From the time we are born, we’ve unknowingly done strength training. It began with our first breath. Until that point, till we were in our mother’s womb and we didn’t need to breathe, but once out in this world, we had to breathe to survive. In the womb, a baby's lungs are filled with fluid. When a child cries for the first time, they have effectively gone against environmental resistance and have sucked in their first breath. If the child doesn’t cry soon enough, the nurse pats them on the back to make them cry so they can start breathing. And as we’ve seen in movies, that pat on the back gets progressively a little harder as time passes by without the child crying.
As we grow up, society repeatedly tells us that push-ups are very difficult to do as we are too weak to do them, and we spend a lifetime following this self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not only about push-ups, but everything in life. But, what if I told you that you had done your first push-up, that too with good form when you were just an infant?
By the age of three months, while lying on our tummies we were able to push-up on our arms, lift up our upper body and even hold our heads up. Most of us were also able to move our fists from a closed position to an open one, were able to bring our hands to our mouth and move our legs and arms off of surfaces when excited. Think of these both as physically and philosophically. And I repeat, all of this by the time we were only three months old. We need to unlearn what we’ve been told and focus on getting back to doing what we instinctively did as a three-month-old. We need to get back to being human again, rather than being another brick in the wall.
Strength training, also known as resistance training, involves muscle contraction against external weight, including going against gravity, as we have done since our birth. This leads to muscle strength, muscle mass and improves physical performance. And, as we’ve known for ages, this further improves mental performance too and is hence, crucial for overall health.
Now the problem is, even those who are convinced that resistance training is good for them, don’t start because they get confused by so many ‘experts’ preaching different things. Another reason for people not walking the path of 'redemption' is that they’ve been told repeatedly that whatever they’ll do won't be enough to make any consequential change.
A research paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in June this year looked at the correct prescription (protocol) for resistance training that positively affects muscle strength, muscle growth (hypertrophy) and physical function. In the study, physical function was subdivided into three domains: Mobility, the ability to physically move; balance, the ability to maintain a body position during a task; and gait speed, the time taken to locomote over a given distance.
Brad S Currier and his colleagues from McMaster University, Canada, looked at 192 high-quality studies over the last 40 years of literature that examined healthy adults over the age of 18 years. They excluded trials that included elite athletes, military personnel and people with known diseases, and also studies that were shorter than 6 weeks of duration and had unsupervised resistance training (home-based).
The authors summarised the most up-to-date evidence using network meta-analysis, a method that allowed them to simultaneously compare multiple resistance training protocols and prescriptions and assess their comparative effectiveness, providing more accurate results. The most studied resistance training prescription variables were weights lifted during the exercise, number of sets of each exercise and weekly frequency of resistance training.
The authors found that the best strategy for significant adaptations would be for resistance training with heavier weights, with multiple sets (2-3 sets) of each exercise and 2-3 times a week. But they also found that resistance training done with lower or higher loads with even more than three sets of each exercise also showed significant adaptations. This helps address the argument about two divisive schools of thought. The schools of thought involve firstly, an ongoing argument if people should do high-intensity training, which is a lot less comfortable, or secondly, exercise at a lot less intensity, so it's more comfortable and hence more likely to be done for longer periods.
When it comes specifically to improving ‘strength’, doing resistance training with a higher load (heavier weights) is the one variable that is superior to the rest. The summary of the studies looked at by Currier and the team also found that if the focus is on ‘muscle growth’ (bulking up), doing multiple sets of resistance exercises yielded optimal results. This might surprise folks who think that to build muscle it is crucial to train only with heavier weights. Also, exercising to failure has previously been demonstrated to lead to muscle growth but this study didn’t find that, just that the problem is that most don't enjoy pushing themselves extremely hard, and soon quit resistance training altogether. These findings help with customising resistance training with a specific objective in mind.
They also found that as soon as individuals start resistance training, no matter how light the weight is, even doing one set only once a week, is effective at improving strength, building muscle size, and improving physical function. This is definitely true for those who are just getting started. It is important for people to take a leap of faith and actually become practitioners of resistance training.
Their findings might seem obvious to folks who haven’t delved deep enough into the field of resistance training for health, well-being and sickness, but as Prof. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School once said, while quoting Sherlock Holmes, “When someone tries to sell us a simple answer to a complex problem, it will be simplistic and worthless. But if someone grinds deeply through its complexity and then offers a simple explanation, it is priceless.” That’s exactly what Currier and his team did.
What does this mean for the individuals who want to start training? I have been preaching GOYA (Get Off Your Arse) since 2009. You need to simply get started rather than procrastinating, thinking whether and if it will work. The study by Currier and his team found showed a 95% probability that resistance training with at least two sets or two sessions per week increased strength and training with at least two sets and two sessions per week resulted in muscle hypertrophy (an increase in muscle mass).
Doing resistance training with lower loads increases strength as compared to those not exercising, so don’t let your sloppy self or nay-sayers discourage you from getting started. In any case, as a beginner, always start with light weights to avoid any unnecessary injuries. The discipline to carry on doing resistance training for life is far more crucial than anything else.
First, get used to resistance exercises, then focus on good form while doing every single repetition. Studies earlier have demonstrated that exercising to failure leads to optimal muscle growth but Currier and team found that’s not the case in untrained people. I have been an advocate of working till failure [meaning you reach the point at which whatever part of your body you're working out literally gives out (or fails) and you physically can't complete another repetition with good form] for the last two decades, from the time I was first introduced to Arthur Jones’ High-Intensity Training (HIT) workouts and during my time as head of the London centre at Kieser Training, a German chain of strength training rehabilitation.
Second, most people who workout using HIT, tend not to follow the basics. The form of exercising needs to be impeccable during each repetition, or else injury can happen easily. This study personally helps me in not recommending working out till failure to people who don’t need to be doing it. As for highly trained and motivated people, momentary muscular failure is increasingly important to improve their muscle strength, muscle growth and physical function.
Finally, as explained above, this is good news for individuals who don’t have a preference for heavier weight or working till failure, and also if they have time constraints and can only do resistance once or twice a week. The findings of this study fully support the World Health Organisation’s statement, “Some physical activity is better than doing none”, so just get started, as you would have as a three-month-old.
Keep miling and smiling.
Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days
He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.
The views expressed are personal