What do Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jordan all have in common (besides having tons of money)? Several times a week, they all work out using progressive resistance training. Or to use the more popular terminology, they “pump iron.”
Weight training (also called body-building) is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. Fifteen or 20 years ago, weight lifting was seen as an activity that produced uncoordinated, muscle-bound men with no necks and with thighs the size of tree trunks. Although these monster men were acknowledged as strong, they weren’t necessarily considered fit, well-conditioned athletes.
Today, the stereotype of a body-builder as a muscle-bound, inflexible hulk is disappearing. Serious athletes in every sport and millions of Americans who just want to get in shape include weight training as a part of their total fitness program.
What do all these people gain from pumping iron? Skeletal muscle (muscle attached to bones) consists of tiny bands of protein that shorten during muscle contractions. Although you can’t make new muscle tissue, you can make what there is stronger by working against progressively heavier amounts of resistance. As you gradually work with an increasing amount of weight, your body adapts by adding more protein to the muscle.
Exercises like calisthenics, running, swimming, and biking offer a fixed resistance. No matter how long or how often you do them, your muscles are always working against the same amount of resistance. Over time, you’ll get better at these exercises, your endurance will improve, and your cardiovascular system will benefit. But after an initial small strength gain, you won’t get any stronger. To keep getting stronger, you have to keep increasing resistance so your muscles will continue to adapt. That’s progressive resistance training.
You don’t really want bigger muscles, you say? Noticeable increase in muscle size from weight training is actually slight. An adult male who’s trying very hard to “bulk up” may gain no more than 5 pounds of muscle mass in a year! Getting really big is extremely difficult. You must first have the genes for it. Then you must put in several hours of training three to four times a week. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible for women to develop large muscles from weight training. It’s the male hormones that allow men’s muscles to grow in size.
A Stronger Body
What can you expect from weight training? Probably the first change you’ll notice is increased strength. Taking the garbage out or carrying grocery bags will be easier. You’ll have more strength for other sports. You’ll be able to hit a baseball or softball with more force, pin a wrestling opponent with more ease, and swim laps with more power.
Skeletal muscle is the main site of metabolism, the reactions that release energy from food. As you build more muscle, your metabolic rate will speed up. This means you can eat more without gaining weight. Additionally, your body will use up some of its fat stores for energy. As the fat beneath the skin diminishes, the outline of firm muscle underneath will begin to stand out. (Body-builders call this being “cut” or “ripped.”) An increased metabolic rate also means you’ll have more energy, and you’ll probably sleep better, too.
The benefits of weight training extend beyond those related to metabolism. When skeletal muscles move, they move bones. So your bones get stronger. Your posture improves because the muscles of your back get stronger. When you train using a circuit (lifting light weights in rapid succession), your cardiovascular system can be strengthened. Your heart, also a muscle, pumps blood more efficiently. The smooth muscles around arteries and veins become more elastic. This fights hardening of the arteries and helps lower blood pressure. For total fitness, aerobic exercise (such as jogging, swimming, biking) must be done in addition to lifting.
A Stronger Mind
Perhaps the most dramatic change you may see from strength training involves your mind. As you begin to feel your body getting stronger, you begin to feel better about yourself. You gain self-confidence. When you start feeling better about yourself, you look better, which makes you feel even better…. It’s a nonvicious cycle.
Unlike most sports, weight training is essentially a solitary activity. It’s just you and the weights. Almost every time you work out, you’ll notice gains in strength. You could lift only 10 pounds last week, for example, but this week you can lift 15. Your sense of accomplishment is immediate and measurable.
Because weight training is solitary, it’s adaptable to your individual capabilities and needs. You control what exercises you’ll do, how much weight you’ll use, how many repetitions, etc. With the help of an experienced trainer or coach, you can design a program just for you.
How early can you start weight training? Experts will tell you “when the body is ready.” This can be anywhere between the ages of about 14 and 19. When you think you’re ready, speak with your doctor first, then to your physical education teacher or coach about designing a program. If weight training begins too soon, you could damage the epiphyseal plates, which would result in decreasing bone growth.
Keep a few rules in mind. Never work out alone; get a partner or trainer. Follow your program faithfully. Fight the urge to use heavy weights; this can cause serious injury. Train your whole body, and use low weights with many repetitions. Eat well.
A total fitness program that includes some weight training will make you feel and look your best.