The Surprising Facts About
Weight Training and Muscle Size

Many people begin to exercise because they have excess weight to lose. If you would like to lose weight, you may be concerned that you could “bulk up,” i.e. become bigger from weight training—and this is a valid concern for some people. Let me explain the facts about which type of weight training is best if your goal is to produce significantly larger muscles, and which type of weight training is best if your primary goal is to reduce your body size.

First and foremost, everyone needs to perform a basic beginner weight-training program regardless of his or her end goal. A beginner weight-training program includes exercises that target all the major muscle groups using compound movements--that is, exercises that involve the movement of more than one joint at a time. For example, a bent-over row involves movement at both the shoulder and the elbow joint and exercises three major muscle groups: the shoulders, the lats, and the biceps. In contrast, a bicep curl involves only movement at the elbow joint and exercises only one muscle group, the biceps. Compound movements, the ones that use more than one muscle group, should form the basis of a weight training routine both for a beginner and for an intermediate or an advanced routine. As a beginner, you should generally lift as heavy as you can for approximately 15 reps per set for two sets for best results.

Assuming that you have spent at least two months being faithful to a beginner routine, it is time to change things up a bit! At this point you need to decide if you would like your muscles to get significantly bigger, stay the same, or get smaller (Note: it is okay for your muscles to get smaller if they also get stronger at the same time. It is NOT okay for them to get smaller because you are losing lean body mass from lack of protein or avoiding weight training!).

What I am about to tell you is the opposite of what many trainers tell you, but it’s the truth. Most trainers, in order to sell training to more people, tell you what you want to hear, and not the truth. The truth is somewhat counterintuitive in this instance, and it is this: lifting heavier weights can actually make you smaller than lifting lighter weights!

Here is what you need to know:

1. Muscles get bigger primarily due to volume of exercise performed at a given intensity, NOT weight lifted. In other words, if you do six sets of 12 reps of one exercise, you will develop bigger muscles than if you do three sets of 12 reps. Therefore, if you want your muscles to get bigger, you should perform at least three sets per exercise and keep the weight lighter, in the 8-12-rep range. If you want your muscles to stay the same size or get smaller, you should perform one to three sets per exercise and lift heavier weights that you cannot lift for more than 6-8 reps—and at times, it is best to stay around 3-5 reps, or 1-3 reps, if your joints feel OK.

2. Muscles get bigger due to time under tension, meaning how many seconds it takes you to perform your weight training. If you want your muscles to get bigger, lift very slowly, making sure that each set takes 45-60 seconds to complete. This is much slower than most people lift: time your sets next time you exercise and you will probably be surprised! If you want your muscles to stay the same size or get smaller, you should lower the weight quickly but still under control, and lift the weight explosively as a general rule (meaning, as fast as you can).

3. Type of cardio affects muscle size as well. Slower or moderate paced cardio tends to preserve muscle size, as long as you limit it to 30 min. at a time. However, interval training, where you alternate an all-out sprint (of 30-60 seconds) with a slow active recovery period (of 1-4 minutes) tends to make muscles smaller.

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