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How can building stronger muscles improve your body? Let us count the ways. In addition to the well-known benefits of building muscle, including trimming and tightening everything from your biceps to your thighs, there are some you may never have heard of. For instance, the more muscle you have, the stronger your immune system, so you can fight off everyday bugs like colds and the flu. With stronger muscles, you also reduce your risk of developing life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
What About Weight Loss?
There is no question: You will shed pounds faster if you lift weights. That’s because strength training builds muscle, and the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism. How much faster? That’s the $64,000 question. “Muscle in its resting state is similar to an idling engine and burns energy in the form of calories,” notes Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. But the most recent studies on muscle and metabolism say the actual number of calories burned by a pound of muscle is much less than 50 a day — the number that had been tossed around for many years. Still, boosting metabolism isn’t all it’s about: What you’re doing by lifting weights is preventing muscle loss. Strength training also improves overall body composition, giving you more lean muscle tissue in relation to fat, so you look toned and trim.
Just Do It…Safely
“The safest and most effective way to build muscle is by doing slow, controlled movements,” says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director of nutrition therapy and a group fitness instructor at the Cleveland Clinic. Letting momentum do the work — either jerking weights up or letting them drop too quickly — can easily cause injuries, such as strained muscles and ligaments.
Some other safety tips, recommended by Moore and the American College of Sports Medicine, include:
• Do warm up before lifting weights; walk briskly or ride a stationary bike for at least five minutes.
• Don’t lift more than your muscles can handle. If you have to jerk the weight in order to lift it, it’s too much weight.
• Don’t lift too little weight either. Women worry that they’ll bulk up if they lift heavy weight, Moore says, but bulk is determined by genetics and hormones.
• Do pay attention to posture. During standing exercises, don’t stoop over and keep your shoulders back and arms at your sides, near your rib cage. When you are lying on your back, make sure your head is fully supported and your back is in a neutral (not arched) position.
• Do increase weight gradually to make the most of your workouts.
Best Exercises for Beginners
Here’s a workout designed for novices, recommended by strength training expert Miriam Nelson, PhD, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston and author of the best-selling Strong Women series. All it takes is two half-hour sessions each week. Start with one set of eight to 12 repetitions for the first four weeks; when choosing weight, remember that the last two or three repetitions should be very difficult. Increase to 12 to 15 repetitions for the next four weeks. When 15 repetitions is easy, add a second set or use a heavier weight. In order to keep making gains, every six to eight weeks fiddle with the variables of your strength-building routine. Increase the amount of weight you lift (increase by no more than 10 percent at a time), the number of repetitions and/or how long you rest between sets.
• Modified push-up (targets chest). Kneel on the floor with your weight on your hands; align shoulders over hands with elbows slightly bent. Your hips should be directly over your knees and your back should be straight. Slowly bend your elbows and lower your chest to the floor. Pause for a breath. Push back up to the starting position.
• Dumbbell overhead triceps extension (targets triceps). Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell (start with two to five pounds) in each hand with your arms extended overhead palms facing each other. Without moving your elbows, slowly lower the right dumbbell behind your neck, pause and then lift it to the starting position. Repeat with the left hand, alternating until you complete the repetitions. Remember to exhale and count 1-2-3 as you lift and inhale and count 1-2-3 as you lower the weight.
• Dumbbell shoulder press (targets shoulders). Sit on a chair with back support, your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand (start with two to five pounds) and bend your arms so the weights lightly rest on your shoulders, palms facing forward. Push the weights up until your arms are straight, pause and then slowly return to the starting position. Remember to exhale and count 1-2-3 as you lift and inhale and count 1-2-3 as you lower the weight.
• Single-leg squat (targets buttocks, quadriceps and calves). Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms out to the sides, raised to shoulder height. Lift your right leg out in front of you and slowly squat down, stopping when you feel like you’re losing your balance. (If you need help balancing, brace yourself by placing one hand on a wall or doorway.) Tighten your hamstring (back of the leg) and buttocks muscles to push yourself back to the starting position. Complete repetitions, then switch legs.
• Crossover crunch (targets abdominals). Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor about 18 inches from your buttocks. Place your hands behind your head, elbows comfortably out to the sides, neck relaxed. Exhale as you curl your head, neck and shoulder blades off the floor, then rotate your torso, pulling the left side of your rib cage toward your right inner thigh. Pause at the top, inhale and slowly lower back to the starting position as you release your breath. Repeat in the opposite direction, alternating until you complete the repetitions.
Try This! Lift more weight than you think you can. “When you use really light weights, such as one- to two-pound weights, you have to move rather quickly to feel as if your muscles are working,” Moore says. Better to use heavier weights (five to 20 pounds) and contract/extend more slowly to fully engage the muscles. And women, hear this: You will not bulk up!
By Dana Sullivan