It’s Not Pilates, It’s Weights
Today, I want to address a misconception that I hear all the time as a personal trainer, especially when I make my in-home exercise equipment shopping list for new clients.
I send the list to my client via e-mail, and I often receive a variant of this confused reply when it comes to the two 25-pound kettlebells:
“You meant one kettlebell, right? Not two?”
“That was a typo, right? Those aren’t supposed to be 25 pounds, are they?”
Often, my new clients are skeptical that they are even going to be able to lift these weights at all (spoiler alert: they definitely can). But their uncertainty is often tinged with a deeper fear, which some clients express to me right away, while some wait until several months of training to blurt out. It sounds something like this:
“I don’t want to get big. I just want to lift lower weights for higher reps, so that I’ll just tone the muscle. I want a Pilates body – like you.”
They’re afraid of the weights that I am using with them – worried that they are moving away from, instead of toward, their goals – that they’re going to get bigger and not be able to zip up their jeans.
While I respect my clients’ aesthetic ideals, there are two major problems with this line of thinking.
- One problem is that the reasoning is incorrect. That’s not how strength training – or muscle gain – works.
- The second problem is that the fear itself. Women often don’t want more muscle – they just want to improve the appearance of what’s already there. They worry about getting bigger.
Here’s my confession: I look like somebody who does Pilates, but I don’t do Pilates. My main forms of exercise are heavy strength training and running. Many of my clients don’t realize that proper strength training gives you the tight curves you really want.
So how do we untangle these misconceptions and fears, so that you can get the physique you’re aiming for?
By the end of this post, you’re not only going to have a firm understanding of how and why muscle gain happens (and what variables affect it), but you’ll also be excited to hit the gym and get to work on building muscles the way you want them.
But let’s start with the science of strength training.
What Happens When You Train for Strength?
I’m going to spare you a lot of jargon, and cut to the chase:
Study after study after study has shown that high weights at low reps and low weights at high reps have an essentially equal effect on muscle change, all other things being equal. As long as you’re working to fatigue/failure, using a proper strength and conditioning program, and doing it at least a few times a week, you’re getting stronger and putting on muscle.
Whether you squat 150 pounds for a few reps, or find yourself fighting through the agony of a 90-minute yoga class (when the instructor is clearly using “chair pose” as filler), you’re probably going to gain the same amount of muscle in your quads, all other things being equal.
I hope you noticed the phrase toward the end of both paragraphs, because it’s incredibly important: “All other things being equal.” This is the key phrase, because there are three other major variables that impact muscle gain, besides the weight that you use:
When you are working on your strength and body composition goals (i.e. looking more defined with less body fat), you are not making real headway unless you are really fighting to get through the end of each set (or yoga class, or Pilates pose, or run). In other words, what you are doing needs to be hard, several times a week.
An easy way to remember to work hard is that the American Heart Association defines “vigorous” exercise this way:
“You’ll probably get warm and begin to sweat. You won’t be able to talk much without getting out of breath.”
Lifting a few light weights for a few sets of 12 on a couple of exercises is probably not going to get you to that point, and you need to challenge yourself more to see any change in your physique.
How we eat has a significant effect on how much muscle (and fat) we gain.
If you squat heavy but eat at caloric maintenance (i.e. consuming roughly what you burn every day, on average) or less, you’re just going to keep looking and feeling better in your clothes all the time as your body prioritizes muscle and sheds a little fat. The net result is that you will be leaner and stronger (and look better), even if you’re not lighter on the scale.
But if you tend to “treat yourself” after your weekly 90-minute yoga class (because #balance and #brunch), you may find that you put on more size than you were counting on. You’ll find that clothes are harder to fit into, and probably won’t see muscle definition.
Of course, it’s often not quite this straightforward. Nutrition can be difficult to manage, but getting the right balance is a key ingredient in achieving the physique you want.
The third major variable is “volume.” In this case, “volume” doesn’t refer to how loud the music is at your gym – it’s how many times per week you’re getting a particular exercise into your schedule.
For example, if you’re working on stronger, more defined legs, then squats once a week won’t be as effective as squats (in some form) three times a week. With my coaching clients, whether in-person or remote, I vary exercises throughout the week so that you’re still working the same muscle groups but without driving one particular exercise into the ground.
It also matters how many sets of an exercise you perform. Without getting too specific, it’s safe to say that 2 sets of 12, once per week, is not as effective as 4 sets of 8, three times per week, regardless of the weight you’re using.
When you match up the perfect combination (for you) of vigorous intensity, proper nutrition, and sufficient volume for several months, you are guaranteed to see a difference in your body – it could even happen within weeks if you unlock that combination quickly and stay consistent. Personalization is really helpful here.
Ultimately, the great part is that these variables are adjustable for your specific goals.
If you want to get bigger (I have slender clients, like an ABT dancer, who want to put on muscle), the answer is to raise your intensity and volume, and eat more – especially protein and carbohydrates.
If you want to get leaner, the answer is to raise your intensity and volume without eating more, and maybe even eat less. (But not too much less, or you risk over-training and under-recovering, which will set you back.)
In fact, you can play with these variables over time. For many of my bridal clients, we start by eating more while we increase exercise intensity and volume. Yes, you read that right – more. By eating more, these bride-to-be’s are able to put on a noticeable amount of muscle that – when they adjust their caloric intake and exercise intensity downward later – is revealed as tight, sculpted, and defined. We carefully balance the variables to make this happen. Here’s a bridal client that I worked with last year:
And one that I worked with this year:
And two years ago:
Plus, the added benefit of muscle mass is that it is more metabolically active than fat. This means that – the more muscle mass you have – the easier it is to manage your weight and stay lean.
Pick Up Those Weights!
Now, it makes me smile when clients rebuff my suggestion to buy the big kettlebells. I know how much they’re going to love strength training, because of the huge difference they’re going to see in their muscle definition, strength, and confidence.
So go buy those kettlebells! Your new body is waiting!