One of the most common excuses people give for not lifting a challenging amount of weight during their workout is, “I don’t want to get huge muscles and look weird.” While it’s fine to worry about that sort of eventuality, it’s also kind of like worrying about putting together a heroic raid roster right after you hit level 20 – there is quite a bit of time and effort between where you are, and where you’d need to even worry about it. The “I’ll get too muscular” meme is, in short, a myth. As a matter of fact, working out with heavier loads has been shown to help people lose weight, and get that “trim and toned” look that so many folks are after. Getting past the, err, resistance to resistance training is a Jedi mind trick well worth performing on yourself.
Note: Lifting rocks or single-seater spacecraft with your mind won’t make you grow muscles, either. Depending on how much the wizened green dude on your back weighs, that might help a little bit. But it’s still a good idea to reach for something other than the candy-colored weights.
We’ve touched on this subject before, but some things bear repeating: there are a lot of ways that lifting weights in addition to, or in lieu of, traditional steady-state cardio will help you lose weight. In the most basic sense, anything you do that engages your muscles and makes them work burns calories. The harder they work, the more calories they burn. Also, the harder they work, the longer they’ll keep burning them, too, thanks to EPOC.
So, we have the reasoning behind heavier resistance training as a compelling component for weight loss and improving body composition, but what about that lingering fear of bulking up? Let’s approach this from the other side – you’d like to get stronger, and a bit more muscular (without turning into That Guy). There are several components that go into building muscle, and many of them carry over into more general physical fitness pursuits.
You are what you eat
Okay, so we’re a big pile of NPC crackers and Great Feasts. Um, ew. In exactly the same way that losing weight means we burn more calories over the long term than we take in, in order to build muscle, there have to be some extra calories going in, preferably in the form of protein. Fortunately, this isn’t a one-to-one comparison. A pound of fat (which we want to get rid of) contains approximately 3600 calories (at 9 calories per gram); protein, on the other hand, is only about 4 calories per gram, so a pound of new muscle only requires about extra 1600 calories coming in. Now, my degree may be in English and not Math, but that looks like you can have a net debt of 2000 calories a week while turning a pound of fat into a pound of muscle.*
Even though the scale won’t say anything new, that’s still a fantastic road to a healthier body fat percentage, and you’ll be getting stronger to boot.
Save the trauma for yo’ mama
The reason that lifting weights makes your muscles bigger is through their adaptive response to the stress you’re imposing on them. When your muscles work hard, they get lots of tiny little tears in the muscle fiber itself (called microtrauma), which need to be repaired. This is, literally, the Six Million Dollar Man premise going into effect – they are rebuilt stronger, bigger, and (sometimes) faster than they were before. That’s where the protein you’re eating gets put to work. The more work you ask them to do, the more they’re going to have to adapt.
It’s basically analogous to learning new dungeon strategies, but without all the wipes. The microtrauma is the durability hit, and the protein is gold for repairs. Downing the bad guys and getting the loot is you getting stronger, and faster, and leaner… in short, better-geared for life.
And that, after all, is what we’re here for. Until we can join the singularity via consciousness upload or replace these shambling meat-suits with awesome cybernetic components, we’ve got to make the best of what we’ve got. With time and effort, you might be surprised exactly how good your best really is.
* Strictly speaking, you aren’t turning fat into muscle; you’re burning the fat for energy while you build muscle through exercise, but even I have limits to my pedantry.