We’ve all seen those muscle-bound people resembling the incredible hulk. Maybe you’re worried that if you start lifting weights, you’ll end up looking like that. Well, I’m here to tell you not to worry! You absolutely need to be doing some strength training for optimal health, but you’re not likely to bulk up, especially not that much!
Strength, otherwise known as resistance, training is imperative to maintain the amount of muscle you currently have, to gain more, and to prevent losses of muscle and strength as you age. “If you don’t use it, you lose it” is true in this case as only the muscle fibers that are used are maintained over time and only heavier workloads do that. Muscle fibers run the spectrum of being very aerobic (slow twitch fibers) to being mainly recruited for heavy lifting or near-maximal exercise (fast twitch fibers), and all types of fibers can exist within one muscle. They are also recruited in an additive manner, meaning that you recruit only slow ones for easy work, slow plus intermediate ones for moderate work, and all fibers from slowest to fastest to handle the heaviest loads or workouts. Using the fastest ones usually results in an uncomfortable, “burning” sensation in your working muscles. While this sensation is not bad for you, it’s an excellent way to know whether you are recruiting all of the muscle fibers you should.
There are myriad health reasons to start “pumping it up.” Such training increases muscle mass, which can enhance both your insulin action and your round-the-clock resting energy expenditure (and, thus, glycemic control). Measurable increases in strength are possible in just one to two weeks (neural changes occur before gains in muscle size), and major gains are achievable by training as infrequently as one to two days a week. Increases in strength can additionally prevent the frailty that so often accompanies old age, restore the ability for self-care, and improve physical and mental health. Strength gains can also alleviate pain associated with muscle weakness – such as low back pain. Your low back bears the brunt of your body’s weight since humans walk on two legs, along with much of the increasing stress of daily living in a modern world, such as poor posture, lack of exercise, and weight gain. Stress on your low back increases with inactivity since sitting is an unnatural position. So, in addition to assuming a better posture, exercising more, and losing some belly fat, working to strengthen your lower back is the best way to prevent low back pain and injuries.
How do you get started? The current recommendation is to train with weights two to three nonconsecutive days per week and include all the major muscle groups of your body. Some examples of traditional strength training exercises are biceps curls, abdominal crunches, bench press, leg press, lunges, and calf raises. If you are a novice to resistance work, you can start out with lighter weights, flexible resistance bands, or items around the house (like water bottles held in your hands) to complete one to two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions (“reps”) on each exercise. When two to three sets of 15 reps is easy for you to do (and you can even do more), make your workouts progressive by adding a little weight or resistance to each exercise and drop the number of reps back to 12 to avoid reaching a plateau in your strength gains.
When you have completed this elementary stage of your weight program for six to eight weeks, you should be able to handle heavier weights and perform fewer reps per set. Ideally, your goal is to drop the number of repetitions that you can actually complete down into the range of eight to 12 reps per set for optimal strength gains (and besides, aiming for 10 reps is easy to remember). While focusing on higher reps using lower weights increases muscular endurance more effectively, lifting a greater resistance for fewer reps generally produces greater gains in muscular strength; consequently, your muscle fibers will increase in size faster, and you’ll add more muscle mass. As a result, your muscles will use more calories even at rest, your resting metabolism will increase, and your insulin sensitivity will improve. Alternately, when doing more than one set per exercise, you can increase the weight or resistance on each successive set, slightly decreasing the number of reps you finish each time the load increases (for example, from 15 reps to start, then 10 on the second, harder set).
According to the latest research, it appears far less important to focus on how much weight you lift than to make sure that you are lifting any weight at all. For instance, a study on postmenopausal women showed that both high-load (heavy weights, low reps) and high-repetition (lighter weights, more reps) resistance training were effective in increasing muscular strength and size, indicating that even easy resistance training is beneficial for older women. Likewise, muscular endurance, strength, and stair climbing time improved similarly in adults aged 60 to 83 doing only one set of twelve resistance exercises at either 50 percent of their 1-rep max (the maximal amount they could lift one time) for 13 reps or 80 percent of 1-rep max for 8 reps, which the participants did thrice weekly for 24 weeks.
Basically, then, you can choose either training regimen and have similar gains. For variety, you may even decide to have easy days where you do more reps with lighter weights and hard days when you lift heavier weights fewer times, depending on how motivated you feel. The only resistance training principles you must follow are to work a particular area of your body (i.e., upper body) no more frequently than every other day; to equally train muscles with opposite actions on a joint, such as the biceps and triceps muscles of your upper arm or the quadriceps and hamstring muscles of your thigh; and to breathe in and out smoothly while lifting (no breath holding!).