Common resistance-training myths and mistakes

There are a number of misconceptions and myths regarding resistance exercise. Here are some of the most common misconceptions and training mistakes:

  • Fat deposit in certain areas (e.g., abdomen or thighs) can be targeted with strength training via spot reduction.

  Building muscle is extremely exercise-specific.  Only the muscles that are exercised against progressive resistance experience the training effects of increased size and strength. However, reducing fat is not necessarily exercise-specific. That is because people lose fat from adipose deposit areas in the reverse order that they accumulated that fat. Adipose areas are genetically determined, as evidenced by the fact that men preferentially store fat in their abdominal region, whereas women preferentially store fat in their hips and thighs. For example: a male individual first adds fat to his midsection area, then to his hip area. He decides to do abdominal exercise to reduce the fat that is stored there. However, assuming he burns enough calories through his abdominal workouts to decrease his adipose deposits, he will lose fat first in his hip area, as this was the last place it was stored. He will lose fat last in his midsection area, regardless of the exercise performed, as this was the first place it accumulated.

  • Women will build bulky muscles through weight training.

  A very small percentage of women posses the genetic potential to experience significant muscle hypertrophy. This is because women are typically smaller in size, have less muscle tissue and have lower levels of anabolic hormones (e.g. testosterone) than males. Under natural training conditions, women can enhance their muscular strength and size within genetic limitations, but, with rare exceptions, they will not naturally develop unusually large, muscular physiques. 

  • Individuals should use light weights and high repetitions to improve muscle tone, and heavy weights and low repetitions to increase muscle mass.

  Several studies have demonstrated similar improvements in muscular endurance, strength, and size from high-repetition and low-repetition training (Behm et al., 2002; Bemben et al., 2000; Chestnut & Dochetry, 1999; Taaffe et al., 1996). Based on these research results, it would appear that resistance training with lighter weights and higher repetitions or heavier weights and lower repetitions produce similar muscular responses, as long as the exercise set fatigues the targeted muscles within the limits of the anaerobic energy system (less than 90 seconds).

  • At some point, people get too old to lift weights.

  One of the most amazing aspects of resistance exercise is that it works about equally well for people of all ages. In a 10-week strength-training study with more than 1700 men and women between 21 and 80 years old, the muscle gains were statistically similar for those between ages 21 and 44 (2.5 lb), those between ages 45 and 54 (3.1 lb), those between  ages 55 and 64 (2.9 lb), and those between 64 and 80 (3.2 lb) (Westscott et al., 2009). Fortunately, older muscles are very responsive to progressive resistance exercise, as evidenced by the nearly 90-year-old nursing home residents who added 4 pounds of muscle in just 14 weeks of basic and brief strength training (Westscott, 2009a). 

  • Children are too young to lift weights.

  Nothing could be further from the truth! Numerous studies have shown that children can significantly increase their muscular strength and physical abilities trough properly deigned programs of progressive resistance exercise (Fairgenbaum et al., 2009). Strength training is the most effective means for young people to build bone density.  In one study, nine-year old girls who performed 10 months of simple resistance exercise increased their BMD four times as much as nine-year old girls who did not strength train (6.2% increase vs. 1.4% increase) (Morris et al., 1997).

  • Free weights are always better than machines.

  While there are definite differences between free-weights and machines, both training modes are highly effective for increasing muscular strength in the prime mover muscle groups. The choice of exercise equipment is primarily a matter of personal preference based on a variety of training factors and considerations. Possible advantage of machine training may be the ability to isolate specific muscle groups. Machine training typically reduces  workout duratin and injury risk. On the other hand, free-weight training is more challenging in terms of the balance and is more space and cost-efficient.

  • After a person stops resistance training, the muscle turns to fat.

  This statement is not only untrue, but impossible. Muscle and fat are separate and unique tissues and one cannot transform into the other. What often occurs is a gain in muscle (hypertrophy) and a reduction in fat during the training period. Then, if the exercise program is discontinued for a significant period of time, muscle mass decreases (atrophy) and fat stores increase as a result of lower (non-training) energy expenditure. It therefore appears as though the muscle turned to fat, but in the reality there is simply less muscle and more fat rather than a conversion of tissues. 

  • Strength training is bad for exerciser's blood pressure.

  Straining against immovable object can elevate blood pressure to excessive levels. Therefore, long bouts of isometric exercise are not recommended for older adult or hypertensive individuals. Holding one's breath can also raise blood pressure to undesirable levels. However, resistance training that involves continuous movement and continuous breathing does not cause large increases in blood pressure. Depending on the exercise, a set of 10 repetitions to muscle fatigue will raise SBP about 35 to 50% above the resting level (Westscott et al., 1983). More importantly, the long-term effects of circuit strength training on resting blood pressure are profoundly positive (Cornelissen & Fagard, 2005; Kelley & Kelley, 2000). Research has demonstrated that several weeks of circuit resistance exercise leads to approximately 4% reduction in resting DBP and 3% reduction in resting SBP (Westscott, 2009b; Kelley, 1997). Consequently, properly performed resistance exercise does not adversely affect blood pressure, and circuit strength training has been shown to significantly reduce resting SBP and DBP in as little as 10 weeks.

  • Obesity results in increased muscle strength.

  While it might be common to think that a person who weighs more due to excess body fat is consequently stronger than a normal-weight individual, the opposite is true. Obesity lessens a person's strength because excessive body fat infiltrates and weakens muscle tissue. When strength relative to body weight is considered, obese individuals tend to be much weaker (Messier, 2008). This lack of physical strength relative to total body weight can negatively impact the performance of activities of daily living. Thus, while resistance training may not be the primary recommended mode of activity for weight loss for obese population, it certainly is an important adjunct to the overall exercise program and should not be overlooked.


*Source: ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 5th edition


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