Strength Training Increases Your Longevity. “Toning” Doesn’t.

Feb 13, 2024

100 Year Athlete Book Club: ROAR, Chapter 7: Power Up

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Ask 100 women what they want to accomplish in the gym, and most will say something about “toning.” For whatever reason, American culture has conditioned us to think that being long, lean, and toned is the pinnacle of female beauty and health. 

Too bad toning does diddly-squat for longevity. 

As Dr. Stacy Sims argues in Chapter 7 of Roar, toning doesn’t help anyone have a high quality of life into their golden years. Strength training does. 

In this blog, we’ll share our top takeaways from Roar Chapter 7, including two fitness pillars that can keep you in your sport and out of a nursing home: strength and hypertrophy.

Toning is Not Strength Training

Why does strength matter for women as they age? Around 30-years-old, women begin to lose muscle density, which is not a good thing. On average, a woman’s lean mass drops about 3% per decade from age 30 to 80, while her strength drops about 30% from age 50 to age 70, says Sims. Then, at age 70, strength plummets. So does bone mineral density (i.e., your bones break more easily).  

The good news is that losing lean mass, strength, and bone mineral density is a choice. Women who strength train—and train hard—can not only prevent that decline but make gains.

Training strength is not “toning,” by which I mean lifting light weights at high reps. Toning only works slow-twitch (Type I) muscle fibers, which you'll keep even if you don't train them. Toning will not develop lean mass and strength, nor will it preserve bone density. It won’t even make you look “toned” (that takes the right genes and right strength program). 

To train those fast-twitch muscle fibers (Type II)—the kind that fade if untrained—you need to lift heavy loads.  So, what does Sims mean by “heavy”? 

What Strength Training Really Means

Strength training—aka, heavy lifting—means doing sets of 3 to 8 reps. Sets of 3 are for more experienced lifters and sets of 8 are best for beginners. The intensity level needs to be so high that when you finish your last rep of, say, five, you could maybe do one more with good form. But there's no way you could do two more with good form—not even if you were offered 100k to do it. If you could win that 100 grand, you didn’t try hard enough. 

A lot of gym junkies have heard that to build muscle mass, not just strength, you do 15 or 20 reps with a light load and reach failure. That is one way, but a huge driver of hypertrophy is also tension, which strength training provides. Tension triggers the downstream effects of muscle protein synthesis, meaning you can work hypertrophy and strength simultaneously (ask Dr. Wetmore about “costomeres” if you want more details on all that).

The key is to build up the loads gradually if you’re new to heavy lifting. If you’ve never lifted more than 15 pounds on chest press, don't jump straight to 70 pounds. That's a recipe for injury. Increase the weight 5% to 10% each week until it gets challenging. 

Plan to lift heavy two to five days a week. Three days is the sweet spot for most 100 Year Athletes. A good program will keep you on the same exercises for about 4 to 6 weeks. Doing a different set of exercises every week won’t accelerate your progress.

What NOT to Do

This pointer is for all the Park City endurance junkies who try to keep their heart rate up while strength training: STOP turning the rests between strength exercises into cardio time!!!  

Jump roping or doing jumping jacks when you should be resting will make your strength efforts less effective. Cardio is important, but cardio and strength training don’t mix well. If a strength workout is “too easy,” you’re not trying hard enough. You should NOT be able to do a set of 4, rest 60 seconds, and do another set of 4.

If toning and cardio is your background, strength training requires a mindset shift. On strength training days, it’ll feel like you’re not doing much at the gym because you aren’t Mostly, you’re resting between sets. But when you do something, you go all out. 

Add Some Intervals

At 100 Year Athlete, we focus on all 9 Pillars of Fitness. Strength and hypertrophy or just two of them. One way to enhance their effects is to do high-intensity training and sprint interval training. These are especially important for women because they fire up those fast-twitch fibers that fade with age. 

High-intensity training can increase muscle mass, especially when paired with strength training. It’s typically done at 85% to 90% of max effort in sets that last 45 seconds to 4 minutes. 

That said, overdoing high-intensity training can backfire. Going to a HIIT or bootcamp class three to four times a week means you’re leaving power, strength, mobility, and other pillars of fitness untrained. One or two high intensity sessions per week is ideal and can be tagged onto the end of a 20-minute strength workout.

Sprint interval training is “super maximal training” according to the good doc, aka, Alex Wetmore, PhD. You try to go at 110% of your max, for a very short duration but with longer rest intervals. A sprint workout usually involves 5 to 15 second efforts with 2 to 4 minutes of rest and 3 to 10 sets total.

A pro tip: don’t start interval training with running. First, do sprints on an AssaultBike or Airdyne bike that uses air resistance. They’re safe and super challenging because the harder you pedal, the higher the resistance. Build your way up gradually to avoid injury. A few years back, 100YA’s Ben Van Treese got into running a little bit too aggressively and tore his hamstring on the third set of sprint intervals. We make mistakes so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

Bottom Line: To be a 100 Year Athlete—to live with a high quality of life into your last decade—you need to lift heavy loads. People who seem “old” simply stopped moving, stopped doing sports, and stopped lifting heavy things. It wasn’t inevitable. It was a choice.

Go lift heavy things