Jane’s family has a family reunion BBQ every summer where the burgers, coleslaw, and beer flow freely. There are fun games of horseshoes, volleyball, and potato sack races where the winners have bragging rights for the year. Last year the family added a push-up challenge that everyone had to enter. Jane rides 5 days a week, takes a yoga class twice a week, and a spin class once a week, so she is confident she has the strength to master the push-up challenge.
The rules are laid out and bragging rights are on the line…3, 2, 1, GO! Jane lowers herself into the bottom of the push-up and as she tries to push herself up her arms start to shake, her back starts to sag, but she manages to eke out one push-up. With trembling arms she struggles to keep her back straight as she starts to lower herself down again, but before she knows it her arms give out and she falls flat on her tummy. Her big brother chuckles and starts to give her a hard time, telling her she should take up weight lifting. No way says Jane! I don’t want to turn into the hulk!
Uh oh, here we see the most common myth of strength training:
Myth: “I don’t want to lift weights because I don’t want to get big and bulky”
Reality: This is largely a gender specific myth – females tend to believe this myth more than men, which is why there is mass marketing of pretty pink 3lb weights for women who want to ‘tone’ but not get bulky.
Guess what ‘toning’ really means? In order to tone muscles you have to have some lean muscle mass development to begin with. The ability for a female to increase muscle mass significantly (‘bulk up’) is actually very, very difficult. Female bodybuilders spend YEARS training specifically for hypertrophy or muscle growth, eat very specifically, and often use supplements to enhance the muscle building effect.
Other factors affecting the ability to build significant muscle mass include: Hormones (ie: testosterone), males typically have testosterone levels 10-30 times higher than females; genetics (blame your mum or dad!); specific nutrition; strength training program variables (sets, reps, load, frequency); and of course there are illegal drugs (steroids) that can help increase muscle mass in a quicker amount of time.
So the likelihood of Jane looking like the hulk with a strength training program is probably the same as her getting married to Chris Hemsworth (…a girl can dream)!
What will happen if Jane starts a strength training program?
Jane will develop lean muscle mass while likely decreasing body fat which will create an athletic, defined, shapely, or ‘toned’ look.
Jane will build strength. She will be counting down the days until the next family reunion BBQ to show off her push-up skills! This strength will help her on and off her horse, and with general activities of daily living.
Jane will slow the muscle loss process that inevitably comes with aging, as well as increase joint stability, and bone strength to decrease the risk of osteoporosis as she ages.
Jane will improve her posture, increase her metabolism, increase her calorie burning effect post-exercise, and improve independence and self-image.
Jane is starting to become convinced to start strength training, but she’s nervous about her muscle turning to fat if she decides to stop training. Oh Jane…here comes another myth.
Myth: “I don’t want my muscle to turn to fat if I stop strength training”
Reality: The bottom line…this is impossible! We are talking about two completely different tissues that are incapable of morphing into the other. So why do people think this happens?
Let’s look back at Jane - when she is consistently engaging in a strength training program, she is increasing her metabolism and the ability to burn calories after her workout. She is likely fueling her body appropriately with good nutrition because she wants to show off her hard work in the gym. Perhaps after a while Jane starts to lose her motivation to go to the gym, and she doesn’t like to work out at home. Slowly she stops resistance training, and she starts working out less frequently.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t adjust her nutrition to reflect her change in energy output, so Jane starts to gain a little bit of body fat, and her hard earned muscle starts to decrease in size. The combination of fat gain and muscle loss leads to a softer, less ‘toned’ look which Jane perceives as muscle turning into fat.
To reiterate it is physiologically impossible for muscle to turn into fat. If Jane decides to give up strength training but still wants to maintain the lean muscle she has gained and stay toned, she will need to either change her nutrition or choose another activity to help maintain muscle and prevent weight gain.
I think Jane is now convinced to start a strength training program – Yay! She heads off to the gym to start hitting the weights, and is especially excited to start doing 100 sit-ups each night to decrease the fat around her stomach and create a 6-pack. *Insert face palm!* Oh no…not the spot reduction myth!! That will have to wait for another time!