Editor’s Note: Following up on Gabe Mirkin’s article last week Sarcopenia (Muscle Loss with Aging) LInked to Inflammation Coach John Hughes responds to a reader’s question with specific recommendations about the benefits of strength training to complement cycling, and how best to do it. Of course, strength training also helps slow muscle loss as we age. Coach Hughes’ recommendations are general enough to be of value to all of us roadies.
Question: I’m looking for some guidance on weight training. I’m 61 yrs, 156 lbs. 5’7” and see conflicting advice on weight training. I cycle about 2,000 mi./yr. I would do more but I still work as I love my job as a fire officer and own my own business to boot, so generally I’m in good shape but now question the way that I have been lifting, which I am not consistent at doing at this point. I would rather be cycling anyway.
I tend do a warm-up set and then three or four main sets of 10 reps, increasing the weight each set. I do primarily upper body exercises. Not sure that is best for me. I am a fan of Dr. Gabe and read that he recently was writing about low weight, high reps, but I wasn’t sure if that was for guys over 65 or what. I work out at my firehouse and my gorillas leave so much weight on the machines, I get exhausted (and pissed off at them) just getting all of the weights off of the equipment.
Several times a week I am climbing stairs with a good 40 lbs with my turnout gear and air pack, so I feel as if my cardio and legs are in pretty good shape. … I used to be able to get 30-40 minutes of air out of a bottle, but I’m lucky if I get 15 minutes now with all the huffing and puffing that I do.
I am not necessarily looking to build, just don’t want to lose too much muscle mass. I’m pretty lean as it is. When I do go to work on a fire and I am often “packed up” supervising, I can tell that I am losing strength as I am starting to feel that I am getting my ass kicked.
Any counsel would be much appreciated. —Barton Krauss
Coach Hughes Replies: Bart, you’re asking an excellent question: What kind of strength training is important for you. First, let’s look at the bigger picture.
Why do resistance training?
The answer depends on why you are lifting weights. Here are some possible reasons:
- Maintenance, to prevent the atrophy of muscles as we age.
- Strength, the capacity to lift a very heavy load once or twice.
- Endurance, the capacity to exert less strength but multiple times.
- Hypertrophy, to increase muscle size.
- Bone strength, to prevent loss of bone mass.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has published a position with these recommendations for regular weekly exercise in each of the following five areas.
- Cardiorespiratory endurance
- Resistance (strength)
For resistance exercise for adults the ACSM recommends:
Frequency: Two or three days per week using a variety of exercises and equipment.
Intensity: Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) between moderate- (5–6) and vigorous- (7–8) intensity on a scale of 0 to 10. These RPEs apply only when you are actually doing an exercise. An RPE of 5 – 6 is at the top of your aerobic range — you’re breathing deeply but not gasping for air. At RPE of 7 – 8 you are breathing very hard. The RPE is determined by how hard the resistance is.
Type: Progressive weight training program or weight-bearing calisthenics of 8–10 exercises involving the major muscle groups, as well as stair climbing and other strengthening activities that use the major muscle groups.
Sets:Two to four sets of each exercise will help adults improve strength and power.
Reps: For each exercise, 8-12 repetitions improve strength and power, 10-15 repetitions improve strength in middle-age and older persons starting exercise, and 15-20 repetitions improve muscular endurance.
Recovery: Adults should wait at least 48 hours between resistance training sessions.
Bart, you said you’re not consistently lifting at this point, that you would rather be cycling anyway.
I’d rather ride, too; however, use it or lose it definitely applies to a roadie of any age when it comes to our muscle mass Unfortunately, as we age we tend to lose it faster! You should be lifting year-round. For your purposes – preventing atrophy (or loss of muscle mass) and increasing strength – each requires a different program.
Which Exercises to Meet Your Needs
You mentioned that you do primarily upper body exercises but also walk a lot of stairs in your gear.
The ACSM recommends exercises using all of the major muscle groups. Walking around with the 40 lbs. of your turnout gear and air pack, and especially climbing stairs, counts as resistance exercise. If you’re fighting a fire two or three times a week, then you don’t need any lower body exercises; however, if you don’t turn out for a fire that often, then add split squats, step ups, calf raises and hip flexor exercises to your weekly routine.
How many sets and reps.
The appropriate combination of weights and reps depends on the purpose:
For endurance, a rider should do 1 – 3 sets of 15 – 20 reps of light to moderate weights and up to 30 seconds recovery between sets.
For hypertrophy (to counteract muscle atrophy) a rider should do 1 – 3 sets of 8 – 12 reps with moderate weights, with 30 – 90 seconds recovery between sets. Increasing the load to heavy weights will build muscles, which can then be converted to power.
For maximum strength (for example for sprinting) a rider should do 1 – 3 sets of up to 6 reps with very heavy weights, with 2 to 5 minutes recovery between sets. Unless a rider is a sprinter, there’s no value in doing this type of training (low volume / high intensity).
You need better muscular endurance for the duration of fighting fires, and also lots of strength at key moments on a fire. I suggest a combination of endurance and strength training, i.e.,
- Warm-up set of 15 reps, building to 20 reps, with light weights
- Endurance set of 10 reps, building to 15 reps, with moderate to heavy weights
- Strength set of 3 reps, building to 6 reps, with very heavy weights.
How Much Weight or Resistance?
Here are two ways to determine what’s right for you:
For a given exercise, experiment to determine the maximum weight at which you can do five reps but not six. This is the five rep maximum (5 RM) weight. If you’re using free weights, get one of the gorillas to spot for you. Then, for your exercises:
For endurance lift 75 – 80% of 5 RM
For hypertrophy lift 80 – 90% of 5 RM
For strength lift 90 – 100% of 5 RM
Here’s another way to determine the appropriate weights.
For endurance you should do 15 reps, building to 20 reps. Experiment to determine the maximum weight with which you can do 20 reps. Then start doing the exercise with 15 reps of a slightly heavier weight and build up to 20 reps.
For hypertrophy you should do 8 reps building to 12 reps. Experiment to determine the maximum weight with which you can do 12 reps. Then start doing the exercise with 8 reps of a slightly heavier weight and build up to 12 reps.
For strength you should do up to 6 reps. Experiment to determine the maximum weight with which you can do 6 reps. Then start doing the exercise with 3 reps of a slightly heavier weight and build up to 6 reps.
Progressive weight training
The ACSM recommends a “progressive weight training program.“ This means progressively harder workouts. If you just do 10 reps every time, you won’t get any stronger.
When you reach the maximum number of reps (endurance = 20, hypertrophy = 12, strength = 6) increase the weight, drop back down to the starting number of reps and build back up to the maximum number of reps.
All of the above pertains to general fitness, which is very important for every adult. You also need functional fitness to fight fires. Here are several examples:
You need to carry that 40 lbs of gear for a long time, so as part of your workouts walk around with all your gear on, especially up and down stairs.
You have to repeatedly lift heavy loads, so practice the same motions while wearing your 40 lbs of turnout equipment.
You may need to drag hoses to the fire. To train, you probably don’t want to drag a hose around; however, you could load some weights onto an auto tire laid flat and drag it around.
Identify other specific activities that require strength at a fire and figure out how to simulate them as part of your strength training.
You mentioned that your cardio isn’t what it once was.
While your cardio and legs may be in pretty good shape, if you’re huffing and puffing that much then your cardio isn’t fit enough to fight fires. In addition to strength training, you also need to do higher intensity workouts, which you can do on your bike! How hard? You should be huffing and puffing as hard on the bike as you do fighting a fire.
For a roadie, functional fitness means being able to climb a hard hill or take a pull into a high wind or chase your buddies or win the city line sprint. You want to turn your general fitness into functional fitness by climbing workouts, etc.
Machines or free weights?
By using a machine you can isolate and train a specific muscle group. Machines are great for your gorillas who are trying to bulk up. However, lifting free weights trains major muscle groups and also strengthens all of the smaller muscles that provide balance and control to a major muscle group — a machine doesn’t do this. Free weights are more realistic for you. When you’re fighting a fire the control and balance is just as important as strength.
Use free weights that engage multiple muscle groups. For example, step-ups and split squats use the quads, glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles. Leg extensions only work the quads. Lat pull-downs and rowing use the upper back, biceps and triceps, but curls only work the biceps.
Also, most people aren’t equally strong on both sides of the body. Your right leg may be stronger than your left leg and your left shoulder and arm may be stronger than your right shoulder and arm. Exercises that work one side of the body at a time help to improve muscle balance. For example, step-ups and split squats are better than regular squats.
Overload and recovery
To get fitter you need to ask one part of your body, for example, cardio or legs, to do more than it’s used to doing, and then allow it to recover. Obviously, when you’re on duty and fighting fires you can’t schedule your hard and easy days. However, as much as you can, do your riding and your leg strength training on the same days so that the other days are complete recovery … unless the alarm goes off.
You have weight-lifting equipment at the firehouse and use it; however, many roadies don’t like going to a gym. Roadies don’t have to — you can exercise all of the major muscle groups at home using simple equipment found around the house. For example, if you’re watching TV you could do a different type of exercise during each commercial break.
My new eBook will describe in detail how best to use aerobic, intense aerobic and strength training to combat the effects of aging. It will include over 20 specific strength exercises, illustrated with photos, which the reader can do at home as well as in a gym. Look for Anti-Aging: How You Can Slow the Aging Process later this month.