How to Optimize Health & Cognitive Function with Strength Training

Lawrence Neal - October 22, 2018 11:25 AM

If we do not exercise as we age, our health, including our brain function, declines. Lack of exercise can contribute to a whole host of problems like insulin resistance, obesity, and the loss of strength, muscle mass, and bone mineral density, which collectively, contribute to the most common causes of death after age 40: heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative disease.

Studies have shown that a variety of exercise including aerobic activity, high-intensity interval training, and resistance training, are effective for improving health and brain function. A study in 2013 showed that resistance training was more effective than aerobic exercise and balance and tone training for improving cognitive health. This was measured by greater improvements in an executive cognition test, associative memory task, and functional changes to three regions of cortex. It’s believed that the mechanism driving these improvements is an increase in levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF1), which decline with age and inactivity.

Resistance training is not only more effective than alternative exercise for cognitive health, but will deliver a profound holistic stimulus that improves overall health, including the cardiovascular system, metabolic health, and increases muscle mass and strength. A study from 2007 on how resistance exercise impacts gene expression showed that resistance training can reverse the ageing process and the gene expression in 170 genes associated with age. Resistance exercise performed to momentary muscular failure provides the greatest return compared to any other exercise.

Many novices and elderly people find resistance training intimidating. Resistance exercise is typically associated with bodybuilding and is perceived as being potentially dangerous. Indeed, if performed incorrectly and without care, resistance training can result in injury. Therefore, it is important that new participants educate themselves on basic strength training and/or have an expert to supervise them through a workout.

In practice, a basic workout might look like a Big-5 routine, which consists of 5 big movements that target all major muscle groups:

    •    Pull down
    •    Chest press
    •    Seated row
    •    Overhead press
    •    Leg press

In order to stimulate improvements to the body, it’s important the individual exercises to momentary muscular failure for each exercise in the workout. In practice, the subject should select a level of resistance that will cause them to reach failure within 60-90 seconds or 8-12 repetitions. Each repetition is to be performed relatively slowly and with good form. Once the subject reaches failure they should continue to try to complete the repetition for 5-10 seconds in order to induce deep fatigue and stimulate best results. Once muscular failure is reached in a single set, the subject should then move on to the next machine and minimize rest between exercises. The entire workout should take no more than 15-minutes.

The purpose of training to failure is to recruit and fatigue the fast twitch fibers within the musculature. There is some recovery variation between individuals. It typically takes anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks for someone to recover from this type of training. Most HIT practitioners advocate a training frequency of once or twice per week.

The best way to start resistance training is to find a high-intensity strength training studio in your local area. This means you will have someone supervise your workout to help you get maximum results safely. Alternatively, I encourage people read Body By Science to learn how to practice resistance training at home or at a public gym.

Lawrence Neal is the Founder of Corporate Warrior, the High Intensity Training Business and Lifestyle Podcast and Blog ( He has interviewed over 150 world class health, fitness and business experts to discover the tactics and strategies they use to optimise success in their high intensity training, health, and HIT Business.

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