I'm gratified that so many readers took the time last year to respond to my columns in this paper. Many letters were complimentary, a few were critical and most contained questions. Of those questions, the majority centered on a single subject: strength training.
What your letters have made clear to me is that strength training is a more complex topic than I thought and that several myths and misconceptions about it remain embedded in the public mind. I'll try to clear those up before actually getting you started with some basic exercises. Doing all that will take two full columns. So let's begin this week by talking about what strength training is and isn't, as well as what it does and doesn't do.
Whether you stretch elastic tubing, or hoist barbells and dumbbells, or do push-ups and pull-ups, or perform any other form of resistance exercise in which repetition fatigues a muscle, you're engaging in strength training. And whether you call it weight training or resistance training or strength training, the effect is the same. So, too, are the benefits.
Strength training, as I've written here before, brings us as close to the Fountain of Youth as we're likely to get. By working to build our muscles at least twice a week, we can overcome many of the physiological problems that used to be considered a natural part of the aging process but which are really byproducts of the decline in strength that occurs as we age.
Among these problems is a slower metabolism that allows fat to prosper. Well, since muscles require more energy to operate than fat does, by increasing our strength (muscle mass) through resistance training, we actually raise our metabolism. The result is that our bodies, whether at rest or at play, burn more calories than before--and the fat drops off.
Increased muscle mass also helps us to prevent or even reverse osteoporosis, the disease that can turn a stately middle-aged woman (or man) into a frail and hunched senior citizen. Then, too, consider how much better you look when your muscles are lean and well-defined.
This brings me to what appears to be a widely held myth about weight training: Working your muscles two or three times a week will make you look like Mr. Olympia. The truth is, you won't if you don't want to--that is, don't take muscle-building supplements (like steroids) and train with super-heavy weights seven times a week. I, for example, have been lifting weights two or three times a week for more than two decades, and I would never be mistaken for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Another myth expressed by my correspondents is that if they begin a strength-training program and then abandon it, they'll end up with extra fat. No, no, no. Fat and muscle are different entities entirely. The reason people believe that lost muscle leads to fat is that when they stop weight training, they often give up their aerobics program too. So not only does their metabolism slow, but they have no other way to burn calories. Hence, increased fat.
Not surprisingly, a lot of women think that their strength-training regimes must differ from a man's. Not true. Males and females both have the same number of teeth, the same number of bones and the same number of muscles--and they all work on the same principles. What separates the size of a man's muscle from a woman's muscle is the fact that she has fewer muscle fibers to work and less testosterone with which to build (unless, of course, she takes supplements; see Mr. Olympia, above).
Some letters I received asked how to use strength training to spot-reduce problem areas, like the waist and hips. I'm sorry to say that there's no such thing as spot reduction, with or without resistance training. The only way to reduce is to burn more calories than you take in. That requires a moderate diet, cardiovascular workouts three times a week and weight-training sessions twice a week. Generally speaking, fat disappears first from the areas where it last appeared.
Finally, the answer is no--no, you do not have to "get in shape" before beginning a weight-training program. In fact, many overweight people have discovered that becoming stronger actually helps to protect their joints from injury when they do begin walking or jogging or some other aerobic activity. Plus, their increased metabolism helps them to lose weight, which provides added impetus to continue a fitness plan more aggressively.
In short, whether you're 20 or 90, there's no good reason not to enjoy the benefits of weight training. Stay tuned next week for an introductory program that will answer the question, "How do I get started?"
Copyright 1999 by Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.