Lifting Heavy Weights Is One of the Best Things You Can Do For Your Body—Here’s Why
Going big(ger) will increase your power and confidence.
By Colleen Travers, Team Peloton•
It can be extremely satisfying to crank out a super sweaty cardio session or perform a challenging bodyweight workout. But if you haven’t picked up a set of weights in a while, you may not be getting the most that you can out of your workout routine. And while light weights are a great solution for those new to strength training or working to build muscular endurance, there’s a case for moving up a weight class.
By occasionally swapping in heavier weights, you can work toward becoming a stronger athlete. Here’s what to know about the benefits of lifting heavy weights and how to add heavier weights to your strength training routine, whatever that looks like for you.
The Benefits of Lifting Heavy Weights
“Lifting heavy weights is the gift that keeps on giving,” says Peloton instructor Rebecca Kennedy. “It improves your overall strength and increases your load capacity by progressive overload. This means by continually increasing the loads and demands on the body, you will gain muscle size, strength and endurance.”
Read on for more benefits of lifting heavy weights and how often you should be reaching for those heavies.
Want to stay healthy and injury-free for years to come? Lifting heavy weights is step number one. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, it all comes down to one thing: bone mineral density.
Resistance training (aka lifting heavy) leads to the greatest increases in bone mineral density, and the denser your bones, the less prone you are to fractures or skeletal injuries. “Plus, while [strength training] supports your muscles it’s also working to strengthen your bone density,” says Peloton instructor Rad Lopez. This is crucial in staying strong, warding off osteoporosis and preventing injuries as we get older.
It’s not just your bones that benefit though. Strength training is connected to increases in both the size and strength of your connective tissue (the ligaments and tendons between your bones and muscles.)
TL;DR: Growing your muscles comes with an increased size and strength of connective tissue, making you less likely to strain or tear a ligament.
Improve Heart Health
You might think cardio is the only way to improve your heart health, and true, it’s one of the best ways. However, one of the benefits of lifting heavy weights is that serious resistance training can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke. In addition, research has shown that resistance training can reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol, both major indicators of heart health.
For example, one study from Iowa State University found that lifting weights for less than an hour a week may lower your risk for a heart attack or stroke by up to 70 percent. (And if you’re not up for logging hours and hours in the gym, even better news: going over that one hour threshold and lifting more than twice a week didn’t lead to any additional benefits.)
Support Healthy Metabolism
“Lifting heavy supports a healthy metabolism, because it allows your body to burn calories well after your workout,” says Rad. He’s right: Research has shown that ten weeks of resistance training increased resting metabolic rate by 7 percent (resting metabolic rate, FYI, is how many calories you burn when your body is totally at rest).
Researchers think this is likely because lifting heavy weights decreases body fat, enhances insulin sensitivity, improves glucose tolerance, and lowers blood pressure.
Promotes Healthy Aging
Thinking of lifting heavier weights like you’re purchasing extra life insurance on your body. That’s because the more weight you lift, the bigger benefits you will reap, especially regarding healthy aging. So many of the benefits of lifting heavy weights correlate directly to living a long, inury- and disease-free life: stronger bones, a stronger heart, and a stronger metabolism. “Heavy weights make joints durable to prevent injury, protect heart health and stimulate hormone growth that repairs muscle fibers,” Rebecca says.
In fact, a study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that adults over 50 who lifted weights had “significantly lower mortality” regardless of their aerobic exercise levels (read: it didn’t matter how much cardio they did). So if you make strength training a lifelong habit, you’re way more likely to live longer than someone who doesn’t lift heavy weights.
Does Lifting Heavy Make You Bigger?
Unless you’re lifting as much weight as a professional bodybuilder or following a specific plan for muscle growth and gains, no, lifting heavy won’t make you “bigger.”
“In order to increase muscle mass, your training needs to follow hypertrophy [the act of enlarging an organ or tissue] guidelines with specific rep schemes, sets, progressive loading [gradually adding more and more weight] and enough calories to support this surplus,” says Rebecca. “It’s really hard to put on a lot of muscle and even more difficult to do it fast.”
Instead, both Rad and Rebecca say that with a healthy diet, lifting heavy weights will increase muscle definition, not size.
That said, if muscle hypertrophy is your goal, lifting heavy and following a specific program design will help you reach the gains you’re looking for.
How to Add Lifting Heavy Weights to Your Workouts
Ready to enjoy all the benefits of lifting heavy weights? Here, Peloton instructors explain how often to strength train and how to add weights to your regular workout routine.
How Often to Lift Heavy Weights
To avoid overtraining, Rebecca recommends lifting heavy weights one to three times a week. Incorporate one to two heavy lifting sessions a week, with two rest days in between to properly recover. After four to six weeks, Rebecca says it’s safe to add an additional day if you want, now that your body has had time to acclimate. It’s not necessary to lift weights every day, though.
Choosing Weights for Strength Training
Keep in mind that you may need a few different sets of heavy weights for your workout. (Here’s how to choose the right weight size for you.) “For [lower body] exercises like deadlifts, squats and rows, you’ll be able to lift more than you would for [upper body] moves like bicep curls, triceps kickbacks and overhead presses,” Rebecca says.
“You want to make sure you’re choosing a load that brings you to fatigue but not failure during each set,” she adds. “For example, if the workout calls for three sets of 12 deadlifts, your load may need to be lighter because your grip strength and body have to hold that weight for a longer duration and more consecutive reps.”
Following a guided strength workout, such as through the Peloton App or with Peloton Guide can help you gain confidence when working with heavy weights. To keep yourself accountable and ensure you’re progressing, follow a program with weekly classes laid out for you. (Peloton Members can check out programs like Callie’s Intermediate 3-Day Split, the 4-week Total Strength with Andy, and the latest Peloton Gym workouts.)
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Safety Tips for Lifting Heavy Weights
If you’re just getting started with heavy weights, make sure you’ve got the form down for the basic strength training exercises. A few pointers:
Keep your hips tucked to prevent injuring your lower back.
Brace your core (and if you’re not sure how to do this, imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach — that instinctual tightening is what you’re aiming to hold during strength training).
Keep your weight evenly distributed with your heels firmly on the ground.
Try to “ground” your ribs and create space between your shoulders and your ears.
When in doubt, aim for straight lines (with the occasional bend in your knees and elbows as needed). For example, your shoulders and hips should usually be stacked, and your hips, knees, and ankles should be aligned.
And with any new routine, Rad notes, remember to start slow and be patient. Honor your rest days and listen to your body’s cues. It’s normal to experience some next-day soreness as you’re starting out, but sharp pains are not normal and should be taken as a sign to stop immediately. Soon, you’ll see lasting progress that you can build on.