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Why Strength Training Is so Important for Optimal Health

Story at-a-glance -

  • Nearly everyone, regardless of age and gender, will benefit from strength training. It promotes fat loss, helps maintain healthy bone mass and prevents age-related muscle loss
  • Strength training also improves insulin sensitivity, lowers your risk of metabolic syndrome, reduces perimenopausal symptoms in women, combats inflammation and improves cognitive function, mood and cardiovascular fitness
  • Workout strategies that effectively boost muscle growth while being very safe for the elderly and/or unfit individuals include SuperSlow weight training, blood flow restriction training and the nitric oxide dump

By Dr. Mercola

Research confirms that exercise is the best "preventive drug" for many common ailments and chronic diseases, from psychiatric disorders and pain to heart disease, diabetes and cancer.1,2 As stated by Dr. Timothy Church, director of preventive medicine research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge:3

"Exercise strengthens the entire human machine — the heart, the brain, the blood vessels, the bones, the muscles. The most important thing you can do for your long-term health is lead an active life."

Unfortunately, many make the mistake of focusing on cardiovascular exercise to the exclusion of everything else. Strength training is overlooked by many for a number of different reasons. Women may think they'll bulk up and look manly, the elderly might worry about it being too strenuous or dangerous, and parents might think weight training is too risky for their children for these same reasons.

The truth is, nearly everyone, regardless of age or gender, will benefit from strength training. Working your muscles will help you shed excess fat, maintain healthy bone mass and prevent age-related muscle loss, the latter of which can start as early as your 30s if you do not actively counteract it. As noted in a recent Time magazine article:4

"For many, weight training calls to mind bodybuilders pumping iron in pursuit of beefy biceps and bulging pecs. But experts say it's well past time to discard those antiquated notions of what resistance training can do for your physique and health. Modern exercise science shows that working with weights — whether that weight is a light dumbbell or your own body — may be the best exercise for lifelong physical function and fitness."

Why Load-Bearing Exercise Is so Important for Health

As noted in the featured article, load-bearing exercises help counteract bone loss and postural deficits that occur with each passing year. During your youth, bone resorption is well-balanced, ensuring healthy bone growth and sustained strength. However, as bone loss accelerates, it starts to outpace your body's ability to create new bone. The more sedentary you are, the weaker your bones get as a result.

The same can be said for your muscle, and without good muscle tone, your mobility starts to suffer. Worse, muscle weakness in combination with brittle bone structure is a recipe for falls that can result in crippling disability. Resistance training also:

Improves your insulin sensitivity, thereby lowering your risk of most chronic diseases. As noted by Mark Peterson, assistant professor of physical medicine at the University of Michigan, "Muscle is very metabolically active, and it uses glucose, or blood sugar, for energy"5

Reduces your risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions (large waist circumference, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar) that raise your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Recent research shows working out with weights for just under an hour per week can cut your risk of metabolic syndrome by 29 percent.6,7,8 Other recent research found a twice-weekly resistance training program improved insulin sensitivity and reduced abdominal fat in older men who had already developed type 2 diabetes, without any dietary changes9

Reduces perimenopausal symptoms in women, such as anxiety and depression, mood swings, irregular periods, weight gain and brain fog, in part by increasing production of testosterone.

While typically thought of as a male sex hormone that women don't need or want too much of, testosterone is actually beneficial for women during this stage of life, as during perimenopause, natural testosterone production can drop by as much as 50 percent.10 While women should not take testosterone, improving your body's natural production of this hormone is a safe way to address perimenopausal symptoms

Lowers inflammation, a hallmark of most chronic disease, especially heart disease and cancer

Improves cognitive function and reduces anxiety and depression, promoting greater well-being

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Weight Training Also Improves Your Cardiovascular Fitness

While it's generally recommended to include some form of cardiovascular and high-intensity training in a well-rounded fitness program, strength training actually works your cardiovascular system as well.

As noted by fitness experts like Dr. Doug McGuff and Phil Campbell, you cannot fully access your cardiovascular system unless you perform mechanical work with your muscles. How you do that is up to you; you can do it on an elliptical machine, on weight training equipment or using free weights.

So, weight training isn't just strength training, it's a cardiovascular workout as well. Moreover, to get a better grasp on why high-intensity interval training (HIIT), such as Peak Fitness or SuperSlow strength training (the HIIT version of weightlifting) is so much more effective than regular cardio and/or regular strength training, you need to know understand the metabolic processes of your heart. Your heart actually has two primary metabolic processes to provide fuel:

  1. Aerobic, which requires oxygen for fuel
  2. Anaerobic, which does not require oxygen

Traditional strength training and cardio exercises work primarily the aerobic process while HIIT and SuperSlow strength training work both your aerobic AND your anaerobic processes, which is what you need for optimal cardiovascular benefit. You're actually getting greater benefits from HIIT/SuperSlow than you do from an aerobic/cardio workout, and in a fraction of the time.

For example, you only need about 12 minutes of SuperSlow type strength training once a week, or 20 minutes of Peak Fitness sprints to optimize your growth hormone production. When compared to regular cardio, you're literally saving hours each week. Whether you're using weights or not, intensity is the key here. It needs to be high enough that you reach muscle fatigue.

The SuperSlow weightlifting technique involves removing the momentum. By disallowing muscle rest, you "super charge" muscle growth because your muscle has to continuously work throughout the entire movement. However, while intense, SuperSlow weightlifting is actually quite safe, because you're going very slow, using controlled movements and, typically, can get away with using lighter weights.

In this regard, SuperSlow weight training is ideal for older people, as it significantly reduces your risk of injury. To learn more, please see my previous interview with McGuff on his SuperSlow weight training recommendations.

Strength Training Basics

There are two basic terms you must understand before planning your strength training routine:

  • Reps: A rep (repetition) indicates one complete motion of an exercise. Be mindful of performing each rep using full range of motion
  • Set: A set is a group of reps

If you performed two sets of 10 reps of bicep curls, this means you did 10 bicep curls, rested, then did 10 more. How many reps should you do? That really depends on your fitness level and your goals. Here are some general guidelines:

  • For building strength and bulk, it's generally recommended to do fewer than eight to 10 reps per set with heavier weights
  • For tone and general conditioning, aim for 10 to 12 reps using more moderate weight
  • For SuperSlow weight training, aim for only one set of eight to 10 reps. You should not be able to do the last rep no matter how hard you try. If you can do 11 then increase the weight. If you can't do eight then decrease the weight

Regardless of how many sets you do, make sure the last rep in your set is done to failure. You want to fully fatigue that muscle in the last rep, while still maintaining control of the weight so you don't lose your form, as this could lead to injury. 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.

Find Exercises That Match Your Current Fitness Level

As mentioned earlier, strength training is for everyone, regardless of your age. All you have to do is find a suitable starting point. I've previously published articles detailing sample workouts for differing levels of fitness and age groups, including a basic guide of seated balance and coordination exercises for the elderly and infirm, easy strength training moves for seniors, and a slightly more advanced strength training guide for fitter, older adults.

I've also addressed resistance training for young children, and have published a beginner's guide to strength training, SuperSlow instructions, "best of" sample strength exercises that deliver great results, advanced strength training suggestions, bodyweight exercises and much more. For ideas and guidance, simply browse through my fitness archive.

The Benefits of Blood Restriction Training

Another technique you may want to try — which is also excellent for the elderly, or athletes recovering from an injury — is blood flow restriction training or Kaatsu training. I'll publish a full-length article on this shortly but, in brief, it involves performing strength training exercises while restricting venous blood flow (but not arterial flow) to the extremity being worked.

A significant benefit of the method is that you can do strength exercises using just 30 to 50 percent of the weight you'd normally use while still reaping maximum benefits. By restricting blood flow to the muscle, lactic acid and other waste products build up, giving you the same benefit as heavy lifting but without the dangers associated with heavy weights. For this reason, it's a great strategy for the elderly and those who are recuperating from an injury.

Put another way, by forcing blood to remain inside your muscle longer than normal, you force more rapid muscle fatigue and muscle failure that sets into motion subsequent repair and regeneration processes.

It's said blood flow restriction training can stimulate muscle growth and strength in about half the time, using about one-third of the weight, compared to standard weight training. In the video above, Dr. Jim Stray-Gundersen, a leading proponent and teacher of Kaatsu in the U.S., discusses the method and its benefits.

A typical training session would involve three sets, with repetitions ranging from 20 to 30 reps per set, using half or less of the weight you'd normally use. Rest periods between sets is typically short, say 30 seconds. This means you end up doing upward of 90 repetitions of any given exercise.

The American College of Sports Medicine claims you need to lift a weight that is at least 70 percent of your single rep max (1RM) to produce muscle growth,11 but studies assessing low-intensity exercise in combination with blood flow restriction have shown you can go as low as 20 percent of 1RM and still reap the benefits.

For most, 20 percent of 1RM is lighter than a warmup, virtually guaranteeing you will not sustain any kind of injury. Indeed, blood flow restriction training is used to rehabilitate the old and infirm in Japan, allowing them to rebuild muscle and regain some of their lost mobility.

Nitric Oxide Dump — A Great Exercise for Aging Muscles

Another exceptionally safe way to improve your muscle strength and general fitness is the nitric oxide dump — a revision and, I think, significant improvement of my Peak Fitness program. Instead of doing 20 minutes' worth of HIIT on an exercise bike or elliptical machine, you can reap the same or better benefits doing four simple exercises that take just three minutes. These exercises should ideally be done three times a day, for a total of nine minutes a day.

For a full demonstration, see the video above. You can start with three sets of 10 reps but as you become more fit, you can increase to 20 reps. Even though this exercise is only a few minutes, it will make you short of breath. Please be sure to breathe only through your nose, not your mouth. The four movements are:

  • 10 squats, raising your arms parallel to the floor as you squat and getting your butt back as far as possible, making sure your knees stay behind your toes
  • 10 perpendicular arm raises, stopping when your arms are the height of your shoulders
  • 10 jumping jack motions without the jumping; just moving your hands overhead and touching on the upper and lower portions
  • 10 overhead shoulder presses, making sure to keep your chest out and shoulder blades pinched together

Do each set in rapid succession, without resting in between. When you're done, you'll have completed a total of 120 to 240 movements. Done three times a day, with at least two hours in between each session, you'll end up doing 360 to 920 movements a day. This exercise will:

Trigger the release of nitric oxide, a gas with antioxidant properties that protects your heart by relaxing your blood vessels and lowering your blood pressure; stimulates your brain; kills bacteria and even defends against tumor cells

Stimulate anabolic muscle building in addition to thinning your blood, making it less likely to clot and improving your immune function. Nitric oxide is a potent bronchodilator and vasodilator, so it helps significantly increase your lungs' oxygen-absorbing capacity

Give you more exercise benefits in a shorter time. You get most of the benefits from this exercise that you would get from most things you do in a gym in an hour. And, if you do it three times a day, that means you may be getting three to 10 times the metabolic benefit you'd get by going to the gym. Not that going to the gym is unwise; it's just that your body needs exercise throughout the day

Stimulate mitochondrial function and health. Your skeletal muscle derives its energy from your mitochondria — the energy storehouse of your cells, responsible for the utilization of energy for all metabolic functions. Mitochondria make up, on average, about 1 percent to 2 percent of your skeletal muscle by volume, which is generally enough to provide the needed energy for your daily movements.

Your mitochondria produce energy in their electron transport chains in which they pass electrons from the reduced form of the food you eat to combine it with oxygen from the air you breathe, ultimately forming water. This process drives protons across the mitochondrial membrane, which recharges ATP (adenosine triphosphate) from ADP (adenosine diphosphate). ATP is the carrier of energy throughout your body.

Mitochondrial decline is closely linked to reduced cardiorespiratory fitness, and decreased resting mitochondrial ATP production may be involved in the development of insulin resistance with aging. By forcing your mitochondria to work harder, exercises such as this one will trigger your body to produce more mitochondria to keep up with the increased energy demand, and promote mitochondrial function and health

Non-Exercise Movement Is Equally Important

Hopefully, you realize the importance of exercise in general and strength training in particular, and feel inspired enough to get started. However, also remember that non-exercise movement is another crucial component for health and longevity. Compelling evidence suggests that even if you exercise regularly, prolonged sitting is itself a risk factor for chronic disease and reduced life span. So, ideally, you'll want to exercise regularly and avoid sitting, or frequently interrupt your sitting.

I've interviewed a number of experts on this topic, including Dr. Joan Vernikos, author of "Sitting Kills, Moving Heals" and Dr. James Levine, author of "Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It" — both of whom are leading trailblazers and researchers in this field.

Katy Bowman, author of "Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement," and Kelly Starrett, Ph.D., who wrote the book "Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World," also testify to the importance of getting more movement into your day-to-day life. All of these interviews contain a wide variety of suggestions for how to break the cycle of inactivity and get moving.