Strength Training for Mental Health?

What do you think of when you think of strength training? Do you think of benefits to cognitive and mental health?


Probably not. You probably think of big weights, barbells and lots of grunting. You might think of “gym rats”, overly-muscled guys with tight shirts and biceps like softballs. You might think of crossfit-training obsessives, dedicated to pushing well beyond the point of pain into the land of frequent injury.

That may be true in some cases, but it needn’t be true in all. First, let’s talk about why strength training is important. The benefits of increased muscle are plentiful and varied.  It improves cognitive performance in elderly participants. Strength training can increase bone strength, relieve symptoms of arthritis, and increase balance. It aids in the management of chronic diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, back pain, and obesity. Additionally, it can help sleep and improve mood.  Muscle mass is also “metabolically expensive tissue”; in other words, it requires lots of calories.  I don’t know about you, but I can use all the calorie-burning help I can get.

So, it has benefits that extend far, far beyond the aesthetics of having big, bulging muscles. In fact, strength training does not need to be oriented towards bulky size, strength gains can produce significant health benefits without being taken to extremes.

Just because there are benefits to strength training doesn’t mean there are not risks.  Certainly, any time you put a great deal of stress on your body we are exposing ourselves to forces that are potentially damaging.  Both chronic and acute injuries happen when strength training; I’ve personally experienced a few.

So, how does one reap the benefits of strength training, including mental health and cognitive benefits, while minimizing the risks? Further, how does one find this balance while maintaining a busy schedule, one that doesn’t allow for multiple 1-2 hour trips to the gym per week?

One approach that seeks to maximize the benefits of increased muscle while minimizing the exposure to health risks is something known as High Intensity Training (HIT).  My understanding of HIT comes from Doug McGuff’s excellent book on the subject, Body by Science.   I am not knowledgeable enough on the topic of exercise physiology to review the work, but in my personal experience, I have found it to be very helpful. For an introduction to the workout, you can read an article summary of the approach by the author at the website Mark’s Daily Apple. Here is an excerpt describing how to get started:

Your 12 minutes of exercise should be composed of 4 or 5 movements. These movements should be basic compound movements that require very little skill to perform. You should aim for low skill movements because all of your attention needs to be focused on effort and rapid fatigue not performing a complex movement that requires a lot of concentration. If you have access to a commercial gym, performing these movements on quality machines will allow you even more focus on effort as opposed to the movement…

…Each of these exercises should be done until you cannot produce any further movement of the weight. You should perform them in a way that keeps the muscle under constant stress. Here are some tips: Start the movement very slowly. Take at least 3 seconds to crack the weight stack and 3 seconds to move the first inch. After moving the first inch, just try to keep the movement going along smoothly. Done properly the cadence from that point should take you 5-10 seconds to complete the lifting phase of the repetition. On a pulling movement, hold the contracted position for 2-3 seconds if it feels harder to do so, if it feels easier to hold, simply begin the lowering portion smoothly….When you reach the point of 15 degrees before your joints lock, smoothly reverse direction and lower the weight at about the same speed you lifted it or slightly faster. As you approach the end of the lowering phase…slow down. If the weight stack touches at the bottom of your movement, you should allow the weights to barely touch without completely setting them down. Once you barely touch, you should barely start the next repetition, allowing 3 seconds to cover the first inch, then just try keeping the movement going. By about the third repetition you will be pushing as hard and as fast as you can, but you will only be able to go fast enough to move the weight through the positive in about 7-12 seconds. Once you fail or get stuck, do not heave or jerk in order to get another repetition, simply keep trying to produce movement (even though no movement occurs) for another 5 seconds or so. A properly selected resistance will allow between 4 and 8 repetitions. Once you have gone through this procedure on the first exercise, move briskly to the next exercise.

The premise of this type of training is to supply maximum stimulus to your musculature as safely as possible.  In this model, recovery is critical.  To my astonishment and delight, Dr. McGuff argues that the optimal workout  time is one twelve minute workout, one time per week.  Any more than that starts to have counterproductive effects, decreasing your body’s ability to recover and adapt. For a busy parent like me, this is music to my ears.

I’ve taken this approach off and on for a couple of years, and I have found certain strengths and limitations. If you want to get really, really strong, I think there are better approaches. I’ve been a fairly serious lifter in the past, and using a more typical workout program with a higher volume of exercise produced more significant gains. Of course, I was a younger man then, so everything was physically easier.

However, when I have used this approach, I have always improved. I’ve made slow, but steady and measurable gains. I’ve felt different, and better. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve exposed myself to the myriad benefits of strength training without exposing myself to the increased risk of injury that typically comes with it (very important for someone like me, approaching middle age and self-employed with no sick leave). Not bad for something I can squeeze in on a lunch hour once per week.




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