The simple act of picking up a weight, putting it down, and repeating a few times bestows a boatload of benefitsBy: The Editors of The Men's Health Big Book of Exercises
When you lift weights, you cause tiny tears in your muscle fibers. This accelerates a process called muscle-protein synthesis that uses amino acids to repair and reinforce the fibers, making them resistant to future damage. So when a muscle fiber is exposed to a frequent challenge—as it is when you regularly lift weights—it makes structural adaptations in order to better handle that challenge. For example, your muscles adapt by getting bigger and stronger, or by becoming more resistant to fatigue.
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These adaptations occur to reduce stress on your body, which is why you can perform everyday functions—such as walking up stairs or picking up a light object—with little effort. It's also why if you routinely lift weights, you'll find that even the hardest physical tasks become easier. In scientific circles, this is known as the training effect. Turns out, this training effect improves not only your muscles but your entire life, too. It is, in fact, what gives you the edge.
This might be the biggest secret in fat loss. While you've no doubt been told that aerobic exercise is the key to losing your gut, weight training is actually far more valuable.
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Case in point: Penn State University researchers put overweight people on a reduced-calorie diet and divided them into three groups. One group didn't exercise, another performed aerobic exercise 3 days a week, and a third did both aerobic exercise and weight training 3 days a week. Each of the groups lost nearly the same amount of weight--around 21 pounds. But the lifters shed about 6 more pounds of fat than did those who didn't pump iron. Why? Because the lifters' weight loss was almost pure fat, while the other two groups lost just 15 pounds of lard, along with several pounds of muscle. Do the math and you'll see that weights led to 40 percent greater fat loss.
This isn't a one-time finding. Research on non-lifting dieters shows that, on average, 75 percent of their weight loss is from fat, and 25 percent is from muscle. That 25 percent may reduce your scale weight, but it doesn't do a lot for your reflection in the mirror. It also makes you more likely to gain back the flab you lost. However, if you weight train as you diet, you'll protect your hard-earned muscle and burn more fat instead.
Think of it in terms of liposuction: The whole point is to simply remove unattractive flab, right? That's exactly what you should demand from your workout.
Lifting increases the number of calories you burn while you're sitting on the couch. One reason: Your muscles need energy to repair and upgrade your muscle fibers after each resistance-training workout. For instance, a University of Wisconsin study found that when people performed a total-body workout comprised of just three big-muscle exercises, their metabolisms were elevated for 39 hours afterward. The exercisers also burned a greater percentage of calories from fat during this time, compared with those who didn't lift.
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But what about during your workout? After all, many experts say jogging burns more calories than weight training. Turns out, when scientists at the University of Southern Maine used an advanced method to estimate energy expenditure, they found that lifting burns as many as 71 percent more calories than originally thought. The researchers calculated that performing just one circuit of eight exercises—which takes about 8 minutes—can expend 159 to 231 calories. That's about the same number burned by running at a 6-minute-mile pace for the same duration.
If you don't lift weights, you can say goodbye to your biceps. Research shows that between the ages of 30 and 50, you're likely to lose 10 percent of the total muscle on your body. And that percentage will double by the time you're 60.
Worse yet, it's likely that lost muscle is replaced by fat over time, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The scientists found that even people who maintained their body weights for up to 38 years lost 3 pounds of muscle and added 3 pounds of fat every decade. Not only does that make you look flabby, it increases your waist size. That's because 1 pound of fat takes up 18 percent more space on your body than 1 pound of muscle. Thankfully, regular resistance training can prevent this fate.
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It's not just the quantity of the muscle you lose that's important, it's the quality. Research shows that your fast-twitch muscle fibers are reduced by up to 50 percent as you age, while slow-twitch fibers decrease by less than 25 percent. That's important because your fast-twitch fibers are the muscles largely responsible for generating power, a combined measure of strength and speed. While this attribute is key to peak sports performance, it's also the reason you can rise from your living room chair. Ever notice how the elderly often have trouble standing up? Blame fast-twitch muscles that are underused and wasting away.
The secret to turning back the clock? Pumping iron, of course. Heavy strength training is especially effective, as is lifting light weights really fast. (Hint: Any exercise in this book with the word explosive or jump in its name is ideal for working your fast-twitch muscle fibers.)
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You lose bone mass as you age, which increases the likelihood that you'll one day suffer a debilitating fracture in your hips or vertebrae. That's even worse than it sounds, since Mayo Clinic researchers found that among men who break a hip, 30 percent die within 1 year of the injury. In addition, significant bone loss in your spine can result in the dreaded "dowager's hump," or hunchback. The good news: A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that 16 weeks of resistance training increased hip bone density and elevated blood levels of osteocalcin—a marker of bone growth—by 19 percent.
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Over time, your flexibility can decrease by up to 50 percent. This makes it harder to squat down, bend over, and reach behind you. But in a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, scientists found that three full-body workouts a week for 16 weeks increased flexibility of the hips and shoulders, while improving sit-and-reach test scores by 11 percent. Not convinced that weight training won't leave you "muscle-bound"? Research shows that Olympic weight lifters rate second only to gymnasts in overall flexibility.
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Pumping iron really does get your blood flowing. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that people who performed three total-body weight workouts per week for 2 months decreased diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by an average of eight points. That's enough to reduce the risk of a stroke by 40 percent, and the risk of a heart attack by 15 percent.
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Call it muscle medication. In a 4-month study, Austrian scientists found that people with type-2 diabetes who started strength training significantly lowered their blood sugar levels, improving their condition. Just as important, lifting may be one of the best ways to prevent diabetes in the first place. That's because it not only fights the fat that puts you at an increased risk for the disease but also improves your sensitivity to the hormone insulin. This helps keep your blood sugar under control, reducing the likelihood that you'll develop diabetes.
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Don't settle for an ounce of prevention; weights may offer it by the pound. A University of Florida study found that people who performed three resistance-training workouts a week for 6 months experienced significantly less oxidative cell damage than non-lifters. That's important since damaged cells can lead to cancer and other diseases. And in a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, scientists discovered that resistance training speeds the rate at which food is moved through your large intestine by up to 56 percent, an effect that's thought to reduce the risk for colon cancer.
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Lifting weights provides a double dose of weight-loss fuel: On top of burning calories, exercise helps your brain stick to a diet. University of Pittsburgh researchers studied 169 overweight adults for 2 years and found that the participants who didn't follow a 3-hour-a-week training plan ate more than their allotted 1,500 calories per day. The reverse was also true—sneaking snacks sabotaged their workouts. The study authors say it's likely that both actions are a reminder to stay on track, reinforcing your weight-loss goal and drive.
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Break a sweat in the weight room and you'll stay cool under pressure. Texas A&M University scientists determined that the fittest people exhibited lower levels of stress hormones than those who were the least fit. And a Medical College of Georgia study found that the blood pressure levels of the people with the most muscle returned to normal the fastest after a stressful situation, compared to those who had the least muscle.
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Next time you travel overseas, hit the hotel gym before you unpack. When researchers at Northwestern University and the University of California at San Francisco studied muscle biopsies from people who had performed resistance exercise, they discovered changes in the proteins that regulate circadian rhythms. The researchers' conclusion? Strength training helps your body adjust faster to a change in time zones or work shifts.
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Yoga isn't the only exercise that's soothing. Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham discovered that people who performed three weight workouts a week for 6 months significantly improved their scores on measures of anger and overall mood.
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Lifting hard helps you rest easier. Australian researchers observed that patients who performed three total-body weight workouts a week for 8 weeks experienced a 23 percent improvement in sleep quality. In fact, the study participants were able to fall asleep faster and slept longer than before they started lifting weights.
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The term cardio shouldn't just describe aerobic exercise. A study at the University of Hawaii found that circuit training with weights raises your heart rate 15 beats per minute higher than does running at 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. According to the researchers, this approach not only strengthens your muscles, it provides cardiovascular benefits similar to those of aerobic exercise. So you save time without sacrificing results.
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Squats may be the new Prozac. Scientists at the University of Sydney found that regularly lifting weights significantly reduces symptoms of major depression. In fact, the researchers report that a meaningful improvement was seen in 60 percent of clinically diagnosed patients, similar to the response rate from antidepressants--but without the negative side effects.
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Invest in dumbbells—it could help you land a raise. UK researchers found that workers were 15 percent more productive on the days they made time to exercise compared to days they skipped their workouts. Now consider for a moment what these numbers mean to you: On days when you exercise, you can—theoretically, at least—accomplish in an 8-hour day what normally would take you 9 hours and 12 minutes. Or you'd still work 9 hours but get more done, leaving you feeling less stressed and happier with your job—another perk that the workers reported on the days they exercised.
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Get strong to live long. University of South Carolina researchers determined that total-body strength was linked to lower risks of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all causes. Similarly, University of Hawaii scientists found that being strong at middle age was associated with "exceptional survival," defined as living until 85 years of age without developing a major disease.
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Never forget how important it is to pump iron. University of Virginia scientists discovered that men and women who lifted weights three times a week for 6 months significantly decreased their blood levels of homocysteine, a protein that's linked to the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
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