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Strength Training 101

Why you've just gotta do it — and how to start getting strong


En español | While everyone knows that as we age we lose muscle and bone density — eventually — a recent study from Duke University showed that this process starts accelerating at a younger age than you might think. It’s in your 50s, for example, not your 60s or 70s, that you lose muscle mass at a rate that — barring any efforts to preserve or rebuild it — could translate into trouble getting up from a chair in the near future.

Put another way: Without any interventions, people have been shown to lose about 30 percent of their muscle mass between ages 50 and 70. 

You don’t have to let that happen. And that’s where strength-building workouts come in.

Bryant Johnson, who trains Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, notes that while some of his older clients are perfectly able to get out and walk or bike without encouragement (“The older generation, they grew up moving more”), they need a little push when it comes to building muscle.

Sometimes, he says, people get tripped up by the idea that strength training is all about sculpting biceps in a loud and crowded gym. Often, they’re just not used to the feeling of their muscles being fatigued.

Not that he’s accepting any excuses. As he tells it, if Justice Ginsburg — an 86-year-old, three-time cancer surgery survivor with a stent in her chest and a highly demanding day job — can strength train twice a week, well, so can you.

“As we get older, we start to lose bone density and muscle, and there is only one way to increase it, and that is to do weight-bearing exercise. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” he says.

But getting in this type of exercise doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym. There are simple strength-training moves you can do at home — using hand-held weights, elastic bands known as resistance tubes, or just the weight of your own body — that work your muscles as you need to.

Your goal should be working in strength-training exercises twice a week, as recommended by federal exercise guidelines. Ginsburg knocks out things like planks and knee lifts for an hour twice a week, but you can start with very short, single sets of strength-training exercises — think just a few reps or minutes at a time — and build up from there. That’s how Ginsburg started off two decades ago, after surviving colorectal cancer and working out with Johnson for the first time. 

And while, yes, the idea is to work your muscles until they’re good and tired, this doesn’t have to actually hurt. “It’s not so much no pain, no gain,” says Johnson, “but you want to at least feel it.”

Sometimes, he says, getting used to what some exertion on your muscles feels like — and embracing that sensation — is the key to making a strength-training habit stick.

Beyond that, Johnson says, just try not to go more than three days without doing some kind of muscle-building activity. As he often tells his clients, You can do this.

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