Weight Lifting (Resistance Exercise)

  • Author:
    Richard Weil, MEd, CDE

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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Discover the benefits of lifting weights.

Is It Ever Too Late to Build Muscle?

As many of us have already noticed, muscle mass decreases as we age. Beginning in the fourth decade of life, adults lose 3%-5% of muscle mass per decade, and the decline increases to 1%-2% per year after age 50. Muscle keeps us strong, it burns calories and helps us maintain our weight, and it is also an essential contributor to our balance and bone strength.

Pumped any iron lately? If not, you may want to consider it. Resistance exercise is a great way to round out an aerobic workout and help you stay strong. I'll discuss the ins and outs of resistance exercise in this article and then suggest two basic training plans to get you started.

What is resistance exercise?

Resistance exercise is any exercise where muscles contract against an external resistance with the objective of increasing strength, tone, mass, and/or muscular endurance. The resistance can come from dumbbells, weight machines, elastic tubing or bands, cinder blocks, cans of soup, your own body weight (for example, pushups), or any other object that forces your muscles to contract. Results take time but are sure to come when you train consistently over time.

What are types of resistance exercises?

There are several types or styles of resistance exercise. Power lifting (a weight-lifting competition in which participants compete in the squat, dead lift, and bench press), Olympic weight lifting (the type you see on TV where athletes lift the weight overhead), strength training (lifting weights to get stronger), and weight lifting (the sport of lifting heavy weight, typically fewer than six repetitions).

What is progressive overload?

One of the fundamentals of resistance exercise is the principle of progressive overload. Progressive overload, as the term suggests, means that you increase the workload gradually over time as your muscles accommodate to the resistance, with the objective of gaining strength and/or mass. For example, suppose that you've been doing biceps curls for two weeks with 12 pounds, 10 repetitions, and then at week three, 12 pounds is easy and you could lift more. According to the principle of progressive overload, at this point, you would increase the weight if strength improvement is your goal. Your strength will remain the same if you keep the weight the same.

What is volitional fatigue?

Another fundamental of resistance exercise is to lift each set to volitional fatigue. Volitional fatigue is the point in the set where you can't lift one more rep without cheating it up (using momentum, leaning way back, etc.). Although there isn't a large body of research to prove that lifting every set to volitional fatigue is necessary for maximal benefit, most strength and fitness professionals agree that working to exhaustion changes muscle fibers in a way that leads to significant growth.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/28/2015

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