Adding a well structured resistance training program to your workout routine might be the missing piece in getting to your ideal body composition, reaching your overall health goals, or even managing stress. Resistance training is one of the most important types of exercise you can do, but is often skipped or done incorrectly.
So what is this “Resistance Training”? It can also be called strength training, weight lifting, and many other names. It refers to exercises that require your body to resist a force. This resistance requires your muscles to work harder, making them stronger in the process. Weights are the most common source of resistance, but you can also use the weight of your own body without needing fancy gym equipment or machines. Learning to do this is a useful skill so that if your gym ever closes or you are traveling, your health and muscle mass isn’t lost.
In this guide, we will explore all the components needed to build muscle and strength. These include build your ideal exercise program to stress your muscles, and also supporting your body’s muscle synthesis through nutrition, rest and recovery. When all these are done together, they result in stronger and bigger muscles.
Benefits of muscle mass
One of the most common reason people exercise is to look good in the mirror or feel more confident. Adding muscle can help transform your physique. This change in body composition — more muscle and less bodyfat — is often what people are often seeking, rather than simply weighing a lower number.
Want to get “toned”? Then you actually want to build muscle, or at the very least preserve muscle while you lose some body fat. Both of these will require doing resistance training correctly.
Want a 6 pack? You will definitely need to reduce bodyfat, but preserving muscle with resistance training and adequate protein will be a key part of doing this healthily and having visible muscle definition.
Want to work toward a superhero body? You guessed it — even more resistance training.
These types of aesthetic goals are generally the primary reason people want to gain muscle and go to the gym or try new diets. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and shouldn’t be your only motivation. The benefits of having adequate muscle mass and making resistance training a lifelong habit go far beyond just looks.
Whether your goal is longevity, productivity, losing weight or simply spending time with your family, having adequate muscle mass is essential. Even if you don’t care about physique at all, following this guide and resistance training will help in many other ways.
Reduce sarcopenia from aging
In your 30s and beyond, physically inactive people can lose muscle mass through a process known as sarcopenia. It happens by as much as 3-5% every decade. Resistance training can help prevent or even reverse this dangerous process, making it one of the building blocks for anyone interested in longevity. If you are already 30 or over, don’t worry. It’s never too late to start and rebuild the lost muscle!
Increased insulin sensitivity
Currently over 80 million adults in the US are prediabetic. Blood sugar disregulation is a very serious health issue for over a third of the population, and can lead to low energy and productivity in the short term, and eventually obesity and death. Resistance training expands the storage capacity for blood sugar in the muscles, improving insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and reversing symptoms of prediabetes.
Building muscles adds quality to the quantity of years in your life. As you age, having adequate muscle mass and avoiding sarcopenia leads to improvements in hormone production and balance, motor unit retention and increased protection against falls and fractures, which are common health risks of aging.
Strength and muscle helps you be able to do the things you enjoy in life, from keeping up with the kids as they get older and more agile, to being able to handle every days tasks such as shopping or home repairs with ease,
Support your joints
Muscles help absorb the forces that impact your joints. The joint stability that muscles can provide during movement can also protect against excessive stress, preventing joint issues from intense exercise or just getting older.
Maintain an effective immune system
Recent research in mice has shown strong skeletal muscles play an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system.
Prevent or reduce lower back pain
When programmed well, and adequate rest and recovery is taken, developing a strong core and posterior chain can help support the spinal discs. This promote good postures and can prevent or even cure lower back pain.
Improve sports performance
Developing powerful muscles specific to the areas needed for a particular sport can increase speed, power, strength and endurance, giving an athlete an edge, while also protecting them against injury from repetitive practice.
Resistance training increases muscle mass, which increases free testosterone, blood flow and the movements train your pelvic muscles, all of which can contribute to better performance in the bedroom.
Reduce anxiety, depression or low self-esteem
Exercise releases endorphins and other chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being. The process of getting stronger and reaching new Personal Records can also boost your sense of confidence and achievement.
Strength the central nervous system (CNS)
Resistance training develops motor control by activating motor units, special units held within your muscles that influence strength, movement and coordination.
Maintain mobility and flexibility, especially as we age
Contrary to popular myth, more muscle provides more room for mobility and flexibility, but with the added bonus of more strength within those extra ranges.
Increase bone strength, bone mineral density (BMD) and prevent bone loss
Studies have shown that strength training, over time, can increase the strength of your bones as well as your BMD, the amount of minerals in your bone tissue.
Improve metabolism and fat burning potential
More muscle means increased metabolic rate, which means more calories being metabolized for things like maintaining and building muscle, instead of storing this unused energy as bodyfat. Of course having more muscle is not a license to eat whatever you want unlimitedly, but gives you a bit more flexibility to enjoy the occasional treat.
What is Muscle?
Now that you are convinced that muscle mass is quite useful, let’s look deeper into the science. How does it work? Where it is stored? There are over 600 muscles in your body. They can be categorized as skeletal, smooth or cardiac.
Skeletal muscles are the most well recognized, and the ones this guide is focused on. They are responsible for the movement of all limbs and external parts of the body — essentially moving your skeleton.
Skeletal muscles usually come in pairs, each pulling in one direction and working together. When one muscle contracts or shortens, the other expands or lengthens, and we have produced movement. Think “quads and hamstrings” when you squat or “biceps and triceps” when you do a biceps curl or triceps extension.
Skeletal muscles attach to tendons. These tendons are either attached to or directly connected to bones, extending over the joints to keep them firm and stable. Each skeletal muscle contains hundreds of thousands of muscle fibers that are wrapped tightly together with a thin, transparent membrane called a perimysium. And every fiber is made up of blocks of proteins called myofibrils, containing a protein known as myoglobin, along with molecules that provide the oxygen and energy required for muscular contraction. Furthermore, each myofibril contains thick and thin filaments that shorten and lengthen during contraction, which gives skeletal muscle that familiar striated appearance.
You can think of these tissues — muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones — as the foundations of a house. A house that you will be living in for the rest of your life. You need to ensure you have strong foundations to sustain the stresses and loads placed upon it through life, or the house will become more and more brittle and unstable. You have no choice about the fact that you, and only you, will be living in this house for the rest of your life. But you can influence how strong the foundations can be.
Fast-Twitch and Slow-Twitch
There are two main types of muscle fibers, fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Both have significant differences and uses when it comes to activity, sports and strength training. The names refer to how quickly the muscle acts.
While genetics play a role in predetermining what percentage of each type of fiber you start with, your training can be targeted to produce more of a particular type, depending on your goals.
Type 1 / Red / Slow-Twitch Muscle Fibers
Type 1 muscles can contract for a long time with little effort, and sustain aerobic activity by using carbohydrates and fats for fuel. Think steady state running, cycling and swimming. They are rich with myoglobin and mitochondria and have plenty of capillaries that give them their well known red color.
Type 2a / White / Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers
Due to their lack of reliance on oxygen from blood, both Type 2 muscle fibers have a white appearance.
Type 2a have a fast contraction speed and can use both aerobic (oxygen dependant) and anaerobic (no oxygen used) energy sources. 2a fibers are best suited to speed, strength and power activities like moderate weight training (8-20 rep ranges for hypertrophy and endurance) and fast but still relatively lengthy events like a 400 meters race.
Type 2b / White / Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers
Type 2b contact extremely quickly, but fatigue faster too. They can only use anaerobic energy sources, so are suited to the extremes of speed, strength and power activities. Heavy weight lifting (1-3 reps), power lifting and 100 meter sprints, for example.
It is believed, for the most part, that the average person is born with approximately 50% fast twitch and 50% slow twitch muscle fibers, however people can certainly be born with a slightly higher or lower percentage of each determined by genetics.
For example, studies have shown the ACTN3 gene to be linked to increases in strength and endurance, and it contains instructions for the production of a protein found in fast twitch muscle fibers, called alpha (α)-actinin-3. Variants within the gene work both ways though. The genotype variant known as 577RR is linked to a greater amount of fast twitch fibers, and has been found to be more prevalent in strength and power athletes.
Conversely, a variant in this gene called R577X can lead to the production of a shortened α-actinin-3 protein that is quick to break down. If you have this variant in both copies of the ACTN3 gene, it can lead to a total absence of α-actinin-3, reducing the amount of fast twitch fibers and increasing the amount of slow twitch. This genotype is known as 577XX and has been found to be more dominant in long distance endurance athletes.
The question is, regardless of your genetics, can you change your muscle fiber types through training?
The general consensus seems to say mostly yes, however the research is still ongoing. What we’re still debating:
- Exactly how much we can change through training alone
- Whether muscle fiber types are more malleable when younger
- Whether changes can occur across muscle fiber types (Type 1 to 2), or just within the same type (Type 2a to 2b)
However, it is pretty clear that training for hypertrophy, speed, strength and power will recruit and develop more Type 2 fibers. Training for endurance will recruit and develop more Type 1.
Most people begin with a pretty balanced distribution of muscle fibers. This means that with a well constructed training program, you can develop whatever levels of strength, size, speed or power you put your mind to!
The Muscle Pyramid — Hierarchy of Needs
There are many pieces to the puzzle of building muscle. Some people go to the gym for years without seeing significant results. Here is a simple hierarchy of needs. They all build on top of each other to achieve proper muscle growth.
Nutrition is extremely important for building muscle. However, if you’re not producing the required amount of intensity and stress from your training, food alone won’t produce any muscle. You could say training is the heat, food is the fuel, and sleep is the oxygen. Adequate levels of all three are required for the fire to start burning and stay burning.
Recovery is at the top of the pyramid because you could still build some muscle if the lower 2 levels are optimized, but recovery isn’t. However, it won’t be as much as. Sleep and adequate recovery is very important to get good results as well as be healthy long term, and should be treated as part of your training.
The aim of this guide is to provide you with the tools and knowledge to take control of every level of this muscle-building pyramid. Following the simple instructions in this guide, you should be able to enjoy sustainable, healthy and on-going gains for years to come.
There are many reasons to add resistance training and muscle building in your life.
- Muscle can improve many areas of your health, from joint support to sex drive to immunity.
- Skeletal muscle is responsible for all physical movement. Type 2a/b muscle fibers are the main areas of focus in strength and hypertrophy training. For increasing these, genetics matter but hard work and consistency matters much more.
- For muscle growth, diet and training should be done correctly at the same time. Training needs to be taking place for diet and recovery to contribute to muscle growth. Diet and recovery need to be optimized for the results from training to be significant and sustainable.