Updated 26th October 2023

Resistance training: How to stay strong as you age

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Do you feel like your muscles are shrinking or getting weaker? Many people gradually lose muscle mass as they get older. And this leads to an increased risk of falls, osteoporosis, and fractures. 

When it comes to your muscles, it’s a case of use them or lose them. But what's the most effective way to use our muscles and maintain strength? Ex-bodybuilder Prof. Brad Schoenfeld tells us how. And it’s easier than you might think.

Brad is a professor of exercise science at Lehman College and a world-leading expert on building muscles and strength.

In today’s episode of ZOE Science & Nutrition, Jonathan and Brad ask: How can you maintain muscle mass as you age?

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Episode transcripts are available here.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Brad: There's certainly people in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s that have more muscle than they had when they were 20, when they started resistance training later in life. The key, in my humble opinion, is resistance training. We actually carried out a meta-analysis on the oldest of old, people 75 years and older, who were sedentary and given resistance training.

There was marked increases in strength. And these are short periods of time, by the way, we're talking 8 to 12 weeks. 

[00:00:27] Jonathan: Welcome to ZOE Science and Nutrition, where world leading scientists explain how their research can improve your health.

Today, we learn how to keep our bodies strong as we age and why this is so crucial for a long and healthy life. As early as our 30s and 40s, our muscles start to shrink and we begin to lose strength. This puts us at major risk of frailty, falls, and fractures, which in older age can even lead to death. But there is good news, this future is not inevitable. 

I'm excited today to speak with Professor Brad Schoenfeld. Brad is a professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, and a world leading expert on building muscles and strength. He's published over 250 peer reviewed papers and written numerous fitness books. 

Brad, thank you for joining me today. Now we have this tradition on the show that we always start with a quick fire round of questions from our listeners. And we have some very specific rules, Brad, which we know are really hard for professors, and the rules are you have to say yes or no, or if you absolutely have to, you can go as far as a one sentence answer. So the first question, do my muscles matter for my health? 

[00:00:57] Brad: Yes. 

[00:01:00] Jonathan:If I have more muscles, will I age more slowly? 

[00:01:20] Brad: As a general rule, yes. 

[00:01:56] Jonathan: Is strength training more important than cardio for health? 

[00:02:02] Brad: In my humble opinion, yes. I mean, they're both, I think that does an injustice to the either or question because they are complementary.

[00:02:11] Jonathan: Can weight training fight loss of bone density after menopause? 

[00:02:15] Brad: Yes. 

[00:02:17] Jonathan: Is it ever too late to start increasing muscle strength? 

[00:02:19] Brad: No. 

[00:02:20] Jonathan: All right. And then finally, and you, I'm not, you don't have to say yes or no. What's the biggest myth about strength training that you often hear? 

[00:02:33] Brad: So many. Women feel it'll make them too bulky. Athletes often feel that at it’ll bind them up so they become less athletic. That it takes a lot of time and I could go on and on. There's just so many myths. 

[00:02:44] Jonathan: And none of those things are true, Brad? 

[00:02:47] Brad: None of them are. 

[00:02:49] Jonathan: true. That's amazing. Well, I look forward to unpacking this. 

Hi, I hope you're enjoying the show so far.

If you're not already a regular listener, I hope you feel like you might come back. Make sure to hit the subscribe button and turn notifications on, so you know whenever a new episode arrives. And actually, I've been really looking forward to this show personally. I'm in my late 40s, and I've been doing regular workouts with a trainer for about 7 or 8 years.

And that started because I was having this knee pain that I have over a few years. I went to see a doctor and it just turned out, which won't surprise you that apparently being as weak as a baby is not really healthy in anything at all, and what's interesting is exercising regularly has made me feel a lot better.

But one of the things that's really amazed me since I started at Zoe was discovering that regular exercise isn't just about sort of your joints and joint pain, but actually could be having a broader positive impact on my health. So before we dig into sort of actionable advice for our listeners,  I'd love actually just to start at the very beginning and understand.

And I think the starting question for me is like, how do our muscles work? 

[00:03:57] Brad: Muscles attach to bone via tendons and muscles shorten and lengthen. So when they shorten, they will bring bones up to carry out a movement and ultimately that allows you to ambulate, to walk. It allows you to pick up packages, pick up your kids and allows you to do resistance training, of course.

[00:04:19] Jonathan: And so they're obviously essential, right? We'd be sort of like jelly on the floor without that description you just described. It doesn't seem obvious why they would be important to our health, providing they're functioning enough that we can walk around. So can you, can you help to unpack that for me.

[00:04:33] Brad: The idea is that when muscles begin to shrink and they get weaker, you do not have sufficient strength to carry out basic tasks and then you lose your functional independence. Which is the primary reason that most people go into nursing homes to, you know, care facilities as they age. It also can lead to falls, hip fractures which often are fatal, over time, that mortality in those in elderly individuals who undergo falls is close to 50 percent over a period of a couple years. 

The functional disabilities, of course, are far reaching as far as people's ability to be, to carry out activities on their own. Which not only is, is really bad as far as their ability to engage in life, but it's also demoralizing mentally. There's aspects far beyond that also are important.

Muscles store glucose. So glucose, of course is stored in muscles as glycogen. If your muscles start to shrink, you have less ability to store glucose. That tends to lead to diabetes, to insulin resistance and diabetes. It also, the functionality of the muscle themselves in terms of their insulin receptors, their ability to get glucose into the muscles, it’s not just the size and their ability to store a certain amount of glucose, but it's their ability to take in the glucose.

And by the way, you mentioned earlier, also by pulling on the bones, they help to strengthen bones or when they weaken, they facilitate the decrease in bone density. So there's just really all organ systems kind of can be affected by muscle. 

[00:06:26] Jonathan: I mean, I guess I really want to follow up on that first part, because I guess for many people listening to this, this idea about having freedom for as long as possible and having good health for as long as possible is really central.

And I grew up just basically sort of this understanding, like as you get old, you know, you get wrinkly and you get weak and you stop being able to do things, and that's just how it is. And this is going to happen to you anyway, to what extent, is that true as far as your muscles are concerned? And is there anything that you can do now when you might be in your forties or your fifties or your sixties or whatever that is going to affect that loss of muscles that is having this effect on losing freedom as you get older?

[00:07:13] Brad: Yeah, so the age-related loss of muscle is called sarcopenia. It's actually now a diagnosed medical condition, and it is not inevitable. That resistance training is really the key. 

Now, certainly other activities can help in that regard depending upon what they are. But ultimately resistance training, which can be defined as the activities that promote muscle working against a given force. And that can be accomplished through lifting weights is often thought of as the most common view of it. But I mean, it can be body weight exercise, can be push-ups, body weight squats, can be forms of resistance training. You can use bands, resistance bands, you can use cable machines and other types of units. 

And it can be integrated. And I mean, there's yoga that involves resistance where they do various… so anything where your body, your muscles are working against a given force. 

And to answer your question, then, if you engage in resistance training that substantially challenges the muscles over time, you can not only stave off sarcopenia, but you can maintain more muscle.

There's certainly people in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s, that have more muscle than they had when they were 20, when they started resistance training later in life. And that have more muscle than, 20 year olds do you know, at a given age. So I would say that the key, in my humble opinion, to staving off sarcopenia is resistance training.

[00:08:56] Jonathan: Well, I love that. It's really positive, right? Because I think often in this area, everything is very depressing about the idea that there's nothing going to do, you're going to get older, you're going to lose everything. And I think what you're saying is actually there's a lot you could do and it's, it's not too late, right?

If you didn't do any exercise in your twenties, you're saying it's not. Oh, that's too bad. I love this idea of being in my sixties or seventies and having more muscles than I had in my twenties.

[00:09:20] Brad: I just want to interrupt and say there is research. We actually carried out a meta analysis on the oldest of old, which were people 75 years and older who were sedentary and given resistance training.

And the meta analysis is a pooling of all the studies on the topic. There was marked increases in strength, and we see hypertrophy, increases in muscle growth, the differences. And these are short periods of time, by the way, we're talking 8 to 12 weeks, again, in 75 plus, so these are minimum 75 years old.

[00:09:56] Jonathan: Could you explain a little bit? Because I think we sort of jumped over a little bit, this link between doing this resistance training and preventing your muscles shrinking. Like, why does that happen? How does these two things fit together?

[00:10:11] Brad: When you resistance train, so you're applying force to the muscles, the forces that you're applying to the muscles are converted into chemical signals.

These chemical signals carry out protein synthesis. They create more protein… to the body to produce more muscle proteins, which give you larger muscles. When you are resistance training at a intense level, you are challenging the muscles to a greater extent than when you are walking.

So will walking be better than lying down all day? Of course. So if you're just lying down all day, if you're bedridden and then you get up and walk around, that will help to build some muscle. But it's going to be very minimal. The body only builds muscle to the extent that it's challenged to achieve greater muscle. You have to provide a greater stimulus to it.

All the body cares about is survival. So, maintaining muscle is energetically expensive and we are still living in the bodies of our Paleolithic ancestors. So the body doesn't realize that we can just go out for food whenever we want, et cetera. And it tries to be resourceful. So to maintain muscle, will be energetically expensive, which would have a negative survival impact when you are scavenging food in the historic days.

So to bring this back home when you're lying down, although let's say you're just not doing anything, you're very inactive. The body realizes it doesn't need this or thinks it doesn't need this extra muscle and it's energetically taxing to keep it. So why bother? Why would we need to maintain it if we're not going to be using it?

That is the use it or lose it principle. When you're lifting weights that challenge the body, because you might want to talk about, you don't necessarily need to lift heavy weights, but when you're lifting weights that ultimately become challenging, the body realizes that, or thinks, that it needs to be able to maintain muscle to carry out these activities for survival.

And again, everything revolves around what the body is perceiving as its survival needs.

[00:12:17] Jonathan: It's really interesting because it's very similar to a lot of discussions we have about nutrition, where also we have this problem where we sort of have these bodies that were built for this permanent fear of starvation and famine.

And we're living in an environment where, you know, there's a Starbucks and a McDonald's on every corner and it's all miss-set. And I think you're saying exactly the same thing about exercise and our muscles, that our body is worried about the cost of supporting these muscles. So it's constantly trying to shrink them.

Whereas actually we'd really like to keep them really high and that sadly there is no magic pill and you've got to do something that really puts them under strain if you want to keep the level of muscles that will keep us healthy. 

[00:12:59] Brad: Correct. And I would add too, since you bring up nutrition, that consuming protein is an important component as well. That protein, the consumption of protein is used, the amino acids from it are used to build muscles.

So when protein is deficient, you will at least up to a certain point, you will compromise your ability to gain muscle. But the most important factor is resistance training. You can still build muscle, even with quite suboptimal protein intakes, but you're not gonna, it will compromise the magnitude of your gains.

[00:13:36] Jonathan: And does that mean that as people age, you think they should be conscious about increasing the amount of protein they eat than they might be thinking about otherwise?

[00:13:44] Brad:  Yeah. So there's several things. Number one, there's something called the leucine threshold. Leucine is one of the amino acids, essential amino acids, and it's been shown to kind of kickstart the protein synthetic process after resistance training.

Thus, as you get older, your body becomes less sensitive to leucine and that, generally speaking, you need to consume more protein in a given sitting to hit your leucine threshold. 

The most important thing is the resistance chain. Again, you will compromise gains to an extent. But it's not like you won't get gains if you don't hit your leucine threshold. But it is important that as older people get older, you want to try to squeeze out as much as you can because it becomes harder to build muscle. 

[00:14:35] Jonathan: And Brad, is that like a steady decline over time or is that more.

I have a 15 year old and he's basically putting on muscle by the week, like just watch, you know, just, just watching him. And I, on the other hand, train all the time and I feel like I completely plateaued and it's incredibly hard to put any muscle on. I'm in my late forties. Is that can be much worse, you know, in my sixties and seventies. What's does the science say?

[00:15:00] Brad: It's very gradual, so generally speaking, and there's not much you could do. Let's say hormonally, men will generally lose, 1 percent or so of testosterone after about the age of 40. These are averages, different people have. Genetics is going to enter into that and other factors. 

Women, it's even more pronounced because women, when they go through menopause, lose estrogen. Estrogen basically is considered to be the male, the female component of testosterone to facilitate muscle building. At least there's some good evidence to indicate that. And the reductions in estrogen are huge, so it's a tenfold reduction in estrogen production for women, which compromises their ability to build muscle even more. So that in itself is going to be a factor. 

Chronic inflammatory effects. So the body produces these inflammatory cytokines as people get older on a chronic basis and injuries can affect that. Conditions such as osteoarthritis can be involved. So there's just a multitude of factors when you age that are kind of working against you.

[00:16:11] Jonathan: And it sounds like, particularly as a woman going through menopause, that there's like a big shift then in your ability to maintain or grow muscles after menopause compared to before. Is that… Did I understand that right?

[00:16:23] Brad:  The men are going to have a more gradual decline in testosterone, let's say from the age of 40 you just start seeing a shift.

It does seem to accelerate though when you get into your, when it gets into his 70s plus, can have even a greater downward, linear trajectory. Where women over a period of several years during menopause really have this drastic drop in estrogen. And that seemingly does, again, compromise to a greater extent muscle building ability.

But as I said, it does not mean you can't build muscle. Both men and women equally can achieve very good gains.

[00:17:09] Jonathan: Well, I think you've convinced everybody your muscles are really important. You scared us all with this idea that your ability to hold onto them gets worse and worse over time.

I'd love to like, start to talk about the actionable side about this. So that, cause I think everybody listens is like, well, I would like to have more muscles. I don't want to fall over and break my hip. I want to be able to stand up and get out of my chair. 

Just before we go into the details,  I just want to start at the highest level because the terminology around exercise can be very scary for non-experts and quite confusing.

So you've generally talked about resistance training. A lot of people talk about cardio. And we had this question at the beginning, I'd love just to understand. Because I think for a lot of people that'd be like, well, my doctor just tells me I should do more exercise. Can you help me to understand this difference between like lifting something heavy and like going out for a run or a cycle?

[00:17:59] Brad: Cardio implies that you're involving the cardiorespiratory system where it's oxygen dependent. So it's just, you're not, you're generally training in a manner that's submaximal where you can continue doing it over very long periods of time. 

Resistance training, you're going to be limited. You're not going to be able to lift weights continuously for 20 minutes. I mean, then you're essentially doing cardiovascular exercise. So, you know, outside of a minute, 90 seconds, a little more, it ceases to be resistance training and you start entering into cardiovascular, where it becomes more of an aerobic endeavor. Where your body utilizes oxygen.

[00:18:45] Jonathan: Now we've heard lots of people talk about the benefits of cardio, that this does have lots of health benefits in sort of long term studies. But it sounds like it's not giving you the muscle supporting benefits you've been talking about. 

Could you just help us to unpack that? And I think you said something quite interesting in the beginning that on balance, you actually think, you know, if you had, if I've got 20 minutes to decide what I'm going to do, that actually the resistance, if I had to do one or the other, the resistance is actually going to be better for my health than the cardio. Which I think for a lot of people will be really surprised. Could you help to explain that? 

[00:19:23] Brad: Yeah, sure. When you, we kind of touched on this before, but when you're doing cardiovascular exercise, you are not challenging the muscles substantially, to need to develop and to increase their strength.

All they need to do, again, the body is looking for survival. If your cardio consists of walking a couple of miles a day, the body will adapt to be able to do that. But that's a very low bar as far as the muscle needed to accomplish that. 

Whereas if you're lifting weights, the body is going to perceive a threat to its survival and it's going to substantially increase its muscle size and strength, and the various neural factors as well, to accommodate those types of changes that happen over time to consistently be able to carry out those functions.

Because the body is looking forward. You know, if you're, if you're walking, well, the body thinks you're going to need to walk on a regular basis. Until you, until you stop doing that. And then the body starts over a period of time and then the body regresses and says, all right, now we don't need to do this anymore. 

Strength gains can happen within a few weeks, you know, 2, 3 weeks, you will start to get hypertrophy, which is the building of muscle tissue increases in muscle size. Usually start to become evident in about a month or so, 4 weeks. Now, again, it depends upon what you're doing and genetics to a certain extent you're going to enter into this, but those are general, I would say general guidelines.

[00:21:05] Jonathan: This is quite nice, right? Just a few weeks, you're saying you’ll get the benefit, is nice. Many of the things we do, I think, in our life that are supposed to help our long term health, you don't really, and we see this, for example, even with your microbiome, you know, it might take you 3 to 6 months before you really start to see any shift.

So there's actually a very fast adaptation, I think, compared to many of the things that I've heard people talk to us about. So I think everybody's going to listen and say the same. So, okay. What is it that I should be doing? 

And so I'd love it if you could talk a little bit about the type of exercises that people could be doing and what's, I guess, best in terms of this strength training, there's a lot of muscles in my body. Do I need somehow to be doing like an exercise for each of my muscles? Or if I'm worried about my hip, do I just worry about my hips? Like what should people be thinking about what's required in order to get these benefits you're describing?

[00:21:57] Brad: So, you know these are questions that always are individual specific. But I can give you a general recommendation, is that you should be doing overall training the whole musculature.

If you're looking just for, let's say no specific issues, you just want to get healthier, you should be training the major muscles of the body. 

You generally should be, uh, resistance training a minimum of twice a week. Again, that's a bare minimum. And depending upon how you're structuring it, there can be other guidelines there, but let's just go with the minimum of twice a week.

And you should look, if you're looking for time efficiency, and I will say this, two half hour sessions a week can give you very potent gains. You're not going to step on stage as a bodybuilder.  

[00:22:51] Jonathan: I think I've missed that boat already, Brad. 

[00:22:54] Brad: But from a functional standpoint, from a health standpoint, from even just look, certainly looking better, you can achieve like literally one hour a week. You don't want to do it all in one session, you'd be better off splitting that up into let's say two half hour sessions. 

But I'd say at a bare minimum that can give you good gain, decent gains. And if you want a little better gains, you know, maybe 2 or 3 days a week and doing 45 minute sessions.

So even the time, there's ways of time saving. You can do what are called supersets and other types of techniques where you can reduce rest time between the exercises and achieve time efficiency. So again, working the major muscles, think of the chest muscles, the shoulder muscles, the back muscles, the quadriceps, the glutes.

People a lot of times, will function or focus on bicep curls and tricep press downs. Well, you get substantial involvement of those muscles when you're doing rows and presses. So,literally doing minimalist type routines that involve these multi joint exercises can work the total musculature.

Again, not to the extent that you're going to be stepping on stage, but most people, as you point out, are not looking to be bodybuilders. I do a lot of consultations with elite level athletes and bodybuilders, and the recommendations for them are going to be much different. You need to be much more, not only disciplined and conscious of your routine, but you need to be focusing on a lot more scientific principles when it gets to that level.

But a very basic routine can achieve very, very potent effects from a health, health and fitness standpoint.

[00:24:45] Jonathan: I think that's really, it's really exciting. And look, Brad, I know you used to be a bodybuilder and a personal trainer. So I'm going to assume that you enjoyed the exercise, and that you enjoyed sort of like the physique that you were, were building.

But there are a lot of people out there who asked a lot of the questions that I'd like to get to go through now who aren't regularly in the gym. And I would put myself in this category, I don't actually get a lot of pleasure from it. So I do the exercise, but I'm not really having a lot of fun in the exercise. I feel very good afterwards that I've done it in part, cause it's done. 

But I would be really interested maybe to start with a question that came up quite a few times. Which is, we had quite a few listeners saying they feel really intimidated by their local gym and the idea of getting started in this idea of strength training.

What would, do you have any advice for someone who's listened to this and saying, right, wow, okay, I'm really convinced this is important. I have to go and do this, but you know, I'm really not sure how to get going. 

[00:25:56] Brad: Yeah. So the most important thing is making sure you have a good idea of what you're doing.

I would say it is a very, generally a very good thing to find a qualified personal trainer, if possible. There's going to be an expense to that, it takes several sessions just to get a feel for the, what you should be doing. You don't have to stay with the trainer for long periods of time, but I would say at least several initiation sessions.

Most gyms, when you go there, give a one free session with a personal trainer. That can be a start, but usually people need several sessions to get a feel for what they're supposed to be doing. If the money's an issue there, get a, there's plenty of videos online that they can look up. So you can, for free, you can go online.

But I mean, if you're, you know, look for qualified people, that's what I would say. And make sure you know what you're doing and then map out a plan. The most important thing is to have a plan. There's an old adage, a Chinese adage, that says those who fail to plan, plan to fail. 

Adherence, of course, is the most important factor. So you need to be regimented. You need to commit to a couple days a week minimum, like I said,  and ultimately it should be like brushing your teeth. If you just commit to that schedule where you're doing it on this regimented basis, try, I would say if possible, pick regimented days where you go in, you know you're going to be going in and just do it.

And if you keep doing it over a period of a couple months, it becomes habit. 

And I would say when you're starting out, just repeat the same workouts over and over. Don't try to get involved in a lot of variety. You just want to make the muscles learn movement patterns. So that's a basic mode of learning principle is to continue to do something over and over until you master it.

Generally speaking, free weights have certain benefits over machines. But you asked me about how, when someone is starting out, I think that, as a general rule, particularly if you're with a personal trainer, that's fine. Then he can instruct you or she can instruct you. But if you're just going into a gym on your own, there is a greater chance of injury if you don't know what you're doing with free weights than there is with machines.

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[00:28:20] Jonathan: I'd like to share something exciting back in March, 2022. We started this podcast to uncover how the latest research can help us live longer and healthier lives. We've spoken to leading scientists around the world doing amazing research, and across hundreds of hours of conversations, they've revealed key insights that can help you to improve your health.

If you don't have hundreds of hours to spare, no need to worry. At the request of many of you, our team has created a guide that contains 10 of the most impactful discoveries from the podcast that you can apply to your life and you can get it for free. Simply go to zoe.com/freeguide or click the link in the show notes and do let me know what you think of it.

Okay. Back to the show. 

We had quite a few questions sort of in the same, same position from women saying that they felt like the weight section in their gym felt very intimidating. So they weren't necessarily people who are not doing any exercise, but it feels like quite an intimidating place to be.

Is that where you need to be if you want to do this resistance training? And we have some questions around things like Pilates and yoga. And to what extent, you know, how well do they work versus, sort of lifting heavy weights, to get this resistance that you're talking about?

[00:29:39] Brad: Like I said, you don't necessarily have to use them.

And I would say that the decrease in, this is I think somewhat arguable, but the decrease that you'd get is just not going to be practically meaningful for most people. So you can continue just to use machines and have, make very good gains. Now when it comes to your point about yoga or Pilates, generally speaking, they do not, they are not sufficient to get you the same type of results that you would with resistance training.

They just are not challenging to the muscles to the point where they cause optimal development of the musculature. So I think they're kind of on a, we look at it on a spectrum of cardiovascular exercise to free weights. And they're kind of in the middle there. That it's, they would, they would be better than doing just cardio.

[00:30:37] Jonathan: And I saw you wrote this great paper about like, called, I think, something like “No Time to Train.” Which is a great, because most scientific papers have titles that are really quite boring. So I thought this was, this was, I immediately, my eyes picked up. 

So imagine that you said to, you know, someone says, to you, I have literally 15 minutes in my individual session to exercise Brad. You know, I've done some exercise before, so it's not the first time I've ever done it, but I've only got 15 minutes that I'm going to do. What would you, what we should tell them. And I understand that it's different between people, but what would be, what would be the basis of what you'd be telling them to do? Let's say they're, they're at home.

[00:31:09] Brad: If time is a barrier, focus on pressing and rowing type movements or pulling movements, which can generally be a row. Those are the common movement patterns. 

And then what is called a hip hinge for the lower body. So the three basic movement patterns. So a press and generally you'd want to do a press for the chest area and a press for the shoulders. So there's two pressing movements. Generally want to do two pulling movements, which can be rowing type movements.

If you have access to, like a lat pull-down in the gym, that's another pulling movement. And then your hip hinge type movements like squats. You could do a leg press as a hip hinge movement, which is a machine based movement. Squats and lunges can require a lot of balance and coordination. And for people just starting out, certainly older people can have issues with that.

Fifteen minutes isn't a lot of time, but you could do, let's say, focus one day on your squat and a pushing and a chest press the next time you come in, you do a lunge and another movement.

[00:32:13] Jonathan: A bit like the same thing you said about actually how little time you need to do to really make a difference. Again, you're not describing like an incredibly complex set of 25 different exercises you have to do in order to get any benefit. You're saying that these core exercises is working out quite a lot of different muscles. And so this, again, there's a sort of an achievable first step for people that doesn't involve, you know, the same complexity maybe of being able to participate in a sport.

[00:32:44] Brad: Correct. 

[00:32:46] Jonathan: I'd love to talk about the weight that's involved because this is something that I hear so many different people say different things. Including that, you know, unless you're using a very heavy weight and pushing yourself to the extreme, then none of this really matters. And I think for a lot of people, you know, that's a bit scary or they're worried about injuries.

I know, again, this is something that you've studied. What is the way to think about the weights that you're using in terms of getting these benefits? 

[00:33:18] Brad: Yeah, so this is something that's been very eye-opening to me and it goes against what, when I was an up and coming exercise science student that we've been taught. But you can use relatively very light weights that you can lift, let's say 30 to 40 times, and achieve similar muscle growth as you would lifting five to eight times. 

So a heavy weight that you're lifting five to eight times provided that you are lifting with a high degree of effort,  that you are, the last few repetitions are challenging to complete. 

Now that said, from a strength standpoint you do get somewhat better strength gains with the heavier load. But even that, the difference between the strength is not anywhere near what people generally would think.

So it's, I would say that, yes, if your goal is to maximize strength, some heavier loading is needed. But for most people, I think they will get the functional transfer of strength from the light loads, that would be sufficient to carry out their activities of daily living. That is not going to substantially compromise their, number one, their ability to to do their functional tasks, and really to have any meaningful effect on their lives.

[00:34:41] Jonathan: So just to make sure I've got that, I think you're saying, it doesn't really matter how heavy the weight is, provided that you're doing the exercise often enough that uh that it starts to get like hard.

[00:34:55] Brad: If you're above, let's say 40 repetitions, then, which is a lot. I mean, if you're lifting 40 repetitions, that's almost a 2-minute set that, the sets going to be just, it's going to start to become a cardiovascular endeavor. 

So again, when you're, most people would get very bored doing weights lighter than that, but I mean, we're talking very light loads that you just keep lifting. 

Yeah, the last few repetitions, as long as you are challenging the muscles to the point where you're, it becomes very difficult to lift on the last few repetitions, the gains are relatively similar, certainly for hypertrophy. They're going to be almost identical.

[00:35:35] Jonathan: That's really interesting. I'd say at a personal level, I think I always find it easier when it's quite heavy, since I don't really like doing anything that's hard. So if it's heavy, then it's hard for a short period of time. Whereas if it's a bit less heavy, it's still quite hard for longer. And I don't know whether this is just me, but I personally feel like actually it's easier to do something that's really heavy a few times and something that's quite heavy, a lot of times.

I don't know if that even makes any sense as I describe it to you, Brad. 

[00:36:06] Brad: Yeah, I wouldn't use the term easier, but it is less onerous. It is less onerous because like you said, you're having both of them are going to produce a discomfort, but you're just having a discomfort for a shorter period of time.

And what I would say is the discomfort with lighter loads comes from what's called acidosis. So that's a buildup of acids within the muscles and that you get a real intense burn where you don’t, to the same extent, with the heavier loads. 

But that said, a lot of people, particularly as people age, do not have the ability to tolerate heavy loads, their joints. So they develop osteoarthritis and other joint related conditions, which can impair their ability to use heavier loads. And in that case lighter loads is an option.

[00:36:54] Jonathan: We had a lot of questions from our community about people saying, I've got joint mobility issues or some other sort of injuries, disabilities and does that mean that therefore I can't do any of this strength? Cause you know, I don't think I could lift some really big, heavy, heavy weight. 

[00:37:12] Brad: Using lighter loads becomes a viable alternative under those. scenarios. Now, remember too, if time efficiency is something you're looking for, doing lighter loads is going to prolong the length of your session.

So if you're going to do, let's say, 30 repetitions versus doing 10 repetitions, each set is taking roughly three times as long. Decisions have to be made based upon lifestyle factors. 

[00:37:38] Jonathan: And your message to people who are in this group, who are saying like, I've got these, you know, joint mobility issues or, or whatever. A lot of whom I think have tended to feel, well, I have to give up doing all of this, is actually you shouldn't give this up, and the health benefits are still really high, even if potentially you're having to adjust a bit and maybe this thing is not as heavy as it might be otherwise. But actually it's not too late for people like this to get the benefit from this resistance training.

[00:37:50] Brad: Correct. 

[00:37:55] Jonathan: So I think that's very empowering. I'd like to ask one final question from our listeners. We had a lot of questions about menopause, and I think a lot of people are concerned around how postmenopause can affect bone density. And wondering like, and you've then described further concerns, I think, about how loss of estrogen might affect your ability to control your muscles, that I at least hadn't heard of before. And say, is there anything specifically that they should be doing, you know, the best exercises in that situation, if that's what they're concerned about?

[00:38:45] Brad: Yeah. So estrogen is osteoprotective, meaning that it protects bones. It helps to build bones and the loss of estrogen causes a disruption in that balance, and the bone building balance and causes a loss of bone in women. 

It's been a while since I've looked at the stats, but I would assume they haven't changed much. Roughly 80 percent of the cases of osteoporosis, which is a loss of bone beyond a certain point, and it's considered where there's a severe risk. Osteoporosis, by the way, means porous bone, where actually there are holes within the bones. 

Anyway, there's generally, again, resistance training is the primary intervention that will be helpful to avoid bone loss. Or at least to reverse, somewhat reverse the effects of bone, bone loss. And these primary sites of bone loss or osteoporosis are at the wrist, at the spine, and at the femur, at the hip area in general. And thus doing, as I mentioned earlier, those types of movements I talked about are the structural type movements, your presses, your rows, and your hip hinge movements are ideal. 

That doesn't mean other exercises aren't effective as well, but the ones I mentioned really put, load those areas substantially and that will help to offset those losses of bone and to some extent it can help to reverse those effects. 

[00:40:20] Jonathan: And presumably the same advice you've been giving elsewhere, which is even a couple of sessions a week will really make a difference.

Tell me, imagine at this point that somebody listening to this says, well, I've got more time. I'm actually not time restricted and I'm wanting to do this. What, but it's not the only thing I want to do in my life, right? I'm doing this for my health. What would be the number of times a week that ideally they should be doing these sorts of resistance training. Does it have to be every day? 

[00:40:47] Brad: For the average individual, I would say three sessions a week of 45 minutes to an hour would kind, when I say maximize, it will give you very robust gains to the point that I think, the vast majority of individuals would be very happy. From both the health standpoint and also a aesthetic standpoint because that's where you really can start to make substantial gains.

Look, even as people get older many still want aesthetic gains and when you're doing these minimalist routines the amount, it's generally more specific to strength than it is to hypertrophy. You're going to compromise muscle growth to a greater extent than you do muscle strength.

[00:41:30] Jonathan: So Brad, I have one more question. Just listening to all of this, I think you've done this incredibly powerful pitch for resistance training and how important it is. So I guess I'm left with a question around what about this, like cardio non-resistance exercise on top?

Like how important is that and what would you be saying to people that they, sort of really should be laying on top. If again, this is a sort of long term health perspective rather than anything else. 

[00:42:00] Brad: It's very important. So again, if you're asking me if you had to choose one gun to your head, no one necessarily has to choose one.

And you can fit cardio into your life. You don't have to do walk on the treadmill or do high intensity interval training, et cetera. You can just walk. I mean, step, so like if you focus, there's nothing necessarily magical about 10, 000 steps a day. That's kind of been a, but it's a nice default. I think that's generally a good goal.

If you can achieve, let's say 10, 000 steps a day, there is some compelling evidence that that does confer health related benefits. Doesn't mean you have to hit that target every day. These aren't hard cutoffs, but you want to try to get, fit that into your lifestyle. And yeah, cardiovascular exercise, so resistance training itself will help to promote cardiovascular benefits.

Your minimalist routines will not again, doing more resistance training will get you more cardiovascular benefits. But anyway, you can structure different types of cardio routines to fit in with your lifestyle. I keep harping on this, but it bears repeating that adherence is the most important thing.

The most important quality in a routine is adherence. And if you don't build adherence or what is important to someone into their routine, it's not going to matter.

[00:43:29] Jonathan: Brad, I think this has been incredibly helpful and interesting. 

I would love to try and do a summary. This is what we're always trying to do in the podcast and please keep me honest. So if I get anything wrong and what has been fairly complicated, then please adjust. 

So I think we started off by just explaining that muscles are really important and there's this thing called sarcopenia, which is the loss of muscles as you age, which is not inevitable, but actually is a thing that for most of us is probably going to take away the pleasure in our life. Whether that's, you know, losing the freedom to get out of our chair and ending up having to be in a care home or falling over and fracturing our hip. 

And we know that that is often the really fast route, unfortunately, to you know to end of life. And that in order to fight against this, we're in this miserable world where our body thinks there's no calories and it's constantly trying to shrink our muscles.

So the only thing we can do is this resistance training where we're sort of strengthening it. By pushing these forces against, and there are various ways that you could achieve this, but it sounds like, you know, weight training from is sort of the optimal solution proposing. Although you can get part of this through other things like Pilates or yoga. 

That sadly, it gets harder to gain muscle as you age. So you are fighting against this harder as we get older. And for men, there's a sort of slow decline, for women, it sounds like there’s this accelerated decline around menopause and that in both cases, therefore it's just harder to manage those muscles. 

But there is some really good news, which is actually a surprisingly small amount of exercise each week can have potent gains. You said two half-hour sessions can give you a really big gain in your muscle. And you also said that you'd done this peer reviewed paper showing that people aged over 75, in just 8 to 12 weeks could, like, dramatically increase their strength. 

So there is this very positive story, I think about what you can do. And it's a lot less than I think most people were expecting. 

That ultimately you think if you had to choose between resistance and cardio, you didn't want to be forced, but you're like, okay, actually, resistance is the most important thing and that there's quite a lot of flexibility. 

I think a strong push here, that if you've never had a trainer, that you should really try and get someone to help for yourself to give you this, this advice. But there are sort of three key types of exercises. I think you talked about pressing, talked about pull, and you talked about this hip hinge, which is sort of squats or lunges or deadlifts. 

And interestingly, if you're doing those three and you're worried about osteoporosis, sort of risks your bone after menopause, actually, those are directly going to address those areas, which I think is really nice. 

But I think for everybody, interestingly, that alone is going to get you a long way for this help. 

That you don't have to lift an enormous weight. In order to get any benefit. And that interestingly, you know, you've changed your view on this, and actually you could go to much lighter weights and do it more often. So if you do have, you know, joint mobility issues or other things that restrict, you can still do this resistance training. But you do need to keep doing it to the point that this is hard. And we talked about the fact that I'm terrible at that, so I'd rather do heavy for a short period of time. 

And then lastly, you said, look, you can add cardio and it's actually really simple. Like, go for a walk. And if you're hitting 10,000 steps a day, then actually you're probably getting most of the way for that health goal, if you're combining it with the resistance training.

And finally, I think you said the most important thing is adherence. So basically it's sticking to the routine. None of this matters if you're going to do it for a week or a month. You've got to find something that you can just keep doing as a permanent part of your lifestyle, because that's what's going to deliver these, these long term benefits.

[00:47:25] Brad: That's a perfect summary. You could just kind of capsulize that and you have a 2-minute podcast and that's what you need.

[00:47:33] Jonathan: Well, I'm not as credible as you are Brad, so I just tried to play back. But thank you so much. I think that is, I think, really interesting for people. 

And I think we'd definitely like to follow up more, I think in helping people to understand how, like, the on-ramps to this. Cause I think what you're also describing is there's a lot of complexity in exactly what to do. But I think most people will come away feeling like there's something really that can transform their health that is maybe more accessible than they might've thought. 

Thank you, Brad, for joining me on ZOE's Science and Nutrition today. If you want to understand how to support your body with the best foods to give you many more active and healthy years, then you may want to try ZOE's personalized nutrition program. You can learn more and get 10 percent off by going to zoe.com/podcast. As always, I'm your host, Jonathan Wolf.

ZOE's Science and Nutrition is produced by Yella Hewings-Martin, Richard Willan, and Tilly Fulford. See you next time.

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