Getting Strong Is Good for Your Brain, Even if You Don’t Bulk Up - Outside Magazine

Alex Hutchinson writes a great column in Outside Magazine on published research as it applies to sports science. His take on the original study in the journal Lifestyle Medicine covers an interesting distinction between building muscle vs strength.

The key result was that strength was a much better predictor of cognitive performance than muscle mass.

Strength explained about 5 percent of the variance in cognitive scores, while muscle mass explained only 0.5 percent. Moreover, whatever cognitive benefits muscle itself had seemed to be mediated by added strength. This isn’t as obvious as it sounds. One theory is that muscle tissue should also be considered an “endocrine organ,” sucking up glucose from the bloodstream and secreting molecules called myokines that are thought to benefit health and brain function. In this view, simply having lots of muscle should protect against cognitive decline, regardless of how you use it. But the NHANES data didn’t support this view: muscle only mattered insofar as it made you stronger.



From a training perspective this could save time…

since fewer, heavier reps generally leads more strength - while more (and slightly less heavy) reps generally leads to more muscle growth/volume…


I agree. The study looks at 60 years old and above. My guess is a lot of us get habitual in training habits that might exclude heavier reps. So it pays to pay attention. But I also see it as evidence of applying everyday activities that suggest strength (power). Caring bags of groceries up the stairs, bolting after a wayward grandkid, skipping, dancing, etc. Using the brain to recruit existing muscle seems very important to functional aging.


There are so many opinions in the bodybuilding community arguing whether high mass, low rep, or low mass high rep is superior for building muscle hypertrophy.

After decades of going to the gym and observing “natty” bodybuilders, it appears to me that the difference is minimal. IMO, genes play a more important role than the actual training selection.
Something not much discussed anymore:
Ectomorph: This is when the body is lean and slender and tends to have less body fat and muscle. People with this body type can often find it challenging to gain weight in the form of muscle or fat. Fashion models are an example of this body type.
Endomorph: This is when the body has more stored fat, lots of muscle, and gains weight easily. People with this body type are not always overweight. Football lineman and Marilyn Monroe are examples of this body type.
Mesomorph: This is when the body is athletic and strong. People with this body type are neither overweight nor underweight. Swimmers and volleyball players are examples of this body type.”

So, if you have “lucky genes” you won’t have to work so hard to gain that muscle mass. Mine seem to favor Ectomorph.

I have tried both routines for extensive periods of time and the main difference I have observed subjectively in myself is there is a favorable increase in overall endurance outside of the gym when doing high rep, low load, resistance training.

“Overall, our main findings suggest that (i) there is no evidence to support that resistance training performed to momentary muscular failure is superior to non-failure resistance training for muscle hypertrophy and (ii) higher velocity loss thresholds, and theoretically closer proximities-to-failure do not always elicit greater muscle hypertrophy. As such, these results provide evidence for a potential non-linear relationship between proximity-to-failure and muscle hypertrophy.”


Mostly disagreed; research is pretty clear that close proximity to failure is necessary to fully recruit the highest threshold motor units, and this to provide the mechanical tension which is the only thing that stimulates hypertrophy.

Arnold and the classic body builders had it right in the 70s: medium weight, 65-75% for lots of reps and lots of sets is the most efficient way to fit in all the volume necessary for hypertrophy.


This is partially correct. Yes, you need to recruit the high threshold motor units for best effects, but to do so you don’t always need to go to failure. It depends on the weight you’re using. If using pretty light weight, like 50% of your one rep max, then yes you will have to get close to failure to recruit the high tension motor units. However, if you’re using a weight that is your 80% max or heavier, then you will recruit most of the high tension motor units from the first rep. This is why 6-10 reps is such an effective rep range for strength and muscle mass gains. It’s approximately the maximum number of reps one can do with a weight that is 80% of your one rep max, so it’s the maximum number of reps you can do with a weight so heavy that each rep activates all the fibers.


So like I said, close proximity to failure is required, and your post added nothing.Typical man, loves the sound of his own voice.

How about being less rude and read my comment again. No it’s not like you said. Close proximity to failure is not required. That’s what I added. You said proximity to failure is necessary to fully recruit the highest treshold motor units. I said that’s not correct. You only need to go close to failure to recruit the highest treshold motor units if you’re using light weights, not when using heavy weights. Btw I didn’t post this response for you, I posted it for the many others here that appreciate my comments.


Btw, I don’t know what you have against me, but please stay away from these ad hominen attacks. This is a forum to discuss science for the benefit of all of us. Let’s stick to that.


Close proximity to failure is indeed required if you are not lifting heavy weights. Nowhere in my post did I say to use 80% of 1RM, and seeing as we are longevity focused on this site, not powerlifting focused, I would argue that it is actually inadvisable to routinely go that heavy, particularly once you hit 40+. I used to be an exercise science major and am quite clear on the basic science.

So no, once again you added nothing and clearly posted only to try to have the last word.

Then discuss the science, instead of repackaging what someone has already said so that you can feel good about yourself.

Interesting and thanks for your views and patience. I have tended to do more reps (about 12), going for failure at three sets. My thinking is to build some endurance and muscle mass at the same time. Am I not getting the best result here? What do you think?

I didn’t claim you said that, just to be clear. Also I acknowledged that you were partially correct. But you didn’t mention that close proximity to failure is not needed if using 80% of 1 RM. I know a lot of people don’t know that, therefore I added that information.

Sure you can argue for that in many cases, but that doesn’t negate the point I made. I made no comments on whether people should use 80% of 1RM, I just said that if they do they will activate pretty much all the fibers.

That’s great, but that doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes or that nobody can add any useful info to your posts. I also got strong qualifications when it comes to exercise (I was obsessed with that before I got obsessed with studying aging), and people that know me know that I generally only speak up when I know what I am talking about. Regardless of qualifications, we all have to be humble and ok with people correcting us when appropriate, or adding information to what we say.

Ad hominen attack again. I posted to add information to what you wrote and to correct what was there. Yet you keep on insisting that I didn’t add anything. That’s not true.

Btw, please realize that me commenting on your post initially was nothing personal. I simply read the text and responded the same as I would have had anyone else said what you said. I didn’t even think of who wrote what you wrote, nor did I realize it was you, the new person that got a bit upset about my other responses on another threat the other day.


Three sets of 12 is great if you go to ti failure. Then you will likely activate all the fibers in the last 5-10 reps and get a good stimulus for growth and strength. It’s not too high reps. It’s close enough to the optimal range as long as you go to or very close to failure.

I tend to agree with Ryan above when he said it’s not adviceable to go heavy once you hit 40+. Yes, even if you’re older, you will generally get the strongest stimulus in the 6-10 rep range, but with increased age comes increased risk of various injuries and problems and using a bit lower weights and higher reps helps reduce the risk of injuries. Plus it’s harder on the joints to use very heavy weights.

Personally I’m usually doing 8-10 reps myself at age 43 but I’m more careful than when I was younger. I certainly notice the increased risk of overuse injuries and other types of injuries.


I was not partially correct, I was 100% correct. Lifting at 80% or above IS close proximity to failure, almost on the first rep. By getting hung up on number of reps, you’re missing the forest for the trees.

If your credentials are worth anything, you know well that the general definition of failure when talking about weight lifting is when you cannot perform one more rep. Taking a set to failure means performing as many reps as you possibly can with that weight. So 80% of max doesn’t mean failure. It only means failure if you do as many reps as you can that weight. In contrast, if ou use 80% of max and do just three reps you’re far from failure, because you most likely could have done around 5 more reps.

If you want to use another definition of failure than the conventional one then it makes more sense to state that so people know what you are talking about. Otherwise it looks like you’re just bending what you originally said to claim you were correct.


Put it this way: a 1RM is by definition failure. Failure can be reached after a single repetition. A 5RM is universally considered heavy. If you can only do 5 reps with a weight, you’re close to failure from the moment you start the set. Lifting to 5 reps in reserve or fewer is indeed close to failure. It’s not as close as one rep in reserve, but that’s totally immaterial. Once again, you just have to be right, so you’re creating distinctions where none need to exist.

I think it’s obvious who here feels he has to be right and can’t take it when someone responds to them. I was adding value and information to your post that I know many people likely appreciate. But you took it personally, as if it was some attack on you. I already explained it had nothing to do with you. So please stop the ad hominen attacks. They are not helpful for anyone here.

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I disagree with this, but I don’t care to discuss the details of that here with you. Anyways, for anyone wanting to learn about the optimal ways to gain muscle or strength I suggest following Lyle McDonald and reading what he has written about it. He’s the best no bullshit source I have seen on this subject.

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Your series of inane replies in the last thread demonstrate the opposite, no need for comment from me. You just can’t let it go.