Building lean muscle mass is aesthetically pleasing and there is nothing better than looking toned and shredded.
However, let's not underestimate the physical and health benefits associated with having a good percentage of lean body mass.
There is a vast amount of scientific evidence to support and back up resistance training as a major contributor to your overall health status.
Fortunately, there has been a positive up-turn in the evidence to support resistance training and its benefits. It is now taking over cardio training as the main kingpin in the preservation of health.
The golden rule of resistance training is that having ‘more’ skeletal muscle is a bonus and preserving it is very important to your health. The question is why?
The Benefits Of Resistance Training
Resistance exercise can stimulate structural, mechanical, metabolic, neural and hormonal alterations within the muscle that can re-organize the skeletal muscle and prevent you from losing muscle mass.
The following benefits can be experienced when you perform resistance training regularly:
- Enhanced type 2 muscle fibre activation 
- Increased muscle tissue size 
- Increased joint range of movement 
- Improved resting metabolic rate 
- Enhanced weight loss and maintenance via increased energy expenditure 
- Improved anabolic hormone production especially testosterone and human growth hormone 
- Enhanced functional fitness and increased overall body strength 
- Improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity 
- Enhanced self-confidence and self-esteem 
In a nutshell, all of the above benefits can be categorized into mechanical, metabolic, neural and hormonal.
The next step is to discuss each of these key areas and to highlight how resistance training can have a positive impact on each of them.
Metabolic And Mechanical Benefits Of Resistance Training Are Interrelated
Resistance training is the best long term strategy for increasing your resting metabolic rate. This is the amount of energy that you require just to exist. Muscle burns about 15 more calories than fat.
Research has shown that by working every muscle group twice a week you will replace 7-10 years of lost muscle if you were sedentary.
This is good news because between the ages of 30-80 years sedentary adults can see as much as a 35-45% reduction in muscular strength. This is directly related to decreased levels of muscle mass.
In particular, this mechanism has been attributed to the loss of type II muscle fibres. These are essential for strength and power output in the muscle.
Combine this with very limited movement of the joints caused by inactivity can lead to an increase in collagen levels within the muscle tissue. This decreases tissue flexibility and further decreases the joint range of motion.
Resistance training can increase range of motion at the joints, increase bone density and overall strength.
This has a positive mechanical impact on your quality of life and makes functional daily tasks such as carrying your shopping or cutting your grass a whole lot easier!
In addition, resistance training combined with a solid core workout strategy can help:
- Improve your posture
- Decrease the force on your lower back
- Strengthen the muscles that align your spine into the soft ‘S’ shape
- Improve blood flow to your lower limbs
- Reduce incidents of musculoskeletal injuries
- Greatly improve your functional fitness
The ‘core’ is involved in all of movements within the body and by activating the deep muscle tissues is a major catalyst to you being mechanically efficient and effective on a daily basis.
This places less stress on our heart and having strong muscles will share the load especially when performing daily chores.
Having a good level of lean muscle mass can improve your glucose tolerance because of an increase in the insulin receptor sites.
Insulin’s main role within the body is to control your blood glucose levels. If these are high then it drives the glucose to be stored as fat in the liver.
Therefore, having a higher number of insulin receptors in the muscles ensures greater control of the glucose and much of this can be stored within the muscle ready to be used as energy.
This mechanism will help you to stay lean and to minimize your body fat levels.
Resistance training also improves your muscle size and in particular the mitochondria within the muscle.
The rate of your aerobic efficiency does decrease by 10% after 25 years of age and the ability to use oxygen to fuel physical activity is further hindered.
Therefore would cardio training solely counteract this decline in your aerobic efficiency? Well, probably not because although the cardio-respiratory system is stimulated with cardio training.
The delivery of the oxygen to the working muscles is further reduced due to the inability of the muscle structure to deal with the physiological overload.
Let us not forget that your muscle also needs to get rid of any waste products such as lactic acid and carbon dioxide which is caused by movement.
If the capacity to perform this task is reduced then functional daily movement will become a lot more difficult and painful.
Are you starting to envisage how important muscle tissue really is?
Hormonal Response To Resistance Exercise
High intensity (70% + 1RM) compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, clean and snatch with short rest intervals (60 seconds max) can stimulate the production of testosterone, growth hormone and Insulin-like Growth Factor 1(IGF-1).
There are also other hormonal responses that occur during exercise and your day to day life that can have an effect on your muscle gains.
Testosterone is fundamentally a male hormone that is the main ‘lynchpin’ for promoting the growth of many body tissues. It is vital for general health and well-being.
In terms of creating clean muscle mass, testosterone is a hormone that needs to be kept elevated because it has a crucial role in protein synthesis.
An increase in the rate of protein synthesis can help build muscle at a much faster rate and elevated levels of testosterone can also play a key role in fat burning.
Low levels of testosterone can hinder your chances of packing on any serious muscle. Rather than turning to synthetic anabolic steroids try the following tips:
- Implement adequate rest days between workouts to give your body time to recover. Having 48 hours rest between training each major muscle group is about the right timeframe
- Train with compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, presses and rows
- Add in some heavy weight periodically, training at a lower rep range between 6-8
- Lower or maintain between a 10-12% body fat range
- Reduce your alcohol intake
- Try to add in some healthy fats from nuts, Omegas 3-s from oily fish and saturated fats from lean red meat as this can boost your testosterone levels
- Supplement with magnesium, zinc and vitamin D can also boost testosterone levels
Growth hormone helps to stimulate muscle growth through the release of IGF-1. This plays a key role in creating muscle tissue. It also boosts your fat-burning potential and helps to protect the muscle tissue from degeneration.
Similarly with testosterone the higher levels of GH the better for building muscle mass.
High levels of growth hormone can help the body to fight against losing its muscle tissue.
This is important because a high metabolism from a good level of muscle mass equates to a boost in your fat-burning potential.
You can boost your growth hormone levels via the following strategies:
- Good quality uninterrupted sleep of around 8 hours is excellent
- Add in some heavy weight periodically, training at a lower rep range between 6-8
- Replace conventional cardio with some HIIT training
- Keep lean and avoid sugary junk food as this suppresses your insulin levels
- Supplement with niacin and glutamine as this boosts your growth hormone levels
The potential of insulin on the body is a double-edged sword. Insulin is secreted by the pancreas. It has an active role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism and if spiked too high at the wrong times it can facilitate fat storage.
On the other hand, if harnessed correctly, insulin can be very ‘anabolic’ thus creating muscle tissue and boosting fat loss.
High levels of insulin post-exercise can be used as a vehicle to drive the glycogen and amino acids into the muscle tissue.
The best method of spiking insulin levels is to consume a fast-acting carb such as maltodextrin immediately post-exercise.
This is the time when your muscles are like sponges ready to absorb all of the nutrients to help with recovery and then growth.
The Thyroid Hormones
The two thyroid hormones (thyroxine T4 and triiodothyronine T3) are responsible for the regulation of your metabolism. They help with protein synthesis and fat burning.
Low thyroid levels can be caused by a low-calorie restrictive diet and/or other conditions such as an underactive thyroid gland.
However, eating foods that are rich in iodine such as kelp and shellfish etc can help to increase your thyroid hormone levels.
Another strategy is to add a cheat meal into the equation every 8-10 days as this can help regulate the thyroid hormones. This causes an increase in your metabolism and protein synthesis within the skeletal muscle.
Cortisol is a stress hormone and high levels can have serious implications on your health.
High levels of cortisol can shut down parts of your immune system that help to fight disease and this can make you a lot more susceptible to illness.
Apart from playing havoc with your immune system high cortisol levels can promote:
- Muscle wastage
- Weight gain
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
To minimise your cortisol levels following these basic guidelines:
- Reduce your stress levels by building some relaxation time into your schedule
- Avoid sugary and processed junk foods
- Reduce your caffeine and alcohol levels within safe limits
- Try to keep your blood sugars stable with adequate amounts of protein and healthy carbs instead of high GI carbs
- Take stress-busting supplements such as antioxidants, zinc, magnesium and chromium
Estrogen is predominantly produced by females and to a lesser extent man.
However, men with a higher % body fat have increased levels of estrogen which one of the main reasons behind having ‘man boobs’.
There is also a strong link behind high levels of estrogen and prostate cancer.
High levels of testosterone in comparison to estrogen will ensure that lean muscle gains are maximised.
To lower your estrogen levels follow these simple guidelines:
- Reduce your % body fat below 15% because the higher the body fat the more aromatase we have. Aromatase converts testosterone into estrogen
- Eat a diet high in cruciferous vegetables such as kale and broccoli as this blocks the absorption of estrogen within the body
- Reduce your alcohol intake
If you think that resistance training and having lean muscle mass is for cosmetic purposes then maybe you need to rethink this notion.
Yes, having muscle will boost your inner confidence and self-esteem but it also has physical and health benefits that far outreach those factors.
Having a good amount of muscle mass will help you for the rest of your life to remain strong and physically active!