Gaining Strength for Better Health
By Elizabeth M. Economou
A well-rounded fitness program should include muscle building.
Rippling muscles, rock-hard abs, and a perfect V-shaped torso may be something that many men secretly aspire to. Realistically, few men are going to put the time and effort into achieving such a body. And that's not bad news.
A heavily muscled physique is usually the result of intensive body building, aimed at good looks rather than good health. Staying in tiptop shape for the long haul requires a well-structured fitness plan, says Grant Scull, MD, a personal physician at Group Health Medical Centers Capitol Hill Campus. It should incorporate more muscle building than body building. Though there is crossover between the two, the goals and techniques differ.
"Body building isolates specific muscles for a desired effect. Muscle building focuses on creating strength by challenging groups of muscles," says Dr. Scull.
Why Muscle Should Be Your Focus
"Muscle mass helps protect joints and improves and sustains performance in sports and physical activities," says Dr. Scull. "It also improves strength and endurance, and often allows men to continue engaging in their desired sport or activity as they age."
It can also boost self-esteem, reduce stress, and enhance overall health, says Brian Nakagawa, a physical therapist with Group Health.
It's never too late to start a muscle building program. Men in their 60s, 70s, and 80s can reap the greatest benefit since they'll lose muscle mass if they don't work to retain it. "With age, it is worth shifting more effort from aerobic exercise to muscle building exercise," says Dr. Scull.
How to Build Muscle
"Weight lifting is a common and convenient technique for muscle building," says Dr. Scull.
Other exercises that build muscle include climbing stairs, doing lunges, pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and drills with a medicine ball — a weighted ball specifically designed to help build strength and muscle. Many of these are considered functional exercises, meaning they use muscles in the same way they're used for everyday activities.
If you want to start a muscle building program, Dr. Scull and Nakagawa offer these tips:
- Engage a personal trainer to assess a correct starting point and help you develop a program.
- Have a goal in mind. It will help keep you on track.
- Exercise with a partner for safety and motivation.
- Commit to exercising two or three days a week for at least 15 minutes (plus 10 to 15 minutes of warm up), the frequency needed to see improvement.
- Learn the proper techniques for your exercises.
- During warm up, progress from light weights or easy exercises to heavier and harder.
- Do exercises that strengthen opposing muscle groups. For instance, strengthen both the quadriceps and the hamstrings, so you don't put your knees at risk.
- Focus on tiring muscles rather than straining joints. For instance, if you do squats, you should feel fatigue in your thigh muscles rather than your knee joint.
- Know your limits. Don't exercise to muscle exhaustion; stop when you are still able to do a few repetitions.
- Allow one to two days between sessions for recovery.
Other components of a well-rounded fitness plan include a healthy diet with lots of protein, a regular sleep schedule, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily, and flexibility training such as stretching or yoga.