By Dr. Mercola
Unfortunately, many ignore strength training when designing their exercise plan, thinking it's only for those who want to "bulk up." However, nothing could be farther from the truth!
Put to rest any worries that weight training is going to make you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, because your muscle growth is controlled mostly by your genes and food intake, and very few have the potential to become muscle bound.
The size of your muscles is also limited by your age, gender, body type, and many other biological and genetic factors.
Strengthening your muscles through resistance exercises has many benefits, from losing excess fat to maintaining healthy bone mass and preventing muscle loss as you age.
Strength training produces a number of beneficial changes at the molecular, enzymatic, hormonal, and chemical levels in your body, helping to slow down and even reverse many of the diseases caused by a sedentary lifestyle, including type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
Weight Training IS Cardiovascular Training
If you have heart disease, you should not shy away from strength training. While the fitness industry divides exercise into two categories (anaerobic and aerobic), fitness experts like Dr. Doug McGuff and Phil Campbell point out that in order to actually benefit your cardiovascular system, you have to perform mechanical work using your muscles.
Research over the past several years has really revolutionized the way we look at exercise. Not only have studies found that traditional aerobic exercise is one of the least effective forms of exercise, it's also one of the most time consuming and may even be counterproductive.
High intensity interval training (HIIT), on the other hand, has consistently risen to the top as the most effective and efficient form of exercise. And HIIT seamlessly integrates with strength training to maximize your cardiovascular benefit. Intensity is the key, which we'll discuss in more detail shortly.
Strength Training Offers Abundant Anti-Aging Benefits
Not only is strength training extremely beneficial for your heart, but it can slow down your aging as well. While it's never too late to start exercising, the earlier you begin and the more consistent you are, the greater your long-term rewards. Having an active lifestyle is really an investment in your wellness and longevity.
Interestingly, strength training has been found to have a beneficial impact on your gene expression—not only slowing aging but actually returning gene expression to youthful levels in seniors who start employing resistance training.
One study showed that strength training in the elderly reversed oxidative stress and returned 179 genes to their youthful level. In other words, it genetically turned back the clock about 10 years.
Not only does strength training increase your muscle strength and elasticity, but it also builds strong connective tissues, tendons, and ligaments. It helps improve muscle tone, which from a biomechanical perspective is the ability of your muscles and connective tissue to hold your body in position.
With good muscle tone, you will be better able to perform everyday activities like climbing stairs and getting out of a chair, as you age. Strength training also benefits the following:
Strength and muscle mass (which helps improve balance as you age) Body composition Blood lipids Bone density Cardiorespiratory fitness Blood pressure Blood glucose control Aerobic capacity Gene expression and telomere length
Strength Training Can Help You Lose Weight
Are you having trouble trimming down? In addition to high intensity exercise, strength training is an excellent way to get rid of that stubborn, excess body fat, because working your muscles is the key to firing up your metabolism.1 Your muscles follow the "use it or lose it" principle. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate. Unlike traditional cardio, strength training causes you to continue burning more calories for up to 72 hours after the exercise is over through a phenomenon called after-burn. High intensity strength training or super-slow weight training also has profound effects on your insulin and leptin sensitivity and gives you an excellent boost in human growth hormone (HGH), otherwise known as the "fitness hormone."
Where Do I Start?
Now that you understand how amazing strength training is, you're probably itching to get started. But how do you start, especially if this is totally new to you? There are two basic terms you must understand before planning your strength training routine: reps and set. A rep (repetition) indicates one complete motion of an exercise; a set is a group of reps. So, if you performed two sets of 10 reps of bicep curls, this means you did 10 bicep curls, rested, then did 10 more.
The number of reps you should do depends on your fitness level and your goals. For building strength and bulk, it's generally recommended to do fewer than eight to 10 reps per set with heavier weights. But for tone and general conditioning, aim for 10 to 12 reps using more moderate weight. Doing dozens of reps with ultralight weights (weights you can barely even feel) does not bring good results of any kind, because you're not adequately stressing your muscles.
You will want to adjust the amount of weight you use for each exercise depending on which muscles you are working. Larger muscles such as your thighs, chest, and upper back are stronger and will require a bit heavier weight. Smaller muscles, such as your shoulders and arms, require less weight. Just make sure that, regardless of how many sets you do, your last rep is challenging. In other words, you fully fatigue that muscle—you still maintain control of the weight, but you feel like you might not be able to make it the rest of the way. As your fitness progresses, you'll want to carry each exercise to "muscle failure"—where you just can't complete all of the last rep.
Strength Training Comes in Many Flavors
Rule number one: the most effective form of strength training is the one you will actually do. There are plenty of options for designing your strength-training program, tailored to every living situation, body type, age, interest, and economic profile. The number of exercises you can do in your home or office is unlimited—with very little or no equipment. In the table that follows, some great options are suggested, and you can get even more ideas from this article at Nerd Fitness.2 One thing is certain—strength training need not be boring or monotonous, and if you incorporate several different types of activity, your fitness will progress faster and you'll have a lot more fun doing it. Strength training is anything but boring!
Body weight exercises Body weight exercises have the advantage of being very flexible and convenient, requiring no equipment and no special place or schedule, and the price is right—they're free. They are great to do at your office or while traveling, because you always have your "exercise gear" with you! Some of my favorites are squats, pushups, and planks. Hand weights Hand weights are inexpensive, portable, and readily available for purchase in just about any department store. Keep them next to your sofa and do a few sets of shoulder presses, bicep curls, and tricep presses during commercial break. Kettlebells A kettlebell is a cast iron weight that looks like a cannonball with a handle. The kettlebell allows for ballistic movements and swinging motions you can't do with traditional weights. Kettlebells can help you develop power in your hips, legs, and glutes as well as strength, flexibility, and stability for your back and shoulders. Kettlebells also build wrist and forearm strength. Resistance bands Resistance bands allow you to get a full-body strengthening workout without weights. They are inexpensive, easy to store, and perfect for exercising while traveling—just toss them into a pocket in your overnight bag. Medicine balls (exercise balls) Medicine balls look like a kickball—but much heavier! They come in varying sizes, from a couple pounds up to 150 pounds. Medicine balls can be thrown, swung, caught, or lifted. Since they have no handle, you have to coordinate a number of different muscle groups to maneuver them.3 Water jug workouts These are basically "poor man's dumbbells." A plastic gallon jug weighs about eight pounds when full of water and 13 pounds if filled with sand. The unevenness of the weight produces the benefit of strengthening your smaller, stabilizing muscles, which you must engage to maintain control of the bottle.4, 5 Resistance machines at the gym If you have access to a gym, you may want to experiment with some good-quality resistance equipment. The benefit of a machine is that it will allow you to focus your mind on the effort, as opposed to the mechanics of the movement. The various machines each feature a different muscle group and usually bear diagrams explaining how to use the equipment, but don't hesitate to ask for assistance if you are a newbie. Strength classes at the gym Gyms often offer a variety of strength training classes, and if you are more of a "social exerciser," this might suit you well. Group fitness is evolving and now you can find some very interesting classes, such as Smart Bells, Forza, Urban Rebounding, water–based exercise, Pilates, and Bosu.6 Rope climbing or rock wall climbing There is a reason climbing has been a staple exercise in military training and combat fitness for thousands of years—it's one of the best upper-body strength exercises. Climbing targets many muscle groups (hands, arms, shoulders, abs, and back), and builds coordination and agility skills.7, 8
You Can Supercharge Your Strength Training with Super-Slow Techniques
Now that you have the basics, you can kick up the intensity several notches with super-slow strength training. By slowing your movements down, you're actually turning them into high intensity exercise. The super-slow movement allows your muscle, at the microscopic level, to access the maximum number of cross-bridges between the protein filaments that produce movement in the muscle. You can perform the super-slow technique with many of the strength training exercises already discussed, such as hand weights, resistance machines, bodyweight exercises, or resistance bands.
You only need about 12 to 15 minutes of super-slow strength training once a week to achieve the same HGH production as you would from 20 minutes of Peak Fitness sprints, which is why fitness experts like Dr. Doug McGuff are such avid proponents of this technique.
The key to making this work for you is intensity, which needs to be high enough that you reach muscle fatigue. If you've selected the appropriate weight for your strength and fitness level, your goal is to have enough weight that you cannot do more than 12 reps, but not so much that you can't complete at least four. Ideally, you will be somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to eight. When the intensity is this high, you can decrease the frequency of your strength training sessions. In fact, the higher your fitness level, the less often you should do them.
As a guideline, when you start out, allow your body at least two days to rest, recover and repair between high-intensity sessions, and do not exercise the same muscle groups each time. As your strength and endurance increases, decrease how often you do the sessions, as each one is placing greater stress on your body (provided you keep pushing yourself to the max). As a rule, avoid doing high intensity exercises more than twice or three times a week. You can enjoy other activities on the off-days, such as swimming, Pilates, yoga, biking, gardening, or whatever other activities tickle your fancy.
How to Perform the Super-Slow Technique
I recommend using four or five basic compound movements for your super-slow (high intensity) exercise set. Compound movements are movements that require the coordination of several muscle groups—for example, squats, chest presses, and compound rows. Here is my version of the technique:
- Begin by lifting the weight as slowly and gradually as you can. In the video above, I demonstrate doing this with a four-second positive and a four-second negative, meaning it takes four seconds, or a slow count to four, to bring the weight up, and another four seconds to lower it. (When pushing, stop about 10 to 15 degrees before your limb is fully straightened; smoothly reverse direction)
- Slowly lower the weight back down to the slow count of four
- Repeat until exhaustion, which should be around four to eight reps. Once you reach exhaustion, don't try to heave or jerk the weight to get one last repetition in. Instead, just keep trying to produce the movement, even if it's not "going" anywhere, for another five seconds or so. If you're using the appropriate amount of weight or resistance, you'll be able to perform four to eight reps
- Immediately switch to the next exercise for the next target muscle group, and repeat the first three steps
Now All You Have to Do Is Find a Program That Works for You
In terms of fitness, you'll want to include a variety of physical activities. A well-rounded fitness program includes high intensity interval training, strength training (including your core), dynamic stretching, multi-joint movements and moving in three dimensions. Also, sitting for long periods of time has been shown to shorten your lifespan, even if you are fit and exercise regularly, so get up often throughout the day and implement one of these intermittent movement exercises a few times every hour while sitting.