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Will Lifting Weights Make You Trim or Muscle-Bound?

Updated on March 17, 2010

Some people say that they don't want to start lifting weights until they lose some of their fat first. They insist that if they put on muscle while still a bit "chunky," then they'll end up looking "big boned" or muscle-bound instead of lean and trim.

Is this truly what will happen if you lift weights while overweight?  This article answers this question.

First, it is important to understand a few things:

1. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn (even at rest).

And the more calories you burn, the less you will eventually weigh. It really is as simple as that. As an example, if two people do nothing but sit on the couch for an hour, they will both burn roughly 1.6 calories (if they weigh approximately the same). But if one of these people strength-trains regularly and has more muscle, then that person will burn more calories, even just sitting there doing nothing. 

And so, I repeat: The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn.

2. Fat cells and muscle cells are NOT the same thing.

You cannot replace the fat cells with muscle cells. When you "lose" body fat, the fat cell itself, unfortunately, stays right where it was - under the skin in your thighs, stomach, etc. and on top of the muscles - which is why you can't see muscle "definition" when your body fat is high.  Without getting into medical terminology, when you "burn" the energy stored in the fat cell, the fat cell releases free fatty acids from the fat cell.  The fat cell shrinks and that's why you look leaner when you lose body fat - because the fat cell is now smaller. A small or "empty" fat cell is what you're after if you want the lean, defined look.

Some people are genetically predisposed to have more fat cells than others and women have more fat cells than men. An infant usually has about 5 to 6 billion fat cells, which increases during early childhood and puberty, and a healthy adult with normal body composition has about 25 to 30 billion fat cells. A typical overweight adult has around 75 to 80 billion fat cells, and in the case of severe obesity, this number can be as high as 250 to 300 billion! 

(As you can see, the number of fat cells can, in fact, increase after adulthood.  And genetics are but a minor factor. You may not have control over how many fat cells you were born with, but you do control the major factors that determine how much fat you store: lifestyle, exercise, nutrition, attitude.)

Body fat is basically just a reserve source of energy (which are tapped into only after carbs are burned) and the fat cells are like the storage tanks. Unlike a gas tank in your car, however, fat cells can expand or shrink in size depending on how "filled" they are.

Muscle cells serve an entirely different purpose and thus have little to do with each other besides the exchange of energy.

3. Muscle is much more compact and dense than fat.

Muscle takes up less space than fat. If you were to take 10 lbs. of fat and 10 lbs. of muscle and roll each of them into a ball, the 10 lbs. of fat might be the size of a bowling ball, while the 10 lbs. of muscle would be about the size of a baseball.

As another example, given two people, both 5' 5" tall, both weighing 130 lbs. The person who does not lift weights or do any kind of strength training might have a dress size of 12. The other person who lifts weights and follows a strength-training program 3 times a week might be a size 8. Standing side by side, one would definitely look like they weighed more, despite weighing exactly the same.

But will I look bulky and muscle-bound?

And so, lifting weights and strength training is a good thing.  The added muscle will burn more calories, which will shrink the fat cells causing the body to look leaner and more trim.  But will you start to look bulky and muscle-bound?

No, that is a myth.

While strength training will help you build muscle, women simply do not have enough testosterone to become muscle-bound and appear masculine. Lifting weights will only improve the appearance and femininity, UNLESS you spend 4-5 hours every day in the gym and maybe take performance-enhancing, testosterone-boosting drugs.

More reps with less weight to tone?

Another myth is that in order to NOT look all masculine and muscle-bound, women should do more reps with less weight to "tone" the muscles.  While doing more reps may help with the cardiovascular aspect of exercise, it will do little to improve muscle tone.

So, instead of 2-3 sets of 12 or more repetitions with a lower weight, it's best to perform 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps with a weight that pushes your limits.  It is the best rep range to use to ensure you hold onto your muscle. The more muscle you can hold onto when dieting helps you burn fat faster and keep it off once you achieve your weight loss goals.

Free weights or Machines?

One last thing: You should use free weights (barbells and dumbbells) instead of machines.

Training with machines has its benefits, such as helping learn the basics of strength training, but it works fewer muscles.  As an example, doing a set of barbell or dumbbell squats trains your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and abs. Using a machine exercise for legs such as leg extensions will target only your quadriceps. Free weights are also better for improving overall strength, balance, and bone density. (These benefits become especially important as you get older, since being stronger and maintaining balance will help you better perform daily tasks and decrease the risk of injury from falls. Increasing bone density will help decrease your risk of osteoperosis and its related complications.)

Bottom line:

Lift the weights - you will only look better (and become healthier at the same time).


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      Destiny 3 years ago

      First , man THANK YOU so so much, i glad if i can be help to anynoe or make anynoe laugh along w/encourage them, Second, don't worry about the name lol, people mess it up all the time, but you pretty much got it, and to let u know something, you actually inspired to me start making video to answer my own question i ask every week and i want to thank you for that .btw, post this as a response to my video so more people will see it and hopefully it'll encourage with to make video responses as well

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      Lateisha 3 years ago

      A prvocvatioe insight! Just what we need!