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Don't (Just) Lift Weights!   By Richard A. Winett, Ph. D.

No, this isn't another piece arguing the virtues of adding aerobic and flexibility training into your overall program.

What I am arguing for here are the following points.
  • Resistance training and bodybuilding by design and goals are not the same as Olympic weight lifting or powerlifting.
  • If your goals are more focused on resistance training for
    • health, strength, and fitness and/or
    • bodybuilding for primarily changing body composition and improving symmetry and proportions
than sticking with the mentality and protocols of weight lifting or powerlifting may not be the most productive course.

You don't just want to lift weights, that is move the weight in almost any way - often the easiest way - from point A to point B.

This is not to say that some people have shown remarkable increases in strength and muscle mass through lifting protocols. But, it is to say that for most people without that interest or natural propensity, following that course is likely a mistake.

Resistance training for strength, health, and fitness and bodybuilding does have its origins in Olympic lifting and later odd lifting and then powerlifting.

The most basic idea in lifting is through both skill and strength development to be able to demonstrate strength through lifting heavy weights often for one repetition in specified lifts.

The ability to demonstrate great strength in specific lifts does depend upon training in some specific formats. However, much more so, such ability depends upon genetic characteristics such as neuromuscular efficiency, structure (not the least of which is the ability to withstand great force), and "leverage". These characteristics are only partly modifiable through training.

The response to training is very strongly genetically mediated. You won't necessarily get bigger muscles or even be able to demonstrate great strength simply by following lifting routines unless you have the genetic characteristics to do so.

That's also in very related ways why it does not particularly make sense to recommend that people seemingly without great strength or the ability for adding large amounts of muscle mass train like powerlifters by focusing on strength in a handful of lifts, much less have requisite poundage standards.

While the ability to lift a certain amount of weight in a given exercise movement such as the squat, deadlift, or bench press may say a lot about dedication and persistence, it also says a lot about specific genetic advantages and disadvantages for certain movements. Dedication and persistence in the face of limited natural ability for an endeavor, or in the case of trying to lift ever heavier weights - constant injury - can either be seen as heroic, or conversely, not making any sense.

Failing to differentiate resistance training and bodybuilding from lifting, however, can lead to other problems including the following:
  • Training formulas based on such traditional lifting metrics as 1 RM (1 Rep Maximum) are used when they may have except at the extremes (e.g., working with only 40% 1 RM) little relationship to effectively working and fatiguing muscle groups.
  • Training styles designed to demonstrate strength such as the use of fast, explosive repetitions and less than perfect range of motion (ROM) - styles that allow the use of more weight - are used.
  • Training styles such as the use of slower controlled repetitions, a longer time under load, perfect ROM - styles that limit the amount of weight - are avoided.
  • The use of very heavy weights in core movements and attempts at progression in weights continue despite a very small margin of potential improvements after years of training and relatively high injury potential.
  • A wide assortment of free weight and machine-based exercises that can potentially enhance development and even strength is not used since there are no established yardsticks outside of a small group of movements (e.g., squats, deadlift, bench press) for demonstrations of strength in many of these movements.
  • Frustration may be experienced since strength and speed do diminish with age making previously achieved marks of strength difficult to reach and impossible to surpass.
I will not pretend that any of these are original ideas or that resistance training and bodybuilding have no element of strength. As discussed in prior pieces in Master Trainer, we are really less talking about totally distinct forms of training and more about training goals and formats that have some overlap and some meaningful differences.

However, as noted above, as people become very advanced in their training and, frankly older, staying very focused on the extrinsic (weight and reps) part of training, where the chances of exceeding yourself are slim, make it almost inevitable that many of us (including, yours truly) will do something subtle or not so subtle to "improve".

Speaking from my own experience, for example, probably an inch change in ROM in the squat is worth about 5% to 10% of resistance - so just going an inch less (something I may do wittingly or unwittingly) can suddenly lead to "breakthrough" workouts. Some of the same things seem true of pauses in reps, speed, and so on and when you put them all together, it's a huge difference.

But, subtle or not so subtle changes in movements to increase resistance really don't mean you've progressed much less reached some milestones or yardsticks of success.

Interestingly, I've noted in other pieces how I still like to do squats, deadlifts, chins, and dips because they have some established yardsticks for strength - you can see how you stack-up compared to other people and you can see if your are maintaining or increasing or decreasing strength.

But, my analysis of how subtle and not so subtle changes in execution of a movement affects the resistance you can use brings into question how much of a true yardstick some of these movements really are.

For example, if I keep the exact same position, range of motion, and speed of movement on an exercise that isolates a muscle group such as the leg extension than I have a better-controlled setting for assessing changes in muscular strength.

This is a different perspective than many of us have had, a virtual figure-ground reversal of how to look at and measure strength, a virtual epiphany*.

A "lifting mentality", therefore, may blind us to productive ways of training for health and muscle hypertrophy that may be safe and very effective and are styles of training that we can use over a lifetime of training.

Admittedly, I'm a "recovering lifter" in that my whole training persona as shown in the prior example has always focused on demonstrating strength.

For many of the reasons noted in this and other pieces, I've shifted my focus away from lifting and towards trying to effectively work muscle groups regardless of exactly how much weight I'm using or in some cases, not using.

We have to remember that if we're not lifters, a certain resistance on any exercise movement is simply a vehicle for doing incredible muscular contractions. And interestingly, using more modest resistance can make muscular contractions - the whole purpose of resistance training and bodybuilding - much better than when very heavy resistance is attempted.

Mind you, compared to many other people, I'm using a lot of resistance on some movements. But, I believe there is a different orientation and quite possibly a different neuromuscular response when you are using a heavy resistance and just trying to lift it compared to using a relatively heavy resistance and focusing on optimizing muscular contractions.

For example, it's one thing as described in another article on this site to focus on how much weight you can do for 15 to 20 reps in the squat. It's another thing to perfect your form and rep duration in the squat so that you can do higher reps with relatively heavy resistance to optimally target your thighs, hips, and hamstrings. I'm getting better at designing my workouts with that goal (muscular contractions) and focusing my attention toward targeting muscle groups and not just lifting.

If you doubt that there's really any difference between a deliberate focus on lifting compared to targeting muscle groups, simply try an experiment with any isolation movement.
  • With a lifting orientation - if you can step back and observe yourself - you'll notice movement and tension in a number of muscle groups and some appropriate tension in the targeted muscle group.
  • With a focus on muscle contractions in a targeted muscle group, you should notice less movement and tension in other muscle groups and a great deal of tension in the targeted muscle group.
  • You may notice that to get the same number of repetitions when you use the targeted focus, the resistance needs to be less.
If the results of this simple experiment are as predicted, it serves as a powerful source of feedback about how the mind directs the body and how a different focus can make training more effective given bodybuilding and health goals.

By the way, which form - lifting or targeting - do you think is the real measure of strength of that muscle group? And, in which form do you think it will be more meaningful if you can show any kind of strength improvement?

If your goals revolve more around resistance training for health and fitness and bodybuilding, hopefully following the ideas in this article will make your training significantly more effective.

The most basic idea is to not just lift weights.

* These are Ralph Carpinelli's insights.

Thanks to Arty Conliffe and Ralph Carpinelli for feedback on drafts of this article.

A much longer version of this article with other examples and protocols to try will appear in the February, 2002, Master Trainer.