Strength is an essential part of staying healthy. Having a better understand of how your body becomes and stays strong can help you stay healthy. In the first part on our series on strength we’ll look at how your body adapts to become stronger.
Our physiology demands that we conserve energy and resources. It takes significant resources creating and maintaining excessive amounts of muscle tissue so we will only become strong enough to handle our regular exertions. If we don’t regularly lift 50 lbs then there is no reason to keep the extra muscle tissue for heavier lifting around. Eventually it shrinks away. If once or twice a month you lift heavy things your body will react and lay down new muscle but within a week if that stress isn’t applied again that new muscle will shrink away to conserve energy and resources. Over the many years of your life your body has fine tuned itself to only ever be strong enough for what you do week to week. There’s no prediction or anticipation that you’re planning on moving next month and will be lifting many 50lb boxes.
Yes, walking is exercise. Walking will not make you stronger. Being able to take 1000 steps without needing to stop is low intensity. Low intensity will not spark new muscle growth. If doing 10 lunges is difficult and makes your legs burn with fatigue it will spark new muscle growth. To your muscles those lunges are 100 times harder than walking so it should make sense for them to adapt.
Imagine walking was the extent of your regular exercise for your legs. It doesn’t really prepare you well for climbing stairs, bending towards the floor or lifting from the car trunk. Then for several weeks you did lunges on a regular schedule. Now they have become the new strength expectation for your legs. You have become far stronger and better prepared for more challenging tasks since lunges are already fairly intense.
Remember that those adaptations are not permanent. Your body is always ready to reclaim resources (like new muscle fibers). So if you do one round of lunges and take a week off chances are you’ve lost some of those new fibers. The general rule is 48 hours between stresses. Less than that and you run the risk of over training. 72 hours (or every third day) is very acceptable and you’ll clearly see improvement. It just won’t happen as quickly. 4 or 5 days between exercise sessions and you’ll certainly maintain any new strength you’ve gained but improvement will be very slow. Stretch it out to a week or more and you’ll potentially lose any gains you’ve already made.
Keep in mind this applies to a specific muscle not exercise in general. If you’re lunging to strengthen legs one day but then working planks for your abs the next day that isn’t going to negatively affect your leg recovery and strengthening.
Change your story
You can’t get through your week without being faced with a strength challenge. It often leaves you wondering why you’re not as strong as you used to be. Change your story. Stop assuming that low intensity exercise like walking your dog or cleaning up around the house will keep your strong. Appreciate that your body will only ever become as strong as the challenge it faces. This doesn’t have to mean 2 hours a day in a gym lifting heavy. But it does mean regular efforts above your typical day.