Have you ever seen body builders and fitness competitors and then wondered if you will get big bulky muscles from weight lifting? This is a great question and one that I have been asked a lot over the years. Especially by women who want to be fit, lose weight, or be generally conditioned as a lifestyle. Here’s the truth:
Lifting weights will usually only increase muscle size if you specifically want it to and work really hard with a dedicated plan to make it happen. This requires lifting heavy weights with lower repetitions in the 2-6 range each set with many sets per body part to force muscle breakdown and growth. Not the common way to train for most who want a generally healthy lifestyle of strength and functionality from their body.
Can anyone get results lifting this way? Sure. Men and women can both see big growth results. This is generally a plan and focus for bodybuilders and strength athletes.
However, if you’re not looking to be a bodybuilder or a power lifter, then using lighter (but challenging) weights with higher repetitions may be the better option for you. Lifting lighter weights, for higher repetitions (12-15 or timed sets), builds more strength and endurance in the muscles. Yes, you will still gain strength with more reps, but you’re focusing on a different type of strength—endurance in the muscles.
What I tell all my clients is that you are building QUALITY muscle cell density, not necessarily bigger muscles. This will add some firmness and density but not bulk. There is a big difference. Building endurance also allows you to perform low weights, for longer duration activities, without getting tired or fatigued. That translates to living a more active higher quality of life. You won’t fatigue when walking up stairs, running around with your kids, working in the yard, or being physically active for a whole day. You may be tired at the end of the day, but you will have done a lot more activity to get there.
It’s an amazing feeling to workout for living life and realize how much more you can do in a day because you trained for it. I like to earn my fatigue, not be a victim of it because I am not in decent physical shape. A bonus of the higher repetition training is that it may lead to more fat loss, and the “leaner, more toned” look—rather than the big, bulky, and very muscular frame.
Does this mean you need to focus on only low-reps or high-reps to see changes? Absolutely not. You can still mix the two different approaches to get the best workout for your body. This can both build muscle (using the lower rep options), while simultaneously adding muscle strength and endurance with the higher reps. It’s all about a balanced program.
As a beginner, your focus should be on building your foundation (higher reps and lower weights) to see initial progress in your body, without adding stress or muscle size to your frame. Once you’ve progressed to a point where you feel you could do more, or you want to change up the routine so you don’t plateau. You can shift the focus to higher weight and lower reps with a goal of strength and conditioning.