Ready. Set. Build Some Muscle!Jun 24, 2021
Research shows sprint interval training can build lean muscle mass in masters.
By Selene Yeager
By now you know the mantras for making muscle and staying strong as a menopausal woman: Lift heavy sh*t and do HIIT (high intensity interval training).
This month, a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that those eye-popping intervals—particularly super short sprint intervals—not only help improve your power and cardiovascular fitness, but also increase lean muscle mass.
In the study, researchers had 39 healthy, but untrained women and men, ages 50 to 68, perform 15-minute maximal power cycling bouts (a.k.a. sprint interval training) three times per week for eight weeks. The workouts consisted of a warm up and then short, full throttle sprints followed by a period of rest.
The first week, the participants performed 15 4-second sprints, followed by 56 seconds of rest. During weeks two through four, they shortened the rest period to 41 seconds, completing 20 sprints total. Finally, during weeks five through eight, they reduced the rest period down to 26 seconds and completed 30 bouts. (If you’re doing the math, the actual hard exercise time is only 60 to 120 seconds total for these workouts.)
By study’s end, the sprint trainers got aerobically fitter, improving their VO2 peak (the highest amount of oxygen they could use) by 9.8 percent and the power they could produce at that peak by 8.2 percent. They also increased their total lean body mass by 1.5 percent and their thigh muscle mass by 3.7 percent. (These volunteers were untrained, but so results may vary, but if you’re not hitting those super high intensities in training, you’re sure to reap benefits, too.)
This isn’t the first study to show the muscle-making powers of sprint interval training (SIT). In a 2019 study also published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers had a group of post-menopausal women ages 47 to 59 perform 20 minute bouts of SIT—alternating 8 seconds of sprinting on a stationary bike with 12 seconds of easy pedaling—three times a week for eight weeks. By study’s end, the women lost fat, regained muscle mass, and also improved their aerobic fitness by 12 percent.
Other research shows this type of SIT training is superior to more moderate endurance training for reducing potentially harmful visceral (deep abdominal) body fat.
SIT works its metabolic magic on a few fronts. For one, it jump starts fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. Those are the powerful, snappy fibers that generally sit by the sidelines during endurance activity. They’re also the first to go with age.
These types of max-effort intervals also coax your body to burn more fat for energy when you’re not exercising, which is important as you reach perimenopause and your body naturally burns less fat at rest and stores more of it, says Dr. Stacy Sims, author of ROAR and creator of the online course Menopause for Athletes.
That type of high intensity work demands carbohydrates and pulls a lot of glucose from your bloodstream, she explains. Your body responds by replenishing your muscle and liver glycogen stores with carbohydrate and using more of your fat while you’re at rest, because it knows you’re going to need those muscle stores to perform those intense exercise bouts again.
SIT training also strengthens and increases the amount of your energy-producing mitochondria; improves insulin sensitivity, and lowers fasting blood sugar levels, all of which is good for overall cardiovascular and metabolic health
“Pre menopause, estradiol used to help with this blood sugar control; now you need high intensity training to get the job done well,” she says.
Tabata intervals are a simple place to start. Named for Japanese scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata, who developed these workouts, Tabata efforts are super short and simple to do on nearly any piece of exercise equipment.
Do it: After a good warm up, push as hard as possible for 20 seconds. Go super easy for 10 seconds. Repeat six to eight times. Recover for 4 to 5 minutes with super easy activity. Repeat another set. Work up to 3 sets.
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