What’s the Difference Between Weightlifting and Strength Training?
Staying Fit
November 20, 2023
What’s the Difference Between Weightlifting and Strength Training?
People lifting weights in the gym

If you’re interested in getting back into a fitness routine, you may come across weightlifting or weight training workout routines in addition to strength training routines. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even recommend adults prioritize two days of muscle-strengthening activity in addition to engaging in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every week. However, you may be scratching your head at what the difference is between the two modalities — if there even is a difference.

While weightlifting and strength training are terms often used interchangeably, they refer to different ways of exercising with specific goals, methods, and effects on the body. Even though both involve resistance, the details of each approach lead to different results. So let’s uncover the differences between the two and how you can decide which mode is the best for you and your goals.

Understanding the Differences

At the foundation, a well-rounded strength-training or weightlifting program should provide the following benefits:

  • Increased strength of bones, muscles and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments);
  • Lower risk of injury;
  • Increased muscle mass, which makes it easier for your body to burn calories and thus maintain a healthy weight;
  • Better quality of life.

However, that’s where the similarities stop for the two modalities.

Weightlifting primarily centers around the act of lifting weights, usually in the form of dumbbells, barbells, or machines. The primary goal in weightlifting is often aesthetic improvement, such as muscle definition, size, or symmetry. Individuals engaged in weightlifting may have objectives like bodybuilding, sculpting specific muscle groups, or achieving a particular physique.

Strength training, on the other hand, is a broader term encompassing various exercises designed to enhance overall strength. While it may involve lifting weights, strength training is not exclusively confined to it. You may even see strength training commonly referred to as weight training because of this — not to be confused with weightlifting. However, bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, and functional movements are also integral components, which is why you may also see it referred to as resistance training as well. The primary focus of strength training is on improving the body's ability to exert force, enhancing muscle endurance, and boosting overall functional capacity.

That being said, ultimately, your end goal will dictate which modality you choose. If you’re looking to build muscle mass, sculpt specific areas, and achieve a visually appealing physique, weightlifting may be better suited for you.

If your goal is to be stronger, increase your fitness and enhance your performance in various activities, from everyday tasks to athletic pursuits, strength training may be a better fit.

At its heart, strength training is based on functional movements — lifting, pushing, pulling — in order to build muscle and coordination needed for everyday activities, says Jim Myers, director of Digital Fitness/Virtual Coaching for FX Well, a managing partner for the Texas Health fitness centers. This can include lifting lighter weights over a longer length of time, heavier weights over a shorter amount of time, or utilizing no weight at all and using your body weight and/or resistance. Different repetition ranges and weight combinations can have overlapping benefits and are often incorporated into well-rounded strength training programs to target various aspects of muscle development and overall fitness.

Weightlifting, similar to aspects of strength training, often involves lower repetitions with heavier weights. However, the emphasis in weightlifting is on lifting maximal or near-maximal loads for a limited number of repetitions. In short, you’re trying to lift the heaviest weight you can each time. Weightlifting helps muscles grow mainly by making them bigger through a process called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This means there's more fluid and energy inside the muscle cells. This type of growth gives weightlifters that pumped-up and defined look you often see.

Strength training aims for myofibrillar hypertrophy. This means there's an increase in the proteins that help muscles contract. This type of growth makes muscles stronger without always making them visibly bigger.

This leads us to our final difference between the two modalities which comes down to function over form. Strength training places a greater emphasis on functional fitness, aiming to improve the body's ability to perform daily activities and athletic movements more effectively. The focus on compound movements and full-body exercises contributes to enhanced overall functional capacity.

A good strength training workout utilizes the following five movement patterns we need and use to get through everyday life:

Pushing: Opening a door, shoveling snow; pushing things away from the body.
Pulling: Closing a door shut; lifting a child or a bag of groceries.
Hinging: Bending from the hips to pick up something from the floor.
Squatting: Getting up and down from a chair; going to the bathroom.
Bracing: Holding your core together, which “is very important because you need to stay braced during all other kinds of movement,” Myers says.

While weightlifting can certainly contribute to functional strength, the primary emphasis is often on aesthetics and muscle definition rather than improving overall functional capacity. For instance, some weightlifting exercises may not directly translate into real-world movements.

The Takeaway

In summary, weightlifting and strength training, while sharing commonalities, are distinct approaches to exercise with different emphases and goals. Weightlifting tends to prioritize aesthetics and muscle size. Strength training, on the other hand, aims to enhance overall strength and functional capacity. Integrating elements from both approaches into a well-rounded fitness routine can offer a balanced and comprehensive approach to physical well-being.

If you need more guidance, or want to jumpstart a routine, Texas Health Fitness Centers can help. Texas Health Fitness Centers not only provide a wide variety of gym equipment, but staff members can help explain and demonstrate how to properly use a piece of equipment or how to perform a certain exercise, giving you the base knowledge you need to make the most of your workout.

At a Texas Health Fitness Center, you don’t need a perfect body, and you don’t need fancy attire. All you need is the determination to feel and look your best. To learn more about the fitness programs at our hospital-based centers, visit TexasHealth.org/Fitness.

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