination. Examples of these exercises can include: squats, deadlifts, lunges with front arm raises, etc.

Working with an exercise specialist or personal trainer can help you start a strength training program. They can help you find one that is tailored to your needs and will help keep you safe as you progress.

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Strength Training Myth #4. Strength training is just for guys who want to bulk up.

Hopefully by now the many benefits of strength training are apparent and why strength training is not just for guys who want to bulk up. Strength training is important through all adulthood for both men and women. It can reduce the risk of falls and injury in the elderly, and as mentioned above it has also been shown to reverse muscle mass loss associated with aging. 

Strength training has been shown to provide the following benefits with aging:

  • Movement control
  • Increase walking speed
  • Maintain functional independence
  • Protect cognitive abilities
  • Improve self esteem
  • Increase participation in spontaneous physical activity

Women can especially benefit from strength training for the bone health benefits listed above, and everyone can benefit from the benefits of strength training besides building and maintaining muscle mass.

Strength Training Myth #5. Spot reduction: If I want to lose belly fat, I need to do more crunches.

Spot reduction makes sense in theory: if you want to lose weight in your belly, for example, you should focus on doing ab strength exercises to lose fat there. However, in reality that is not exactly how weight loss works. 

It is important to zoom out: weight loss is always a combination of many factors including diet, exercise, sleep, hormones, stress, etc. Strength training tones muscles, but it does not automatically “melt” fat from an area you are hyper focused on strengthening.

Strength and aerobic exercise both increase energy use in muscles. However, just because your thighs are working does not mean the body pulls energy from fat cells in the thigh. We cannot control where the body uses fat stores for energy needs (genetics play a large role for this).

This does not mean you shouldn’t do ab crunches or other core exercises if you want to lose weight in your midsection. These exercises will strengthen the core. Just note it does not exactly translate to melting fat around muscles you are working.

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Strength training offers many advantages that are often forgotten about or overlooked. Traditionally, strength training has been associated with guys who want to bulk up in the gym. However, research has shown strength training has multiple benefits anyone can benefit from. 

Like cardio exercise, it also has heart and brain health benefits. It plays an important role in bone health and preventing osteoporosis. It can help fight the natural decrease in muscle mass as we age and plays an important role in sustained, healthy weight loss.

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