Working your muscle by weight training is good medicine in more ways than one. Having more metabolically active muscle tissue subtly boosts your resting metabolic rate and lifting weights can even improve your metabolic health by enhancing insulin sensitivity. That’s important since insulin sensitivity declines with age, partially due to loss of muscle tissue. As insulin sensitivity goes down, the risk of health problems, like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes rises.
We also need weight training for functional fitness and the ability to do things we enjoy as we age. So, grabbing dumbbells, barbells, or resistance bands is a way to slow the aging process at the muscle level and at the level of the cell due to improvements in insulin sensitivity. But, there are a variety of approaches you can take when you weight train. In fact, there are three main approaches. You can lift heavy and do a lower number of reps. At the other end of the spectrum, you can use light weights and complete a high number of repetitions, enough to fatigue the muscles you’re working. You can also choose a moderate weight and do an intermediate number of reps. How do they differ?
Weight Training to Building Strength versus Muscle Endurance
The first approach, heavy weights and a low number of reps are best for building strength. Low resistance and a high number of reps are not as effective for building strength but improves muscle endurance. Using this approach your muscles develop more “stamina,” meaning they can eke out a greater number of reps using lighter reps before fatiguing. Finally, moderate weights and moderate reps are ideal for hypertrophying the muscles you’re working, as long as you work the muscles to fatigue.
Which approach is best? It depends on your goals. Do you primarily want to build strength and are less concerned about enhancing the size of your muscles? If it’s strength, think like a powerlifter and go heavy. Lift a little lighter and longer if you’re trying to hypertrophy the muscles. Finally, if you just want your muscles to have more stamina or endurance, go even lighter still and do a high number of reps. Yet, you can argue that you need all three forms of training, not just one. Here’s why.
Why You Should Go Heavy Sometimes
Heavy helps you get stronger the fastest. In fact, the strength gains you make in the first weeks to months of weight training are neurological adaptations – your brain and muscles learn to communicate and work better together to generate greater force. In fact, going heavy can make it easier to lift any kind of weight and even do the activities you do day to day, such as moving furniture or lifting something heavy.
According to research published in Frontiers in Physiology, lifting heavy weight conditions your nervous system in a way that allows you to tap into a greater percentage of your strength when you tell your muscles to generate force. It’s easy to see how this can help you when you work your muscles against any type of resistance AND when you do other activities. It takes less effort to do things like push the lawn mower or lift a heavy trash can off the floor. Your muscles are more efficient and don’t have to generate as much force because you’ve trained them by lifting heavy.
How do you lift heavy? Use a weight between 80 and 90% of your one-rep max. Using this weight, you should only be able to complete between 2 and 5 reps before fatiguing the muscles. When training for strength, do between 3 and 6 sets and rest for 2 to 5 minutes between each set. The long recovery time allows you to maximize how much you lift for each set. That’s important for building strength.
Lifting to Hypertrophy Your Muscles
If you’re lifting to increase the size of your muscles, and you should be since you lose muscle tissue as you age, you’ll need to focus some of your training time on moderate resistance and moderate repetitions, the so-called hypertrophy workout. Using a heavy resistance and a low number of reps, as with the strength-focused approach, isn’t ideal for building muscle size as you don’t keep the muscles under tension very long. The greater number of reps helps stimulate muscle growth, assuming you thoroughly fatigue your muscles.
How to optimize hypertrophy? Choose a resistance between 60 and 80% of your one-rep max. Then, do as many reps as you can to thoroughly fatigue the muscles. If you selected the right resistance, you should be able to complete between 6 and 12 reps. Rest 2 or 3 minutes between each set. Don’t live in fear of bulking up from using this approach. Unless you have a high level of testosterone, for example, if you have polycystic ovarian syndrome, you generally won’t develop big muscles. You’ll only reduce muscle loss related to aging. That’s important if you value your independence!
Lifting for Endurance
You may have heard that lifting lighter weights won’t increase muscle size, but more recent studies show it can if you do enough reps to reach near muscle failure. Of course, it takes time to do that many repetitions and this isn’t a particularly time-expedient way to work out. However, your muscles need a break from the grueling task of strength and hypertrophy training. That’s where lifting for muscle endurance comes in. You can’t constantly lift heavy and expect your muscles and joints to hold up to all of the pressure. Working out with lighter weights gives your muscles a break from lifting super heavy. In addition, when you lighten up on the weight, you’re able to take each repetition through its full range-of-motion. Focusing on form using lighter weights will ultimately benefit every aspect of your training.
The Bottom Line
Which weight training approach is best for you? It depends on your goals, but consider incorporating all three forms of training into your workouts in a periodized fashion. That way you’re less likely to reach a plateau or overtrain.
Journal of Applied Physiology Published 12 May 2016 Vol. no. , DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00154.2016.
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