Working It Out
There’s a regular increase in attendance at my gym after January 1st, as new members appear, thanks to a New Year’s resolution to get into shape. Strength Training (ST), such as weight lifting, body-weight calisthenics, or band exercises, is healthy and worth continuing. So let’s look at the benefits of weight lifting and how to practice weight lifting for longevity.
Six Benefits of Strength Training
1. Lowers Type 2 Diabetes Risk
WL not only increases the amount of muscle mass available to absorb excess sugar in the blood, but it also increases the receptiveness of your existing muscle to absorb sugar.1 This increased receptivity decreases insulin resistance, which is the primary cause of Type 2 Diabetes. As a result, the American Diabetes Association recommends S for people with diabetes.2
2. Reduces Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is often called the “silent killer” since it often goes unnoticed but significantly increases the chance of heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes.3 A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials of ST found that it reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 6mm and 4.7mm Hg, respectively.4
3. Prevents sarcopenia
Strength is generally stable over the first four decades of life, but from the fifth decade decreases at about 12%-15% per decade.5 This rapid loss of strength in the later years is called sarcopenia. It is often made worse by a vicious cycle, where an older person isn’t strong enough to do some things they used to, so they reduce their activity, which further increases their muscle atrophy.
Fortunately, weight lifting even in the ninth decade of life can nearly triple strength,6 and starting earlier provides a larger buffer of strength, as well as a solid habit to prevent sarcopenia in the first place.
4. Builds Strong Bones
Lifting weights is an effective natural intervention for increasing Bone Mass Density. The stress of picking up heavy objects tells your body to reinforce the bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and injuries from falls.7
5. Increases Flexibility
Surprisingly, randomized, controlled studies show that ST increases range of motion as much as direct stretching exercises.8 Apparently, added weight while moving through a range of motion increases flexibility.
6. Improves Mental Health
Stronger, smarter, happier. In the older years, ST protects the mind against dementia. A 2019 meta-analysis found that ST positively affected composite cognitive scores, impairment prevention, and executive functions.9
For all ages, ST protects against depression. A meta-analysis showed ST caused a significant reduction in depressive symptoms, from people under 25 years old to over 55.10
Strength Training for Longevity
The benefits of ST for a long, healthy life look obvious — reduced diabetes, lower blood pressure, less sarcopenia — but the benefits of ST can be quickly erased by overtraining. Training once or twice a week for less than an hour can reduce the chance of death from any cause by 35%. But, if the time is increased to over an hour in a week or more than three sessions, then the longevity benefit disappears to zero compared with people who never put their hands on a weight.11
Too much Strength Training puts undue stress on the system. The central nervous system becomes overloaded, or the lower average blood pressure is over-whelmed by the higher blood pressure when doing the strength training.
In any case, the reduced benefit from too much ST is in direct conflict with studies that show that greater strength is correlated with longer life. So how to build strength and muscle when lifting for less than an hour a week?
Strength Training can increase strength and build muscle. However, lifting once a week per muscle group is sufficient for building strength, and more frequent training does not improve results. The key to increasing strength is “training for the test.” For example, to build strength in the bench press, during the once-a-week Strength Training, lift heavy weights on the bench, such as four sets of a weight you cannot lift for more than six repetitions (reps) each set. There are world-class powerlifters who train just once a week for a total time of under 40 minutes as their only Strength Training.
In fact, for increasing strength, studies show that lifting more than once a week for a particular muscle group does not provide additional benefits over lifting once, and one session of lifting is sufficient to provide the benefits listed above, such as diabetes resistance and reduced blood pressure.12
If building muscle, also called hypertrophy, is the primary goal, Strength Training should be shifted towards a higher total training volume, which means doing more sets with reps in the 8-15 range. This increased volume can be helped by doing two or three Strength Training sessions per week, with at least one rest day. The number of sets per week per muscle should be kept under fifteen.13
Each set should be done to failure or near failure, and the focus should be on flexing the muscles. In a ground-breaking 2016 study, Counts et al. showed that doing bicep curls even without weights could produce hypertrophy equivalent to normal sets using weights if doing no-weight reps while focusing on getting maximum contraction on the biceps.14
To maintain the strength gains, training each muscle group (legs, chest, back) once per week is enough to keep and even continue to increase strength. For hypertrophy, the critical metric for maintenance is how many sets should be done per week, and this increases with age. A 2011 study spent three months building muscle with thrice-weekly Strength Training and then reduced the frequency to once a week. It found that 20-35-year-old subjects maintained muscle and increased strength even at just three sets once per week, but the 60-75-year-old group was able to keep their strength, but muscle mass reduced to the original level after three months of once-a-week training.15
Since sarcopenia begins accelerating from the 50s, this is probably about the age when more frequent or more sets of Strength Training should be done. In any case, for longevity, muscle mass was found not to have a statistically significant impact on mortality, but being stronger was strongly (😁) associated with longer life.
The Bottom Line
For strength, muscles, and long and healthy life, do Strength Training at least once a week with a full-body workout with a chest, back, and legs exercise with four sets of 6-15 reps each. Keep the total time of Strength Training per week under an hour.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are the longevity benefits cumulative with aerobic exercise?
Yes! Several studies show that doing Strength Training provides additional benefits even for people already doing aerobic exercise.
Doesn’t aerobic exercise reduce the effectiveness of Strength Training?
Aerobic exercise can interfere with Strength Training when using the same muscle group on the same or consecutive days, like running and doing leg press Strength Training. Doing an upper body workout and then running or cycling is okay.16
Should I stretch before Strength Training?
Nope. Stretching before Strength Training will reduce your effective strength during the workout and the benefits.17
Should I stretch after Strength Training?
You can, but it doesn’t reduce muscle pain after the workout.18
Should I warm up before Strength Training?
A general warm-up, like running on a treadmill, doesn’t improve performance or reduce injuries. It is recommended to do a few lighter lifts before doing heavy lifts.19
Should I use machines or free weights?
Either can be an effective part of a routine. Machines are generally safer, especially if proper form isn’t learned yet. On the other hand, free weights can provide more muscle development on supporting muscles not directly involved in the lift, like developing the upper arm muscles during a bench press. The difference is not that great, so use what you have access to or prefer.20