The importance of resistance training and how to start a strength building program.
I was working in the kitchen when I suddenly heard my six year old daughter yell, “take the pillow out Mom! Hurry!” I ran into the other room and found her in a handstand against the wall, arms pushing up strong and legs straight as a pencil. I quickly removed the pillow that had been under her head as I marveled at her strength. This was a move she had been practicing in her weekly yoga class. I mentally compared the muscle strength she had five months ago when she started the yoga class with the strength she displayed in the handstand today. While I was reminded of the benefits to being consistent with an exercise program, my daughter, with her childlike fearlessness, encouraged me to try a handstand too. I quickly told her that Mom was too old and not strong enough to ever be able to do a handstand. But wait! After these words rolled out of my mouth, my scientific mind knew that I was not being honest. Muscle strength can improve at any age with a consistent resistance training program. I was also not being honest with my heart, as a good challenge is great self motivation. Could Mom really do a handstand? I have decided to embark on a strength building program, not only to be able to do a handstand and keep up with my daughter, but having strong muscles is truly important. If you neglect building muscle strength, you really are missing the boat. This is why.
Collectively, we are a physically weak society. Our current culture is dominated by too much sitting, too much commuting, too much fast food, too much screen time and too little play time. Long ago in hunter-gatherer times, humans’ muscles got stronger by doing heavy work required to live such as building shelter, farming and hunting. Today, we sit on riding mowers, hire out housework, drive a mile to the store instead of walk, choose to watch a movie instead of going outdoors to watch nature, and use a blower to remove dirt and leaves instead of using a rake, broom and good old man power. Muscles need to be stressed in order to strengthen. Both less physical activity and less stress on our muscles, combined with a natural muscle loss every decade, predisposes us to an overall state of muscle weakness. This weakness contributes to falls, a decline in physical mobility, postural imbalances, pain, and ultimately an inability to perform daily tasks.
How do you increase muscle strength?
Resistance training is the answer. Resistance training is any type of exercise that causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance with the goal of increasing muscle strength, muscle tone or muscle endurance. The resistance used can be of many forms including dumbbells, ankle or wrist weights, exercise tubing, your own body weight or cans of soup.
What are the benefits of resistance training?
As reported in a 2012 article in the Journal of Sports Medicine, resistance training has been shown to maintain and improve bone mass during the ageing process, a period normally characterized by bone loss. Resistance training is also beneficial in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis, a disease in which the rate of bone breakdown (resorption) is greater than the rate of bone formation, leading to porous, fragile bones. A recent study published in August 2016 in the Journal of Osteoporosis describes how a long term exercise program which includes strength training and performed for two and 1/2 hours total per week protects bone health on a molecular level. This is the National Institute of Health’s minimum exercise recommendation for adults. This specific exercise program favorably shifted the balance between cells producing bone breakdown proteins and cells producing proteins that protect bone density.
Resistance training has been shown to reduce blood pressure, most notably in prehypertensive individuals. (blood pressure of 129-139 mmHG systolic / 80-89 mmHG diastolic) An increase in muscle mass may also contribute to weight loss as muscle burns more calories than fat when physically active.
Resistance training also helps to counteract the muscle loss associated with aging. After age 30, there is a natural loss of muscle mass, even in active individuals, called sarcopenia. Changing hormones are believed to be a factor. Physically inactive people can lose up to 5% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30. This muscle loss adds up quickly and accelerates at an even faster rate starting at age 65.
“That explains why we feel weak and tired as we age,
and we can prevent some of that with weight training.”
(Beatrice Edwards, MD, MPH)
The good news? Muscles can become stronger at any age. It will take longer to increase muscle strength at an older age, but with a consistent program, muscles will become stronger.
How does resistance training work?
In order to improve muscle strength, you must first break down the muscle fibers. When lifting weights or performing other types or resistance exercise, micro tears occur in the muscle fibers, a process called catabolism. With rest, these tears heal and result in a stronger muscle fiber, a process called anabolism. Catabolism of the muscle fibers must occur in order to increase overall muscle strength.
How to design a resistance training program?
Anything is better than nothing, but consistency is the key to building strength. Plan to incorporate strength building exercises into your routine 2-3 days a week, not on consecutive days, as the muscle needs time to heel. Next, decide what type of resistance you will use. Will it be free weights, machines, bands, or body weight? What is convenient for you? For a general strength building program, pick one exercise for each major muscle group (back, chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps, quadriceps, gluteals, hamstrings, calves, abdominals). With each exercise, perform 10 repetitions, one set, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. Pick a weight amount that will make the last few repetitions very challenging. When the last few repetitions are no longer challenging, it is time to increase the weight. As with any exercise program, make sure you are using proper form to avoid injury and seek professional guidance if needed. Consult a professional before starting an exercise program if you have a specific diagnosis or restrictions. The internet provides a plethora of exercise videos to help guide you in picking exercises.
I have added strength training to my exercise program, choosing exercises that use my own body weight for resistance. Perhaps I will add bands over time. If you peer into my window in the early morning, you will see me doing squats, bridges and modified push-ups. Why? It is convenient for me, and it is important. My daughter’s many Barbie dolls cheer me on as I struggle through the last few repetitions. Will I be able to do a handstand with my daughter someday? I do not know. However, it really does not matter. It is truly the journey that makes me stronger.