When starting or revising an exercise program, many people focus on cardiovascular workouts. Even low-impact options like walking and biking are suggested most often as a way to build fitness, improve overall health, and boost mood. While these activities are certainly a crucial part of exercise, it is equally important to working on building muscle strength at the same time. Strength training is a key component in any exercise program, and the basics of why that is and who will benefit is the focus in today’s post.
Strength training has many benefits, but one of the most important is that it helps our bodies stay strong as we get older. As we age, our muscle mass begins to decline. The official name for this is sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss), and the process generally begins in our mid-40s. Less muscle mass as we age means more difficulty completing even the most basic tasks. Carrying groceries, climbing stairs, and even maintaining balance becomes much more challenging as we lose strength. Sarcopenia, combined with bone loss that may have begun a decade earlier, makes for potential health issues as we age.
Exercise programs that include strength training can be started at any age, but older, unused muscles do not respond as well or as quickly as do young muscles that have been regularly worked.
In addition to keeping our bodies strong, there is some evidence that strength training actually improves mood in older adults by helping to release tension and anger. Strength training also improves cognitive function and decreases anxiety in older adults.
So what, exactly, is strength training?
We are born with approximately 642 skeletal muscles, all of which work together to perform the important tasks of daily life. Lifting a child causes your biceps muscle to contract and your triceps to elongate, an action which is common for many regular actions (e.g., lifting and carrying groceries).
Strength training uses a specific exercise targeting a specific muscle or muscle group and applies progressive resistance training (PRE) to increase muscle strength, size, and density. This means that exercise is applied to the targeted area until the muscle is no longer able to perform even one more repetition.
There are two types of muscle fibers: slow twitch (Type 1) and fast twitch (Type 2). In general, slow twitch muscles are related to prolonged, slower physical exertion (like running a marathon), and fast twitch muscles come into play in short bursts of intense activity (like a 40-meter dash). We each have a different mix of these muscles, which explains why some people are better at prolonged exercise while others fatigue easily (just like the muscles themselves). This distinction can also help us understand which type of strength training program might produce the best results.
Taking a muscle to the point of fatigue is how strength, size, and density increases. When completing a strength-training exercise, muscles will suffer small tears in their fibers. While this may sound horrifying, it is actually a natural response to physical stress. The body then responds to these tears by repairing them, building them up in size, density, and, ultimately strength.
Strength training does not increase the number of muscle fibers but rather increases the specific adaptation to imposed demand (SAID). This is a fancy way of saying that the more we ask our muscles to do, the more they will adapt and be able to do. Strength training forces muscles to adapt by repairing torn or broken-down muscle fibers, thereby resulting in an adaptation to a higher imposed demand.
It can be difficult for many to picture themselves lifting weights, building strength. After all, doesn’t strength training and weight lifting cause huge, bulky muscles?
The short answer is no. Strength training does not lead naturally to oversized muscles, cabled with ropy veins. Bodybuilding is a very specific niche of strength training that involves many hours a day in the gym and a very specific dietary regimen. In general, working muscles to fatigue results in larger muscles, yes, but also burns fat that surrounds the muscle. The result is a lean and sculpted look rather than a muscles-popping-out-of-a-tiny-tshirt look.
Women in particular may be susceptible to the myth that strength training leads to unattractive or “manly” muscles.
Let’s look at this myth carefully. There is nothing gender specific about wanting to be strong, and very few women are physiologically constructed for (or interested in) becoming a female bodybuilder. This type of muscle building is a result of daily hours in the gym, strict eating guidelines, and, in some cases, drugs. For all other women, the muscles built by training simply mean a leaner, stronger person who is able to hoist the kids and hold up her end of the couch on moving day.
Older adults may feel that it’s too late to start strength training, or that the risks (e.g., losing balance and breaking a bone) far outweigh the benefits.
While it is true that older muscles do not respond as quickly to training, it is also true that elderly adults who commit to a regular training schedule can see profound results in as little as ten weeks. Strength training has also been shown to delay Alzheimer’s and ward off dementia, keeping the mind as lean, sharp, and strong as the body.
Strength training is a vital component in a balanced exercise program. How do you incorporate this into your day?