With the help of two fit pros—both of whom lift heavy, but have two different body types reflective of two different fitness goals—I present to you a detailed answer to the popular, but complicated, question,”Will lifting heavy weights make me bigger?” The consensus? Whether your focus is on aesthetics (developing a lean figure or a very muscular one) or athletic performance (yes, you, distance runners, sprinters, obstacle course race (“OCR”) lovers, and even yogis) there are many ways one may benefit from a lifting program. I delve into the main benefits of strength training and how to tailor your program to meet your objectives, including (1) how to determine the amount of weight you should lift and for how many reps; (2) how to approach your diet in a way that helps, not hinders, your progress; and (3) how to commence your training in a safe but effective manner.
Why I decided to tackle this issue
Committing at the beginning of this year to a formal strength training program at Trooper Fitness, with an emphasis on barbell work (think squats, deadlifts, chest presses, and rows), has been one of the best fitness decisions I’ve ever made. Focused strength work—lifting much heavier weight for far fewer reps than in your average bootcamp or high intensity interval training (“HIIT”) class—produced results for me immediately and steadily. The fat peeled off and I’ve become significantly stronger every week. Still, when I urge my female friends to give it a try, they often express concern that they will “bulk up,” preventing them from achieving the leaner build they desire or a performance goal, such as completing a half marathon.
I scoured the Internet for an answer, but all I found was lots of conflicting, unclear, and just plain wrong information. So I decided to get a real answer from two coaches—a sprinter and a runner/OCR racer turned powerlifter—who both have strength training as a cornerstone of their programming and extensive experience designing strength programs for clients with a variety of aesthetic and performance aims.
- Equinox Tier III+ Trainer Rachel Mariotti—Rachel privately trains clients ranging in age from 25 to 60, and incorporates strength training into all of their programming. A former collegiate track competitor specializing in sprinting and hurdles, she is also a running coach, teaching treadmill interval-based running classes and coaching outdoor distance runners. Rachel has been interviewed by national media outlets, about the benefits of strength training, recently appearing on the podcast In Fighting Shape to discuss, among other things, the connection between such training and improved running performance.
- Co-owner of Trooper Fitness Jennifer Romanelli—As a fitness nurse and coach at NYC fitness studio Trooper Fitness, which specializes in bootcamp and strength classes, she coaches clients to achieve their aesthetic and performance goals, including competing in marathons, OCRs, and Olympic lifting meets. A former half marathon runner, Jen has in recent years participated in many OCRs, finishing first or in the top 5 of all female competitors in multiple races, and recently transitioned into powerlifting, winning first place in both competitions she participated in.
The many benefits of strength training
Both Rachel and Jen are huge advocates of strength training with heavier weights for people of all ages and athletes of all levels, pointing to the following as key benefits:
- It positively impacts your metabolism: Rachel explained,“[Strength training] puts more force on your body and joints and utilizes more muscle in order to avoid breaking form. It tears the muscles and, with proper nutrition, you start to build muscle. When you start to build more muscle, you utilize more energy—i.e. carbs, proteins, fats—throughout the day and there is a correlation of higher metabolism and lower body fat percentage.” She said that to reap these benefits, you have to lift weights heavy enough and put your muscles under enough tension to a point where you stop using oxygen and allow your muscles to work in an anaerobic state, which plays a part in spurring the growth of muscle fibers. By contrast, Rachel noted that repping out with lighter dumbbell weights in a HIIT class just isn’t going to have the same effect. “You’re breathing throughout the set. You can feel the burn in your body but this type of high volume strength training endorses more of a pumping up of the fluid in the muscle cells versus the dense muscle building that comes from heavier weight training.”
- It helps racers increase their speed and run injury-free: Both Rachel and Jen found their running performance benefited from the switch to heavier weights. Rachel has markedly improved as a sprinter, going faster at her max speeds. When Jen was competing in half marathons and developed a painful herniation, she dialed back on her running-only programming and started lifting for endurance (described further below) 3 days a week. This training helped her rehab the back pain, drop mileage time, and continue to run injury-free. As a result, Jen now takes a similar approach with her marathoner and OCR racing clients, encouraging them to just run four days a week instead of seven, and to incorporate a bootcamp, a metcon, and a lower body strength session into their weekly schedule. She explains that the danger of training your body in a constant steady state, such as running 6 or 7 days a week, is that “one, you’re just going to cause injury over time and, two, your muscle fibers will only learn to do that.”
- It enables yogis to develop the strength necessary to progress in their practice: Jen counts several yoga instructors among her clients since they have found that, to counter their hyperflexibility, they need to apply more tension to their muscles to stay injury-free. In addition, her yogi clients have used lifting to cultivate the significant amount of strength and stability required to sustain more physically demanding poses, such as handstands.
- It improves your ability to perform everyday life tasks: Rachel appreciates how much stronger she feels as she navigates her daily life since she started lifting. “Living in NYC, running up the stairs I feel stronger, moving across the street I feel faster. I carry a bookbag all day for [graduate] school, and I feel like I’ve built up enough muscular endurance through strength training to be able to manage getting around the city with a ton of weight on my back,” she observed. Rachel said her female clients in particular feel more empowered, enjoying the fact that they can now lift their bags into overhead compartments without any assistance.
How to figure out the right lifting approach for you
After deciding what your primary training objective is, you have to pick the lifting scheme that is the right fit. There are three phases of strength training–endurance, hypertrophy, and max strength & power—ranging in number of reps performed and amount of weight lifted. As detailed below, each phase has a unique impact on muscle development and overall athletic performance, making them well suited for different categories of athletes.
- Endurance: The purpose of this phase is to lift a relatively lighter weight for a high number of reps to train your muscle fibers to handle a lot of tension over longer periods of time. Jen recommends this phase for distance and OCR runners since it allows them to build stronger bones and muscles (especially glutes and quads), and to work on joint stability and muscle activation—all critical for attacking those dreaded hills—while maintaining a lean build. She advises keeping lifts in this phase between 30%-60%, but mostly below 50%, of your “one rep max”—the weight you can lift for one rep of 100% all out, going until failure effort (e.g. if the heaviest you can squat for just one rep of 100% effort is 150 lbs, your lifts in this phase should be around 75lbs—50% of your one rep max). Lifts should be done for 10 to 15 reps for 3 to 4 sets.
- Hypertrophy: It is in this phase that muscle size is increased by either one of two training approaches, which Rachel broke down as follows:
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy: This approach creates more muscle fibers building the leaner, dense muscle often associated with the so-called “toned” appearance. The rep scheme consists of lifting for 75-85% of your one rep max, for 4 sets of 4-6 reps.
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy: This is the phase in which bodybuilders train, since the higher rep count approach (lifting at 65% to 80% of your one rep max for 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps) pumps up the fluid in the muscle cells, increasing muscle girth and creating that almost inflated muscular look.
- Max Strength & Power: In this heaviest weight phase, a lifter works at 80-90% of their one rep max for 1-3 reps before attempting to set a new personal record. Jen noted that this approach is beneficial for sprinters since they are seeking to generate the maximum amount of power in a short period of time: “A sprinter is probably going to live in [this phase], because [its aim is] to recruit as many muscles as possible together to jam in that one rep and make it as strong as possible.” Indeed, Rachel herself trains in this phase, cycling in and out of max strength and power.
What it takes to look like a Crossfit athlete or a bodybuilder
Jen’s advice for anyone who either desires or fears developing that kind of super muscular physique? It takes a whole lot of work and a very high caloric intake, making it virtually impossible for the average professional with a 9-5 job who works out 4-5 hours a week to accomplish, and especially for women who are not hormonally structured to easily build muscle. Jen pointed out that competitive Crossfit athletes actually train in a fashion similar to bodybuilders, putting in 6-hour days (with intermittent breaks to rest and eat) of strength-focused work consisting of lifting sessions, metcon workouts, and gymnastics practice. She also emphasized the huge role nutrition plays in muscle development, since bodybuilders fuel their hard work by taking in anywhere from 3,000 to 4,500 calories. To build muscle in order to make the transition from racer to powerlifter, Jen herself had to become a lot more aggressive with her training, constantly lifting at 90%+ of her one rep max for only 2-3 reps for a high number of sets (10-12), and supplementing with protein shakes after her workouts.
Whatever your goals may be, proper nutrition is key
Rachel and Jen stressed that the main culprit of the so-called “bulking” is usually poor nutrition, leading to the retention of or an increase in body fat. Both fit pros detailed common nutritional pitfalls encountered by their clients and how to troubleshoot them:
- Dinner and drinks during the week with work clients: Rachel and Jen both stated that this is one of the biggest nutritional challenges faced by many of their clients. Rachel explained why this is such a problem: “You’re eating a high calorie dinner being cooked with who knows what with a couple of glasses of wine, and you’re going to bed right after. You’re dehydrated and you’re not giving yourself enough time to digest the food.” Rachel suggests limiting the effects of these nights out by reducing the portion size of the meal and making a more concerted effort to eat out less during the week, instead consuming more home-cooked dinners made with unprocessed ingredients. Jen advises her clients that if such meals are for some reason completely unavoidable, they must compensate on the weekends by not drinking alcohol and eating clean.
- Undereating: Jen has found that many times a client may have trouble meeting her fat loss goals because she undereats, either (1) because she does not realize how much fuel her body requires for muscle growth and performance; and/or (2) to attempt to “make up” for indulgent meals she has planned (e.g. working out multiple times on a weekend morning and not eating until 1pm in anticipation of a bottomless brunch). Jen explained how this backfires big-time: “When the body undereats, it never gets to that state of metabolic burn, it’s in a constant state of starvation. Nutrition-wise, your body says: ‘I’m going to hold on to every bit of fat that I can because I don’t know when I’m going to eat again’…[B]y the time you actually eat, your body is not metabolically up, so all that junk that you ate is going to go to fat.”
- Failing to plan your meals around your schedule: Jen and Rachel agree that the larger cause of undereating, overeating, and consumption of unhealthy foods is clients’ failure to plan and prepare their meals to accommodate their work and workout schedules. For people who sit at their desk much of the day, Rachel suggests eating a relatively bigger breakfast, a lighter lunch, and then snacking until dinner, which should be a bigger meal. She advises all her clients to consume only unprocessed, unpackaged foods (i.e. fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, brown rice, eggs, lean proteins) as much as possible and to time their high caloric meals to follow an intense workout. For her clients with more erratic schedules, such as nurses and corporate professionals who are in and out of meetings, Jen encourages them to experiment with what works and gets them the nutrients they need, whether it be small meals throughout the day or an intermittent fasting plan.
How to safely and effectively commence a strength training program
- Start off slow, but consistent: Rachel and Jen recommend that people who are new to strength training should start off lifting only 2 days a week, using the first few weeks to focus on the basics of the major lifts, even if that means just doing bodyweight movements. Jen suggests having one day be upper body focused and the other be lower body focused so you can wrap your head around all the new technique you’ll be learning and to let your body adjust: “If you cram in too much in a week, you’re going to be drained and it’s just going to check you out of the game.” Rachel concurs that newbies should take a slow, but steady approach, keeping both days low-to-medium intensity to start. To ensure continued results, she advises building up to 3-4 days a week of lifting, consisting of 30-45 minute long medium-to-high intensity sessions.
- Use your recovery days to work on flexibility and mobility: Both fit pros emphasized the importance of using your days off to address the inevitable muscle tightness and reduced range of motion that will result from lifting heavier. Rachel counsels new lifters to use that time to stretch out and perform foam roll and lacrosse ball mobility work. Jen strongly cautions against taking a completely sedentary day off more frequently than every other week, since that may exacerbate any muscle tightness. Instead, she suggests inserting some form of low-impact activity into your recovery day, such as restorative yoga, a lower intensity spin class, resistance band mobility work, Pilates, swimming, or even just a long walk.
- Stop worrying about getting bigger, just pick the right program for you and stick to it: Jen recalled that when Trooper Fitness first started its strength program years ago, most of their female clients were reluctant to give it a try because they were worried about getting “bigger.” Fast forward to now—the studio’s strength program is immensely popular with its members, but especially with its female clients who pack most of the classes and cover a range of body types and athletic backgrounds. Jen’s take-away from that experience? “Women, when they start to see muscles on their bodies, 90% of them are happy about it and all they want to do is go to quad city. It’s funny because the same people who said, ‘I don’t want to lift, I don’t want to look like that’ are the same people who [after months of training] come back and say, ‘I want to look like that. I want to be like that.’”