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For Your Other 600 Muscles

By Howard Schneider
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The People Who Know What's Good For Us have made life progressively difficult, moving from general recommendations such as "maintain ideal weight" to detailed orders for 60 to 90 minutes of exercise every day.

You can now add weightlifting to the creeping set of obligations. It's not explicit in the government's overall guidelines, but the more detailed suggestions from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a couple of rounds of resistance training each week. (And, yes, Vicky, that includes you cardio junkies out there because aaaallllll thaaaaatttt time on the treadmill won't guarantee that you can sit up straight when 27 becomes 77.)

This won't make a lot of us happy. The basic exercise recommendations are pretty easy to cope with: Take a walk. Ride a bike. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Weightlifting, on the other hand, conjures the threat of being stuck next to some grunting mesomorph who will one day be governor. The chance of injury is greater. The advice gets confusing and may include a lecture about how, if you don't disrupt the Z lines between your sarcomeres, it's a waste of time.

It's manageable, however, if you understand some basics. The reason there is so much varying advice -- over what exercises to do, how frequently and how intensely -- is that this is an enterprise that should be tailored to your goals and your body. Cardio focuses on training just one muscle, the heart. There are more than 600 others that need attention.

Here are a few underlying principles:

Age is not a barrier. The capacity to build muscle remains as we grow older. It may slow, as our diet and neurology change. And a natural atrophy kicks in at early middle age. But you can still get stronger.

"When you start training, muscle comes back," regardless of age, said Gary Reinl, a consultant with Nautilus who developed a compact set of six exercises used to help people retain the ability to perform such basic tasks as walking and sitting erect, which becomes particularly useful as we age and after happy hour.

Don't mistake cardio by another name. Our nature makes it easy to store fat (future fuel for a crisis, right?), but you have to persuade your body to invest the energy to add and sustain more muscle.

This is not easy. Muscle fibers are long strands of protein supported by multiple nuclei. There is a store of extra nuclei, called satellite cells, sort of hanging out, waiting for the right message. That message, said J.P. Hyatt, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Science at Georgetown University, comes in the form of damage. When the structure of the muscle is torn and disrupted through exercise, satellite cells move into the fiber and support the accumulation of more protein.

More protein, more strength. But not just any amount of exertion works. The muscle needs to hit a point of momentary failure -- showing that what's there is inadequate -- to prompt your body to invest in that new infrastructure.

The muscle also has to fail in a certain way. You can flap your arms over and over and at some point not be able to do it anymore (try it at lunch!), but this will not trigger muscle growth. As Reinl notes, that's why marathon runners don't have tree-trunk legs.

The failure has to occur in reasonably short order. There are lots of different ways to make this happen, but one common gym-speak approach is that if you do two rounds, or sets, of an exercise, with eight to 12 repetitions in each set and roughly a minute's rest between, the muscle should fatigue at the end of the second set. Once that becomes easy at a particular weight, it's time to add more.

That being said, you can start easy. The beauty of the process is that it is infinitely adaptable. Failure in the major leg muscles, for example, might require several hundred pounds on a leg press for some of us. For others, it might occur using only your body weight, by standing and sitting a few times -- as the CDC outlines in exercises you can do at home.

And if you are out of shape, here is an added incentive: You'll see gains pretty quickly.

And that being said, the gains will slow. The quick benefit experienced in a new exercise regimen is largely neurological, Hyatt said, as your nervous system fires more efficiently in reaction to something new. Once that process peaks, you're at a fork in the road -- and here is where individual goal-setting becomes important.

If you like where you are and can sustain a routine without getting bored, stick with it. At least you are now helping to keep your joints and bones and ligaments in working order, and helping to retain the muscle you've got -- all good things.

"The fact that you are coming in, doing something, is the most important part," said Jeffrey Taylor, wellness director at the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.

If, however, you want to tap more potential, then you'll need to explore that point of failure in a workout that covers the major muscle groups. Here is where the real fun begins, whether it is adding weight and tracking your progress on the machines at the gym (a safe and controlled way to start), moving on to some of the more exotic free-weight routines you can put together as your experience increases, or trying different approaches such as High Intensity Training. (I'll get back to that topic in a couple of weeks.)

For anyone at that level who's wondering what to do, consider investing in some sessions with a trainer. A good one will show you how to keep your body guessing and teach you how to train yourself -- which, to my mind, ought to be a goal in itself. ยท

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