Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Should you be a weightlifter?

“What kind of question is that?” you ask. “Who wants to look like one of those huge, steroid-guzzling freaks?”

If we’re talking about present-day bodybuilders, the answer, of course, is “hardly anybody.” 25 years ago, people thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was inhumanly large and muscular. Since then, professional bodybuilders have taken things to such a bloated extreme of drug and hormone abuse that bodybuilding has essentially self-destructed. Once bodybuilding was a widespread source of fitness inspiration, at least for skinny guys who wanted to remake their bodies into something impressive. Now when people are aware of bodybuilding at all, it is as a negative example – “I don’t want to lift weights and look like one of those monsters!” This is doubly true for women, who react with virtually universal revulsion towards the present-day female bodybuilder’s physique.

But wait: I said “weightlifter,” not “bodybuilder.” People constantly confuse the two, but they are not the same thing at all. Bodybuilders may lift lots of weights, but lifting weights is not bodybuilding. And not all bodybuilding is a substance abuse freak-show. Unfortunately, disgust with modern bodybuilding has turned off untold numbers of people to weightlifting as a form of exercise. Go to any internet discussion forum where fitness topics come up. You will constantly see posts by beginners saying, “I want to tone and sculpt my body so I look like [X famously pretty person], what should I do?” Then someone will suggest lifting weights, only to get the inevitable reply from the beginner: “But I don’t want to get big and bulky!”

Neither did the people you are trying to emulate, and odds are they lifted weights to get that "toned" look you admire.

Let’s look at the word most people use to describe what they want. The term “muscle tone” doesn’t actually mean what most people think it means; it is really a medical term for the continuous and passive partial contraction of the muscles, and isn’t relevant to personal appearance. Most people use “toned” to describe a certain body aesthetic, generally a person of moderate proportions (neither very skinny nor bulky) with visible muscular development and low body fat.

So how do you make yourself look “toned”? It is a combination of things, but a big part of it is…wait for it…lifting weights. In conjunction with a proper diet, lifting weights changes your body composition, increasing the proportion of lean body weight to fat, and thus making you look, you guessed it, “toned.” The difference between getting “toned” from lifting weights, and getting huge from lifting weights is a function diet (bodybuilders eat tons of food) and supplements (legitimate ones as well as drugs and hormones).

The bottom line is, if you don’t eat to get huge, you won’t get huge. It simply isn’t possible for weightlifting to make you big by itself. Size comes from food, not lifting weights; lifting weights just helps determine what whatever size you have is proportionally made of (muscle vs. fat). And in any case, you are probably utterly incapable of looking a modern bodybuilder no matter what you do. You aren't going to accidentally make yourself look like someone who eats twice as much as you and is a walking chemistry experiment just because you both lift weights; that's silly.

Lifting weights to get “toned” instead of big isn’t a matter of deliberately lifting lighter weights or doing a lower effort, wimpy routine, either. Stereotypically “toned” people often lift very hard and with the heaviest weights they can safely handle to get that way. A weak workout won’t keep you from accidentally turning into the Hulk; it will simply do nothing for you at all.

This applies equally to women. Fitness columnist Rachel Cosgrove (pictured to the left) put it succinctly: “So many women comment on how much they'd love to have a body like Madonna or Jennifer Garner or Gabrielle Reece, but most don't do anything to get it! Do you think these women work out with tiny little dumbbells and their bodies look like that by mistake? They train hard!”