Why strength train? The most touted benefits of exercise are cardio respiratory in nature which are especially responsive to ‘conditioning’ (think endurance and interval training) modalities. However, recent evidence has shed light on the benefits of strength training beyond getting stronger or looking better.
First of all, strength training builds muscle. Obviously this will make you stronger and you’ll look better, however building lean muscle can also have implications for a host of health and fitness pursuits. Let’s begin with the less obvious reasons why strength training and increasing lean muscle is important.
Skeletal muscle is a deceptively complex tissue which not only serves as the motor that effects movement, but also has a number of regulatory functions within the body.
Historically, muscle was considered relatively ‘dumb’, operating and adapting at the whim of the nervous and endocrine systems. It is now understood that muscle is a dynamic endocrine organ in its own right producing signalling molecules called myokines that exert an effect on a number of tissues within the body. Myokines can signal the uptake of blood sugar into muscle and the burning of fat stores. Contracting muscle can even release a molecule (called ‘BDNF’) that is associated with enhancements in memory, learning and bodyweight regulation.
It should be noted that most forms of exercise requiring repeated muscle contractions will probably elicit these effects, but the best means we have of maximally activating and fatiguing muscle is strength training. It’s plausible that this might have a unique influence on the above cascade of responses.
Contracting muscle is metabolically expensive. A good proxy for the metabolic rate of a tissue is the blood supply, which can increase up to 20 times in active muscle during maximal exercise. Therefore, in a given training session the more muscle mass you have the more energy you’ll burn. Resting muscle is also expensive (about 13 calories per kg per day are required just to maintain it), but more importantly, it serves as a reservoir for blood sugar. The more muscle mass you have relative to total body mass the better you are at burning carbohydrate rich and sugary foods versus storing them as fat.
Not only will this have positive implications for how you look, feel and perform, but will also reduce your risk of diabetes and associated symptoms. Building or at least maintaining muscle mass is also critical during periods of weight loss (or more appropriately, fat loss) as it provides the shape and definition that many of us are pursuing with our training.
Finally, the obvious advantage of strength training is the improvement in muscle strength. Strength is a primary determinant of power, reduces the risk of injury and is even a factor in endurance performance. Effectively, being stronger means you’re more likely to break the line during Rugby, beat a defender on the outside during Football, or hold a faster pace during a half-marathon.
For most of you weekend warriors out there, increasing strength and lean muscle mass will be a critical component to your health, fitness and performance endeavour. Time to get lifting!