Lifting weights for health improvement – personal trainer and muscle building
Can lifting weights fix my lower-back pain?
It’s the classic moving-day injury. You’re hoisting a dresser or grabbing one end of a sofa, then—bam!—you throw out your back, and your bad lifting technique leaves you unable to straighten up for a week. So it may come as a surprise to hear that a promising solution for chronic lower-back pain, according to a series of recent studies from the University of Alberta, is lifting weights. A whole-body strengthening program dramatically outperforms aerobic exercise for those whose nagging back pain lingers for many months, according to the researchers—and the more you lift, the better.
By some estimates, two-thirds of adults will suffer from lower-back pain at some point in their lives. Many sufferers are diagnosed with “non-specific” back pain, which means their doctor hasn’t been able to identify a specific physical problem like a slipped disc or muscle imbalance as the cause. There’s no shortage of commonly prescribed solutions, from bed rest and acupuncture to spinal manipulation and radiofrequency denervation, but none have emerged as reliable cure-alls.
Earlier studies have established that not lifting anything neither cures nor prevents this type of back pain. In fact, it can trigger a downward spiral where inactivity makes you weaker, which worsens your back pain and causes you to become even less active, says Robert Kell, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus. “People with back pain have a hard time getting through the day, because they get fatigued and are no longer able to maintain their spinal stability,” he says. “If you can increase their strength and endurance, they can complete their normal activities without losing their posture.”
Since each person’s “non-specific” back pain may stem from a slightly different combination of weaknesses and imbalances, Kell uses a 16-week program that targets muscle groups throughout the body. In two studies published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, he has observed more than 25 percent improvement in measures of pain, disability, and quality of life compared with controls and with subjects doing aerobic exercise. A third study, whose results were first presented at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting in 2009, divided 240 volunteers into groups who lifted weights between zero and four times a week. Those lifting four days a week decreased pain by 28 percent, compared with 18 percent for three days a week and 14 percent for two days a week. (Non-exercising controls decreased pain by just 2 percent.) “It’s much like the exercise recommendations for the general population,” Kell says. “If you can make time to do a little bit, like 20 minutes twice a week, it will help. If you can do more, it gets better.”
Nonetheless, this one-size-fits-all approach has limitations, according to University of Waterloo professor of spine biomechanics Stuart McGill. “There’s actually no such thing as non-specific back pain,” he says. “It just means you haven’t had an adequate assessment.” People with back pain caused by weakness in one of the muscles targeted by Kell’s program will indeed see improvement. But the blanket “non-specific” diagnosis also includes people with other sources of back pain, whose condition could worsen if they lift weights. The most prudent course of action, McGill says, is to find a clinician who is able to diagnose the root cause of your back pain and use that diagnosis to determine the appropriate treatment.
Certainly, you shouldn’t persist with any exercise that causes pain or discomfort (a rule Kell enforced during the studies). With that caveat, a whole-body strengthening program still seems like an excellent recommendation—whether or not it cures your back, you’ll be healthier as a result.
Will I get a better workout if I hire a personal trainer?
In a famous study at Ball State University in Indiana, researchers put two groups of 10 men through identical 12-week strength training programs. The groups were evenly matched when they started, and they did the same combination of exercises, the same number of times, with the same amount of rest. At the end of the experiment, one group had gained 32 percent more upper-body strength and 47 percent more lower-body strength than the other. No performance-enhancing pills were involved—the only difference was that the more successful group had a personal trainer watching over their workouts.
A good personal trainer—certified by an organization such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, or Can-Fit-Pro—will help you assess your fitness goals, design a safe and effective program to meet those goals, and motivate you to put in the necessary work. But, as the Ball State study shows, there are other, less obvious ingredients that successful trainers provide—and a series of recent studies offers some hints about how we can tap in to these benefits.
The crucial difference between the training of the two groups at Ball State was very simple: by the halfway point of the program, the supervised group was choosing to lift heavier weights. Since both groups started with the same motivation level, it was the trainer’s presence leading that group to set more ambitious targets. Other studies have consistently found that, left to their own devices, novice weightlifters tend to work out with weights that are less than 50 percent of their one-repetition maximum, which is too low to maximize gains in strength and muscle size.
Even experienced strength trainers often fall into this trap, according to a 2008 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Researchers at the College of New Jersey found that experienced women who trained on their own chose to use an average of just 42 percent of their one-rep max for a 10-repetition set. In contrast, women who had prior experience with personal trainers chose weights averaging 51 percent of one-rep max, even when the trainers weren’t there. “Many times, there is initial fear,” says Nicholas Ratamess, the study’s lead author. “We also found that some women who did not have a personal trainer underestimated their own abilities because they did not routinely push themselves too far.”
The latest attempt to address this question comes from researchers at the University of Brasilia in Brazil. They compared two groups of 100 volunteers who undertook a 12-week strength training program, supervised either by one trainer for every five athletes, or one trainer for every 25 athletes. The results display a familiar pattern: the highly supervised group improved their bench press by 16 percent, while the less supervised group chose lighter weights and improved by only 10 percent.
In one sense, this is yet another argument for getting a personal trainer if you can afford one. But the differences here are more subtle, since both groups had access to a trainer who could provide guidance on proper form and choosing appropriate weights. Instead, motivation and the willingness to tackle ambitious goals seem to be the differentiating factors. As Ratamess points out, these are the kinds of benefits that an enthusiastic training partner can also provide. For less experienced exercisers, the educational role of the personal trainer takes on greater importance, he cautions. But beyond that, simply having someone there watching you—whether it’s a personal trainer or a workout partner—seems to confer an additional benefit. Certainly, he says, “both have advantages compared to training independently.”
Do I need extra protein to build muscle?
It’s a pretty safe bet that the guy at the gym who is built like a tree trunk and bench-presses the entire rack also has an enormous barrel of protein powder tucked into his gym bag. This, you might think, is a pretty good endorsement of the “you’ve got to eat muscle to build muscle” school of thought. But correlation is not the same as causation. “It’s hard to argue against years of practice that apparently works,” says Stuart Phillips, a McMaster University researcher who studies protein needs in athletes. “The real question is, do they gain muscle because of what they do, or in spite of what they do?”
On this basic question, athletes and scientists remain deeply divided. At McMaster and elsewhere, researchers have spent years conducting careful studies of how much protein exercisers can actually use. By tracking nitrogen, which is found in protein but not in carbohydrates or fat, they can determine whether their subjects are building muscle, losing muscle, or holding steady. “We monitor the food going in and collect the poop, pee, and sweat going out,” explains Mark Tarnopolsky, one of Phillips’s colleagues. Surprisingly—but consistently—the results show that even serious athletes process only marginally more protein than their sedentary peers, and far less than the megadoses recommended by muscle magazines. Novice weightlifters use the most protein, since they are adding muscle most rapidly, while veteran bodybuilders use less despite their enormous muscles.
That leaves would-be bodybuilders with a choice: Do you take the advice of the egghead in the lab or the muscle-head in the gym? Given that current research techniques aren’t perfect, a middle path is likely most appropriate, Phillips says. Although current dietary guidelines in Canada and the United States suggest consuming 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (g/kg) daily, there is reasonable evidence that 1.1 g/kg is appropriate for serious endurance athletes and 1.3 g/kg for serious strength athletes. (One g/kg is equivalent to about 1.6 ounces of protein for each 100 pounds of body weight.) Even those amounts are below the 1.6 g/kg that average North Americans tend to eat daily when their diet is unrestricted, Tarnopolsky says. That means an ordinary, balanced diet should easily meet your needs—unless you’re restricting calories to lose weight. In that case, higher protein intakes (35 percent of calories instead of 15 percent, for example) combined with resistance training appear to help maintain muscle mass while overall mass drops.
Timing also matters: you’ll build muscle more effectively if you take in protein within about an hour of finishing your workout. The optimal post-workout dose is about 20 g (0.7 ounces) of protein, according to a 2009 McMaster study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. That’s equivalent to about 20 ounces of skim milk, four medium eggs, or three ounces of cooked beef. Powders, shakes, and bars offer a convenient way to get this right after a workout—but then again, so does a tuna sandwich.
In the end, if you decide to side with the gym rats and supersize your protein shakes, it’s unlikely to do much harm. “The extra protein will, for the record, not pack your kidneys in and will not destroy your bones,” Phillips says. The main drawback is that, by taking too much protein, you might end up not getting enough of the carbohydrates that are crucial to performance in both endurance and strength athletes—and that risk should be enough to keep any smart athlete from overdoing the protein.
CHEAT SHEET: STRENGTH AND POWER
• Starting in your 30s, you lose 1 to 2 percent of your muscle mass each year. Strength training can slow this decline and help keep your bones strong.
• A standard beginner’s program is one to three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions, reaching failure at the end of the last set. Decrease the number of reps to emphasize maximum strength; increase it to emphasize muscular endurance.
• No matter how much weight you use or how many reps you do, the most important factor in building muscle is reaching muscle failure by the final rep.
• “Toning” muscles with light weights accomplishes little if you’re lifting less than 40 to 50 percent of your one-rep maximum.
• Power—the ability to deliver strength in a rapid burst—is more important than absolute strength in many sports. Develop your power by training with explosive movements.
• Weight machines are safe and easy to use, but free weights offer a more “realistic” challenge, forcing you to develop balance and stabilizing muscles.
• A whole-body strengthening program can reduce strain on your back and possibly fix lower-back pain—but you should not persist with any exercises that cause discomfort.
• People exercising under the guidance of a personal trainer gain more strength than those exercising alone, mostly because they’re encouraged to lift heavier weights.
• Contrary to conventional wisdom, the amount of protein in a typical North American diet is more than enough to build muscle with any strength training program.