By Michael Ormsbee, PhD, Florida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Research has found that regularly engaging in weight training can help to prevent sarcopenia, the loss in muscle mass that typically accompanies aging. What about adding muscle mass with exercise, though?
As it turns out, resistance training, or lifting weights, does add muscle mass if you specifically plan your program with muscle gain as one of your goals. In one study, Professor Ormsbee and his team put 24 men who were familiar with lifting weights in a periodized resistance-training program three times per week for six weeks.
During this training program, the subjects consumed either a placebo or a multi-ingredient performance supplement containing whey protein, casein protein, branched chain amino acids, creatine, beta-alanine, and caffeine.
Both groups of participants took their supplement—either the placebo or the multi-ingredient performance supplement—both before and after exercise. Periodized resistance training means that the exercise was systematically designed to change the amount of weight lifted and the volume of training.
The goal of the exercise was to improve strength and muscle size. Basically, they all lifted three days per week, and, every two weeks, the subjects lifted more weight for fewer repetitions in order to meet the goals of the training plan.
Subjects in both groups improved body composition, showing that the training plan worked. However, the subjects who also supplemented with the multi-ingredient supplement increased lean mass more and lost a little bit more fat—although, not statistically more—than the group that did resistance training alone and drank the placebo.
“Other great news was that by doing resistance exercise, both groups improved their upper and lower body strength and some measures of power,” Professor Ormsbee said. “Data show that as you age, the importance of strength is critical.”
In fact, just being stronger in your chest and legs is associated with the least risk of premature death. This shows that resistance training should be included in your exercise program and that some nutritional supplements can help even more with improving body composition and performance.
Women and Weight Training
All too often in this area of research, women get excluded from studies.
“I’d like to shed some light on part of the reasoning for this,” Professor Ormsbee said. “It is mainly due to the hormone fluctuations that females go through month-to-month before menopause, which can influence certain variables that are measured.”
In order to minimize these variations, studies that include women typically track menstrual cycles so that the pre- and post-testing are completed about a month apart and during the same phase of the cycle. This way, hormone levels will stay at as consistent a level as possible.
With that said, more and more nutrition and exercise research is being done with female subjects. You can also test postmenopausal women to minimize hormonal fluctuations.
“For example, in one of our collaborative studies, we explored the extent to which nutrition, resistance training, or the combination could improve body composition in obese postmenopausal women,” Professor Ormsbee said.
The results showed that resistance training alone improved strength but not muscle mass, whereas those on diet alone lost a significant amount of weight, but it was from both fat and muscle mass. The diet plus resistance training combo improved most variables, including a loss of body weight from fat mass specifically, and they were also able to maintain muscle mass and improve strength—just as a diet and resistance exercise combination did in the study with male subjects.
“So for those women out there that are afraid of looking too big and muscular, this study should help you realize that it’s physiologically impossible to look like you’re on steroids unless, well, you’re on steroids,” Professor Ormsbee said.
Changing Body Shape
Overall, we see time and time again that in order to optimize your health and performance, it’s the combination of both nutrition and exercise that creates a synergistic effect to induce the greatest amount of positive change. This is true particularly if you are overweight.
“The example I often give is that if you are a large pear-shaped individual, long-slow cardio will likely make you a smaller pear-shaped individual,” Professor Ormsbee said.
The reason is that while you are likely decreasing body fat, you are also losing a bit of muscle along with it—so your lean mass to fat mass ratio stays relatively the same because they are both lower. However, if you add dynamic weight lifting to your plan, you can actually change your body shape entirely by building lean mass and decreasing fat.
“Now, this isn’t spot reducing; this is actually changing your entire body shape as you work to lose fat and build muscle,” Professor Ormsbee said. “I’ve seen this over and over in our research and while working directly with clients.”
Another important factor to note is that even with the training program lasting three months or more, these women did not transform into walking around like the Hulk. In a study that Ormsbee’s team published last year in the Journal of Applied Physiology, they found that 16 weeks of resistance training plus protein intake resulted in maintenance of muscle mass but no increase or decrease.
Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.