Today I’d like to talk a little bit about resistance training, more specifically as a tool to develop strength and build/maintain muscles. This component of fitness is crucial for everyday’s life wellbeing, important for everyone to understand.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions around it, which ultimately results in people avoiding to engage in this beneficial activity. The fear of becoming “too big” (especially for women), the perception it is not necessary or boring, the impression you are doing it although in reality you are not, or that “going to the gym” is the same as training your strength.
In this and a few following articles I’d like to clear out some common misconceptions. Let’s start by discussing why training for strength or muscle mass is not the same thing as “building big muscles”, and to point out a few reasons why everyone should be serious of this component of fitness (even if they couldn’t care less about becoming huge or sport specific performance).
The fear of become “too big”
One of the things which annoys me most about the “fitness” world is its emphasis on appearance. Many people see exercise as a way to be thin, toned, muscular, and therefore look good. This has two major problems: first, we think of exercise as a way to change our appearance (which, by the way, does not even work; not too well, at least) ; second, we overlook the real benefits. In fact, when I do workshops on science-based wellbeing, I begin the module on exercising precisely by distinguishing the real and the imaginary benefits, since this kind of misconceptions are so common.
When it comes to strength training specifically, this translate pretty much in thinking it is all about bulking up. Of course, some of the people you can see in the gym are there exactly for this reason: they lift heavy weights in order to build huge muscles. Perhaps even to get into body building competitions. That’s all good if that is what they want. But while this kind of physique is a dream or a goal for many, it doesn’t appeal to everyone’s taste.
This is especially true for women: most of them would never want to look like the athlete in the picture. But it is also true for men: although most guys would love to be more muscular, they too may want to avoid the overly bulky physique of a professional body builder.
The problem with all of this is that the equation “lifting weights” = “building huge muscles” is nonsensical. While that is somehow true, in reality most resistance training done by people would never result in that kind of physique. In fact, there may be very little muscle growth at all (largely because, as we’ll discuss in the next post, many people fail to train in an effective way even if they wish to build muscles).
The main point is that when you look at these bodybuilders, it’s not like they randomly jumped into a gym and woke up the next day with 20kg of additional muscles. They had to train very hard and in a very specific way. Their dedication to the discipline was intense. Since we are talking about elite athletes, you can also bet they happen to be genetically inclined towards this kind of activity (ever heard the saying: “if you want to be a world class athlete, choose well your parents”?). Moreover, in most of cases, in order to achieve these kind physiques you need a lot of “help” beyond training very hard. Just by looking at the so called “natural” competitions you’ll generally see much more “reasonable” bodies (and, in all honesty, at top level even “natural” competitions are hardly drug free).
Building muscles mass is a slow process. Without considering drugs, you could argue a best case scenario would be to gain between 0.5kg and 1kg of muscle a month. That is IF you do everything right (which is FAR from what most people do). That’s a rate definitely slow enough you can decide perfectly well when it is time to stop and shift to simple maintenance.
And to be honest, by what I can see the average trainee do while they aimlessly wander through a gym, that’s likely a huge overestimation. Most people who hit the gym should worry more about not making progress at all despite exercising a lot (but poorly), rather than seeing massive amounts of muscles jump out of nowhere. They avoid to properly take care of their level of strength and muscularity for the (pointless) fear they wouldn’t like how they will look. That’s a loophole which prevents them from gaining a lot of benefits (see the next part of this post).
Finally, speaking about physique, many people work out in order to lose weight or tone their body. We’ll definitely discuss this in greater depth elsewhere, since that’s a huge misconception on its own (sorry folks, truth is: physical exercise can do little to make you lose weight, or to “burn fat”).
Unfortunately, most people who attempt to lose weight actually end up losing muscles instead of fat (mostly, at least). They see the scale going down and at first may be very happy about that. In fact, of all people, I guess the most reluctant to proper strength training are precisely those who want to lose weight (especially when it is a woman). It kinda makes sense. If you don’t feel satisfied with your body because you are too heavy, I can imagine how appealing the idea of “bulking up” may sound!
Eventually however they will never achieve that toned and fit look they hope for. That kind of look is given by a reasonable amount of muscles with a low body fat, while they are going in exactly the opposite direction. Even worse, when they give up their diet (which is ultimately unavoidable), most of them gains the weight back (in form of fat). This is the result most people who attempt to lose weight without a proper strategy end up with: the weight is about the same, but they actually replaced muscles mass with more fat. They like the way they look even less, and they actually feel worse (because of the real effects of losing strength and muscles, which we are about to discuss).
There are a few things you can do in order to avoid losing (too much) muscles while attempting to lose weight. Including (surprise!) training for strength and muscularity.
What strength is really for?
Discussing the benefits of a functional level of strength and a good muscle tone would be a long task. So let me focus on just one aspect of it.
Ever heard of a degenerative process called Sarcopenia? This scary sounding thing, which in Greek means “poverty of the flesh”, is something that progressively eats away a person’s muscles. Even worse, either you are currently experiencing it, or you will soon enough. It is the natural process by which you start to lose muscle mass and function as you age.
While it is no surprise to anyone we get weaker as we age, personally, I found it surprising and eyes opening to learn about the details of this process. It may actually begin in the 30s or before, and it has a rather impressive rate. You may lose on average 0.5 to 1% of your muscle mass within a year, but that can easily raise to 3-4% for people without adequate physical exercise.
Sarcopenia does accelerate later on in life, and you may really start to noticing its effect in your 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s. But that would only be the visible outcome of a process that has been going on for decades and which, at any point, you may have slowed down, or even reversed (more about this soon).
Losing muscles and strength (and, in fact, losing the ability to control at its best the fewer muscles we have) shows up in many way (some of which we may not even be considering). In fact, most of the negative effects we usually associate with aging are due to this factor.
- Less energy for everyday activities (because with less strength, simpler task become heavier);
- The risk of fracture or other injuries following a fall (as the loss of strength, flexibility and motor control will make them much more likely)
- Pain and discomfort (because the weaker muscles gets more easily fatigued or injured, or they make a poor job of supporting joint and bones structures);
- Even wrinkles (which appear partly due to the loss of muscles mass under the skin)
This is a limited list and I could go on. Obviously, I am not saying sarcopenia is the same as aging. There are many more things going on. Many of which positive ones, by the way (such as gaining more experience and wisdom). But this is a key factor and it influences a lot of other things, more specifically those negative effects we associate with aging.
Sarcopenia and strength training
What we described until now is a common perspective on aging, seen as an unavoidable decay. We just happen to “get old” and there are a bunch of negative effects coming with it. So far, we only achieved to give a more detailed description of this decay. But that is not my point.
Sarcopenia is largely and adaption to strength training (or lack thereof), rather than just “age”. While some loss may be unavoidable with aging, and is experienced even by top athletes, the amount and rate is largely dependent on an individual exercise habits. We already pointed out that physically inactive people may experience this process at a many times faster rate. It may also be possible to slow it down, or even revert it.
In fact, it is rather straightforward. We just said a lot of the negative effects of aging don’t “just happen” because we “get old”, but they are the outcome of an ongoing process that progressively destroys muscles (even when you are much younger). And if that is a problem, this kinda screams that we could counteract it by building new muscles. How nice it would be, if only we had some mean to achieve that! Oh, wait a second… we do.
Resistance training can be used to increase strength and gain muscle mass (in fact, that’s one of the primary goals of it). This is just as true if you are 20 y.o. (as you can build a “reserve” of muscular strength and mass which will be slower to erode) or if you are 90 y.o. Researcher have shown that even at that age it is possible to use properly designed exercises to build new muscles, regardless of age and current strength level.
To me, this means: whatever your age is, you may have a huge effect on what your life will look like when you are older. In addition to, of course, the improved quality of life you’ll get right now.
Sadly though, most people start to shift away from strength training as they age , even if it is what they should be doing the most. This can be because they deliberately shift towards physical exercise that does not involve training strength (which is still very useful, but incomplete), or because they do go to the gym or practice some other form of resistance training (i.e. rubber bands), but fail to do so in a way that it stimulates development of strength and muscles. This is the kind of issue many people face (thinking they are training their strength, while they are not), at any age, and it will be the topic of the next post. In any case, given what we have been discussing, I think it is clear how that is a rather unfortunate choice!
Personally, I am not the typical “gym bro” when it comes to strength training. I rarely hit the gym and I have no interest in bodybuilding or physique competition. I do practice martial arts and thus I have a sport related reason to benefit from it (while strength is not the main factor in martial arts, it doesn’t hurt either). But it’s not like I am a competitive athlete anyway, and that’s not a too big deal for me. I don’t really care too much about the way I look or how I perform in sports.
I practice strength training because it makes me feel good. It makes me feel light and energetic. I like to learn power moves for the sense of freedom it gives me, both during training AND in everyday life. But, if you ask me the single number one reason why I take care of my strength and muscularity, my answer would be without any doubt this: if I am lucky enough to live up to the age of 81, I want to be like the guy in this video. I guess most people would immediately sign up for the chance to have a body like that at that age. Well, the good news is: we have that chance, it’s up to us.
A few more nice things
Understanding the process of sarcopenia, its role in aging and its relationship with resistance training is, in my opinion, a very significant example of the importance of this component of fitness. It is also a good one to talk about because it is well studied, so we can make a very reliable point.
However, as I said, I have chosen to focus on just one example in order to avoid a too lengthy discussion. But there many more, so let’s quickly go over a few of them.
- Blood flow is increased far more than any massage could ever do, capillaries open up wide, the entire system mobilizes resources to supply hungry muscles with oxygen and nutrients, resulting in better metabolism and cleaning up of metabolic waste products
- Resistance training will not only affect your muscles. Making the effort to move against resistance will improve the strength of all your structure, which includes bones and joints.
- More energy and better mood: strength training will elevate your level of endorphins (natural opiates produced by the brain), which lift energy levels and improve mood
- Cognitive abilities. While all kind of physical activity are beneficial to your brain (for instance, just walking regularly has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s up to 50% or more), studies have specifically correlated resistance training with better learning and cognitive performance in general. This is probably because Growth Hormone, which is stimulated by exercise in order to grow or regrow muscles, is also beneficial in creating or strengthening connection across the neurons in your brain.
I hope this helps people understand that physical exercise is much more than simply “feeling well” or “looking good”. Strength training in particular seems, to me, a very good deal. And, in the end, it doesn’t take all that much effort and dedication either (in fact, it make take a lot less time and effort than the traditional “cardio” routines many people obsess with). Which is why I think everyone should get serious about it, even those who don’t want to “look like bodybuilders” or don’t care about performance in sport. That’s not the point, and strength training has much more to offer than that.
To sum up this article:
- having a good level of strength and muscularity is crucial for wellbeing and everyday life quality
- unless we do something about it, we naturally lose muscles and strength as we age, or in specific situation (such as while losing weight)
- many of the negative aspects of aging are precisely because of that, and they can be prevented or reversed
- working out to develop strength and muscularity does not mean you are going to end up with a giant physique you don’t like
- you can easily tailor your progress so your body looks like the way you want
- nearly all of the time, people who are reluctant to build muscles because of the way they would look, are actually not satisfied of their appearance because they lack muscles, even when they train for it, or even when they fail to realise it (such as those who want to lose weight and tone their body)
- those who needs it the most in order to achieve their goal (be that successful aging, “looking good” or lose weight) are those who may misunderstand it the most.
Next, we are going to see why often strength training fails, and why this crucial component of fitness is often overlooked: even among people who ARE physically active, go regularly to the gym and think they are taking care of their strength and muscles.