As a gym owner, trainer, and lover of all things strength I often find myself having to defend strength training and educate others on the benefits of working with weights. Our society has perpetuated quite a few myths about weight training in general with little-to-no evidence to back it up. Beyond just blabbing about lifting weights, I want to set my laser focus on a primary result of weight training that can and will benefit every person on the planet: improved lean muscle mass.
Now before you roll your eyes and close your internet browser, let's get past the term "mass." I mean this in no other context than matter, substance, material that consists of weight. Got it? So erase the picture of the monstrous bodybuilder that just worked its way into your brain. Ok, thanks. I forgive you. Let's move on.
Other than the bones, fluids, organs and all that other good stuff in your body, you have muscle and fat that contribute to your overall body weight. This article will look at the health benefits of optimizing your level of lean muscle (in relation to body fat). Stay tuned for the next article focusing on the aesthetic implications and misconceptions regarding muscle mass.
Each of us has a unique resting metabolic rate (RMR). This describes the amount of energy we expend when our body is at rest, meaning we are basically doing no activity. Those who have more lean muscle mass will typically demand a higher amount of energy (i.e. calories). In fact, muscle is the biggest contributor to your metabolic rate.
When people say things like "muscle burns more calories than fat," what they really mean is that it requires more calories to maintain your muscle mass than that of fat. Body fat is simply the result of our body's storage system when there is an excess of calories. If you have a low body fat percentage, the furnace that is your metabolism is burning white hot. As a result, your body can typically handle a higher caloric intake much more efficiently than someone with a higher body fat percentage.
A big mistake that many people make when dieting is cutting calories too much. This tactic often taps into your existing lean muscle mass as well as fat. The result is a slower metabolism (up to 30% slower!). Why would your metabolism slow down? Because you aren't keeping up with the demand to maintain your healthy muscle tissue. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) warns that calories should never be below 1200 calories for women and 1800 calories for men. Those are even considered to be some low numbers. Are you in that range?
Health Markers and Muscle Mass
Beyond improving your metabolism (which is huge!), there are many other crucial health markers and conditions that can be improved by improving and maintaining lean muscle mass. Some of these include:
- Decreased blood pressure & prevention of hypertension
- Increased bone density
- Reduced impact of rheumatoid arthritis
- Prevention and improvement of diabetes
- Better blood sugar control
- Prevention/correction of obesity
- Reduced or improved back pain
- Improved sleep
Let's take the first bullet for example --- blood pressure. Some doctors will have a hypertensive or pre-hyertensive patient stay away from resistance training and stick to traditional cardio. This is a mistake. In fact, studies have shown that weight training improved blood pressure by more points than aerobic exercise, reduced sodium intake, and general weight loss (remember that weight loss doesn't mean FAT loss). If resistance training stimulates growth of muscle tissues and aerobic exercise generally does not, then we may just be on to something with this lean muscle stuff!
The moral of the story is that you can function better as a human by maintaining a good amount of lean muscle. The human body is meant to have muscle to function properly and letting it atrophy (which will happen naturally as we age) will be detrimental.
It isn't necessary to lift maximal loads or train every day. However, it IS necessary to incorporate challenging resistance training in your routine to keep your body capable of picking up your kids, moving heavy objects, sitting down and standing up, etc. If you are being responsible, there seem to only be up sides to improving your lean muscle composition. However, the down sides could be a life of medical dependency, reduced functionality, and poor quality of life. Bummer, right?
If you want to get started on the right foot and learn about your own RMR and body fat %, join our New Year Body Composition Challenge which kicks off January 25th. Reserve an appointment for your initial body fat test before 1/25/16 and get customized nutrition guidance for this 8-week challenge.
-Taylor Race, head coach and co-owner of SPSC CrossFit at St. Pete Strength and Conditioning