Resistance Training Isn’t Magic
By: Skyler Tanner
Look out, kids, there is science ahead!
As I mentioned in our last post, this time of year tends to come with some…unrealistic expectations of both what you as a free living human being can do with your docket of responsibilities, and of what your body is capable of doing given the time frame that you have (often arbitrarily) given yourself. Whether your goal is gaining muscle, losing fat, or being more active, there is only so much that resistance training can accomplish. It is a LOT, but it’s not magic. Here is study example that I think illustrates this point nicely.
It is common in coaching and training circles to see a young athlete (note: if you’re not a young athlete, an athlete, or are simply “old,” bear with me) take to weight training with gusto and make significant body composition changes in short order, specifically while making a big increase in muscle mass. What is often lost or not discussed as much in these situations is that there is often a concurrent recommendation to “eat more” and if the athlete isn’t gaining they need to “eat more…more.”
So in this study researchers wanted to examine the effects of a low-volume, high-intensity strength training program (that must sound familiar) on a previously sedentary population without prescribing dietary changes. The 6 month study consisted of 19 sedentary, overweight college-aged men, who were first assessed of their body composition via DXA scan (the gold standard that we recommend), and of their strength through 1 repetition maximum testing (1RM) on 9 machine-based exercises. The men were then split into a resistance training group (RT) and a control group (CON). The resistance training group trained 3 non-consecutive days per week performing 1 set of 3-6 repetitions to momentary muscular fatigue (aka “failure”) on 9 machine-based exercises. Body composition was tracked at the 3 and 6 month mark. Dietary intake was assessed monthly via a 24-hour dietary recall, which used neutral probing questions in an interview process with the men about their dietary intake.
At the conclusion of the study, the trained group experienced an increase in total weight lifted per workout from baseline of 2812kg to 6411kg, on average. This measure is simply the number of repetitions performed multiplied by the weight lifted. When comparing the 1RMs, the RT group saw a strength increase of 49.2% on average for the upper body and 49.8% on average for the lower body. The control group saw no strength improvements. When body composition was assessed, there was a negligible 1kg increase in fat free mass (muscle, water, or bone) over the 6 month study. Also note that the RT group gained body fat over the course of the 6 month trial, but only gained 1/3rd of the amount of fat gained by the sedentary CON group. The authors concluded that strength increases can occur in the absence of hypertrophy and that such strength increases might influence previously sedentary individuals to spontaneously increases daily activity, which may help weight management over the long term.
So college-aged men perform low volume strength training, get stronger but not more muscular, and gain fat at the same time, but not as much as if they had done nothing at all. Why does this matter to you, fair EE client?
- Due to the hormonal milieu that college-aged men have, they are in a position to gain muscle more easily than average but make no mistake: muscle gain is long, hard work. Those of you concerned with “bulking up” training with us, especially you ladies out there, should be aware that you’re not in a position to “accidentally” put on muscle mass.
- Having said that, you can get a LOT stronger with a little bit of hard work, which makes everything you do a lot easier, which means you feel better about doing it, which means you do more of it, which means you keep training. This spontaneous increase in activity is often referred to as the “active phenotype.” The name is not important but what IS important is that you’ll start moving more without having to force yourself to perform more exercise in the name of your fitness goals.
- That said, this also shows that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Far too often we get a client who comes in with the bizarre notion that they can exercise their way out of a crappy diet. If hyper-responsive 20-something men still gained fat (albeit less) over 6 months of training without regard for their diet, what makes you think you’ll lose fat just because you’re working hard twice per week? Exercise helps reinforce good habits that reduce the likelihood of fat gain in the future (see 2 above) or help to maintain fat loss after the fact, but the only way fat is loss is through changing one’s nutrition habits over the long term (This is something we at EE are currently working on…stay tuned!)
So if you’re new to EE, keep training with the confidence that you’ll not turn into a giant muscle monster, all while being able to do what you love better. If you’ve been with us a while, you already know this…keep being awesome!
Skyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science. He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging.