Lift your arm out to your side. Now, bend your elbow and squeeze your bicep as hard as you can. Do you feel or see something, or is your upper arm pretty squishy?
Try another one. Stand up and squeeze your butt cheeks as though you’re trying to keep from breaking wind (hold in a fart). Is there anything back there, or has your butt become as flat as an IHOP pancake?
While everyone is worried about which diet is best…Paleo, Keto, low-carb, low-fat (yes, some people still buy into low-fat diets)…I’m over here shaking my head, knowing people are missing a big part of the health and fitness puzzle.
Nutrition alone is not the answer to reclaiming your health, getting rid of excess body fat, and feeling your best. Nutrition provides the building blocks for your body, but you need strength training to tell your body what to do with that nutrition.
The average person starts losing muscle as early as age 25! More and more millennials haven’t even left home by age 25. From 40 to 70 years old, muscle loss averages 8% per decade and then accelerates to 15% after age 70.
Your muscle tissue is a significant factor in the function of your metabolism. Muscle loss causes physical and cognitive decline.
Of course, much of this muscle loss, especially in younger and middle-aged adults, can be slowed, prevented, and even reversed. Unfortunately, the average lifestyle today, along with people’s low testosterone and low growth hormone, high levels of stress, and prevalence of type II diabetes, only accelerates muscle loss.
At some point, the rate you lose muscle exceeds the rate you can gain it, even in someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger. You cannot escape the effects of aging, but you can delay them.
Besides aging, injuries, cancer and other diseases, and chronic stress also cause muscle loss. Our eventual physical decline is inevitable. But the more muscle we have when our bodies start rapidly breaking down, the longer we last with our physical function.
Muscle looks good, but its value goes well beyond how it looks. My hope is, by the end of this article, you’ll drop whatever excuse you have in your head for not strength training and eating enough protein, and make them both nonnegotiables.
Here are seven ways muscle supports your body and mind.
1. Muscle Helps Manage Blood Sugar
High-carb diets combined with sedentary lifestyles created an epidemic of diabesity (obesity and diabetes). About two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese, and pre-diabetic or diabetic.
If you look down at your stomach and you don’t see a bulging belly, don’t assume you’re in the clear. About 20% of those with diabetes or pre-diabetes are at a healthy weight.
To fix the blood sugar problem, you could eliminate carbs entirely by following a ketogenic diet. Or, you could eat a more moderate amount of carbs and create space to store them by building muscle.
In my opinion, your mental and physical health will be better off with some carbs in your diet.
Your liver and skeletal muscle store glucose as glycogen. However, if you don’t exercise regularly, and more specifically, train with weights, you lose your ability to store carbs. When you don’t have any place to put them, blood sugar rises, the pancreas secretes insulin, and you store fat.
There’s also a plenty of evidence to show that blood sugar and insulin dysfunction leads to cancer, cognitive problems, heart disease, and accelerated aging.
The more muscle you have, the more storage space you create for glucose. So, go ahead and cut back on the carbs, but you must get to the gym and build muscle too.
More than one-third of the population has pre-diabetes, yet only one in ten know they have it. Even worse, by 2025, 64% of the population is expected to have type II diabetes.
2. Muscle Builds Strength And Stamina
During your first few months of a weight training program, you gain strength without much of an increase in muscle tissue. In this adaptation phase, your nervous and muscular systems get better at using the muscle you already have, even when you don’t have much.
You gain considerable strength without building any muscle.
Then, after you’ve pushed your strength limits with your existing muscle, you start to build more muscle. After a few more months of consistent weight training and a high-protein diet, you notice a little more shape to your body, and your strength continues to improve. You also notice that you can handle harder workouts and you recover faster than you had in the past. Other people start commenting on your physical change as well.
Although it’s fun to see how much your strength improves in the gym, the real benefit is how it impacts your everyday life.
You can skip up the stairs without getting short of breath. You can carry the groceries without needing a cart. You can throw your grandson in the air and watch a smile cover his face.
The strength and stamina come from the growth of new muscle fibers, as well as new energy-producing machines called mitochondria.
You produce energy more efficiently. Your ligaments and tendons, as well as your muscles, gain strength. And your nervous system gets better and better at coordinating different muscle groups to make your movement more fluid and effective.
Your newfound strength and stamina make you to participant in life instead of a bystander.
Whatever strength you have today, if you don’t intentionally work to improve upon it, you’ll be weaker a year from now. If you’re not building muscle and strength, your body will break it down.
3. Muscle Supports Your Joints
One of the main excuses people give me for not weight training is joint pain. Ironically, the reason most of those people have pain is that they won’t weight train. So, my answer is always the same:
Figure out how you can weight train in a way that doesn’t make the joint pain worse. Eventually, the weight training will alleviate the joint pain.
That’s not to say that someone with osteoarthritis in the knee, where there is no cartilage between the bones, will feel good doing squats. They might have to find an alternative movement. At the same time, bad knees is never an excuse to avoid exercise altogether. You still have plenty of other body parts you can work on. Interestingly, increasing lean body mass has been shown to improve some forms of arthritis.
When I tore my bicep on July 14, 2014, I was back in the gym for the next two days. I had it reattached on the third day, took the next day off, and then I was back to my regular workout schedule. I had my left arm in a cast for two weeks, and a sling for many more, but I never used it as an excuse to miss a workout. To the contrary, I used it as a reason not to miss a training session, knowing that training the rest of my body also aided in the recovery of my injured arm.
Muscle protects your joints from the effects of stepping off a curb the wrong way or slipping on some unseen ice. If you have the strength and coordination, you’ll catch yourself, rather than crash and get hurt.
Also, the hormonal effects of building muscle can help repair other tissues and alleviate some of the pain you feel.
4. Building Muscle Builds Bone Too
Physical tension or resistance stimulates the growth of muscle mass and bone density. After experiencing the stimulus, your body uses amino acids to build and repair muscle (along with other micronutrients) and uses protein, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins D and K to build bone (I realize that’s a super-simplified version of how it works).
Oh, and if you think you’ll avoid osteoporosis by drinking milk, check this out:
The prevalence of osteoporosis in those who consume dairy isn’t any better than those who don’t.
Although calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D and K are necessary for bone health, your body won’t build bone unless you give it a reason to. You have to stress your bone with more of a resistance than that of lifting a dinner fork or smartphone.
If you’re losing muscle, you are almost assuredly losing bone density. And if you do what’s necessary to build muscle, you’ll very likely improve bone density, too.
Strong muscles almost always translate to healthy bones.
5. Muscle Helps You Control Body Fat
Muscle burns about three times as many calories per pound as body fat does. So, as you drop body fat and add muscle, your scale weight might not change, but you’ll create a significant shift in how you look, while also increasing your resting metabolic rate.
Like muscle loss, metabolic rate drops as you age.
Beginning in their 20s, the average person’s metabolic rate drops about two to three percent per decade. By age 50, it falls an average of four percent per decade. By the time you reach 70 years of age, their metabolic rate is about 30% lower than it was in their 20s.
However, this isn’t an excuse to say, “When I hit age (fill in the blank), my metabolic rate dropped, and I got fat.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Your exercise and diet choices are a much more significant factor than age itself. In fact, a fit 70-year-old could have a metabolic rate that far exceeds that of a sedentary 30-year-old.
By the way, if you’re doing a ton of cardio and eating a low-calorie diet to try to burn off your excess body fat, you’re actually going to speed up your loss of muscle and slow your resting metabolic rate.
Use cardio sparingly, and instead, rely on strength training and a high-protein diet to get you lean and build lean body mass.
6. Muscle May Change Your Emotional State
When you feel sad or depressed, you unconsciously slouch, drop your head down, turn your arms in, and when things get really bad, sit in some form of a fetal position. When you feel an emotion, you take on the posture of that emotion.
Research shows it works in reverse as well. When you take on the posture of that emotion, you begin to feel that emotion. How do most people sit while at work, or while using their smartphones? In the very same position they sit in when they’re depressed.
You can do a lot to improve the ergonomics of your workstation, but you can also combat some of the effects of poor posture by building muscle in a balanced way. For example, when I design upper body exercises for VIGOR and VIGORESS, about 60% are upper body pulling, or back movements, while 40% are upper body pushing movements. I have clients and athletes focus their muscle-building movements more on improving their posture and unwinding the effects of sitting and scrolling all day long.
The research shows and my experience confirms, that when people improve their posture, they improve their emotional state. Perhaps instead of Prozac as a first choice, we should encourage people to join a gym and build some muscle.
7. Muscle Makes You More Self-Confident
There are few things more exciting than experiencing a physical transformation or accomplishing new personal bests…slipping into a new and smaller-size pair of pants, seeing the definition in your shoulder when you wear a sleeveless shirt, noticing that your belly fat no longer rests on top of your belt, reaching a new PR on the squat and deadlift, doing 10 real push-ups in a row, or completing your first bodyweight pull-up.
Time and again, I’ve seen these physical accomplishments supercharge people’s self-confidence in ways that help them achieve many other things in their personal lives and career.
The loss of physical strength has a direct impact on your mental strength as well. A weak body and a weak mind often go hand in hand. So, if you need to be mentally tough for your job, business, relationship, or family, do whatever it takes to get physically strong(er).
The confidence you gain from becoming more fit gives you the confidence to accomplish many other things as well.
Make Regular Deposits Into Your Quality Of Life Savings Account
Just as a well-funded retirement account allows you the same standard of living, even after you stop working, building muscle allows you to maintain the same quality of life, even after your body begins the physical and mental decline of old age.
Strength training and a high-protein diet are the foundation for building lean body mass. Whatever your age, whatever health and personal stuff you’re dealing with, now is the time to get started on an effective strength training program and a healthy, high-protein diet. And like a box of Pringles, once you start, don’t stop (Disclaimer to those who don’t understand my dry humor: If you’re thinking of eating Pringles, don’t start. This was a play on words, not a recommendation).
If you’re looking for an effective, easy-to-follow, proven program to help you build muscle, strength, stamina, and resilience, check out VIGORESS (ladies) and VIGOR (gentlemen). Registration for my online training programs opens only three times per year, so be sure to jump at the opportunity when it becomes available.