At the beginning of the new year, millions of us vow to get healthier and fitter, which will usually involve getting our heart rates up with some extra cardio, whether that’s running, walking, cycling or swimming.
And this is excellent for boosting heart health, lowering blood pressure and supporting the immune system. Plus, if you’re looking to lose excess weight, teaming cardio with a healthy, balanced diet can help shift pounds.
However, there’s a big area of fitness that experts say millions of people are ignoring in their health-kick: building muscle. Strength training is often far down people’s priority lists, particularly if their main aim is weight-loss, or if the weight section of a gym simply seems alien. But it seems we could be missing a trick.
“Being stronger is vital for health, sports performance, losing weight, gaining muscle, recovering from an injury and improving mobility,” says human movement and performance coach Luke Worthington (lukeworthington.com), who describes strength as the “most important facet of a fitness programme”.
Here are some of the reasons maintaining and/or building muscle is a vital part of overall fitness – whatever your age or gender…
To do cardio safely, you need strength
Worthington says uptake in participation in fitness at this time of year is only ever a good thing, but he adds: “Jumping headfirst into hours of repetitive cardio isn’t always a good idea.
“Cardiovascular exercise, especially when on a new year health-kick, often involves repeating the same action over and over again, so in other words, producing and absorbing the same forces for multiple repetitions. To do this effectively and safely requires strength.”
Muscle is a great fat-burning tool
What if you could burn fat by lazing around in from of the TV? Well, actually you can – if you’ve done the work in the gym first. “The more muscle mass you have, the higher your basal metabolic rate will be,” explains head of fitness at Fiit (fiit.tv), Gede Foster.
Figures vary in different studies but Foster says: “Muscle tissue burns seven to 10 calories daily per pound, while fat burns two to three. So the more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn just sitting on the sofa.”
Nutrition and fitness expert Tom Jenane (natureshealthbox.co.uk), adds: “Strength training also helps the transportation of glucose to the muscle, which helps you to control your blood sugar levels.” Which, in turn, can help regulate weight.
Those who most need to build muscle are often most likely to skip it
“The people most likely to avoid strength training are women, those trying to lose weight, and the elderly. These are, however, the three populations for which strength training is the most important,” says Worthington.
As people get older, muscles lose strength and mass, known as sarcopenia. Therefore strength training for older people can be particularly important.
“As well as [helping] keep you mobile and pain-free, strength training is essential for maintaining bone mineral content and reducing the risk of osteoporosis,” he says. “It’s fundamental to joint health and pain prevention.”
It can be empowering
“Strength training in women of all ages promotes bone density and healthy hormonal balance,” says Worthington. “Aside from the physical benefits, with my female clients that strength train, [they find it] very empowering – giving a real and tangible goal of, for example, completing your first pull up.”
Foster adds: “After the age of 30, women’s bone density and muscle mass start to decrease if we don’t do something about it. It’s literally the ‘use it or lose it’ saying.”
Being stronger can help prevent injuries, aches and pains
It’s generally acknowledged that having a strong core is better for posture, and a good posture means some people are less likely to have back pain (but the causes of back pain can be many different things).
“One of the most overlooked areas is how it can actually help to prevent injuries,” says Jenane. “A huge portion of the time, when people have lower back pain, it is because they haven’t used the muscles enough and fat has built up where the muscle should be. If those muscles have become weak over time then they are over relying on the connecting tendons.”
No, it won’t make you bulky
Worthington says putting on muscle is actually a “very hard” thing to do. “Broadly speaking, a healthy male training and eating specifically to build muscle, is physiologically capable of putting on muscle at a rate of 1% of their body weight per month – and that’s someone really trying their hardest to!
“Not wanting to work with weights for fear of becoming too bulky is a little like not taking your driving lessons through fear of accidentally winning the F1,” he says.
You don’t need to lift heavy weights
A 2016 study by McMaster University in the Journal of Applied Physiology challenged the traditional notion of heavy weightlifting, saying that lifting lighter weights (like smaller dumbbells) was often as efficient as lifting heavy weights with fewer repetitions.
Personal Trainer Kira Mahal, founder of MotivatePT (motivatept.co.uk) and Reset LDN, says: “Whilst many people think you need to be squatting or dead-lifting large bars to increase your muscle mass, this is simply untrue. You don’t need to spend hours in the weights room at the gym; it’s as easy as using basic equipment like ankle weights and resistance bands which drive muscle growth by activating the fibres in the muscle.”
Small, light dumbbells are also a good place to start but body-weight exercises – using your own body as resistance instead of weights – can do wonders. Mahal recommends incorporating this into your training two to four times a week, and says the best body-weight exercises to start with are push-ups, squats, lunges and planks.
She says: “Make sure you are progressively overloading by increasing the number of reps for the allocated time limit in body-weight training every couple of sessions, and moving from easier to more difficult variations of the moves, as well as steadily increasing your weight or resistance if using extra equipment.”
Always seek advice from your own doctor or physio before starting a new training regime, especially if you have a history of injuries or health problems.