Steph Gaudreau is the owner of Stupid Easy Paleo, where her passion for food and formal education in biology and physiology mesh on the screen. She’s a certified holistic nutrition practitioner, photographer, and author of “The Paleo Athlete” and the upcoming book “The Performance Paleo Cookbook” (January, 2015). Steph co-presents (with Dallas Hartwig of Whole9 Life) the Whole Athlete Seminar in gyms around the country and has coached CrossFit with CFL1 certification. Steph is an Olympic weightlifter who recently qualified for the American Open.
If you’re thinking of starting a strength training program, congratulations! You’re about to do something positive for your body, your mind, and your health in general. Science is now beginning to understand the important biological implications of strength training and building muscle mass.
For example, a 2014 study1 measured longevity in seniors and concluded that greater muscle mass in the elderly was associated with lower mortality compared to body mass index (BMI) alone. Even if you’re not a senior (yet), there are other reasons to consider strength training to build muscle mass. Skeletal muscle is now classified as an endocrine organ due to its ability to release peptides and other hormones2 that play important roles in metabolism and energy balance in response to exercise.
Before you run out and buy a set of dumbbells or join the neighborhood gym, here are four important points to consider.
#1 Find a coach and a gym you can trust.
If you’re a novice to strength training, the expertise of a seasoned coach is vital. Yes, you can find videos on the internet and check your form in a mirror at home, but there are sometimes subtle differences between good and bad technique.
Selecting the right facility to train at is probably the most important decision you’ll have to make. An experienced coach can properly assess your current mobility and strength, take your history and goals into account, and design a program that will challenge you enough to cause improvement but not so aggressively that you risk injury.
Furthermore, a coach should do more than just provide motivation during your training session. S/he should correct your form and develop a program that will help you advance your strength training in a structured fashion.
When choosing a gym, do some research about facilities in your area. Visit them and take along a list of prepared questions or know what to ask.
Does the facility offer group classes, small group or even one-on-one training?
Is it a general strength and conditioning facility or is there a specific focus (kettlebells, TRX, CrossFit, etc)?
Do they offer an on-ramp program for beginners?
What certifications do the coaches have?
Observe the community of the gym itself and decide if it’s a place you’ll feel comfortable training. Of course, you may feel a bit nervous or uncertain when you start something new, but if your gut feeling is that it’s not the right match, find another place.
#2 Prioritize form over load.
Strength training is incredibly effective, but it’s not worth moving more weight if you have to sacrifice your technique to do it. Yes, form may degrade slightly as you move through the most challenging loads in a particular workout, but when you cannot maintain basic points of performance at a given weight, it’s worth evaluating whether you should reduce the load or stop altogether.
The whole point of strength training is to get stronger through progressively overloading muscle, using good technique, and planning for proper rest and recovery periods. Strength training can never be 100% risk free. (Really, nothing is when it comes to fitness but the alternative of being sedentary and losing muscle mass is not without risk either). By being mindful of and practicing good form, you can minimize the risk while enjoying the benefits.
Be aware of the role ego can unfortunately play in strength training, resulting in you pushing too hard or not following your coach’s advice because you added more weight or reps before you’re ready. If your coach tells you to stop because you’re too tired, don’t go elsewhere to finish the workout. (Yes, this does happen!) Ego is probably the most dangerous thing in the gym.
#3 …But, don’t go too light all the time.
While lifting too heavy before you’re ready or using improper form aren’’t good, lifting tiny weights that are far below your ability level isn’t much better. Sure, your risk of injury might decrease, but you’ll be missing out on the positive benefits from strength training.
In order to understand why it’s beneficial to lift heavier, consider the following simplified explanation of muscle fibers.
Muscle fibers can be divided into two main types: Type I and Type II. Type I fibers, often referred to as slow-twitch, are the kind associated with relatively slow movements that you can sustain for a long period of time, such as walking or easy running. Type II or fast-twitch fibers, in contrast, are the type associated with more explosive movements such as lifting heavy weights or sprinting. There are a few versions of Type II fibers which activate with progressively heavier loads and produce more force. Type II fibers cannot produce that high force for very long.
In order to get the most benefit from strength training, therefore, it’s important to lift heavy enough loads to activate the most muscle fiber possible. Remember that science is beginning to understand muscle has endocrine functions, meaning peptides released because of exercise can affect metabolism in tissues throughout the body. Though perhaps the most well-known study of this sort was conducted in animal models3, it correlates with what we know happens to humans when they lift heavy weights—muscle mass increases, fat decreases, and tissues become more sensitive to insulin.
Probably the most common objection from women to the idea of lifting heavy weights is the fear of “getting bulky.” Remember that females have a fraction of the testosterone that men do (as little as 5-10%), making it much harder to put on copious muscle mass. Also, muscle mass is regulated by a gene called GDF-8 which encodes for a protein called myostatin. Think of myostatin like a brake pedal applied to muscle growth. In most females and even many men, myostatin keeps muscle growth in check.
When I say “heavy load” please don’t envision you need a dozen iron plates hanging off a barbell that looks like it’ll crush you while veins pop out of your forehead. A load that’s heavy for you will differ for someone else, and it’s all relative to your stage of strength training development. Also, keep in mind that a proper training program will have weeks of progressive loading and should included regularly scheduled deload or recovery weeks.
Strength training at heavy enough load—provided other factors such as proper nutrition, recovery and sleep—are intact, will often lead to small to modest increases in muscle mass. Women (and men!) you see with incredibly large muscle mass have usually gone to extraordinary measures to achieve those gains.
Note: When you see fitness programs promising to “tone” muscle, know that it’s used as a marketing term. In order to “get toned,” you have to build muscle and / or lose fat on top of the muscle. Making muscles “long and lean” is another fallacy. Strength training will provide you muscle shape and definition, but the length of your muscles is determined by genetics.
#4 Don’t cherry pick or jump programs.
One lesson that applies just as much to strength training as it does to other areas of life is to be consistent. If your coach puts you on a four-month training plan but you get restless after a week, be patient. Cherry-picking and program-jumping (moving from one method to another to another without giving it a chance to actually work) is a common error among rookie and seasoned lifters alike.
A strength training program need not be the buzzworthy flavor-of-the-week or named after a Russian weightlifter to be incredibly effective. Instead, novices can benefit greatly from a solid linear progression program focusing on compound movements such as the squat, deadlift, and press while avoiding the overload or riskier tactics that often accompany trendy programs.
When you’re starting out, commit to following through with the strength training program you’re on and be patient in your expectation of results. Keep in mind that you’re learning new skills and that you may not hit PRs immediately. Jumping from one program to another makes it very difficult to have the consistency you need for success over time.
In conclusion, by selecting a knowledgeable coach and facility, using appropriately challenging loads and sticking to a basic program, you’ll give yourself the best possible foundation to enjoy the strength gains that positively impact health.
1Srikanthan, P., & Karlamangla, A. (2014). Muscle Mass Index As a Predictor of Longevity in Older Adults. The American Journal of Medicine, 127(6), 547–553.
2Pedersen, B., & Febbraio, M. (2008). Muscle As an Endocrine Organ: Focus On Muscle-Derived Interleukin-6. Physiological Review, 88(4), 1379-406.
3Izumiya, Y., Hopkins, T., Morris, C., Sato, K,, Zeng, L., Viereck, J., Hamilton, J., Ouchi, N., LeBrasseur, N., & Walsh, K. Fast / Glycolytic Muscle Fiber Growth Reduces Fat Mass and Improves Metabolic Parameters in Obese Mice. Cell Metabolism, 7(2), 159-72.