Weight Loss Wednesdays: Lift to Get Lean!

Last week: Why Crunches Won’t Get Rid of Your Belly Fat

It’s a common refrain heard from women: “I don’t want to get too muscle-y, so I’ll stick to cardio.” Or perhaps you’ve heard, “lifting with high reps and low weights gets you toned, and I don’t want to be a bodybuilder, anyway.”

The truth is that many women (and some men) think like this. After all, for most of us looking to lose weight and get in shape, the goal isn’t exactly to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. But while your goal may not be to pack on a ton of muscle, lifting weights has a lot of value from both a health and aesthetic standpoint.

MYTH: Lifting weights will make me bulky

I’m going to target this to women, since the concerns usually come from that half of the population, but there are definitely points here that apply to both sexes.

Believe it or not, adding muscle is hard work. If it were easy, why would athletes and bodybuilders ever resort to anabolic steroid use? There are multiple factors at play when it comes to packing on lean pounds:

  1. Genetics—it’s no surprise that our genes are a big factor in how our bodies naturally respond to stimuli. A person with a larger frame or more fast-twitch muscle fibers might find him/herself with an easier time building muscle.
  2. Nutrition—muscles are made of protein; without an adequate protein intake, there won’t be enough raw materials to build new muscle
  3. Hormones—testosterone is an important hormone in regulating muscle production. It’s part of why men tend to have more lean body mass at similar heights/weights than women.

Jamie Eason

That last point is one of the major reasons women don’t naturally get bulky. At right is a picture of Jamie Eason, noted women’s bodybuilder/fitness athlete. Notice that she has a lean physique, and doesn’t look out of proportion at all. If you don’t want to take my word for it that she uses weight training to achieve that body, here’s a video showing some of her workouts (skip to about 3 minutes in).

The women who do look unnatural are typically the ones who have been supplementing with various hormones or other drugs. Synthetic testosterone use is one example, and the reason is simple: you need that testosterone to really put on lots of muscle.

For the men, I sometimes hear that folks want to lose the fat first, then work on muscle. The issue tends to be one of motivation: adding muscle mass can obscure results, at least when checking the scale. While far be it from me to tell you what your goals are, most people aren’t just trying to lose weight for the sake of a lower number, they’re looking for health or aesthetic changes. Frequently, those of us who have the most to lose have led sedentary lifestyles for quite some time. Inactivity leads to atrophy, and building back some muscle will be important in developing a lean and fit body.

Let’s think about it mathematically. Your body fat percentage is simply the total weight of all the fat in your body divided by your total weight. There are two ways to lower the percentage: reduce the fat, and add lean body mass. Since body fat percentage is a much better indicator of both fitness and looks than, say, BMI, I would recommend you keep track of that instead of focusing solely on scale weight. At the end of your journey, I think you’ll find yourself happier with the results. If you’re interested, try this online calculator to determine your body fat percentage.

TIP: Start with a tried-and-true weight training program

So once you’ve decided that weight training has benefits, it can still be daunting trying to figure out what to do. I would advise strongly against trying to cobble together a plan if you’re just starting out. Here’s a few programs based on Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. The focus is on doing compound movements, which use a lot of different muscles together. After all, how many actions in life use only one muscle at a time?

Also remember to ease yourself into lifting when you start out. You’re not Mr. Olympia (if you were, you wouldn’t be reading this), so don’t try to show off how much you can lift. Focus on form and make sure you’re going through the full range of motion. Not only will you see results in the mirror, some people might see ailments like lower back problems disappear. Sometimes it’s just a matter of weak muscles that are unable to support your body. Just remember, talk to your doctor before you begin.

Your Turn: Have you incorporated weight training into your routine? If so, how has it changed your results? If not, what’s holding you back?

Neel Joshi

Neel is a medical student who also does research on pediatric brain tumors. He is passionate about medicine and blogs about health, politics, weight loss, and more at The Soapbox. He also maintains a blogging "happy place" at OptimistPrime.

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