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“I think folks outlive their muscles, meaning that they are fine mentally and cardiowise but have so little muscle strength that they can’t catch themselves...when they start to fall.” Paul D. Thompson, MD, NY Times.com (More Than an Exercise in Vanity)

New York Times Gets Lifting Right—Almost

Progressive Resistance without Progress

Gina Kolata, who writes timely pieces on health and fitness for The New York Times, does it again with “More Than an Exercise in Vanity.” She swings for the fences, but only gets to second or perhaps third base. She’s a cardio geek at heart, so maybe we should give her some slack when it comes to lifting weights. Nah, I don’t think so.

She begins by telling us that muscle health is very important, especially as we get older. Function, she says, is what matters; not bulk. “Healthy muscles…are those that have been worked, stressed and pushed to their limit so that they have enough power and strength to get you through life, especially as you grow older,” she writes. “And keeping muscles fit takes effort, which means regular training with weight lifting and cardiovascular exercise even if the results are not a sculptured look,” she adds.

She’s batting a thousand so far. She even tells readers to concentrate on the “antigravity muscles, those in the back and legs.” Arm strength is also important, she allows.

She then goes on to lament that the few who do lift weights often use incorrect techniques. Those that train on their own buy weights that are too light, she counsels. Those that go to gyms are intimidated by people they see “grunting and straining” and also end up using weights that are “not heavy enough to fully stimulate their muscles.” This is especially true of women, who are afraid of bulking up, according to experts she consulted.

At that point she’s only a little off the mark by overemphasizing the need to lift “heavy.” See Forget Heavy: http://www.cbass.com/Carpinelli.htm. As explained there, effort is the key. Both light and heavy weights will do the job, as long as the last rep or so is challenging. (Light might be a weight you can lift 20 times, and heavy perhaps 5 reps.)

Only when she attempts a detailed lifting prescription does she strike out. She still stresses the need to lift “heavy,” but her primary error is one of omission.

Here’s what she wrote:

The most effective way to stimulate muscles is with a system known as progressive resistance. This approach can take about three hours a week and includes days, once a week or so, when you lift weights so heavy that you can do only three to five repetitions before your muscles are too tired to lift again.

 Other days are devoted to moderate resistance, with weights you can lift 8 to 10 times. And then you should have some light days, with weights you can lift 12 to 15 times before your muscles tire.

What did she leave out? She fails to explain the fundamental principle of strength training, the one scientific principle on which everyone agrees: Overload. She mentions progressive resistance, but she doesn’t put in plain words what it means. (One might think that progressive resistance is self explanatory; unfortunately, it’s not. A surprising number of trainers are not familiar with the term or the concept.)

There are many theories in the ever-evolving field of weight training, but overload is the one principle that’s beyond dispute. It simply says to increase strength and muscle you must continually challenge yourself to get stronger--extend your limits.

There’s even a story from Greek mythology illustrating the principle. The mythical hero Milo of Croton became the strongest man in the world by lifting and carrying a calf every day until it grew into a full-grown bull. The point, of course, is that Milo achieved the pinnacle of strength by starting with the manageable calf and grew stronger as the animal slowly grew in size and weight. He would’ve failed miserably had he begun with the full-grown bull. By starting with the calf and continuing to hoist the animal as it gradually gained weight his body was able to slowly adapt to the load.

Successful weight training requires that you do the same; start with resistance that’s moderately hard—for you. You then increase the resistance as your strength increases. It takes effort, patienceand persistence. With very rare exceptions, it works every time it's tried.

The problem is that very smart people like Gina Kolata don’t take time to explain it to weight-training newbies; many long-time lifters continue to use the same resistance workout after workout and could also use a gentle wake-up call

The bottom line is repetitions—5, 10, or 15—make no difference as long as the resistance at the end of the set requires effort. To progress, you must continue to up the ante, overload your muscles, as you become stronger. (Varying repetitions from time to time does help maintain motivation, but it is not an absolute requirement.)

Progressive resistance requires that you train progressively. Fail to be mindful of that basic idea, and you will stagnate. Continue to make effort the governing principle of your training and you will grow stronger. You literally cannot fail.

For more details on the mechanics of effort-based training, read my book Great Expectations http://www.cbass.com/GreatExpectations.htm .

[Our December 1 Update will include a discussion of a review article explaining the practical application of effort-based training. You'll be amazed at the personal-preference options available.]

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