5 Benefits of Lifting Heavy Weights, According to Experts

Young woman doing bench press with dumbbells at the gym.

Lucy Lambriex / Getty Images

Despite what you may have heard in the high school locker room or seen on social media, lifting heavy weights doesn't automatically indicate big, bulky muscles. According to experts, the opposite is true. "Training with heavier loads doesn’t instantly make you muscular...it takes a concerted effort over a good period of time for that to happen," reports Michelle A. Arent M.P.H., CISSN, CSCS, USAW. Surely you'll build muscle, but not enough to bulk you up.

So what will happen if you lift heavier weights then? The benefits of lifting heavy go beyond building muscle. Here's why you should consider adding weight the next time you're in the gym.

How Heavy Is Too Heavy?

What may be heavy for one person, may feel light to another, and vice versa. That's because what constitutes heavy is subjective.

"When it comes to resistance training, it isn’t the number on the dumbbell, plate, or weight stack that determines if something is heavy or not, it comes down to the number of properly performed repetitions you can execute with a given load," notes Arent.

That means if your form is wavering, the weight is too heavy for you. "For instance, if you can perform 15 goblet squats with 40 pounds but only two reps of chest press with the same load, it would be considered ‘light’ for the squats and ‘heavy’ for the chest press," notes Michelle.

Benefits of Lifting Heavy

The benefits of lifting heavy weights exceed building muscle and looking great. "Resistance training, in general, confers a host of benefits including increased lean mass, retention of lean mass during periods of caloric restriction, increased fat oxidation, and lipolysis, reductions in visceral fat as well as subcutaneous fat, and improvements in body composition," explains Arent.

Doubling down on a heavy training routine means you'll reap benefits no matter your age. In fact, older adults can benefit vastly from increasing their training load. In particular, lifting heavy weights improves bone strength, prevents muscle loss, improves body composition, and can help prevent falls and improve functional performance—all of which are important in the older population.

Improves Bone Strength

Bones age just as much as people do. They carry you all day, every day, and if you don't keep them healthy, you could be at risk of bone problems in the future.

Over time, bones may become brittle and weak, making you more susceptible to falling and bone fractures. While this may seem harmless, the breakdown of bones and joints in the elderly reduces their quality of life causing pain, inflammation, and stiffness.

It's understandable that people who already have weak bones may be hesitant to lift heavier weights, however, research shows that those people are the ones whose bones benefit the most.

Another study determined that heavy resistance training improved muscle strength, bone density, and quality of life in older adults.

Helps Prevent Muscle Loss and Builds Muscle

Lifting heavy weights builds muscle, but it also helps prevent muscle loss. "We lose muscle as we age and preventing that muscle loss is, in my opinion, one of the most important things we can do for long-term health, quality of life, and “anti-aging," reports Erik Bustillo, MS, FISSN, CSC, CPT strength coach and Registered Dietitian at Train 8NINE.

"Unfortunately, as we age we lose lean muscle mass, strength, and power. Resistance training with appropriate loads can help to delay and minimize those losses," agrees Arent.

If you're following a weight loss diet with a calorie deficit, you could be at risk of muscle loss. During a calorie deficit, your body will turn to fat and muscle as a fuel source, especially if you're not eating enough protein. Studies show that lifting heavier weights helps prevent muscle loss and helps preserve the muscle you do have.

Erik Bustillo MS, RD, FISSN, CSC, CPT

Lifting weights help with muscle retention and growth.

— Erik Bustillo MS, RD, FISSN, CSC, CPT

Improves Body Composition

If your goal is to improve your body composition, lifting heavy weights is a good option. Studies show that increasing the training load and volume increases fat loss while increasing muscle hypertrophy.

Track your body fat percentage to find out if you've been building muscle and losing body fat simultaneously—changing your body composition. Use this body fat calculator to find out your starting point. And since muscle and fat don't change overnight, record your body fat every 4-6 weeks for a better idea of progress.

May Prevent Falls in Older Adults

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four older adults falls each year; the risk of falling doubles once you've already fallen once. Falling is risky for the elderly. The result is often much more than a few bumps and bruises—injury from falling includes broken bones, head injury, and, in some instances, may even be fatal.

Taking steps to prevent falls is important for the health of your loved ones. Incorporating resistance training and heavier weights into your weekly routine can improve muscle strength, bone health, and reduce the risk of falling.

Improves Functional Performance

Getting around as you age can often become difficult. All the aches and pains that arise make regular day-to-day activities a bit of a challenge. If you can move easier, your quality of life will improve. Lifting heavy weights can help with that.

"Training with heavier loads, as opposed to lighter loads, has been shown to improve functional performance and strength in older adults," reports Arent. Other studies have shown similar findings with improvements in balance, posture, gait, and strength.

Safety Tips

If you are ready to lift heavier, it's important to take into account some important safety tips before you get started.

"It may be helpful to hire a trainer or coach if you can," advises Bustillo. "They will help you with technique and managing loads (e.g., going heavier, staying lighter). It may even be helpful to join some sort of group fitness that encourages resistance training, such as CrossFit™ which tends to have coaches monitoring movement and load."

For those wanting to take on lifting heavier without a trainer, Arent suggests mastering the exercise before increasing the weight. "The goal isn’t to move weights from point A to point B, the goal is to execute the exercise appropriately to get maximum benefit while avoiding injury." She recommends that beginners "aim for loads that allow you to nail your form for 8-10 reps or more. As you continue to lift, your body will be more prepared to handle the heavier loads appropriately."

Bustillo notes an important reminder, "try not to get ahead of yourself and remember to trust the process, be patient, and stay consistent."

A Word From Verywell

The benefits of lifting heavy weights go beyond building muscle. Whether you're young or old, incorporating heavy resistance training into your workout routine can help keep you feeling youthful, improve your body composition, and build bone health.

It's important to remember that lifting weights isn't something to be taken lightly. Consult with a healthcare professional before beginning any new weight training routine.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it OK to lift weights every day?

    It's OK to lift weights every day as long as you're allowing ample time for each muscle group to rest between workouts. That means if you do legs today, you should focus on another muscle group tomorrow. Aim to allow 2-3 days of rest between same-muscle group workouts to avoid injury and promote muscle growth.

  • How can I tell if I'm gaining muscle?

    The best way to determine whether you're gaining muscle is to test your body fat percentage regularly. If your weight is going up or remaining the same, but your body fat percentage is going down, you're gaining muscle.

  • What are signs of overtraining?

    Signs of overtraining include weight loss, fatigue, depression, anxiety, decreased mood, irritability, increased incidence of injury, insomnia, lack of energy, inability to lose weight or make progress, loss of enthusiasm, muscle and joint aches or soreness, reduced training capacity, trouble concentrating, reproductive issues, lower immune health, and irregular heart rhythm.

  • Should I lift weights if I'm sore?

    It is safe to lift weights if you are sore. However, your degree of comfort is a good determiner of whether or not you should lift weights. How sore are you? If you are just a little stiff you could probably lift weights. If you are noticeably sore, you may want to take a rest day, go for a walk, or do cardio instead. If you are very sore and it hurts to lift your arms or do daily activities, you could use a rest day.

  • Should I run before or after weights?

    Running before or after your weight-lifting workout is largely dependent upon your personal preferences. However, you may feel as though you have the most amount of energy before you run. In that case, lifting weights first may be ideal so you have the energy and strength to get the most out of your weight lifting workout. So if building muscle and strength is your goal, lift weights first; if endurance is your goal, run first.

16 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Shoshana Pritzker RD, CDN, CSSD, CISSN
Shoshana Pritzker RD, CDN is a sports and pediatric dietitian, the owner of Nutrition by Shoshana, and is the author of "Carb Cycling for Weight Loss." Shoshana received her B.S in dietetics and nutrition from Florida International University. She's been writing and creating content in the health, nutrition, and fitness space for over 15 years and is regularly featured in Oxygen Magazine, JennyCraig.com, and more.