Strength training to be lean and fit – weight lifting and muscle toning

IN THE EARLY 1900s, ASPIRING WEIGHTLIFTERS visited their local branches of the Institute of Physical Culture, where they attempted to sculpt their bodies into the “perfect” proportions represented in ancient Greek and Roman statues. Among the judges at the first major bodybuilding contest associated with this fad, held at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1901, was Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. To the uninitiated, it may appear that not much has changed since then—that the weight room is an intimidating place filled with complicated machines and hulking brutes staring at themselves in wall-sized mirrors.

This is unfortunate, because muscular strength is a crucial ingredient of success in virtually every sport—not to mention its benefits for day-to-day life. And researchers are now realizing that fighting the gradual loss of muscle mass that begins in your 30s is among the most effective tactics to slow down the physical effects of aging. Whether you do it in a weight room or at home, using weights or machines or simply the weight of your body, strength training should be a part of your exercise program. It’s no longer just about big muscles—although, if you do want to attain those classical proportions, this is the place to start.

Do I need strength training if I just want to be lean and fit?

If you’ll pardon the broad generalization, there are basically two kinds of people at the gym: the ones on the cardio machines hoping to get or stay thin, and the ones on the weight machines trying to bulk up. If you’re among the former group, you might think there’s not much point in wasting your time doing weights. But you’d be wrong.

For health benefits, aerobic exercise gets most of the attention. It’s the go-to activity if you want to reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and so on. Strength training, on the other hand, is generally thought of in functional terms: it will help you sprint faster, throw farther, jump higher, and look better in a bathing suit. But there’s a lot more overlap than we once thought. For example, recent studies have found that strength training helps people with diabetes regulate their glucose and insulin levels, in some cases more effectively than aerobic training. It can also help control conditions ranging from high blood pressure to depression.

Most important, though, are the benefits you get from strength training that you can’t get from other types of exercise. Starting in your 30s, you can expect to lose as much as 1 to 2 percent of your muscle mass each year for the rest of your life. This has incredibly important implications for your prospects of aging gracefully. If you want to be able to move a piece of furniture or lift a bag of groceries—or, later, be able to push yourself up from a chair—you need to hang on to the muscles you’ve got.

Maintaining your muscle mass also has more subtle effects. The muscle throughout your body is of “high metabolic quality,” as McMaster University researcher Stuart Phillips puts it. That means that it’s the primary location for burning fat and taking glucose out of your bloodstream, and the biggest contributor to your resting metabolic rate. As the amount of muscle in your body shrinks, you burn fewer calories and your ability to metabolize food gets worse, leaving you more vulnerable to obesity, diabetes, and other conditions.

Surprisingly, strength training also plays a key role in maintaining strong bones. We tend to think of weight-bearing activity as being the key to bone health—but it’s clear that can’t be the whole story, otherwise our arm bones would shrink to nothing. Instead, the “mechanostat theory” that emerged in the 1980s argues that the stress that prompts bones to grow stronger is provided by muscles. As a result, strength training is now considered one of the most important ways of keeping your bones strong.

Everybody at the gym has different goals (and of course, they’re far more varied than simply losing weight or gaining muscle). But whether you’re after health, performance, or simply maintaining the quality of your daily life, you need to spend at least a bit of time on strength training.

How much weight should I lift, and how many times?

Physical exercise, classical proportions, doing weights, bodybuilding contest, cardio machines,

The legend of Milo of Croton, a six-time Olympic champion wrestler in the sixth century BC whose training is said to have involved lifting a calf over his head every day until it became a full-grown cow, teaches us two lessons about weight training. First, your workload needs to progress if you want to keep improving. Second, the precise details of what equipment you use and how you use it probably don’t matter too much.

As a starting point, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing a range of exercises targeting different muscle groups, each with a weight that you’re able to lift 8 to 12 times. (You can find the appropriate weight through trial and error over the course of a few workouts and then adjust as you get stronger.) This will produce good results for three or four months—but to maximize your gains after that, you’ll need to decide whether you’re more interested in developing bigger and stronger muscles, or muscles with greater endurance.

The standard approach to building strength and muscle mass is to emphasize fewer repetitions, lift heavier weights, and take longer rests. A typical workout might be three sets of four to six repetitions for each exercise, taking three minutes of rest between each set. As you become more experienced, you might do a set with anywhere from 1 to 12 repetitions. Varying the amount of weight you’re lifting provides a different stimulus, and it’s important not to get into a rut where you do the same workout three times a week. (Some important terminology: if you lift a weight 10 times, take a short break, then lift it 10 more times, you’ve done two “sets” of 10 “repetitions” each.)

Not everyone wants bigger muscles, though, whether for aesthetic or functional reasons. A cyclist, for instance, would rather build the muscular endurance to keep pedaling for hours rather than develop short-lived brute strength. The optimal approach in this case is to do more repetitions using lighter weights and taking less rest. For example, you could do four sets of 20 or more repetitions with less than 90 seconds between sets.

Of course, there are countless different approaches, such as the currently popular CrossFit regimen, which emphasizes short, high-intensity workouts, and the “high-intensity training” system pioneered by Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones. This approach calls for a single set of each exercise, performed at a deliberately slow pace of 15 seconds or more for each lift. Like cow-lifting, these programs undoubtedly produce significant gains if they’re done right. Whether they’re better than traditional programs is another question.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared traditional strength and muscular endurance regimens in a head-to-head match-up with a “low-velocity” program in which the subjects took 10 seconds to lift each weight and 4 seconds to let it return to the starting position. (The traditional programs took 1 to 2 seconds in both directions.)

As expected, the high-weight/low-reps group gained the most strength, and the low-weight/high-reps group gained the most muscular endurance. That left the low-velocity group in the middle. “You can gain [both] strength and muscle endurance,” said Sharon Rana, the Ohio University professor who led the study, “but the traditional methods are going to do a slightly better job for those two things.”

Similarly, several recent reviews have concluded that single-set training is sufficient for staying fit, but that multiple sets are needed to gain the greatest possible strength. Of course, unless you’re focused on a very narrow goal—developing the biggest possible bicep or lifting the heaviest cow—you’ll benefit from variety. Keep experimenting with the number of sets, reps, and even lifting speed, and you’ll develop a healthy balance of strength and muscular endurance.

How do I tone my muscles without bulking up?

If your upper arm feels a little flabby, you might decide that you need to tone it up. At the gym, you’ll do some biceps curls and triceps pulls, with light weights and lots of repetitions, say 30 or more. After all, you don’t want to risk adding bulky muscle mass to your arms.

If this sounds familiar, you’ve fallen prey to a common but mistaken assumption. “Toning,” in the sense of light exercise to make a muscle look taut, simply doesn’t exist. (In medical terms, muscle tone refers to the low level of tension maintained by the nervous system in all muscles even at rest.) If you’re poking somewhere on your body and it feels soft even when the muscle is flexed, that means you’re poking fat, not “untoned” muscle. Moreover, the myth of low-weight, high-repetition toning encourages people to use weights so light that they don’t have any appreciable effect.

You have two basic options to make your muscles stand out and look more defined: you can make the muscles bigger, or you can shrink the layer of fat covering them. Reducing fat is a whole-body problem—you can’t just target the fat on your arms.

Building muscle has long been thought to depend on lifting weights that are at least 40 to 50 percent of your “one-repetition maximum,” the heaviest weight you can lift for that exercise. For advanced resistance trainers, the threshold may be closer to 60 percent. More recent research suggests a simpler rule: whatever weight you use, you should be unable to lift it again when you complete the set.

Studies have consistently found that many gym users choose weights that are too low to have any significant effect. For women in particular, avoiding muscle growth is often seen as a good thing. A 2008 study of women working out in New Jersey gyms found that 38 percent of them “believed that the mere act of resistance training would lead to large, ‘bulky’ muscles.”

There’s an important discussion to be had about gender stereotypes and healthy body images—but even if we accept the unfortunate premise that muscles are bad, the survey still reflects a highly distorted view of what it takes to build muscle. (Or to put it another way, they should be so lucky!)


Strength training guidelines often refer to your “one-rep max,” or “1RM”—the heaviest weight that you can lift once for any given exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that beginners work with weights that are 60 to 70 percent of 1RM for 8 to 12 repetitions; using less than 50 percent of 1RM may not stimulate any muscle growth.

But how do you determine 1RM? For most people, trying to lift the heaviest weight possible is an unnecessary injury risk. Instead, use trial and error to find a weight that has you reaching “failure” near the end of your final set. If you plan three sets of 10 reps and you successfully complete them, increase the weight slightly next time so that you’re unable to complete the final one or two reps.

New research by Stuart Phillips at McMaster University suggests that reaching failure is the most important factor in building muscle—even more important than how heavy the weights are or how many reps you do. His study found that volunteers lifting at 30 percent 1RM synthesized just as much muscle protein as volunteers lifting at 90 percent 1RM, as long as they lifted to failure.

The take-home: don’t worry too much about one-rep max, but choose a weight so that you reach failure, or at least come very close.

Workouts with light weights and a high number of repetitions do have a place in building muscular endurance. Even then, the weight should be heavy enough that you struggle to complete the final set of each exercise, no matter how many repetitions you’re doing.

But if it’s “toning” you’re after, your best bet is to choose routines that build muscle size by lifting heavy weights with multiple sets—for example, up to six sets of each exercise, with 6 to 12 repetitions in each set—or else focus on mixing strength, cardio, and diet for overall weight loss.

Jean-Paul Marat

Many tips are based on recent research, while others were known in ancient times. But they have all been proven to be effective. So keep this website close at hand and make the advice it offers a part of your daily life.

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