If you are new to lifting weights, it can be a daunting prospect. However, with the right approach, anyone can and should lift weights. Lifting weights reduces the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes by improving blood glucose and lipid (cholesterol and fat) levels. Weight training reduces feelings of depression in those with cancer and improves symptoms and disease burden in those with fibromyalgia. Lifting weights has also been shown to be safe and effective in stroke patients, diabetics, in those with arthritis, and after heart attacks.
Luckily for us, all the studies which have shown the benefits of lifting weights follow a simple formula that we can apply ourselves.
As strength is very individual, studies prescribe lifting based on percentages of a person’s “one repetition max” (1RM). This is the maximum weight that somebody can lift once (the clue, of course, is in the name). A 1RM is such that you couldn’t do a second repetition, and could not add any more weight and still make a successful lift. A good example is the barbell squat (click link).
This month, a study showed that performing weighted squats improved bone quality in women over 60 with osteoporosis. They lifted 3-5 repetitions of squats at 85-90% of their 1RM three times per week for 12 weeks. A “control” group of identical women was advised to “increase physical activity”, as is standard for those with osteoporosis. The control group followed no fixed exercise plan, and saw no improvement in bone health.
All successful weight lifting studies I mention above follow this rough structure:
- Two or three time per week.
- 3 sets of 3-12 repetitions at 80-90% of 1RM.
- Rest for 3-5 minutes between each set.
- Sessions last less than an hour.
Lower repetition ranges with heavier weights (3-5 repetitions) build strength, while doing more repetitions (8-12) with slightly less weight will help improve muscle mass, which is particularly important as we get older. Age-related loss of muscle mass is a key factor in people becoming frail in later life, and lifting weights can prevent that.
Some people will be worried about appearing “muscular” after lifting weights. Many of the benefits of exercise do come from increasing muscle mass. More muscle means a higher metabolic rate and better insulin, glucose and fat metabolism.
You should also remember that the images you see of “bodybuilders” are the result of years of daily training, dieting and (especially in the very muscular men and women), steroid abuse. Bodybuilders train for their performance, not health. In our health-based protocols, a small amount of muscle gain will make you look and feel stronger, improve your posture and help you lose weight.
Everybody should squat. Squatting works every muscle from the neck down.
If you squat every time you lift, then including one “pulling” exercise and one “pushing” exercise will cover almost every muscle in the body. No need for fancy machines, crunches or bicep curls.
Discuss this with someone who is able to take you through the movements. The key is roughly three sets of just three exercises (squat, push, pull), two or three times per week. You should keep it relatively heavy - 80-90% of your maximum – as this is where we see the real benefit.
Pulling exercises include “rowing” actions with weights, pull-ups, pull-down machines and deadlifts.
Pushing exercises include push-ups, bench press and pressing weights over your head from shoulder level.
Everyone has to start somewhere, and you can begin to increase strength at home:
Anybody can do a push-up. Start by doing them against the wall, then against a table, then on the floor on your knees, before moving on to a full push-up. And you can squat at home, with a bag of sand, or some dumbbells in your hands to add weight.
Remember – Squat plus push-up equals burpee. And burpees will save your life.
Just 10 squats, 10 push-ups and 10 burpees a day would be enough to keep you in good muscle condition as you reach your 70s, 80s and 90s.
Short intervals of maximum-effort exercise, much like sprinting the 100 metres at the Olympics, reduce your cardiovascular risk by increasing VO2Max. If your goal is optimum health, sprints do this far better than longer-distance endurance training. They are less stressful on the body, improve glucose and insulin control and encourage greater fat loss.
Below are some protocols that have been shown to work:
- Eight intervals of 20 seconds cycling with 10 seconds rest between each. This is often called the “tabata” protocol.
- 20 minutes alternating 15 seconds maximum-effort running with 15 seconds rest.
- Six intervals of 10 seconds maximum effort cycling, with 4 minutes of gentle cycling in between.
- Six intervals of 30 seconds, with 4 minutes rest.
- Two 10-20 second cycling sprints with 3 minutes rest between each.
- 8 seconds of maximum effort cycling followed by 12 seconds rest, repeated 30 times over 10 minutes.
- A single four-minute maximum cycling effort.
- Three four-minute cycling intervals with three minutes rest in between each.
If you really look at all of these protocols, they have two things in common:
- They all last less than twenty minutes
- The amount of actual work done isn’t that much - as little as ONE minute total.
They key here is intensity. These are all-out, nothing-left-in-the-tank efforts each time. However, you will get a good period of rest to recover after each sprint.
When it comes to sprinting, it’s best to keep it simple and go with what you know works.
My favourite is sprinting up hills. It’s better for your joints that running on the flat and requires no extra equipment. If you are proficient with a rowing machine, kettlebell or skipping rope, you could also use these for your “sprints”.
After warming-up on your chosen exercise, just pick one of those protocols and follow it through. If you do a different one every time, two-three times per week, that list itself will last you a month. Ideally, sprint after your lifting. The whole session will still last less than an hour.
Walking is the simplest form of exercise we can do. It reduces the risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death. Just walking to work reduces the risk of being overweight or obese by 20% and the risk of having high blood pressure by 17%. The risk of having high blood pressure is reduced by 40% in those walking more than 2 miles to work.
The best effects of walking appear to come when you do more than two and a half hours per week. That sounds like a lot initially, but it’s actually just the equivalent of walking 15 minutes each-way to work and back, five times per week.
How fast you should walk? People have tried to measure this in a number of fancy ways, and it seems that walking more than 5km per hour (roughly 3 miles per hour) provides the most benefit. Accordingly, a recent study by some enterprising doctors looking at walking speed and the risk of death estimated that the Grim Reaper cannot walk faster than around 2 miles per hour.
Walking at 80% of your maximum speed has been shown to be the most sustainable brisk pace. You can calculate that if you feel so inclined, but I would just walk as if you’re late for work.
No one can prescribe a “one-size-fits-all” approach to people over the internet. Although the above has been proven to be safe in a number of conditions, I would always recommend that you get some basic instruction from a coach at a local gym. They will be able to work around any issues you have with injuries or specific areas of weakness.
Please don’t barrel into the gym and try to find your 1RM right off the bat – a good coach should help with technique as well as estimating how much weight you should be lifting.
It is also worth mentioning that, if you are currently taking statins, there can be some issues with suddenly increasing your level of physical activity. Exercise can increase the risk of the muscle-soreness, which is associated with statins. Statins have also been shown to impede the ability of exercise to improve fitness, part of which may be due to the fact that statins reduce testosterone levels in both men and women.
This by no means precludes those on statins from exercising, but it is always worth discussing this with your doctor. Exercise improves you cholesterol just as statins are meant to, and if you are committed to improving your health through lifestyle, you should be able to replace one with the other!
Lift Big, Sprint Short, Walk Daily
In summary, exercising for optimum health can involve as little as walking half an hour a day, and lifting/sprinting two to three times per week. Personally, I am a fan of Crossfit, simply because most sessions include lifting and sprinting in one. However, some basic instruction on lifting, and a pair of running shoes is all you really need.
Walking can then be easily incorporated into your daily routine. Walk to work. Walk to unwind. Walk to get your family outdoors.
If you are new to lifting weights, take this article and discuss it with a coach at your local gym. They will help you to construct a simple programme that will keep you strong and sexy for as long as possible.
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