Might Is Right

May 13, 2008

Today's NY Times had a nice article on the importance of strength training.

Here's a snippet from the article that I liked:

"Healthy muscles, researchers say, are  those that have been worked, stressed and pushed to their  limit..."

Here's one I sort of didn't like:

"And keeping muscles fit takes effort, which means regular training with weight lifting and cardiovascular exercise..."

Regular training sounds somewhat misleading. It sounds like weight lifting is something you should do nearly everyday. Research indicates that twice weekly strength training for 15-20 minutes a pop is all you need.

By and large, cardiovascular exercises do NOT keep muscles from atrophy (weakening) and are usually orthopedicaly compromising, meaning, bad for you. Strength training all by its lonesome improves cardiovascular health and aerobic capacity.

Strength training also allows you to perform cardio or aerobic sports better and with less chance of injury. So if you enjoy these types of things,  you'll be able to keep up with them into your later years.

The concept of keeping 'fit' is an odd one. Fit for what exactly? Just becasue you are a good runner doesn't mean you can swim well. Being fit for soccer doesn't make you fit for racquet ball. 'Fit' is a catchphrase used to describe a general condition of the body when it really describes a specific condition.

The article goes on to say:

"If you don’t work your muscles, they will atrophy, especially as you grow older."

This is not entirely true. It isn't just work that strengthens muscles and keeps them from atrophy. Walking is work. Jogging is work. Badminton is work. But these activities will NOT keep muscles from weakening as we age. Remember  what was said above:

"Healthy muscles, researchers say, are  those that have been worked, stressed and pushed to their  limit..."

And they're right. Sadly, most people have no idea what this means - or takes.

This statement:

"To maintain endurance, you  should engage in activities that  pump blood to the muscles, like walking."

Sure - walking is fine. But strength training pumps blood into the muscles better than anything.  Improvements in strength lead directly to improvements in muscular and cardio endurance. So strength training once again fills the bill all by itself.

Lastly, Dr. Kramer's comments:

"The most effective way to stimulate muscles is with a system known as progressive resistance. This approach can take about three hours a week and includes days, once a week or so, when you lift weights so heavy that you can do only three to five repetitions before your muscles are too tired to lift again. Other days are devoted to moderate resistance, with weights you can lift 8 to 10 times. And then you should have some light days, with weights you can lift 12 to 15 times before your muscles tire."

Actually this is not what is meant by progressive resistance. Progressive resistance involves making weights in an exercise heavier, little by little, as time goes on.

What Dr. Kramer is describing (and wrote a book about) is known as periodization. There is absolutely no evidence to support Dr. Kramer's opinion that periodizing your weight lifting (as he describes it above) is a necessary method for building strength.

In fact, we already learned from this article - by Dr. Kramer himself - that light lifting days where you use weights so light that you can do 12-15 reps is a waste of time.

Dr. Kramer said:

"Those who do try to lift at the gym  can end up  using weights that are not heavy enough to fully stimulate their muscles."

Using weights that allow you to do 12-15 reps in a controlled (proper) fashion would be a fairly good definition of weights that are not heavy enough to fully stimulate the muscles.

All in all it's a good article praising the benefits of strength training but it also keeps some long standing myths alive.

And truth be told, strength training offers a lot more benefits than the article mentions!