Are You Getting Enough Sulfur?

Sulfur is the 3rd most copious mineral in the body, hanging out mostly in our bones, skin, and muscles. According to a recent review, a significant proportion of the population isn’t getting enough sulfur, especially seniors. In this article we’re helping you up your sulfur intake.

After calcium and phosphorus, sulfur is the third most abundant mineral element in the body, with large amounts (almost half) located in the bones, skin, and muscles. Sulfur is an integral component of a wide variety of processes, from protein synthesis to cartilage maintenance to detoxification. And a deficiency in the mineral has even been linked to heart disease and diabetes. So if you’ve never given much thought to this important substance, maybe it’s time you started asking yourself if you’re getting enough sulfur.

Where Do We Get Sulfur?

The majority of the sulfur in our bodies comes from dietary protein, yet only 2 of the 20 amino acids normally present in protein actually contain sulfur. One of these sulfur-containing amino acids—or sulfur amino acids, as they’re also known—is methionine, which can’t be synthesized in the body and has to be supplied through the diet. And while the other amino acid, cysteine, can be synthesized in the body, the process requires a steady supply of sulfur.

The rest of the sulfur our bodies use comes from inorganic sulfates, such as iron sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine sulfate, and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), and the organic sulfur found in foods like broccoli, garlic, and kale. In addition, it’s estimated that we obtain approximately 10% of the sulfur in our diets from our drinking water.

Sulfur’s Role in the Body

Sulfur plays an important role in the human body and is required for literally hundreds of physiologic processes. For example, sulfur helps give shape to proteins and thus determine their function—as in the case of the keratin that makes up hair, skin, and nails. Likewise, it’s also critical for the integrity of cartilage and other connective tissues.

Sulfur is required for the formation and proper functioning of enzymes—the catalysts for nearly all chemical reactions within cells. Without sulfur, various functions, including digestion and metabolic processes, would be compromised.

Sulfur is necessary for the conversion of thiamine and biotin and the synthesis of glutathione, which is considered the body’s master antioxidant, as it regenerates other antioxidants. In addition, glutathione is important for boosting the immune system and preventing the damage caused by reactive oxygen species, such as free radicals.

What’s more, sulfur is a vital component of proper insulin function and glucose metabolism and plays a role in preventing diabetes.

Causes of Sulfur Deficiency

According to a review published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism, a significant number of Americans suffer from a deficiency of sulfur. Although this study focused mainly on older adults, who often eat less and consume fewer sources of protein, sulfur deficiency is thought to be widespread.

This is because modern farming practices have resulted in the depletion of sulfur in the soil, which has, in turn, led to reduced sulfur content in many of the foods we eat.

The combination of sulfur depletion in the soil, decreased consumption of protein, reliance on processed foods, and the destruction of sulfur compounds through the cooking process can result in the perfect recipe for a sulfur deficiency. In addition, our bodies can store only limited amounts of sulfur, and we need to replenish our stores daily.

Taken together, the possibility of a sulfur deficiency is real for many of us. And such a deficiency may:

Getting Enough Sulfur Through Diet and Supplementation

While the probability is great that many—if not most—of us lack sufficient levels of sulfur, it’s possible to increase our intake through both our diets and the use of dietary supplements.

Diet

One of the best ways to make sure you’re getting enough sulfur is to ensure you’re eating a wide variety of sulfur-rich foods. Good sources of dietary sulfur include:

Meat Seafood
Eggs  Sweet potatoes
Poultry Dairy products
Asparagus Broccoli
Cauliflower Cabbage
Coconut Bananas
Watermelon Nuts
Tomatoes Wheat germ
Avocados Bok choy
Brussels sprouts Onions
Kale Garlic

Supplementation

Due to the depletion of sulfur in our soils, dietary sources of sulfur may still be inadequate to meet the body’s needs. Fortunately, sulfur can be obtained through supplementation as well.

Perhaps the most popular form of supplemental sulfur is methylsulfonylmethane, or MSM. Touted for its ability to reduce symptoms of chronic inflammation and aid in pain relief, MSM has been shown in studies to be beneficial in the treatment of arthritis.

In one study, MSM was demonstrated to improve pain and physical function in people with arthritis. And in another study, a combination of MSM and glucosamine sulfate was shown to significantly improve signs and symptoms of arthritis.

As discussed earlier, one of the principal sources of sulfur is the essential amino acid methionine, which must be obtained from the diet. In addition to increasing sulfur intake, this amino acid also promotes the formation of collagen and cartilage and has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and analgesic properties.

Methionine is also essential for the absorption and bioavailability of selenium and zinc. Moreover, it aids in the detoxification and removal of heavy metals such as lead and mercury and helps the liver metabolize fats.

Another excellent source of sulfur is N-acetylcysteine (NAC)—a modified form of cysteine. Like cysteine, NAC aids glutathione synthesis. It may also be helpful in treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory disorders due to its ability to thin bronchial mucus.

In addition, NAC has shown benefit in the treatment of addictions, compulsive behaviors, and mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Interestingly, you can also boost your body’s sulfur levels by taking an Epsom salt bath 2 to 3 times a week. As mentioned earlier, Epsom salts are composed of magnesium sulfate—an inorganic form of sulfur—and soaking in a bath of these salts is an effective way of absorbing sulfur.

Another way to ensure you’re getting sufficient sulfur is by making certain you’re spending some quality time in the sun. Believe it or not, when your skin is exposed to the sun—without sunscreen—sulfur is produced in the form of vitamin D and cholesterol sulfate.

Sulfur is one of the most important substances in the body, yet it receives very little attention, and depleted soils, processed foods, and cooking help ensure that most people are probably deficient in this vital mineral.

So if you’re concerned about a lack of sulfur in your own diet, make sure you’re eating plenty of sulfur-containing foods, and consider supplementation when necessary.

Can Amino Acids Cause Weight Gain?

Is it possible that amino acids cause weight gain? Let’s explore this question and see if we can find the answers you seek.

When you ingest amino acids—the building blocks of protein—your body uses them to make both enzymes and proteins as demands require. Any leftover amino acids then follow various metabolic pathways. Some are converted into glucose and used as energy. Others become glycogen and are stored in the liver and muscle tissue for future energy use. And still others are turned into fat and stored in fat cells. But is it possible that amino acids cause weight gain? Let’s explore this question and see if we can find the answers you seek.

Amino Acids Are Low in Calories

Amino acids contribute 4 calories for every gram of protein you consume. Which means if you take 4 grams of an amino acid supplement, you’re consuming only 16 calories. Moreover, beneficial effects of essential amino acid supplements have been demonstrated with doses less than 4 grams. So if you’re worried about the number of calories in your diet, you can choose to supplement with a simple 4-gram, 16-calorie dose.

You also get amino acids from the dietary protein you eat. However, the calorie load from dietary protein intake is significantly higher. For example, let’s say you choose to get your 4 grams of essential amino acids from a high-quality whole food source such as pasture-raised meat. In this case, you’ll be getting an extra 100 calories a day compared with the 16 calories you would be getting from the amino acid supplement.

However, when it comes to weight gain, it’s important to monitor the number of calories you’re ingesting and compare that to what your body needs. To determine how many calories you should eat each day based on your sex, height, and activity level, you can use this online calculator, which is based on the Mifflin-St Jeor equation for estimating calorie requirements.

Amino Acids for Fat Loss

Far from causing weight gain, amino acids can actually help boost the production of hormones that burn fat and promote weight loss. One such hormone is the growth hormone somatotropin (STH). STH activates protein synthesis—and therefore muscle building—as well as fat burning.

Studies show that obese and overweight individuals tend to have low concentrations of STH. However, certain amino acids have been shown to increase levels of STH, most notably arginine, methionine, and glutamine.

Moreover, a 2011 study published in The Journal of Nutrition that focused on middle-aged adults from East Asian and Western countries showed that individuals with a higher intake of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) have a lower prevalence of obesity and are not as overweight.

Researchers attributed this effect to the BCAA leucine—which can increase energy expenditure and thereby decrease both body weight and body fat—as well as the ability of BCAAs to lessen the effects of insulin resistance and improve glucose tolerance (the measure of how well your body processes blood sugar).

So Do Amino Acids Cause Weight Gain?

After examining the evidence, my answer to this question would have to be no. I don’t think amino acids will cause you to gain weight unless you eat too much protein—such as excessive amounts of animal protein or whey protein powders, protein shakes, or other types of protein supplements, which can be high in calories—and don’t burn off the excess amino acids.

However, I do think amino acids will help you maintain and even build muscle tissue. And this may cause moderate weight gain because muscle weighs more than fat. But that would still leave you with a better body composition, improved body mass index (BMI), and leaner, more toned figure. And who’s going to argue with that?

I don’t think amino acids cause weight gain, unless you are eating an ultra-high-protein diet and not burning off the excess amino acids. I do think amino acids are helping you maintain and build muscles, which may cause moderate weight gain, but a better body mass index (BMI) and leaner, more toned figure.

Dietary Protein or Amino Acid Supplements: Which Is Better?

Which is better—dietary protein or amino acid supplements? There are a number of factors to consider when answering this question. And we’ve got them all here.

Amino acids are the building blocks of life, and dietary proteins are the body’s source of new amino acids. Therefore, the nutritional effect seen with dietary protein intake is in fact a result of the absorption of amino acids. But unlike protein sources, which must be broken down into their various individual amino acids before they can be used by the body, amino acid supplements don’t have to go through the process of protein metabolism and thus come ready for complete absorption. In light of this fact, you might be left wondering which is really better—dietary protein or amino acid supplements.

There are a number of factors to consider when answering this question. So, in this article, we’re going to delve into these issues, weigh the pros and cons of each, and discuss what you need to know to choose the best approach.

Dietary Proteins—the “Natural” Way to Obtain Amino Acids

The quality of a dietary protein, as scored by the Digestible Indispensable Amino Score (DIAAS), a scoring system devised by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is determined by the extent to which its constituent amino acids are digested and absorbed as well as the profile of the amino acids—the amount of each amino acid relative to the others—in relation to the body’s requirements.

This includes the levels of essential amino acids as compared to the levels of nonessential amino acids. Even though the human body uses 20 different amino acids to create all the proteins it uses to function, it can, under normal circumstances, manufacture the 11 nonessential amino acids on its own. However, the nine essential amino acids must be obtained from food.

Now, there’s a school of thought in the nutrition community that says natural food sources are always better than supplements. However, the scientific basis for this perception is unclear. For example, individuals who have had large portions of their intestines removed surgically can live for many years entirely on artificial nutrition given intravenously.

The waters become particularly muddied in the case of dietary protein vs. amino acid supplements.

Amino acids in general are not only natural components of the diet (albeit packaged in the form of protein), but essential amino acids specifically are also the only macronutrients required for survival. What’s more, the nutritional purpose of dietary protein is to deliver amino acids to the body.

This being so, can we truly say that dietary protein is more “natural” than supplementary amino acids?

A further complication in distinguishing between the advantages of dietary protein and those of amino acid supplements arises when considering specific protein dietary supplements, such as whey protein powder.

Should we consider whey protein a natural protein food source?

While whey protein occurs in its unaltered form in the plastic tub of powder you buy at your local health food store, it’s still a byproduct of cheese-making—which means that milk is its original food source.

So, clearly, when it comes to distinguishing between “natural” protein food sources and amino acid supplements, there’s a lot of room for interpretation.

But rather than worry if a nutritional supplement is natural, it’s actually more important to consider whether there’s a quantifiable difference between the nutritional benefits seen with the protein that occurs as part of a normal diet and those found when using amino acid supplements.

Why Use Amino Acid or Protein Supplements?

Protein is a fundamental part of our diet—almost every biological process in the body depends on it—and optimal amino acid and protein nutrition starts with the protein component of our meals.

However, the amount of protein in an individual’s regular diet often isn’t enough to provide sufficient levels of the amino acids the body needs to thrive. There can be many reasons for this, from eating habits to lifestyle choices to health problems.

For example, college students living away from home for the first time may indulge in far more carbohydrates and junk food than high-quality protein sources. Similarly, older adults may lack sufficient protein due to loss of appetite, dental problems, or financial difficulties. And without careful food choices, people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are particularly at risk of protein deficiency.

In addition, there are circumstances that can increase an individual’s dietary protein needs. Participation in heavy exercise, whether aerobic or resistance training, is one example.

A 2018 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (Eur J Appl Physiol) found that protein supplementation after prolonged aerobic exercise enhanced the anabolic response required for the process of muscle-building (muscle protein synthesis). And a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Am J Clin Nutr) demonstrated that 20 grams of high-quality protein was needed to achieve maximum muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise.

These studies are just two among the many that have documented the positive effect of protein and amino acid supplementation on muscle mass and strength as well as physical performance.

The natural aging process illustrates another situation in which protein requirements increase. This is because the body’s muscle protein synthetic response decreases with age, leaving older adults more at risk of sarcopenia. A 2019 study published in the journal Sports Medicine (Sports Med) found that this anabolic resistance is even more pronounced in older women.

Moreover, conditions such as serious illness, injury, and surgery can all increase the body’s need for a high-protein diet.

However, any mismatch that exists between optimal protein requirements—as opposed to the recommended dietary allowance, or RDA, which is a guideline based on a variety of factors, including sex, age, and activity level—and the amount actually eaten can be addressed by taking a protein or amino acid supplement.

Protein supplements may come as relatively pure preparations (whey protein isolate is a good example). Alternatively, protein may be a component of a more complete food product that also contains carbohydrates and fat. Examples of these types of protein supplements are protein bars and meal replacement beverages.

Amino acid supplements may also come as part of a more complete nutritional supplement that includes fat and carbohydrates, but you’ll usually find amino acids supplied in a more pure form, such as a beverage, capsule, or powdered blend.

Benefits of Protein and Amino Acid Supplements

As mentioned, protein is required for almost every biological process, and the amino acids absorbed from a protein supplement thus perform a wide range of functions, including production of both brain neurotransmitters and the chemicals required for the regulation of immune function and blood flow.

However, the predominant role played by amino acids is in stimulating the production of new body proteins—via the aforementioned anabolic response that results in a net gain in protein balance—particularly those that make up skeletal muscle. The value of protein supplements has therefore traditionally been evaluated in terms of their ability to perform this action.

The extent to which a protein supplement can stimulate the production of new muscle protein, and thus increase muscle mass, is highly dependent on the specific protein and how much of it is consumed.

For example, high-quality proteins like whey protein contain close to 50% essential amino acids, while collagen protein contains only about 10%. This is important because essential amino acids are the active components of dietary proteins—the nonessential amino acids present in protein actually have no impact on the production of new muscle protein.

Consequently, the positive effects of protein intake on muscle protein synthesis are dependent on the amount of essential amino acids contained in each particular protein. Further, all nine essential amino acids are required for sustained stimulation of muscle protein production. Therefore, incomplete proteins—proteins that lack sufficient levels or include only some of the essential amino acids—are not effective on their own.

What Protein Supplement Is Most Effective?

In terms of stimulating the production of new muscle protein, whey protein has been shown to be the most effective protein supplement. In general, incomplete plant-based proteins like pea protein are ineffective. Soy protein is the exception because it’s one of the only plant-based proteins that’s classified as a high-quality protein—though whey protein is still more effective.

As alluded to earlier, the body’s response to whey protein is somewhat dose-dependent, but progressively larger doses get less and less effective. And once the level reaches 30 grams, little added benefit is seen compared with lesser amounts.

In addition, the more pure form, whey protein isolate, is more effective than the whey protein contained in a meal replacement. In fact, meal replacement protein supplements have often been shown to have little to no beneficial effect.

The problem may lie in the addition of non-protein calories in the form of carbohydrates and fat, but it’s more likely that low-quality proteins have been included with the whey protein used in the formulation. However, this is difficult to determine because product labels may be required to list total protein content per serving, but they’re not required to list how much of each protein included in the mixture is contained in each serving.

Moreover, it’s quite common to include the low-quality protein collagen because it doesn’t cost much and is easily mixed into any formulation.

So if you’re interested in using a protein supplement, and muscle protein synthesis is your goal, it’s best to look for a product that’s composed of only whey protein. But if you choose one that contains a combination of proteins, be sure they’re all high-quality proteins.

Benefits of Amino Acid Supplements

Amino acid supplements have many benefits. To begin with, the profile of amino acids in dietary supplements is completely controlled, so only active amino acids are included. Moreover, amino acid supplements are fully and rapidly absorbed.

Peak concentrations of essential amino acids also reach a high level more quickly than when a similar amount of protein is consumed. As a result, a blend of essential amino acids may stimulate muscle protein synthesis 3 times as much—or more—as a similar amount of whey protein. Which means that a very small amount of essential amino acids (fewer than 4 grams) is enough to effectively stimulate muscle building.

While amino acid supplements, particularly those made with all nine essential amino acids, have many advantages over protein supplements, there are a few disadvantages to supplements that don’t include a dietary protein component such as whey.

For example, even though peak concentrations of amino acids are reached much faster than those seen with whey protein, concentrations also fall off much faster. Thus, the response to an amino acid supplement is not as sustained as the response that might occur with whey protein.

So Which Is It—Dietary Protein or Amino Acid Supplements?

It’s clear from the above discussion that essential amino acid and protein supplements, particularly whey protein isolate, both have benefits. But one is not necessarily better than the other, especially when they can be combined for maximum benefit.

The rapid, intense response to essential amino acids can be merged with whey protein to achieve a more sustained response in a flavorful product.

Moreover, there are some circumstances, such as before physical activity, in which the rapid absorption of amino acids makes them the preferable choice—especially if your goal is to increase exercise performance and improve muscle growth, body weight, and body composition.

However, in other cases, such as after intensive physical activity, a combination of essential amino acids and whey protein is the better choice for capitalizing on the benefits of each.

In summary, both amino acids and high-quality proteins like whey protein can be useful as dietary supplements. And while a mixture of essential amino acids has many important advantages, the rather short period of stimulation is a limitation in some circumstances that can be mitigated by ingesting whey protein at the same time.

8 Top Dietary Protein Sources

Do You Need to Take Amino Acid Supplements?

Essential amino acids are the only macronutrients required for survival. A normal diet containing high-quality proteins should deliver adequate amounts of essential amino acids to meet minimal requirements. However, amino acid supplements can provide benefits not achievable with even high-quality protein food sources.

While the main responsibility of dietary amino acids is to serve as building blocks of protein, there has been growing interest in identifying functional benefits of individual amino acids that go beyond this role. Although more than 300 amino acids are listed in the Practical Handbook of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, only 20 different amino acids are incorporated into body proteins. Of these 20 amino acids, 9 are considered essential amino acids (EAAs) because they are not synthesized in the body and must be obtained through diet or supplementation. It is these amino acids we are concerned with when we talk about amino acid supplements.

Amino Acids Drive Protein Turnover

Proteins in the body are in a constant state of breakdown and resynthesis (turnover). Some of the amino acids released as a consequence of protein breakdown are irreversibly oxidized (damaged as a result of being chemically combined with oxygen) and thus not available for reincorporation into newly synthesized proteins.

Dietary amino acids are therefore necessary as precursors for the production of new proteins to ensure that the rate of protein synthesis is balanced against the rate of protein breakdown. Because of this finely tuned process, we’re able to maintain a constant level of protein within the body.

Essential amino acids are the only macronutrients required for survival. A normal diet containing high-quality proteins should deliver adequate amounts of essential amino acids to meet minimal requirements. However, amino acid supplements can provide benefits not achievable with even high-quality protein food sources.

So, the question isn’t if you need dietary amino acids—because we can’t live without them. Rather, the question is if we need to supplement our normal dietary intake of protein sources with an amino acid supplement.

Why Essential Amino Acid Supplements Are a Must-Have

Essential amino acids (EAAs) are the only macronutrients required for long-term survival. Surprisingly, we can live almost an entire lifetime without eating any carbohydrates and go 6 months or more without ingesting any fats. Proteins, however, can’t be stored in the body, and EAAs are the “active” components in dietary protein that help activate protein synthesis.

A healthy diet containing high-quality proteins should deliver adequate amounts of EAAs to meet minimal requirements. However, amino acid supplementation can provide benefits not achievable with even high-quality protein sources.

Essential amino acid supplements can play a crucial role in optimal amino acid and protein nutrition, as they stimulate muscle tissue protein synthesis to a greater extent than any protein in its whole form, from animal protein to soy protein and protein shakes.

In addition, gram for gram, EAAs are at least 3 times as effective as whey protein powder in stimulating muscle protein synthesis. This is due in part to the body’s rapid and complete absorption of free-form EAAs; peak concentrations are much higher and achieved more rapidly than those seen with intact protein.

Further, the relative amounts of each EAA in a dietary supplement can be formulated to optimally stimulate muscle tissue protein synthesis in specific circumstances, such as during exercise or recovery from surgery. The ability of these specially formulated amino acid mixtures to repair muscle damage and accelerate muscle growth in these situations can be indispensable.

For instance, a special group of EAAs known as branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, has been found to aid in muscle building efforts by increasing the amount of time you’re able to exercise and decreasing post-workout muscle soreness.

Every time you exercise, your muscles rely on glycogen to help fuel their efforts. Glycogen is a type of complex carbohydrate made up of glucose molecules. As your muscles burn through their stores of glycogen, more and more lactic acid is created as a byproduct, and this can cause muscle soreness.

Essential amino acids are the only macronutrients required for survival. A normal diet containing high-quality proteins should deliver adequate amounts of essential amino acids to meet minimal requirements. However, amino acid supplements can provide benefits not achievable with even high-quality protein food sources.

This is where EAA supplements formulated with optimal levels of BCAAs can make a substantial difference, particularly for those engaged in high-intensity and endurance exercise. Taken especially pre-workout, this group of three amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—has the ability to raise your body’s lactate threshold, or the point at which lactic acid begins to accumulate faster than it can be removed.

In addition, BCAAs can also help with issues related to glycogen depletion—which results in extreme fatigue and an almost complete loss of energy—by helping to preserve skeletal muscle glycogen stores.

And for those interested in weight loss or experiencing issues with blood sugar control or insulin resistance, take heart. The beneficial effects of essential amino acid supplements can be achieved with minimal caloric intake, which means you can stay on track with your healthy weight goals.

The beneficial effects of essential amino acid supplements have been demonstrated with doses less than 4 grams, which is equivalent to only 16 calories. By contrast, even high-quality dietary protein sources contain 50% or more non-protein calories in the form of carbohydrates and/or fats.

Food sources of protein are also made up of more than half nonessential amino acids, which have little value in terms of stimulating protein synthesis. In fact, consuming approximately 4 grams of EAAs in the form of whole protein sources requires 100 kilocalories, or about 5 times the calories found in an amino acid supplement.

The Best Amino Acid Supplement

Clinical trials have shown the benefits of EAAs in many areas, from increasing muscle strength and muscle mass to controlling plasma lipids, reducing liver fat (thereby improving liver function and helping to prevent fatty liver disease), and accelerating recovery from serious injury or surgery. But the composition of an essential amino acid supplement is vital, not only for stimulating protein synthesis but also for maintaining an ideal balance of all EAAs in the blood.

Just as practitioners of holistic health follow the principle of whole-body balance, so, too, should users of amino acid supplements. For it’s crucial that all EAAs be provided in a dietary supplement. Consumption of formulations containing only some EAAs, including BCAA supplements, has a minimal effect on protein synthesis because this process requires adequate availability of all the EAAs.

Finally, the many other functions of amino acids, including neurotransmitter production, blood flow regulation, immune system maintenance, and lipid profile optimization, are contingent on proportionate blood levels of amino acids. For this reason, a formulation containing all the EAAs in perfect balance is the optimal amino acid supplement.

Loss of Muscle Mass and Function in Heart Failure: Can Amino Acids Help?

Heart failure develops when cardiac muscle becomes weakened. Loss of muscle mass and function is prominent in heart failure. In heart failure patients, conventional dietary intake has little or no beneficial effect on muscle protein. This is called anabolic resistance. A balanced mixture of essential amino acids (EAAs) can help overcome anabolic resistance.

Heart failure develops when the cardiac muscle becomes weakened. However, the term heart failure itself covers a broad array of conditions, though they all result when your heart no longer pumps blood as well as it should.

Heart failure is also often referred to as congestive heart failure. However, congestive heart failure refers specifically to a type of heart failure in which the heart’s pumping action becomes so compromised that it can no longer coordinate blood flow out of the heart with blood returning through the veins. This congestive heart failure results in fluid backing up and accumulating in the lungs and body tissues.

Heart failure reduces exercise capacity, which in turn leads to progressive muscle weakness and negative lifestyle changes, including a vicious cycle of sedentary behavior and weight gain, with subsequent development of metabolic abnormalities such as diabetes. Loss of muscle mass and function is also prominently seen in heart failure patients.

Most individuals over the age of 65 have some degree of heart failure, or stage 1 heart failure, which is characterized by shortness of breath during recreational exercise activities. Stage 1 heart disease is not usually diagnosed as a significant clinical problem. Stages 2, 3, and 4, however, are much more serious and may significantly impair the ability to perform activities of daily living and ultimately cause death.

But these stages don’t develop overnight. Let’s take a look at how the heart is supposed to function and what leads to the condition known as heart failure.

Normal Heart Function

The heart works by circulating blood through its four chambers: two atria and two ventricles. The right atrium takes in oxygen-poor blood from the body and pumps it to the right ventricle, which in turn sends blood to the lungs. By contrast, the left atrium receives oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and pumps it to the left ventricle, which then sends blood out to the entire body.

When this process is disrupted, signs of heart failure start to become noticeable. In addition, changes can be seen on one side of the heart or the other—or even both.

Causes of Heart Failure

When the heart muscle itself becomes too weak or stiff to pump blood effectively, heart failure results. This can be caused by a variety of disorders, from congenital heart defects to disease. However, many of the conditions that can lead to heart failure lie within our ability to control—or at least mitigate.

By far, the most common cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease, a condition that results in hardening and narrowing of the arteries due to the buildup of cholesterol and plaque on the arterial walls.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 370,000 people in the United States die of coronary artery disease each year. That’s an average of one in seven deaths that can be attributed to this disease.

However, there are also many other conditions that have been implicated in the development of heart failure. These include:

Types of Heart Failure and Associated Symptoms

The main pumping chambers of the heart are the ventricles (left and right). When these become stiff or are stretched (dilated) to the point where they’re weakened and can no longer pump blood efficiently, you’ve entered the realm of heart failure.

Heart failure itself can be classified into two major categories: left-sided and right-sided.

Left-Sided Heart Failure

The left ventricle supplies most of the heart’s pumping action, and it’s consequently the largest and most muscular of the heart’s four chambers. Not surprisingly, heart failure most commonly affects the ventricle on the left side.

As alluded to earlier, the left ventricle can become so damaged that it can no longer pump oxygen-rich blood out to the body fast enough to keep up with the oxygen-poor blood returning to the heart through the veins. When this occurs, blood begins to back up in the lungs. This accumulation of fluid may result in several symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Foot and ankle swelling

Left-sided heart failure can also be further divided into two subtypes: systolic and diastolic.

Systolic Heart Failure

In systolic heart failure, or heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF), the left ventricle becomes enlarged and too weak to contract normally, which reduces its ability to pump the blood effectively.

Diastolic Heart Failure

In diastolic heart failure, or heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF), the left ventricle loses its ability to relax properly after a contraction and can therefore no longer fill up with enough blood during the period of rest between beats.

Right-Sided Heart Failure

Right-sided heart failure usually occurs as a result of left-sided failure, as the backup of blood in the lungs causes the ventricle on the right side to have to work harder, which can result in its weakening over time.

Right-sided failure can also be a secondary effect of lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pulmonary hypertension, or occur as a result of right ventricular damage from a heart attack.

While the symptoms of left- and right-sided heart failure are similar, the severity of symptoms seen with right-sided failure can be much greater.

For example, the fluid retention seen with right-sided heart failure may spread from the feet and ankles to the abdomen, or even the chest. The buildup of fluid in the abdomen may even be severe enough to result in tenderness and enlargement of the liver. In fact, 90% of patients with ischemic hepatitis (shock liver) have at least some right-sided heart failure.

People with right-sided heart failure may also experience loss of appetite (anorexia) and loss of consciousness (syncope) with exercise due to the heart’s inability to keep up with the demands of vigorous activity.

Pharmaceuticals for Heart Failure Treatment

Of course, optimal treatment of heart failure involves addressing the underlying cause. Pharmacologic treatment options predominantly target the heart’s ability to contract. A variety of drugs may be used for this purpose, with varying degrees of success. However, treating heart failure pharmacologically may be quite complex, particularly in the elderly, who are the most common sufferers of this disease.

More than 50% of individuals over the age of 65 with heart failure have at least four other significant health problems that may also require pharmacologic therapy. These additional conditions and therapies may complicate heart failure therapy.

Adverse responses to pharmacologic heart failure therapy are also not uncommon. In fact, the most common drugs for heart failure treatment, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and beta blockers, can adversely affect muscle function.

Heart Failure Fact: Despite the expenditure of millions of dollars and years of time and effort, no large-scale clinical study of a single drug therapy has demonstrated a substantial beneficial outcome for the most common form of heart failure, in which the principal problem is the failure of the heart to relax after a contraction.

This disappointing reality may reflect the difficulty of treating a syndrome with diverse causes, pathologic responses, and multiple associated chronic diseases using an entirely drug-oriented approach.

Skeletal Muscle Function and Heart Failure

There are multiple reasons for impaired physical functional capacity in heart failure. But most attention has focused on the inability of the heart to pump an adequate amount of blood, which consequently results in less oxygen and nutrients being delivered to the skeletal muscles.

Most heart failure treatments are aimed at improving cardiac function. Unfortunately, drugs that target cardiovascular function have often failed to influence exercise capacity.

However, science has shown that physical training in individuals with heart failure can improve exercise tolerance by improving skeletal muscle function even if heart function is not improved.

Likewise, testosterone treatment, which enhances skeletal muscle function but does not affect heart function, has also been shown to improve exercise capacity in heart failure patients.

Deficiencies in skeletal muscle function are common to all forms of heart failure, and it’s becoming clear that these deficiencies play an important role in pathophysiologic responses.

To further elucidate this, let’s discuss three aspects of skeletal muscle function that are altered in heart failure.

1. Muscle Mass and Strength

Heart failure induces a loss of muscle mass and strength by accelerating muscle protein breakdown. However, the loss of muscle mass is often not initially evident since many heart failure patients are overweight or obese, although in end-stage heart failure, the loss of muscle becomes painfully obvious.

This loss of muscle mass and strength in heart failure occurs in large part because the body’s normal response to dietary protein is altered.

In healthy individuals, dietary protein stimulates the production of new muscle protein. By contrast, in heart failure patients, conventional dietary intake has little or no beneficial effect on muscle protein. This is called anabolic resistance.

2. Energy Production

In people with heart failure, the organelles in muscle where energy is produced (mitochondria) don’t function normally. This is because the capacity of skeletal muscle mitochondria to produce the energy needed to perform physical activity—specifically, the ability to oxidize (combine chemically with oxygen) fatty acids for energy—is impaired in heart failure.

This is in large part due to a deficiency in the ability of fatty acids to enter the mitochondria. Incomplete oxidation of fatty acids leads to the accumulation of muscle products that impair normal metabolic function.

3. Blood Flow

Heart failure also leads to a disruption in the normal regulation of blood flow to the muscles. The amount of blood supplied to muscle tissue is normally tightly tied to the muscle’s metabolic demand. When the demand for oxygen and energy substrates (molecules acted on by an enzyme) increases with exercise, muscle blood flow increases proportionately.

However, the normal increase in muscle blood flow that occurs during exercise is reduced in heart failure patients. This diminished ability to appropriately regulate muscle blood flow is caused by the decreased production of nitric oxide (NO)—the principal vasodilator in skeletal muscle that helps widen blood vessels and increase blood flow.

Thus, whereas the decreased capacity of the heart to deliver adequate blood to peripheral tissues clinically defines heart failure, diminished skeletal muscle mass, strength, and oxidative capacity play important roles in the impairment in physical function.

Amino Acids and Heart Failure

We’ve seen how heart failure can send patients into an anabolic resistant state. Now we’re going to discuss how a balanced mixture of essential amino acids (EAAs) can help overcome anabolic resistance in heart failure.

Many studies have led to this discovery. Let’s highlight the key findings.

First, it’s been shown that only EAAs are necessary to promote muscle protein synthesis, or the building of muscle protein. (For example, check out this study my colleagues and I published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.)

In addition, in a study my colleagues and I published in the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, it was shown that a formulation of concentrated EAAs was able to overcome anabolic resistance and stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

It’s also been shown that the action of any one EAA or subgroup of EAAs is not effective in stimulating muscle protein synthesis. For example, neither the three branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) nor leucine alone is effective in this regard, as evidenced by a 2017 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Finally, a balanced mixture of EAAs has been shown to effectively stimulate muscle protein synthesis in heart failure patients who have received no benefit from a popular meal replacement beverage designed and marketed specifically for support of patients with this condition.

Specific Amino Acids for Heart Failure

Four amino acids have shown particular benefit when included as part of a balanced formulation of EAAs. These are:

  • Citrulline
  • Arginine
  • Leucine
  • Carnitine

Although not an essential amino acid, citrulline is an amino acid that, when added to a mixture of EAAs, targets the impaired regulation of muscle blood flow that occurs in heart failure. In fact, consumption of this amino acid is the most effective way to promote NO production—the key to increasing blood flow to muscles during activity.

Dietary supplementation with arginine can also be an effective approach for increasing NO production. However, there are limitations in the use of supplemental arginine. Because of rapid uptake and the metabolism of this amino acid by the liver, a large dose is necessary to significantly increase NO production, and this can cause significant gastric distress.

In contrast to arginine, citrulline is well tolerated and has, again, been shown to stimulate NO production effectively in individuals with heart failure.

We’ve already discussed how heart failure results in a limited capacity of skeletal muscle mitochondria to produce energy via fatty acid oxidation and how this directly impacts the ability to perform physical activity.

This impairment is particularly problematic for individuals with heart failure, as it is this process that provides the energy necessary to perform the low-intensity exercise involved in activities of daily living.

However, amino acids can address several aspects of mitochondrial function. For instance, EAAs stimulate the production of enzymes in mitochondria that are involved in the metabolic reactions that produce energy.

In addition, the amino acid leucine stimulates the production of new mitochondria, and the amino acid carnitine can improve the transport of fatty acids into the mitochondria.

As we have seen, amino acids have the ability to address the three major ways heart failure impairs muscle function. Again, these three ways are:

  • Accelerated breakdown of muscle protein
  • Poor regulation of muscle blood flow
  • Impaired production of energy

In light of this ability, not only do EAAs show great promise for enhancing heart health, but they can also be effective in mitigating the causes of and risk factors for heart failure.

And when combined with a healthy lifestyle, these aptly named building blocks of life may even result in improvement in both the symptoms of heart failure and, most importantly, quality of life.

Best Cardio Workouts for Weight Loss and Well-Being

Combined with a healthy diet rich in amino acids, cardio training benefits your body and mind. The best cardio workouts help you lose weight and reduce the risk of many conditions, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, stroke, and certain types of cancer.

It is easy to want to skimp on the workouts, especially when life gets busy, but cardio exercises are vital to your health. You can easily incorporate a cardio program into your weekly routine, dedicating 30 minutes of your time to a cardio activity 5 days a week or more.

Combined with a healthy diet (rich in amino acids), cardio training benefits your body and mind. Cardio exercises help you lose weight and lower your risk for conditions such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, stroke, and certain types of cancer. Cardiovascular workouts strengthen your heart and keep your arteries clear. In addition to all these great benefits, cardio boosts your mood and keeps your mind sharp. Studies have even shown that regular physical activity may help protect memory and cognitive function.

First, let’s figure out how much cardio you should engage in each week and pick the intensity that’s right for you, and then let’s get you started with some of the best cardio workouts!

How Much Cardio Should I Do?

The oft-cited Department of Health and Human Services exercise guidelines are as follows.

  • Cardio: Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly, or a combination of exercise intensities spread throughout the week vs. weekend warrior style all in one go.
  • Strength: In addition to toning your cardiovascular system, it’s important to tone your muscles with strength training at least 2 times a week. Between 12 to 15 repetitions and at least a single set of each exercise to work your lower body and upper body is the goal.

Keep in mind, those are the minimum suggestions, and more cardio exercise can lead to even greater health and fitness gains.

Low Moderate vs. Vigorous Cardio Exercise

Those guidelines are all well and good, but where do we draw the line between low-intensity aerobic exercise, moderate-intensity exercise, and vigorous-intensity exercise? The parameters are guided by your heart rate.

First, determine your maximum heart rate. Subtract your age from 220. For instance, if you’re 40 years old, 220 – 40 = 180, which is your maximum heart rate, or the average maximum number of heart beats per minute.

Then, figure out what you want your heart rate zone to be: low, moderate, or high intensity.

Here are the typical parameters for each:

  • Low exercise intensity: 40% to 50% of your maximum heart rate
  • Moderate exercise intensity: 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate
  • Vigorous exercise intensity: 70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate

A heart rate monitor is the easiest way to track your exercise intensity. Intensity, however, is subjective. So, you can also check in with how your body feels during cardiovascular performance.

  • Low-intensity exercise: Activities such as walking, hiking, or taking a gentle yoga or tai chi class are low-intensity cardio activities that can burn a surprising number of calories. If you can talk and sing while exercising, you’re in a low-intensity range.
  • Moderate-intensity exercise: Jogging, cycling, swimming, and other moderate-intensity activities should leave you able to carry on a conversation without being out of breath, but a few words carrying a tune would exhaust the breath during moderate activity. Expect to break out in a light sweat within the first 10 minutes.
  • Vigorous-intensity exercise: High-intensity exercise, such as bicycling 10 mph or faster or doing a Tabata session, gets you sweating fast and breathing deeply and rapidly. You won’t be able to carry on a conversation without pausing every few breaths.

Best Cardio Workouts To Try

What Are the Best Cardio Workouts for Weight Loss?

In order to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in each day, and aerobic exercise helps you achieve that goal. That being said, while you burn more calories with cardio, you burn more calories after a strength-training workout, which builds calorie-burning muscle. A cardio plus strength-training workout routine is the gold standard for both weight loss and weight maintenance. To get you started with weight loss, here are our favorite calorie-burning activities.

Walking

Walking is one of the easiest activities to incorporate into your daily routine. If you want to burn calories and lose weight, you need to walk at a brisk, moderately fast pace. According to Mayo Clinic, regular brisk walking can help you maintain a healthy weight, prevent illnesses, strengthen your muscles, and improve your mood. This steady-state cardio activity can help you burn 300 to 400 calories per hour.

Running Stairs

Chances are you walk up and down the stairs every day to get to your office (and if you’re not, ditch the elevator and start climbing!), but did you know that stairs can help you burn up to 1,000 calories per hour? When you have a chance, look for a staircase near you that has more than one flight—consider walking, running, or lunging up a flight of stairs instead of running around your neighborhood to burn more calories.

Kettlebells

The kettlebell is a cannonball-shaped weight that is used to build muscles and burn calories. Kettlebell workouts combine strength training with cardio for a complete, total body workout. According to the American Council on Exercise, kettlebells can provide a higher intensity workout than the usual strength training routine in a shorter amount of time. Kettlebells can help you burn 800 to 900 calories per hour.

Try this 10-minute kettlebell workout from Chris Freytag to have an idea of how it works.

Jumping Rope

Jumping rope is an excellent cardio exercise for weight loss because, in addition to burning 600 calories per hour, it builds bone density, strengthens your legs, and makes your heart stronger. You’d have to run an 8-minute mile to work off the calories you do when you jump rope.

Beginners are best off using a beaded rope because it is easier to control than a lightweight cloth or vinyl rope. You will need a 4-by-6-foot area and about 10 inches of space above your head. The exercise surface is also important—use a wood floor or exercise mat.

HIIT Workouts

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) comes in many forms, but the goal is the same: high-intensity exercises for a short interval, then a brief recovery, and start again. During HIIT sessions, you should aim to work at 90% to 100% of your maximum heart rate. The high-intensity training increases the body’s need for oxygen, causing your system to burn more fat than lower intensity training burns. HIIT can help you burn around 600 calories per hour.

Cycling

Cycling is an excellent way to strengthen your muscles and burn calories. You can bike outside to get fresh air, but you can also start an indoor cycling class. It’s always fun to be in a room full of people who want to be healthy and motivate one another—plus the music will pump you up, and your instructor will help you achieve your goals. You can also buy a stationary bike and do this activity at home while watching your favorite TV show or reading the latest news. Cycling can help you burn 600 calories per hour.

What Are the Best Cardio Machines for Weight Loss?

We’re all for a run, hike, or swim outdoors, but sometimes the easiest way to clock in your cardio is with a cardio machine. You can do 30 minutes of steady-state cardio or make it more high impact and build in a high-intensity interval workout on the elliptical machine. It’s up to you and your fitness level how far and fast you want to push yourself.

Bicycles

As previously mentioned, cycling can be done outdoors or indoors—but indoor biking appears to especially benefit older people. According to the Arthritis Foundation, stationary cycling provides a workout that avoids stressing weight-bearing joints and reduces injury potential. Physical therapist Matthew Goodemote at Gloversville, New York’s Community Physical Therapy and Wellness program advises beginning with a 5-minute session 3 times a day and increasing the time by 5 minutes when the workout becomes comfortable.

Rowing Machines

Rowing is a full-body exercise that works the biceps, triceps, shoulders, back, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core body. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests a 30-minute workout at a level that makes you sweat but still allows you to carry on a normal conversation at a minimum starting point. If rowing is your go-to cardio workout, then 5 days a week of rowing is a good goal. According to Harvard Health Studies, 30 minutes of rowing burns between 250-300 calories.

Treadmill and Steppers

Treadmill and steppers are excellent replacements for walking or running when the weather is bad. Fast walking on the treadmill—approximately 3.5 miles per hour—burns 276 calories for a 160-pound person. Steppers provide aerobic activity and, when used as part of a daily cardio program, help burn approximately 446 calories per hour. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention muscle-strengthening activities like steppers should be incorporated into your regular exercise cardio program.

The Best Strength Training Workouts Share These 5 Core Principles

Cardio training is an excellent way to stay healthy and lose weight, but strength training can give your weight-loss goals an extra kick—and it is more useful for building muscles than cardio workouts are. Check out the best strength training workouts for your back, shoulders, arms, legs, knees, chest, and abdomen.

If you’re new to the concept of strength training, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of strength workouts out there. Some programs prioritize good form over everything else, while others emphasis a high-intensity approach. Program A suggests starting with dumbbell rows and Program B begins with the shoulder press. Program C insists the best results come from training 4 days a week, yet Program D claims you can see even more significant gains by training a mere 2 days weekly. It would be understandable if trying to sift through the vast amounts of sometimes contradictory information about so-called “best strength training workouts” drained the energy you intended to channel into your workout.

So, how can you actually determine which strength training workout will be best? The short answer: the best strength training program for you will depend on your goals, your experience level, and your personal preferences. For the long answer, read on.

Strength Training, Defined

The simplest, most fundamental definition of strength training is any muscle-building activity. To get a bit more precise, strength training describes physical exercise that uses resistance to induce muscular contraction, thereby increasing strength, anaerobic resistance, and the size of skeletal muscles.

That said, it’s a common misconception that lifting weights will make you bulky. In fact, strength training can lead to more significant weight loss results than cardio training. According to Michaela Devries-Aboud, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at McMaster University, when you lift weights, you overload your muscles, which then trains them to adapt to lift more weight. This increases lean muscle mass. The more lean muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest. Having more muscle increases your everyday basal metabolic rate, making it easier to create a calorie deficit, a central component of weight loss.

While it’s common to see the terms “weightlifting,” “resistance training,” and “strength training” used interchangeably, they are not synonymous with one another. Resistance training refers to any exercise that causes your muscles to contract against an external resistance, which can be your own body weight or any other object that activates muscle contraction. The term “strength training,” which is also associated with weight lifting, refers to resistance exercises designed to build strength. And weight lifting functions as a subcategory of strength training.

Curious about what strength training workout routines entail? While there’s plenty of variation, you can expect the following aspects to appear in any strength training approach you try.

  • Heavy lifts: The defining characteristic of strength training is that you increase the amount of weight you lift over time. This is the best way to build strength. As you progress, you will go through periods in which you increase the volume (meaning more sets and more repetitions), but the ultimate goal is to push, pull, and squat increasingly heavy loads.
  • Short sets: Strength training emphasizes sets of lower repetitions (often abbreviated to reps)—typically, between four and six—in order to allow you to lift as much weight as possible. For those who are new to the world of weight lifting, a set is a series of reps completed back-to-back and followed by a brief break before the next set.
  • Rest periods: Taking a rest period that allows for recovery prior to each set allows you to lift more weight, which again, is the number one priority. It also ensures you can maintain proper form throughout all your sets, which improves performance and reduces risk of injury.
  • Compound exercises: These exercises involve tasking multiple joints and muscle groups with moving through a full range of motion, and perfectly facilitate the goal of moving the heaviest weight possible. Some examples of compound exercises include: the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up/pull-up.

Cardio training is an excellent way to stay healthy and lose weight, but strength-training can give your weight-loss goals an extra kick

Why Choose Strength Training

According to the Mayo Clinic, strength training deserves a place in any fitness program. Even if you’re a serious runner or a yoga devotee, it’s important to make time for strength training exercises.

One reason for this is that as we age, our lean muscle mass naturally decreases. From age 30 to age 70, you can lose more than 25% of the strength muscle fibers in your body. Studies show that strength training can counteract negative aspects of the aging process by ensuring you maintain your muscle mass and motor function as you grow older.

Some other proven ways that strength training can benefit your overall health and well-being include:

  • Encourage weight loss: In addition to the calories you burn while working out, and as touched on previously, strength training increases your basal metabolic rate so your body burns more calories at rest.
  • Increase bone density: Strength training places stress on your bones in a safe, structured way, which increases their density and reduces your risk of developing osteoporosis.
  • Improve balance: Research shows that building muscle can lead to better balance. This reduces risk of falls, allowing older individuals to remain more independent. It can also elevate quality of life for individuals of all ages.
  • Alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions: Experts have found that strength training can reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms related to a number of chronic conditions, including heart disease, arthritis, depression, and more.
  • Enhance cognition: It appears that consistent strength training sessions can sharpen cognition and learning skills.

5 Core Principles the Best Strength  Training Workouts Share

There is no single best strength training workout. As we discussed in the introduction, several factors will influence which strength training workout is the best fit for you. Given that a universal goal for all strength training workouts is to build strength, however, there are certain core principles that the best and most effective workout plans share.

1. Practice Progressive Overload

The principle of progressive overload is central to classic strength training plans. Progressive overload describes the practice of overloading your muscles by attempting to lift as much weight as possible. The muscles respond by growing stronger, which allows you to lift heavier weights, which causes your muscles to grow stronger again.

Unless you are an advanced lifter, however, or working under the supervision of an experienced coach, you should not attempt to perform exercises at the absolute limit of your strength—what’s known as a one rep max. It’s possible to make significant strength gains using the principle of progressive overload to fatigue the muscle fibers by lifting sub-maximal weights for more than a single repetition.

To do so, many recommend training to failure, though different experts stake out sometimes contradictory views on the best way to put that into practice. Reaching momentary muscular failure means that the first repetition at a given weight fails due to inadequate muscular strength. Some coaches hold that you should train to failure on all sets, while others state that will result in overtraining and recommend only training to failure on the last set of a given exercise.

It’s possible, too, to build strength in less intense ways. Progressive overload does not require one rep max lifts or training to failure. Instead, you simply need to ensure that you steadily increase the amount of resistance you’re working against. If you’re lifting weights, for instance, that means the amount you load onto the bar should be heavier 3 months from now than it is today.

2. Pay Equal Attention to All the Major Muscle Groups

Most of us tend to have a natural affinity for certain lifts. Say, for example, that the deadlift comes easily to you. It could be tempting to make that a mainstay of your strength training sessions and neglect the overhead press, pull-ups, the bench press, and so on.

While this may initially feel gratifying, over time, it will result in muscle imbalances. The best strength training programs give equal attention to the upper and lower body. That doesn’t mean you need to do a full-body workout every time (although there’s nothing wrong with that approach). You’ll just want to ensure that all the major muscle groups get fatigued so that you build strength evenly throughout your body.

3. Give Your Muscles Time to Recover

As touched on previously, practicing progressive overload helps to build muscle. As you may know, or may be able to intuit, this type of training is quite demanding. That means you should give as much time and attention to recovery as you do to the active part of your training regimen. The stronger you get, the more important recovery becomes.

The best strength programs drill progressive overload for each major muscle group and—crucially—include adequate time for those muscles to rest and repair before they’re trained again.

Just as there’s no single answer to the question of which strength training workout is best, the amount of time required between workouts varies. For those new to strength training, some guidelines you may find helpful are to aim for training each muscle group at least 2 times weekly while including at least a full rest day between training sessions for each muscle group. That means if you tax your arms and chest with the bench press on Monday, you would let those muscle groups rest until Wednesday at the earliest.

4. Include Rest Periods Between Sets

It’s vital not only to include rest periods, but also not to shortchange them. While it can be tempting to stick to short rest periods, which allow you to push through a workout faster and feel more of a burn as you do, cutting your rest periods short undermines the paramount principle of progressive overload.

Short rest periods will steer you toward lighter weights, or fewer sets, both of which will impede your progress. According to a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, individuals who take longer rest periods between sets build more muscle and gain more strength than those who take shorter rests.

So, just how long of a rest period should you use? A review paper published by Menno Henselmans, a peer-reviewed researcher and member of the Legion Athletics Scientific Advisory Board, set out to answer that question.

After closely analyzing all existing research on how different lengths of rest periods impact muscle and strength gains, Henselmans found that the best metrics come from your intuition. The most effective rest period will be as much time as you need in order to feel wholly prepared for your next set.

If you have the kind of temperament that thrives on precise measurements, you can stash these away. Typically, the time it will take you to recover works out to 2 minutes for light to average sets and 3 for your heaviest sets. Depending on the day, you may feel you need to take longer—and you should listen to that feeling.

5. Make Exertion Enjoyable

Don’t discount this principle. Michelle Segar, psychologist and author of “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness,” explains in her book that the human brain is geared to make decisions that lead to immediate gratification. That means if you want to stick to a strength training program, it’s important to choose one that results in immediate, satisfying results.

No one can change their physique in a single training session, but the approach you choose should consistently yield perceivable changes that make you excited for each session.

Keep in mind, too, that if a particular strength training program isn’t delivering in the way you’d hoped, you can try a different one. That said, hopping from one to the next can impede progress. Unless it makes you entirely miserable, commit to a program for at least 3 months, enough time to accurately gauge what it has to offer.

Cardio training is an excellent way to stay healthy and lose weight, but strength-training can give your weight-loss goals an extra kick

How to Start Strength Training

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), adults should train each major muscle group 2 or 3 days weekly.

Older adults or those who have been previously sedentary should begin with light intensity exercises. One reason for this is that muscles get weaker after age 50 at a rate of approximately 15% per decade. To avoid over-taxing muscles, older adults as well as those unaccustomed to strength training should begin with lighter weights and shorter sessions. The ACSM recommends exercising 2 days per week and doing one set of 10-15 repetitions for each muscle group. Weight can be increased at regular intervals, bringing benefits such as increased bone density and decreased insulin resistance. Older adults should be sure to include core exercises in their training program to improve balance and stability.

According to Shawn Arent, director of the Center for Health and Human Performance at Rutgers University and a Fellow in the American College of Sports Medicine, a 2-day weekly strength training program can yield impressive results for novices. For those who are already fit, strength training (whether done on its own or in addition to another training modality) optimizes your well-being, though you will typically need to devote at least 3 days a week in order to make progress.

Weights and repetitions depend on your age, previous experience, and baseline strength. When in doubt, remember that one set of 12 to 15 repetitions typically suffices for full-body exercises as well as those targeting individual muscle groups.

The ACSM guidelines address recovery time as well, suggesting that you allow each muscle group 48 hours to recover before targeting it again. Muscle soreness is likely to happen as you’re building up your strength, so allowing time for rest and recovery is crucial.

Before starting a strength training workout, begin by running through a quick warm-up. Typically, that looks like 5 to 10 minutes of cardio exercises and/or dynamic stretches.

If you’re new to strength training, your priority should be learning proper technique. Dial down the intensity as low as you need until you’re fully confident in your starting position and progression for an exercise. It can be incredibly valuable to work with a coach who can observe you and communicate where your form may be slipping.

When you design your strength training plan, you should tackle full-body exercises as well as those that work large muscle groups in the upper body or lower body—such as the glutes, quadriceps, back, chest, and hamstrings—before smaller muscle groups like the shoulders, triceps, biceps, and calves. If you fatigue a smaller muscle group first, the larger group will not work at its maximum potential.

Here’s an example of what this looks like in action: for a workout that includes bent-over rows and bicep curls, complete the bent-over rows first. You work your biceps in both exercises, but you also target the larger and stronger back muscles in the rows. If you’ve already fatigued your biceps, then your back muscles will not get an optimal workout.

Choose isolation exercises, which work only one muscle group at a time, to increase the intensity for that muscle group. All bicep and tricep exercises are isolation exercises.

One way to use isolation exercises is to start with a heavy weight that you can do for 10 repetitions, complete the 10 repetitions, rest, and then do another set of repetitions using a lighter weight. Do as many repetitions as you can at that weight, then continue to scale down as you reach your fatigue threshold. Add one set that requires you work to the point of momentary muscular failure for each workout, choosing a different exercise and a different body part each time. Keep a record of how many repetitions you can perform, then challenge yourself on a weekly basis by trying to improve your total.

Building an Effective Strength Training Workout Plan

As touched on previously, a good, effective strength training workout plan will work all the major muscle groups in the body: the back, abdomen, chest, arms, and legs. Each of those muscle groups is comprised of other, smaller muscles and muscle groups, such as the quads and abdominals.

Here’s an outline of which exercises target specific muscle groups. Many of the exercises below are compound exercises, meaning they engage multiple muscle groups. In those instances, they’re listed beneath the largest muscle group they target.

Back and Core

Working the muscles of both your upper and lower back is incredibly important, particularly if you spend your day working in front of a computer.

Some fundamental back exercises include dumbbell rows, deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts.

Abdomen

Keep in mind that your core muscles wrap around your back. If you suffer from lower back pain, strengthening your core muscles can help address that.

To practice engaging your core muscles, place your hands just above your hips and tighten the muscles beneath your palms—this is called bracing.

Many experts feel that compound, full-body exercises work the muscles of the abdomen more effectively than isolation exercises like crunches.

Planks and side planks are two effective body-weight core exercises that can help you build strength.

Chest

A number of exercises can help you develop a muscular chest. You’re likely familiar with the bench press and push-ups, two challenging choices that certainly produce results.

The chest press, of course, also targets this muscle group. Other exercises include dips and flys.

Arms

Many people hope to develop strong, toned shoulders and arms—often, the focus here is more on the desired appearance than functional goals.

Some of the best exercises to work your shoulders include side lateral raises, overhead press, reverse fly, bicep curls, and tricep extensions and kickbacks.

Legs

You can strengthen your legs and knees using bodyweight exercises or weighted exercises. Building strong quads—the four large muscles that run along the front of the thigh—helps to support and fortify your knees.

Squats, of course, are a classic and highly effective leg exercise. Many regard them as the most challenging leg exercise, especially when heavily weighted. Olympic lifts like the snatch and power clean also work the muscle groups in your legs. The Bulgarian split squat improves balance while building strength, and walking dumbbell lunges can double as cardio exercise.

Cardio training is an excellent way to stay healthy and lose weight, but strength-training can give your weight-loss goals an extra kick

Functional Fitness: Physical Training for Optimizing Your Everyday Life

Functional fitness is a trending catchphrase in the performance training and fitness arenas. And with good reason! Functional fitness can push you closer to your health and fitness goals, and keeps you strong, flexible, and injury-resistant as you move through your daily activities.

While some individuals truly look forward to working out, many others make time for exercise because of the benefits it brings them. The goal, in this case, is to use exercise to maintain or enhance the overall quality of life. If that resonates with you, and you’ve yet to try functional fitness exercises, it’s time to remedy that.

Functional fitness is an approach to physical activity that’s focused on developing the muscles involved in everyday activities. Functional fitness has become a trending catchphrase in the performance training and fitness arenas—and for good reason! This training approach can help you progress toward key health and fitness goals while keeping you strong, flexible, and injury-resistant as you move through your daily activities.

What Is Functional Fitness?

Functional fitness is designed to train your muscles to work together for daily tasks, such as carrying groceries, climbing stairs, bending over to pick up your child, or catching your balance when you accidentally trip. The squat is a classic example of a functional movement since it engages the muscles required to stand up from a chair. By focusing on common movements that work your muscles in the same way everyday activities do, you optimize your body’s ability to perform in real-life scenarios.

Functional fitness exercises require you to use numerous muscles in both the upper body and lower body at the same time, which not only builds overall strength but core strength as well. Typical resistance workouts workouts like weight training or even other types of strength training tend to isolate muscle groups and train them with single linear movements. Bicep curls, for example, strengthen your arms. Likewise, workouts performed on gym machines, like leg presses, can increase your muscular strength but don’t challenge your balance. A functional exercise such as a push-up, on the other hand, uses several muscle groups at once while strengthening your core. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, functional fitness training helps minimize declines in strength, coordination, and balance.

Functional fitness workouts also develop awareness, body control, and balance. Anybody can benefit from this type of training. Functional fitness keeps non-athletes flexible, strong, and ready for the movements life throws at them. Competitive athletes need to do sport-specific training, but they can also benefit by incorporating a variety of functional fitness exercises into their training program.

Why Choose Functional Fitness?

Functional fitness differs from other training programs in that its primary function is as a full-body workout.

Many functional fitness exercises use only your own body weight for resistance. “Comprehensive physical movements found in activities such as tai chi and yoga involve varying combinations of resistance and flexibility training that can help build functional fitness,” states a resource provided by the Mayo Clinic.

Some functional training exercises that use your body weight include:

  1. Push-ups
  2. Pull-ups
  3. Squats
  4. Planks
  5. Lunges

Easy functional fitness movements like multi-directional lunges and core stability exercises can help prepare your body for common activities, such as vacuuming and gardening.

Many functional fitness exercises can be done at home. Even if you choose to incorporate equipment to increase the challenge, many individuals have the space to try, say, a medicine ball workout without having to pay for a gym membership. That said, depending on your current fitness level, it may be beneficial to enroll in a functional fitness class or boot camp so an instructor can teach you the proper form for each type of exercise.

Functional fitness is a trending catchphrase in the performance training and fitness arenas. And with good reason! Functional fitness can push you closer to your health and fitness goals, and keeps you strong, flexible, and injury-resistant as you move through your daily activities.

Elements of a Typical Functional Fitness Workout

Within the general premise of functional fitness, there’s a wealth of variety and adaptability. For some, the top priority might be building muscle strength. For others, particularly older adults or individuals with pre-existing conditions, the main goal might be the decreased risk of injury.

That said, regardless of your specific goals, a well-composed functional fitness workout should work your muscle groups from head to toe. We’ve included detailed progressions for some classic and highly effective functional fitness bodyweight exercises that are suitable for beginners yet challenging for individuals of all fitness levels. Running through the following exercises will provide an effective and, hopefully, enjoyable functional fitness workout.

Caterpillar Walkout

An exercise that Jay Cardiello, a strength coach who trains professional athletes and entertainers, relies on goes by the moniker caterpillar walkout. To perform this movement, use the following progression:

  1. Stand upright with a straight spine.
  2. Bend from the hips, keeping your spine straight.
  3. Place your hands on the floor in front of your feet (depending on your range of motion, you may need to bend your knees).
  4. Walk your hands out until you’re in a plank position with your body in a straight line from the top of your head to your heels.
  5. Walk your hands back to your feet and stand up.
  6. Repeat for the targeted number of repetitions.

The Get-Up

The get-up, a variation of a classic weight-lifting exercise called the Turkish get-up, is another great functional fitness movement that works multiple muscle groups. To try a get-up, use the following progression:

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs fully extended in front of you.
  2. Place your hands on the ground behind you, about a foot behind each hip, with your fingers pointed out to the side.
  3. Draw your left leg in so that your heel is near your glute.
  4. Simultaneously punch your left arm into the air while pressing through your bent leg to bring your hips up off the floor.
  5. Lower yourself to the ground and return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat on the opposite side.
  7. Continue alternating sides for the desired number of repetitions.

Chop-Squat

Don’t let the aggressive-sounding chop-squat intimidate you. This functional fitness exercise allows you to work your upper and lower body in tandem while also engaging your core. To perform this movement, use the following progression:

  1. Stand upright with a straight spine and your feet together.
  2. Extend your arms overhead and interlock your fingers.
  3. Brace your core and jump your feet out wide—definitely past shoulder-width but not so far that you lose stability—landing in a high squat position.
  4. Simultaneously swing your arms toward your left hip in a chopping motion, pausing with your interlaced hands just outside your left knee.
  5. Jump your feet back together and return your arms to the starting position.
  6. Repeat on the opposite side.
  7. Continue alternating sides until you complete your set of repetitions.

Uni-Plank Lift

This variation of a plank, the uni-plank lift, can be quite challenging, but celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson recommends it as an effective way to target your upper back, chest, sides, glutes, and core—phew! To perform this movement, use the following progression:

  1. Begin on your hands and knees.
  2. Move into a push-up position, but with your feet slightly separated.
  3. Raise your left leg and right arm out to the side on a diagonal.
  4. Pause at the top of the movement, then return to the plank position slowly and with control.
  5. Repeat on the opposite side.
  6. Continue to alternate sides until you finish your set.

Step-Up

Last but certainly not least, it’s time to tackle the humble yet oh-so-mighty step-up, which will improve your balance while exerting your legs, glutes, and core. This move does require some equipment, specifically, an elevated surface such as a stable box, step, or bench. If you’re new to step-ups, be sure to choose a box, step, or bench that’s lower than you think you can manage. To perform this movement, use the following progression:

  1. Place your left foot on the elevated surface in front of you.
  2. Drive through your left heel, lift your right foot, and place it next to your left.
  3. Keep your core tight and do not allow your left hip or knee to skew out to the side.
  4. Return your right foot to the floor.
  5. Repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions.
  6. Switch to the opposite leg.