I'm not here to doubt the fact that lifting weights works. It obviously does. I'm asking whether it's overrated compared to alternative programs. To be clear, when I say lifting weights, I am referring to heavy lifting, e.g. lifting with weight that correspond to a 5-rep max. I am NOT considering calisthenics or high-rep low-weight sets to be "lifting weights", even though you are of course lifting weights. When I say lifting weights, I am only referring to programs like 5x5, Stronglifts, Starting Strength, etc.

Here are my reasons for thinking so, please comment and critique them.

  1. It's not apt for the most common usages of strength. In most situations where strength is required (e.g. hard manual labor, sports, combat, etc), it's not your ability to lift hundreds of pounds for 5 reps that is relevant, but rather your ability to be powerful (i.e. short bursts of strength) and endure (performing those short bursts of strength over a prolonged period of time). Lifting weights definitely helps with this, especially with high-rep sets, but remember, I am talking purely low-rep high-weight lifting here, and that certainly isn't optimal for this purpose (although it does still help of course, but e.g. calisthenics would clearly be better).
  2. It's not natural. You did not have weights in 10.000 BC. Our ancestors did not train this way. They became stronger in natural environemnts that involved lower-weight lifting or bodyweight-lifting. It seems thus logical to think that we are genetically wired to grow stronger without requiring heavy weights.
  3. Risk of injury. Heavy weights lead to higher risk of injury.
  4. Requires too much rest. Heavy weights require more time between workout sets, more time between workout days, requires deload periods, etc, etc, etc.... there's just too much goddamn waiting and stalling. If you do calisthenics ... you can do it every single day, without issue. But you can't deadlift 2 days in a row, unless you're suicidal.
  5. Too expensive. Seriously, gym memberships are getting outta hand.
  • 3
    Perhaps you should reword "weight-lifting" into something like "lifting heavy weights". "Weight-lifting" is a term commonly used for the two Olympic lifts - so some people might think you are referring to them specifically. .
    – RoundHouse
    Feb 13 '21 at 12:56
  • I don't know many people who train to use their strength in their daily life, or people who do any sport to use it in their life. I don't agree that sports should be usable in daily life (water polo is not a widely applicable skill). It seems to me you're probably just not interested in the getting crazy strong, which is your right. However, if you're trying to get strong, lifting heavy is definitely not over rated. It's really all about perspective here. In any sport, if you're going for above average performance, you're gonna have to go for above average efforts.
    – E.Aigle
    Feb 15 '21 at 10:36
  • You're doing deadlifts wrong if they aren't making you powerful, IMO. On that note though, this entire question reads as very opinion based. 2 is just incorrect, 3-5 are opinion based? My ancestors cut down trees and carried them to build shelter. You ever lift a whole damn tree? Me neither.
    – C. Lange
    Feb 18 '21 at 3:20

If the question is really, "do I have to lift heavy weights", then the answer is "no", and I, the designated random person on the internet, give you permission not to lift heavy weights.

If the question is "is heavy lifting overrated" or "doesn't heavy lifting suffer from these drawbacks", the answer to both is kind of a factual "no" plus a bit of "maybe you should try a different kind of program".

Let's address it point by point. Your first two points demand the most direct contradiction, but please hold your judgment to the end :)

1. Useful for common tasks

it's not your ability to lift hundreds of pounds for 5 reps...

Improving your maximal strength is often necessary and/or the best method to achieve feats of great submaximal strength. This includes feats of both power and repetition. This is well-established sport science.

2. It's not natural.

At best, this is the naturalistic fallacy.

You did not have weights in 10.000 BC. Our ancestors did not train this way.

We certainly did both. We know that people in ancient civilizations were fans of heavy lifting: are you aware of Scottish stone-lifting traditions, or the Bybon stone a whopping 143kg, supposedly lifted overhead with one hand? The variety of stones like the Húsafell (a ludicrous 186kg), even if not prehistoric, makes it clear that pre-modern people loved getting massively strong (and proving it). We even know that ancient people understood the principle of progressive overload, as communicated in the semi-mythical tale of Milo.

For more, see Crowther's paper, Weightlifting in Antiquity: Achievement and Training.

There is absolutely no reason to expect that earlier civilizations (especially those with metalworking) did not use similar implements that have been lost in the sands of time.

3. Risk of injury.

Anyone who fears injury in the weight room should first become familiar with risks across all sports. Lifting is regularly shown to be one of the least dangerous sports.

Heavy weights lead to higher risk of injury.

I doubt this is true and I doubt the studies one might cite to prove it actually speak to other topics. The greater risk of injury comes from greater intensity, which is present in intense bodyweight training too.

In the end it comes down to personal preference, namely risk/reward. If you want to train light -- whether with weights or bodyweight -- your risk will be lower. If you want more results, you must train with greater intensity, and thus your risk goes up.

4. Requires too much rest.

So what? A lot of people like this.

If you don't, well, it's perfectly effective and sensible to do low-intensity activity every single day alongside heavy lifting. I'm thinking walking, hiking, yoga, ball or field sports, and calisthenics. Or, if you really want, there are plenty of heavy lifting programs that have you working out six days a week, cycling through movements to avoid over-stressing particular muscle groups. If that sounds nice, look into 5/3/1, or "powerbuilding", where the 5x5 approach is combined with bodybuilding to great effect.

Are these slightly sub-optimal for maximal strength? Yes, but no one said you have to train like a superheavyweight powerlifter just because you're deadlifting.

5. Too expensive.

This is extremely up to personal preference.

But if you have the space, a home gym can be gathered inexpensively (in many places) from used gear.

In most places I've lifted, a gym member ship is thirty bucks a month or less. Whether that's overrated depends on whether you see the connection to your long-term health and wellness and how much money you have on hand.

All of this is, I suspect, beside the point. If you want to get strong but hate beginner powerlifting programs, then why not explore effective strength programs that aren't modeled after one particular approach? The three you list are basically the exact same program with different toenail polish.

Maybe 5/3/1's four- or five-day split and variety in rep ranges is different enough for you. Maybe you'd prefer to use strength movements from Olympic lifting (Romanian deadlifts, front squats, overhead presses, etc.). Maybe you're just not suited for these kinds of things at this stage in your strength development and you'll love heavy triples after a year of 20-rep squats or Strongman training. Regardless, I encourage you to look beyond 5x5 training, because that is only one path to heavy lifting.

  • I accepted the answer, but then realized you provided no sources and took it back. It would be nice for sources for the following claims: a) that the best program for submaximal strength is weight-lifting. I doubt this very much. Does a person who squats 500 pounds benefit better when it comes to e.g. jumping as high as possible than a person who just does bodyweight squats with explosive power? Your claim seems extremely dubious... b) that weight-lifting has less chances of injury than calisthenics. I doubt this very much again. Feb 13 '21 at 14:19
  • on the submaximal side: who do you think can squat 80kg more times: the person with a squat 1RM of 150kg or the person with a squat 1RM of 80kg? on the injury side, i've never seen a study i would rely on for the exact question you're asking, but the question of injury rates in the weightroom versus various sports is well-studied Feb 13 '21 at 15:23
  • 1
    Point 5 resonates with me. My favorite gym is a moderately large backyard with a wide variety of discarded items from various occupations that we were given for free by driving around town and simply asking for it. Tractor and truck tires from a mechanic, sandbags from the military surplus stock, pieces of scrap metal from a smith, discarded pieces of wood. It's so much fun, I ended up quitting the commercial gym. We spent five bucks on the sandbags, and the rest was given freely. I don't want to say commercial gyms are overrated, but they're certainly overpriced.
    – Alec
    Feb 13 '21 at 16:24
  • @Alec hear hear! I spent years training with nothing but a rusty barbell w a stack of 45s and a sheet of plywood. I’m still amazed how strong I got doing that!
    – G__
    Feb 14 '21 at 1:54

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