The Problem With Lifting Too Little
A recent television commercial advertised the wonders of a new type of cat litter. The scenes transition from a woman in a parking lot loading her car after shopping, who throws the cat litter to a man on a bicycle, who then throws it to the person in the next scene and so on. How is this possible? Because the cat litter is a new kind of ultra-lightweight cat litter.
Everything is getting lighter, easier and less difficult. At the same time, humanity is getting heavier, everyday life feels harder and more difficult, with many people feeling exhausted despite having done very little taxing physical work on any given day. We keep lowering the physical bar for ourselves and our physiology is adapting by reducing our capacity as well.
Yet most of us want to live in capable bodies and feel good while going about our day. In our workouts, we want to see results for our efforts. A prominent “celebrity trainer” insists that women should never lift more than 3 pounds, which is like telling every mother and grandmother to never pick up or hold her children or grandchildren—ever again. How does such unequivocally terrible advice not get you stripped of celebrity-trainer status? Because many people—especially women—are often more terrified of looking manly than they are of living in an unfit, incapable body.
In general, females naturally have less testosterone than men and as a result, their bodies are less responsive to the muscle-building effects of properly executed strength training. It is very difficult for men to build large muscles, and it takes significantly more effort for women to do so.
One universal truth of the human body that helps explain many physical phenomena is that our biology is adaptive. Muscle makes your body more capable, and feeling more capable allows you to do more things in everyday life and in your workouts. Bringing a challenge to your physical self makes your body build itself stronger to meet the demand of whatever the next challenge might be. This adaption eventually delivers a feeling of confident movement that is like no other.
But we have to ask for it. And heavier weights are the question.
We have to ask our bodies to build some muscle. With the physical demands of life getting too easy (riding mowers, ultralight cat litter, etc.), we have two options:
-Do everyday things the hard way.
-Do heavier strength training.
For more on the first one, see my recent blog for Discovery Health. For the second one, if you haven’t been doing any strength training, start! And if you have, make sure you are lifting heavier (one to two times per week is all it takes for most common fitness goals). The following recommendation is to make sure the majority of people are getting the most from their strength-training efforts, so this will likely not apply to anyone already performing sufficiently challenging workouts already. To those people, keep it up! For everyone else, try this:
-Choose one or two exercises that follow each of the five primary movement patterns from the ACE Integrate Fitness Training® Model. (You will have five to 10 exercises total.) These exercises could include the deadlift, squat, shoulder press, row or cable chop, for example.
-Perform two to four sets of each exercise (determined by available time and goals) after a proper warm-up (here is one great option using 5 foam roller moves).
-Perform nine or fewer reps (keep the reps in single digits!).
-And here’s the most important part: Choose a resistance that forces you to do nine reps or less.
The last point is the critical factor. Lifting a pencil for seven reps isn’t going to do any good. When I’ve had a particularly stubborn client resist increasing resistance, we do the following: I have her perform a set with whatever weight she wants, but the rule is that she cannot stop until she feels like she has to. With most typical weights people choose, they will be in the high teens or even close to 30 reps before this feeling occurs.
The experience of lifting for so many reps drives home the point that the weight can be safely increased without my having to explain away fears of lifting too much. Experiencing how capable you are makes you want to lift more. Sometimes to drive this point home with a client, I will talk to her about something distracting while she is performing an exercise so she loses count and I have her keep going until she feels fatigue. I’m keeping track of the reps and when she is done I tell her how many she did.
Fitness professionals, remind your clients that “heavy” is relative to each person’s ability, so it doesn’t mean they will be dragging a jet down the runway with their teeth. All they need to feel comfortable is to try a little more weight than they are using now. And if you have very unwilling clients, make a deal with them: Ask them to do things your way for one month and if at the end of the month they don’t feel stronger, more capable, and leaner, then agree to let them go back to the little pink dumbbells and the ultralight cat litter.