While we genuinely believe that 80% of our health is shaped in the kitchen and only 10% in the gym (with the other 10% being made up of a combination of such things as sleep, stress, and sunshine), we believe that, for numerous reasons, it is essential to look after our muscles.
To understand why resistance training is important, we need to go back and look at our distant ancestors’ daily activities. After a successful hunt, to get their catch back to their dwelling, they would carry small animals across their shoulders, or drag heavier ones by their hooves. While out gathering, they would hack down trees and move heavy rocks (without modern tools) looking for mushrooms and other fungi. These activities wouldn’t have required hours and hours of weightlifting, but our ancestors must have been able to muster great strength whenever required. Therefore, our body is designed and programmed to do occasional bouts of heavy lifting.
While there is some advice below, the key thing to remember is to do something. Anything is better than nothing. If currently you don’t exercise, even just getting up and down from the chair as often as you can would be a good start. If you feel you can do some beginner level exercises, these are ideal for getting started:
- Stand facing a wall with your arms out at shoulder height; put your hands on the walls so that your arms are straight. Lean towards the wall without moving your feet and then push back upright. You are performing what we call a ‘standing press up’. Repeat as many times as you can until you physically can’t do any more. Don’t worry if that is only one or two.
- Put one can of food in each hand and move them from your work surface to a shelf above head height and then slowly back down. This works your shoulder muscles. If you repeat this until your muscles ache, this is exercise.
If you look at our free app, you will find further simple ‘starting out’ exercises by James Cracknell. But the key thing is to just get started.
Once you’ve made some progress with the exercises for beginners,don’t rush out and start lifting heavy weights. You should invest some time in learning what a safe and appropriate workout should look like.
But before you rush out and start lifting heavy weights, you should invest some time in learning what a safe and appropriate workout should look like. To start, we need to understand the concept of homeostasis. Every cell and system in our body relies on a stable environment to function. Homeostasis refers to the internal balance the body must maintain to ensure health. When we exercise, we break down our muscles (catabolic process) and then ask our body to rebuild them (anabolic process) stronger and bigger than before.
Unless we lift heavy things at regular intervals, our body no longer engages in any meaningful level of catabolism. The balance between muscle breakdown and rebuilding needed to be perfect for our ancestors. They had to expend energy to catch and gather their food (catabolic), then a natural rest period followed when they feasted on their kill, allowing their body time to rebuild its muscles (anabolic). If the only exercise we do is opening the door to the grocery delivery person or Deliveroo cyclist, then our homeostasis is going to be well out of whack. Here’s five reasons (medically, there are many more) why everyone benefits from maintaining or building muscle:
- It burns more energy than body fat.
- It supports our joints and bones.
- It reduces the risk of injury.
- It soaks up sugar without the need to increase insulin (therefore reduces insulin resistance).
- It helps maintain homeostasis.
How Often Should I Do Resistance Training?
The good news is we are not talking about training every day, and each session need not take more than 30 minutes. When we exercise too frequently, our muscles may actually shrink (atrophy) rather than grow (hypertrophy).
We are all built differently. Our age, sex and current fitness level all play a big part in how quickly our muscles recover between sessions, and therefore what our recovery period should be. Quality of sleep, diet, alcohol consumption, dehydration and even how stressed we are can all play a big part in determining how quickly our muscles recover from exercise. In addition, remember that all movement and exercise is accumulative. If we resistance train on a Monday and then take in a game of golf or a yoga class on Tuesday or Wednesday, we might find we are not feeling ready for the next gym session for an extra day or two.
Our approach is that as long as each week you do at least one or two resistance training sessions and walk plenty of miles, then the rest of the time, just listen to your body.
Age also plays a part in training frequency. In our late 30s or early 40s, we start to lose skeletal muscle (known as sarcopenia). If we don’t exercise, we lose as much as 5% of muscle every decade. Sarcopenia increases the older we get, and by our 70s it really shifts into top gear. As we age, we often can’t quite lift the same big weights as we did in our youth: consequently, we need to increase the frequency of our exercise sessions. But once again, we can’t emphasise enough that we are all built differently and that we should use the above as guidelines while always listening to our body for when to hit the gym.
One last thought about exercising as we age – in reality, we should see more 70-year-olds bench pressing in the gym than we do those in their 20s! In his book Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy, Brad Schoenfeld says, ‘After age 40, the body loses progressively more muscle mass each year. Regular resistance training can reduce this loss. Although the elderly do have a diminished hypertrophic response, they can gain muscle mass; however, a greater weekly training dose appears necessary to maintain the gains.’
Time Under Tension
Okay, so now we have a guideline on how often to hit the gym, let’s state something obvious: do everything you can to avoid injury. We say this because we constantly meet people who injure themselves training and spend as much time laid-up as they do in the gym. Certainly, the older we get, we really need to make avoiding injury a top priority.
Our recommendation is that everyone starts out with our simple ‘Broomstick Posture Routines’. You can find this in other articles and on our free Health Results app. It is a way to learn the correct posture to perform the major muscles exercises, but without loading any weights. Just a broomstick - no weights! Even some professional athletes we work with still use it daily, as a warm up routine.
Once you progress from our broomstick exercises, our preferred method of exercise (which is also one of the safest) isn’t to swing huge weights using momentum, but to keep each repetition nice and strict: really focusing the mind on the muscles we want to work on. Without the ability to isolate which muscle we want to work on, the approach we are going to discuss will not prove as effective as it otherwise could be.
This might sound a little vain, but stand in front of a mirror and pose like a bodybuilder on stage. Try first without any weights to tense the muscle you intend to work on. This will send a signal to the brain and help focus its attention. Let’s say we want to work our biceps. We should be able to tense them for about a minute and really feel a burning sensation without lifting any weights at all. This heightened awareness (known as kinaesthesia – pronounced ‘kenes-teez-ya’) increases our ability to better target the muscle we want to exercise.
This method might sound a little strange to some readers at first, but we assure you, regardless of age, it works. Before you even lift your first weights, we would recommend that you take some measurements and record them on your phone or in a logbook - or better still on our free Health Results app. Once you have got all your vital statistics noted, it’s time to head off to the gym.
Let us now explain what we mean by Time Under Tension. We are going to slowly and deliberately carry out each and every repetition (one complete motion of the exercise), whether it be a press-up, a pull-down or deadlift. These deliberately unhurried repetitions should take between 6 and 20 seconds, depending both on our preference and the actual exercise we are doing. Our aim is to keep going until we reach complete failure. This is where we just can’t move the weight any further without cheating. Once we hit this point, there are great gains to be made by not putting the weight down but continuing to hold to the max for around 10 more seconds.
This phase of exercise, without the weights even moving, is called ‘isometric training’ or ‘static contraction’. As we hold the position for just a final few seconds, we should, in most exercises, find our muscles twitching or whole parts of our body shaking. Don’t panic: hang in there. At this point, and this point only, do we conclude that we have reached Max Out. Unless we Max Out, we will still have spare glycogen in our muscles and will most likely limit our muscle growth.
Pushing our ability to our true max means we inflict more microtrauma on our muscles (at a cellular level), and combining this with sufficient rest time determines our success.
We want to explain a little further about what’s happening inside our muscles as we exercise by using the analogy of a sponge. If we Max Out correctly, we are effectively wringing out the sponge so that there is no water (or energy, in our muscle’s case) left inside. Once our glycogen has gone, our sponge will soak up everything it possibly can to replace it. Our muscles will quickly grab any sugars floating around the body before insulin has a chance to hand these sugars over to our fat stores. What’s more, we will be producing far less insulin as well, as our muscles will be hungry for any sugars and will temporarily make insulin semi-redundant. It’s also why, when we eat straight after a training session, our muscles are said to grow.
Let’s get back to Maxing Out. At the point when the movement has stopped and you have held the position for roughly 10 seconds more, note down the time. For most exercises, we are targeting the total time from starting to Max Out to be between 45 and 120 seconds. The total time is what we refer to as Time Under Tension. If we didn’t manage to last 45 seconds, then in our next session, we must decrease the weight. If we managed to do more than 120 seconds, then in our next session, we will add more weight. Remember, ‘we can’t manage what we can’t measure’. What we are looking for over a period of a few months is to be able to slowly increase the weight and still last for between 45 to 120 seconds. Once we start to increase the heaviness, we will have proven, beyond doubt, that we have become stronger.
- Record your measurements and rep counts in your phone, a logbook or the Health Results app. It will help you measure your sessions and also motivate you to push just that little bit harder next time.
- Remember that with some exercises, great things can be achieved by ditching the weights and just performing static contraction (just holding the muscle tense without movement).
- To ensure you Max Out, it is not possible to aim for a precise time or a nice round number of repetitions – we finish only when we have maxed out!
- Make sure not to hold your breath: breathe out during the most challenging part of each repetition.
- We should remember that our resistance sessions probably take up less than 1% of our week, but these short sessions are only effective if we are genuinely pushing our body hard.
Other Benefits Of Maxing Out
By lifting weights and Maxing Out, we increase our bone density.
- We increase insulin sensitivity.
- We become more metabolically efficient.
- We limit inflammation, certainly when compared to endurance athletes.
- When we Max Out, we get both a hormonal rush and heaps of mental simulation that slows down the ageing process.