6 myths about weightlifting

Weightlifting is confusing for many people. Let’s debunk some of the more common misconceptions and get you back in the gym. Here are 6 myths about weightlifting and the real story behind them.

1. Push through the pain

We have all heard the old adages ‘push through pain,’ ‘no pain, no gain,’ and the like. Good advice, but terrible advice at the same time. Oftentimes in the gym, in order to achieve our goals, we need to enter the uncomfortable zone. In spin class it may be the zone above your anaerobic threshold. On the squat rack, it may mean pushing hard against gravity even when your quads are begging you to stop. Does this sort of thing need to happen every workout? Of course not. Regardless, one thing that should never be present in any way, shape or form, is a sharp pain in your body. Let me be clear: this is bad. If you have any sort of pain in the gym, you never, ever want to push through it. Listen to your body and set realistic expectations.

2. Overhead pressing is bad on your shoulders

Where were you in 1972? Can’t remember? Not even born yet? Me neither. However, if you were alive and well you may have been watching the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich and maybe caught a glimpse of the Olympic weight lifters competing in the overhead press. That’s right, only now does weightlifting in the games have only (2) lifts – the venerable snatch and the clean and jerk. But for many years, the overhead press was a third measure of overall strength. And what a test of strength it was! Athletes would lift obscene weight over their head from a dead stop. However, the International Olympic Committee deemed the lift too cumbersome to judge and made the 72′ games the last time the lift would be competed.

Perhaps due to the visible absence of the lift, or the rise of exercise machines in the 70’s and 80’s, the overhead (OH) press started to have a bad image. Pick your poison – bad on your shoulders, bad on the spine, overly dangerous, etc. Coupled with the simple fact that this exercise if just plain hard to do properly and you have the beginnings of an exercise exiled to the realm of strongmen, purists, and no nonsense coaches/trainers. However, more recently, the OH press has seen a resurgence, partly due to a popular fitness trend involving high repetition Olympic lifts.

So, is this lift safe on your shoulders? The truth is, as you may expect, a little bit of both the good and the bad. If your shoulders are properly aligned and you don’t have any compensation pattern in your spine with this movement, then the OH press is a excellent front and rear deltoids builder and will build massive strength throughout your body. Even your traps will get built up. On the other hand, for an office worker with rounded shoulders with potential impingement issues, the OH is simply not worth the risk. Some will be far better off working with the landmine press and kettlebell overhead press.
3. The Smith Machine is safer than real squats

Well, it depends. Are you trying to pattern a groove? Dealing with a stubborn injury? Maybe the Smith machine (SM) is best. However, for the majority of the time, this machine won’t help you grow quality muscle nor will it improve your athleticism the way pure free weight squats will. Your body needs to understand how to move and it can’t learn this with the training wheels on. The SM also has a tendency to mask compensation patterns. Suppose you have a difficult time ‘zipping up’ your core and so when you squat, you have a tendency to lean forward too much. A SM will help to keep you upright. Which is good, right? The machine is forcing me to lift with good form, you may say. However, this assumes a green light for a myriad of other postural checks. Regardless, how will you identify your weakness if the machine isn’t allowing you to move as your body wants to (whether that’s a good thing or not), but rather is forcing your body to fit a particular pattern? Or, maybe you are a little timid around squats. No problem. Just lift with the bar. I’d rather see someone squat the bar alone (~45lbs) with great form than a muscle bound 20-something rounding his/her back and lifting their heels off the ground.

The Smith machine.
The Smith machine.

As you’ll read time and time again on this blog: strength is a skill. It’s not the weight you move, but the quality of the movement that really matters. To achieve this is difficult with something like a 2-dimensional Smith machine.

[In subsequent posts, I’ll tackle that potentially divisive issue of squats. Here are two hints: (1) A squat is not just a squat and (2) it’s easier than you think.] 

4. Women who lift heavy will undoubtedly bulk up

Don’t worry ladies, research has shown that women who lift heavy weights will not end up looking like an American Gladiator. A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that women who lifted a heavy weight for 8 reps in place of lighter weight for 15 reps, burned nearly twice as many calories (<sup>1</sup>). The metabolic load that heavier weights provide will help to build lean muscle that burns fat all day long.

Research has shown that women lifting heavy will not only build lean muscle, but help to burn calories throughout the day.
Research has shown that women lifting heavy will not only build lean muscle, but help to burn calories throughout the day.

At its simplest, women just don’t have the level of testosterone needed to gain large amounts of muscle mass. Women should view weightlifting not as something to avoid, but as a beneficial tool to help reach their health and fitness goals. Group classes can be great, but group training and lifting heavy weights (8-10 reps) deserve a place in all women’s workout programs.

5. Personal trainers are always right

Not even close. Including the author of this blog. I freely admit this fact and encourage readers to comment and provide guest posts. Only through educated discussion can we really understand fitness in a world where frequently conflicting empirical evidence is published.

Read a lot, talk to people with different backgrounds, experiment, repeat.

If your current personal trainer can’t acknowledge this, or formulate a similar story line, look elsewhere. From the standpoint of a rocket engineer, I can say that the only thing more complicated than launching a rocket to orbit is the human body. We are all students of fitness and any personal trainer worth his/her salt should be able to explain why they are having you do a particular exercise.

6. Anyone is a good candidate to Olympic weight lift

Well, if you are healthy and willing, then yes, you can Olympic lift. The better question is should you? O-lifting requires what may seem like super-human mobility to perform safety. Without the needed mobility in the hips and shoulder girdle, the body will compensate in less than desired ways. With minimal weight, this is probably not a problem, but under large loads the game changes. Small structural imbalances may result in injury.

So, how do you know if you are a good candidate to O-lift? Your best bet is to find a certified USAW Level 1 or Level 2 lifting coach. Although to obtain a Level 1 certification is only a weekend course, a certified coach will know far more about how to scale your training safety than most generic CPT trainers. O-lifting is extremely technical in nature and you can expect to work with a broomstick or the bare barbell for quite some time until the movement pattern is set. Besides, you are throwing something heavy up over your head – you better know what you’re doing.

Does this look technical? It is.
Does this look technical? It is.

And if you have imbalances, what can you do? Give it all up? Not at all. It’s just going to take a little more work to get your shoulders and hips moving freely so that your body can catch a loaded barbell safely. Again, a USAW coach is a great place to start.

Really, you need to ask yourself what your goals are. If you want to become more athletic in a particular sport, then yes, O-lifting will help, but so will a lot of other exercises. Some of which are a lot easier to master than the very technical Clean & Jerk and Snatch. For a lot of trainers that have only an hour with their clients, spending it on one lift may not be the best use of time (<sup>2</sup>).

Olympic lifting isn’t for everyone, but with the right training, many athletes can get to a point where they are reaping the benefits of an explosive exercise that is to this day unparalleled in it’s athletic capability.


(1) http://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/lift-heavy-weights

(2) http://www.menshealth.com/fitness/should-you-use-olympic-lifts

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