Lifting: When Is Enough, Enough?

For those wondering if lifting weights is necessary either because they cannot currently access a gym or simply have no interest in lifting weights but do want to stay healthy, the simple answer regarding whether or not weight lifting is necessary is no.


But that doesn't mean they have a free pass to skip resistance training all together.


Weight lifting is a weight-bearing exercise with an external load - a piece of equipment - added to the movement. The basic idea is that the added weight will increase the muscular response to the movement making it more challenging and asking the muscles involved to work harder.


This harder work creates a stronger body. Beyond just stronger muscles resistance training has so many additional benefits benefits!


At this point maybe you're asking yourself a few questions...


"Do I really need to lift weights?"

"How much do I really need to lift?"

"Weight bearing exercise is that the same thing as weight lifting?"


To the first question, maybe not.

To the second question, it depends.

To the third question, nope!

... so, it's super clear, huh?


Let's break it down and find some answers for these questions along the way.


To Pop a Squat-Rack or Not? That is the Question.

In the workout world, like any industry, there are pendulums and they swing. The swing tends to be what gets attention. And recently it seems fitness-inspiration '#fitspo' on Instagram is popularizing heavy-lifting, which may be an evolution of the popularity gained from the rise of Cross-fit. Swole muscles and tight physiques are shown as pictures of health moving very heavy objects - and often stopping for a gym selfie along the way. While this may be a visually inspiring fitness trend, and can be done in a healthy way for some, heavy lifting is not essential for overall health or even recommended for all.


There are many reasons why heavy-weight lifting and cross-fit style workouts may not be for everyone, but let's a look at two: safety & access.


Safety

To start if you're interested in weight lifting and you don't have any physical limitations that preclude you from going for it, then find a trainer and go for it! However, while heavy free weights are incredibly effective for specific goal or desire, pumping iron is not a universally loved past time. The good news is that from a health standpoint, heavy free weights are not necessary for every person.


More recently the swing has moved towards lifting heavy weight, and training programs that mimic professional athletes. While these trends became very popular, they aren't without their own set of problems - namely access to equipment and overall safety.


Every movement under load requires proper technique and as the weight increases precision in technique becomes even more crucial. Bigger weight = bigger risk. To make matters even more interesting technique slightly changes from person to person as every unique body structure has a manner in movement that is most optimal for them. So, without a qualified strength and conditioning coach supporting the education of people on lifting technique, increasing to heavy loads can become more precarious for the lifter.


Access

Prior to 2020 access to lifting equipment for anyone who was interested in pursuing this training method was a matter of many factors but geographic and economic availability are top on the list. These barriers to entry still exist. Then, of course, Covid happened and suddenly access was a problem almost everyone, except for those privileged enough to have a comprehensive home gym, experienced.


In our current scenario (hello, pandemic!) not only is heavy lifting not realistic for many people from an access and education standpoint, it's been especially difficult for people to easily acquire home gym equipment. In 2020 stores quickly sold out of free weights. Larger equipment that is already pricey to buy is also very pricey to ship isn't practical for most people who don't have the resources to buy or space in their home to house it.


Covid's effect on creating an ultra-limited access to gym equipment left people asking whether or not they need weights at all, and what they could do instead.


Weight Bearing Exercise is Beneficial for All People

Perhaps you have heard that women in particular should pay more attention to incorporating weight training into their regimen. If you have heard this message, then for the most part, this is really good news. A message making the weight room a gender-neutral environment is a huge shift from where fitness has focused in the past. Seeing more people of all genders, ages, and sizes find comfort in the weight room is an amazing thing because stereotypes are a really crappy reason to avoid doing something that might pique our interest.


There are so many benefits from building and maintaining lean muscle mass that can improve the health for every person such as increased bone density, an increase in metabolic rate, possible benefits for mood and self-esteem, and potentially a lower risk of common injuries - to name just a few.


Prevention of bone loss (osteopenia) is often named as one of the top reasons to engage in weight bearing exercise. But as we age we also lose muscle mass (sarcopenia) too. Resistance training is beneficial for both bone density and muscle density. The widely accepted understanding of this is that the mechanical forces applied by the resistance stimulates the muscles to rebuild slightly strong to meet the demand, and as the muscles move weight or move the body they put stress on the bones which simulates osteogenic activity [1]. Maintaining bone and muscle mass as we age is an essential part of staying vital throughout our lifetime. Inactivity and poor nutrition can lead us to lose up to 1% of our bone mass per year after age 40 [2] and muscle loss may begin as early as in our 30s [3]. And so prevention is key.


Use It Or Lose It

In order to jump on the bone and muscle loss prevention train, the force applied during strength training must enough to create the stimulation of new and stronger tissue. The routine also must be regular enough to not provide an opportunity for the body to atrophy due to underuse. The breakdown and subsequent building of tissue plays a part in two key principles of exercise science: adaptation and overload.


Adaptation is the concept that the body will adapt to meet up to (and not much further) the demand placed upon it. Overload plays a part in using this principle to our advantage. When we train our bodies to our threshold and just slightly farther (i.e. we make something slightly more difficult) our bodies will rebuild tissue to meet that demand again. Now these are very simple explanations in the positive direction, but the inverse is also true. When we don't train in a way that is challenging and we don't train regularly, the body will regress because keeping on mass is metabolically taxing.


This means use it or lose it is absolutely true, because the body loves efficiency. Keeping on high-ticket items like skeletal muscle is not something that the body will deem efficient if those muscles are not metaphorically (and literally) pulling their weight. Understanding this concept, even on its most basic level, can help us better understand why keeping on lean muscle mass is a metabolic boost! When our bodies demand more macro-nutrient intake (i.e. food through carbs, proteins, fats) for fuel we also have a greater chance of ingesting more vitamins and minerals.


How Much Resistance Is Necessary?

Ok so at this point you're probably convinced that some level of resistance training is absolutely necessary. Let's go back to one of the original questions.


How much is enough?


The answer simple, but vague. It depends.


What it depends upon is worth exploring.


How heavy someone lifts depends largely on the goal of the exercise and number of repetitions to be performed. The weight and rep ranges correspond to particular goals:

  • Maximal Strength, or being able to lift as much as weight as possible is traditionally trained by doing 1-5 repetitions with very heavy weight (roughly 80-90% of 1 rep max).

  • Muscular Hypertrophy, or training to develop visibly bigger muscles is most often defined by training with 6-12 repetitions with moderate to heavy weight (roughly 65-85% of 1 rep max) and high total volume of work.

  • Power, or the ability to create intense explosive movements, is often trained with a combination of maximal strength along with high amounts of speed. Sometimes this can be trained through supersets that match large weights immediately followed by explosive body-weight moves.

  • Muscular Stability & Endurance, or being able to do sustained work safely over a long period of time, is typically trained with a high number of reps with light to moderate weight, and sets are done to relative fatigue.

Many of us who don't have a specific sport or lifting competition in mind likely fall into the stability and endurance category, and happily so. In this area the two aspects become very important: building stability first and added on a layer intensity to build endurance. For the most basic (and truthfully important) benefits for health, resistance training does not need to equate to heavy-weight power lifting. In fact you can obtain musculoskeletal and metabolic benefits of resistance training without ever touching a bench.


While there is no specific number for every person, the rule of thumb when it comes to what qualifies as 'enough' resistance in a workout is that it creates enough stress that the body interprets the stress as more than normal everyday activity. So a gentle walk around the block likely won't register, for most active people, as a weight bearing exercise that offers muscle or bone building benefits. Nor will swimming or cycling at a low resistance. This is because these modalities, while great for the cardiovascular system, fail to create enough impact on the body. They simply are not intense enough.


However other body-weight driven modalities like Vinyasa yoga, jogging, squats, lunges, push-ups, planks, plyometrics, and similar exercises can offer the body enough challenge and intensity to inspire change at a cellular level.

So whether it is body weight training, resistance band training, or weight training - when it comes to stimulating bone and muscle building benefits the demand needs to be greater than day-to-day activity.

So whether it is body weight training, resistance band training, or weight training - when it comes to stimulating bone and muscle building benefits the demand needs to be greater than day-to-day activity.


What if I don't like the Weight Room?

While lifting external objects, like weight training, accomplishes building muscle it it not the only thing that qualifies as weight-bearing exercise. Body-weight bearing exercise, and using resistance equipment like bands and suspension trainers, also offer many of the health benefits without needing a ton of heavy gym equipment.


This is great news for people who may not thoroughly enjoy being in the weight room or simply don't have access. In fact the Mayo Clinic even recognizes body-weight training as a viable alternative to traditional weight-lifting when it comes to health.


"Yes. Body-weight training — using only your body weight for resistance — can be an effective type of strength training and a good addition to your fitness program. Body-weight training can be as effective as training with free weights or weight machines," said Dr. Edward Laskowski in a recent Mayo Clinic Fitness blog [4].


We asked our trainers at Practice Everywhere what advice they'd give to clients who want the benefits of resistance training, but are not particularly fond of the weight room.

"When clients don't find pleasure doing weight training, I recommend they incorporate it by blending it in to activities that they do love! Maybe it is something like spending half of their exercise session doing weights and the other half doing yoga or cardio. Just start sprinkling it in," shared Jess Spence, one of Practice Everywhere's on staff personal trainers and Yoga instructors.


"When clients don't find pleasure doing weight training, I recommend they incorporate it by blending it in to activities that they do love! Maybe it is something like spending half of their exercise session doing weights and the other half doing yoga or cardio. Just start sprinkling it in," shared Jess Spence, one of Practice Everywhere's on staff personal trainers and Yoga instructors.

Train For Your Game

So while your Instagram feed might be telling you that you need to perfect your kettlebell swings, and learn how to use a squat rack in order to stay healthy, science suggests something different. So, don't feel like you need to race back to the weight room the moment you're able (unless you want to). Much can be done at home with minimal equipment and great results.


The first question you have to ask is, what is my goal?


The second question you have to ask yourself is, am I willing to do what it takes to meet it?


In short, you train for what you want.


Suzie Mills, co-founder of Practice Everywhere also offered, "Everyone should feel welcome in the weight room if they want to explore lifting. But some people just aren't interested, some don't have access, and some still feel intimidated. To those clients I would suggest getting low investment equipment like resistance bands and light dumbbells. These pieces of equipment are versatile, cost effective, simple to use, and you can use them at home following along with your favorite videos - totally intimidation free!"


If your goal is to have large, well-defined muscles, take part in a race, and or participate in a specific sport, you will need to train in a way that supports those goals.


For example basketball players need to balance weight lifting with workouts that improve their agility, speed and endurance. Baseball players (depending on their position) may train in a way that emphasizes power so that when they make contact with the ball it explodes off the bat. Distance runners train in a way that lends itself to durable ankles, knees and hips while keeping extra body weight off to minimize the overall impact on joints stride for stride.


Defining 'Enough' For Ourselves

But if your goal is to look like someone else you saw on your social media feed, I've got bad news for you. That's never going to happen. No two bodies will develop in the same way even with identical training protocols. This is another, of many reasons, why an externally-driven aesthetic goal can leave us feeling unsatisfied no matter how many pounds are lost or how many packs we have on our abs.


So why not do something else instead - define what YOUR game is, and incorporate weight-training in a way that supports your ability to do that thing you love.


Maybe your game is something simple like

- being able to pick up my kids without pain

- feeling strong during my yoga flow

- having more energy after work

- supporting mental health

- boosting my immune system

- protecting my joints as I age


... then the best thing to do is find a 'game' that you enjoy and allow it to be the centerpiece of your weekly routine!


You will be far more inspired to workout and motivated to build a program around it if you like what you're doing. From there as a discipline to keep your body cross-trained for the activities you love incorporate a balance of cardio 2-3 times per week, weight bearing exercises 2-3 times per week, and also light work such as gentle stretching and walking on rest and recovery days.


So, let's keep it simple.


No, you don't have to pump iron or spend hours at the gym to be healthy.


Yes, you SHOULD incorporate some sort of weight-bearing exercise if you are looking to optimize its metabolic, cross-training, and bone-health benefits.


And, finally the weight room, that space is for everyone who wants to be there!


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6279907/

[2] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/strength-training-builds-more-than-muscles

[3] https://www.health.harvard.edu/special-health-reports/strength-and-power-training-a-guide-for-adults-of-all-ages

[4] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/expert-answers/body-weight-training/faq-20147966


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Lopez is the Co-Founder of Practice Everywhere and Honest Soul Yoga. A lifelong practitioner of Yoga, Julia is inspired to support the health and wellbeing of her clients using the lifestyle principles of Yoga as the foundation of her training. Julia is holds her ERYT500 and YACEP distinctions from Yoga Alliance. She is also a Personal Trainer CPT-NCSF and Sports Nutrition Specialist SNS-NCSF, and has held also several other certifications over the years with specialties in group fitness, suspension training systems, and cycling. These certifications along with almost two decades of Yoga practice and thousands of hours of working with clients in fitness industry, and several years spent in community relations promoting health and wellness initiatives for natural and organic grocers, Julia's approach is always bent towards making holistic wellness simple, accessible, and pleasurable - because she believes people will always do more of what they truly enjoy.

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