When you think about health-promoting actions you can take, healthy nutrition, good sleep, and a regular cardio program probably come to mind. It’s true that these are all key components of wellness but it’s also critical that you maximize your muscular health. Muscles are the engines of our bodies and they play a central role in the optimal function of every system in the body, impacting all of the following:
Body composition and body fat
Insulin health and metabolic function
Bone strength and regeneration
Cognition and mental health
Physical performance and athletic achievement
Quality of life and longevity
If you’re not putting just as much effort into building and maintaining muscle as you are into other elements of your “healthstyle,” you’re missing out. Many people don’t realize that muscle and strength follow the “use it, or lose it” principle: If you’re not following a regular training program, you’re probably losing muscle.
Adults who fail to perform resistance training (the technical term for lifting weights) lose almost 5 pounds of muscle every decade from age 25 to age 50. Muscle loss accelerates at mid-life with people losing 10 pounds of muscle each decade after age 50.
Age-related muscle loss is big problem: Known as sarcopenia, scientists have identified muscle loss as a starting point for a cascade of physiological problems, including bone loss, a slower metabolic rate, fat gain, diabetes, heart disease, and early death.
The good news is that it’s easy to avoid going down this road if you adopt a simple training program and perform it two to four days a week. This article will tell you how to train and summarize the incredible benefits you can get from a muscle-building strength training program.
First, let’s talk benefits:
Increased Muscle Mass
You might think building muscle is strictly for youngsters who want to get buff for their Instagram photos, but studies show that muscle mass can be increased in adults of ALL ages, including individuals in their 90s. This pays off enormously because muscle is protective against disease and death. The more muscle you have the more likely you are to survive a life threatening accident or illness and the better outcome you have for cancer. Of course, muscle is also important for athletics, allowing you to reach your genetic potential, and it enables peak mobility once you retire.
Greater Bone Density
Resistance training is the number one activity you can do to strengthen your skeleton and protect yourself from fracture. Training is especially important for women who are at greater risk of bone loss. Strength training can reverse the typical 1 to 3 percent reduction per year in bone mineral density experienced by most women. Heavy lifting that loads the spine (think squats, overhead press, deadlifts) is most effective.
Higher Resting Metabolism
Most people know that the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns at rest. What is less known is that trained muscle is more calorically expensive than untrained muscle: Every pound of untrained muscle uses between 5 and 6 calories per day for protein breakdown and synthesis, whereas every pound of resistance-trained muscle uses approximately 9 calories per day for more extensive protein repair processes. Additionally, a single strength training session can increase resting energy expenditure by 5 to 9 percent for 3 days after a workout.
Better Insulin Sensitivity & Blood Sugar Control
Due to the muscle loss and fat gain that occurs in inactive adults, insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control decrease, increasing risk of type 2 diabetes. Strength training is a proven intervention for counteracting this because working muscles demand glucose, while muscle contractions increase insulin binding. For every 10 percent increase in muscle mass, you get an 11 percent increase in insulin sensitivity.
Improve Blood Pressure
The dominant public health message is that aerobic exercise lowers blood pressure, but many people (including doctors and other health professionals) are surprised to learn that strength training can be just as effective for improving blood pressure as a typical aerobic workout. One review of randomized trials found that resistance training and aerobic exercise both resulted in average decreases of systolic blood pressure of 6.0 mmHg and 4.7 mmHg for diastolic.
Instead of grabbing a statin when your doctor frowns about your cholesterol levels, building muscle is an effective alternative. The American College of Sports Medicine reports that strength training can reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol by 13 to 23 percent and increase “good” HDL cholesterol by 8 to 21 percent. Triglycerides (a measurement of fat in the bloodstream that should be low for optimal health) can also be reduced by 11 to 18 percent in response to resistance exercise.
Better Physical Function
Raise your hand if you feel pain or discomfort on a regular basis. Due to poor posture, old injuries, and repetitive movements most adults suffer from some form of pain or low mobility. Strength training can reverse these degenerative processes and restore physical function in people of all ages, with benefits greatest in older individuals. For example, frail elderly individuals who performed an appropriate muscle building program increased muscle strength by a whopping 60 percent, while improving functional ability by 14 percent.
Improve Mental Health
Exercise is well known for improving cognition and it also appears to ease stress, reduce depression, and improve mood in a wide range of populations. In fact, strength training has been shown to be as effective at treating depression as antidepressants, most likely because it builds self-confidence, reduces physical pain, and improves your ability to move around in the world.
Less Body Fat
In addition to building muscle so that you burn more calories at rest, strength training raises levels of fat burning hormones and improves insulin health, enhancing your metabolism. Getting stronger also pays off by making you more active in daily life, which improves a key component of energy expenditure, known as NEAT. NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis and is a fancy way of referring to all the calories you burn in movement that are not part of formal exercise. NEAT includes everything from typing on your computer to cooking dinner or walking to the car.
How To Get Started?
When it comes to strength training, your best bet is to keep it simple and establish a consistent program you can perform 2 to 4 days a week for 1 hour. Choose compound exercises that target all the major muscle groups: Legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves), arms (biceps, triceps, shoulders), chest (pectorals), back (lats, traps, spinal erectors), and abdominal muscles.
Free weight exercises are preferable, such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, presses, and pulls, but machine exercises can be included when appropriate.
Start with 10 to 15 reps per set, working up to 4 sets per exercise. Use a weight that is very challenging by the end of the set. Keep rest periods short—ideally, you can alternate upper and lower body exercises so as to optimize recovery.
After 4 to 6 weeks, switch to a higher intensity program in which you lift heavier weights but fewer reps (5 to 10 reps per set). This is important because it will target parts of the muscle not previously trained with the lighter weights, allowing for greater performance and muscular adaptations.
What About Cardio?
To maximize the muscle-building effects of strength training, it’s worth doing an interval-style cardio program 1 to 3 days a week. Intervals can be done “all out” if you like to go hard and heavy or at a moderate intensity if you want to take it slower. For maximal intervals, try 8-second sprints interspersed with 12-seconds active rest on a bike against resistance. For moderate intensity intervals, try 60-second work efforts in a bike or up a hill or stairs in which you put in a vigorous effort but don’t give it everything you have. Rest 60 seconds and repeat 10 times.
Wescott, Wayne. Build Muscle, Improve Health: Benefits Associated With Resistance Exercise. American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Journal. 2015. 19(4).