Building muscle mass is about more than just looking buff or opening jars. Whether you refer to this process as strength training, resistance training or weight lifting, the benefits are surprisingly wide-ranging:
- Reduced amounts of abdominal fat.
- Improved cardiovascular health and reduced cancer risk.
- Better blood sugar control.
- Reduce the chance of injuries, while improving flexibility and mobility.
- Prevention and management of osteoporosis.
- Better management of chronic conditions.
- Improved brain functioning and stronger mental health.
- Improved body image.
- A longer life and healthspan.
When the body is building muscle, three factors come into play: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic response. First, increasing weight or resistance overloads the muscle tissues. This overload then causes small tears in the muscle fibers. This injury leads to growth factors being released, causing the muscle fibers to heal and grow. With proper rest and nutrition, the cycle begins again, and muscles get a little stronger each time.
How can something as simple as consistently lifting heavy things have all these benefits? Our bodies are in a constant process of renewing and recycling the chemicals of which we’re made, including the protein building blocks (amino acids) that make up our muscles. If our bodies remove more protein than they add, we lose muscle. Sarcopenia (age-related loss of muscle mass and strength) is a result of this process. However, if our bodies add more protein than they remove, muscle mass grows. Strength training slows down, and can even reverse, sarcopenia. It’s never too late to start!
Steps To Building & Maintaining Muscle Mass
1. If you have a chronic condition or are over 40, talk with your healthcare provider before you begin strength training. They can help you to get started safely.
2. Warm up. Do some light aerobic activity (walking, biking) for 5-10 minutes. Warm muscles are less likely to get injured.
3. Experiment with weight or resistance level. Find the amount that you can do comfortably (and with proper form) for 10-15 repetitions.
4. Then do two more sets. Or not—it’s your call. Some recommendations are for three sets of 10-15 repetitions, while other research indicates that a single set can be just as effective. What really matters is step #5.
5. Lift to “fatigue,” meaning lift until your muscles are so tired that they can’t complete another repetition while holding the correct form. This is the sweet spot where the muscle-building magic happens: overload, then damage, then growth.
6. Rest up. Muscle fibers need time to repair before the tear-down/build-up cycle starts again. Give any muscle group that you stress 48 hours to recover, i.e., focus one day on the muscles of the upper body and then the next day focus on the lower body, or lift both on the same day and then skip lifting the next day. Work out muscle groups two or three times a week. The alternating days are a perfect time for aerobic activity. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week.
7. Listen to your body. The discomfort that comes from exertion is one thing, but pain is another. If you ever feel pain, stop, figure out what happened, and let yourself heal. Your body will also tell you when it’s time to add more weight or resistance. When the amount that you’re lifting is no longer enough to reach fatigue with good form, it’s time to add either more repetitions or more weight.
This is a condensed version of Sawtooth Mountain Clinic’s “Topic of the Month” newsletter. Read the full version (with info about protein and creatine supplementation), listen to the audio version, access all the resources used, and explore past issues at: sawtoothmountainclinic.org.