PEAK TESTOSTERONE

Weight Lifting and Your Arteries

I really enjoy weight lifting and look forward to the time I spend pushing those plates around (as much as a Skinny Bastard like me can). In fact, I'm pretty sure I get a "runner's high" from my gym time. But there's a potential dark side to weight lifting, arterial hardening and loss of vasoreactivity, that none of us want to talk or think about.

This made me pause and reflect one day: with the lone exception of Jack LaLanne, I cannot think of a single illustration of a weight lifter or body builder that exemplifies health, fitness and longevity into his latter senior years. (And Jack LaLanne actually always did weights for an hour-and-a-half follow by a classic aerobic swimming session for 30 minutes.) When I think of longevity and health in the 70's, 80's and 90's, I think of the Ikarians, the Hunza, the Kuna, the Okinawans and a handful of other supercultures whose lifestyle is the polar opposte of the bodybuilding community in many ways.

Could there be a reason? Why don't we see the Masters (50+) bodybuilding events packed with fit and healthy seasoned 60 and 70 year olds who are the epitome of vitality, strength and virility? One of the reasons may be - and I've documented other reasons in my link on Muscle Madness - the arterial hardening and loss of vasoreactivity that some researchers have discovered from weight lifting.

One of the potential problems with weight lifting are the ultra high blood pressures achieved using heavy weights. Researchers have long known that lifting weights results in very high transient short term blood pressure levels. For example, one study of five elite bodybuilders, doing close to their one rep max, found that blood pressure during a leg press averaged 320/250 with a peak in one individual of 480/330! [4] Even arm curls pushed pressures up to an average of 255/190.

The blood pressure achieved from a heavy lift will for a time literally "stun" or "shock" the arteries, leaving them hardened for all practical purposes, i.e. unable to expand at the normal rate. Of course, this is potentially very serious for our cardiovascular and penile health.

 The blood pressure achieved from a heavy lift will for a time literally "stun" or "shock" the arteries, leaving them hardened for all practical purposes, i.e. unable to expand at the normal rate. Of course, this is potentially very serious for our cardiovascular and penile health.

Concern mounted when a study out of Japan [1] found that young healthy weight trained athletes who did no cardio actually had stiffer arteries, particularly in the heart and leg regions. And you don't want stiff arteries if you want anything else to be stiff if you know what I mean. The authors point out that this is in direct contrast to aerobic training that leaves arteries less stiff and more reactive.

Of some comfort was the fact that this study on bodybuilders [1] and another on regular joes [5] found no mean increase in blood pressure from weight lifting. In fact, one study of healthy young men who underwent an Olympic Lift weight lifting program found that their systolic - the first number in a blood pressure measure - actually decreased. [6] Another similar study found that weight training decreased diastolic blood pressure, raised HDL, lowered cholesterol and decreased insulin levels, all big risk factors for heart disease. [7]

However, researchers remained concerned because the latter two studies were short term. Remember: the longer term study where athletes had to have been strength training for at least a year found significant arterial stiffness. [1] Furthermore, these athletes had more arterial stiffness than sedentary controls! If your arteries are in worse shape than the standard couch potato, what does that tell you? These were also young men in their 20's. Researchers had great concerns that a lifetime of lifting may actually result in worse outcomes. 

Of some comfort was the fact that this study on bodybuilders [1] and another on regular joes [5] found no mean increase in blood pressure from weight lifting. In fact, one study of healthy young men who underwent an Olympic Lift weight lifting program found that their systolic - the first number in a blood pressure measure - actually decreased. [6] Another similar study found that weight training decreased diastolic blood pressure, raised HDL, lowered cholesterol and decreased insulin levels, all big risk factors for heart disease. [7]

However, researchers remained concerned because the latter two studies were short term. Remember: the longer term study where athletes had to have been strength training for at least a year found significant arterial stiffness. [1] Furthermore, these athletes had more arterial stiffness than sedentary controls! If your arteries are in worse shape than the standard couch potato, what does that tell you? These were also young men in their 20's. Researchers had great concerns that a lifetime of lifting may actually result in worse outcomes.

A 2005 study answered the question in a way that all of us long term weight lifters did not want to hear: long term early middle-aged weight lifters had worse arterial stiffness and higher blood pressure than age-matched controls. [8] Of course, blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke, erectile dysfunction and lots of other nasty stuff. And who wants stiffer arteries, eh? (However, there was a bright spot in all of this: the authors found that endothelial function was not adversely affected.)

But let's face it:  those of us concerned with long term health and good blood flow between our legs have to ask ourselves is pushing the steel and iron is really good for us as the decades pass by.  Maybe our bodies just weren't designed to handle these kinds of internal blood pressures and stressors?  In fact, if you think about it, for most of our existence, we have not had to lift or carry massive objects in order to improve our survival. Walking, and lots of it, is really our primary ancestral exercise. Throwing boulders and hauling elk carcasses was simply not that useful.

So what is the answer? Well, here are a couple of solutions that can help overcome these issues with lifting weights and strength training:

Weight Lifting Arterial Solutions

1. Cardio and Aerobics.  One recent study showed that cardio after weight lifting seemed to cure the arterial stiffness issue. [9]  This shows, by the way, Jack LaLanne's keen insight once again:  he always did swimming aerobics after his intense weigth lifting sessions as I mentioned above.

2. Volume.  Go for volume with lower weights and more repetitions.  One of the studies above showed that the bigger lifts with more weights raised blood pressure more.  The pattern seems to be that the less you lift, the less the pressure gradient experienced.  And weight lifting with less weight has been shown in one study may put on muscle faster, contrary to prevailing wisdom.

REFERENCES:

1) Hypertension,1999,33:1385-91, "Muscular Strength Training Is Associated With Low Arterial Compliance and High Pulse Pressure"

2) Experimental Physiol,2005,90(4):645-651

3) Experimental Physiol, 2007, 93(2):296-302

4) J Appl Physiol, 1985, Mar;58(3):785-90, "Arterial blood pressure response to heavy resistance exercise"

5) Int J Sports Med, 1996 Aug, 17(6):415-22, "Effect of strength training on blood pressure measured in various conditions in sedentary men"

6) Can J Appl Sport Sci, 1983 Sep, 8(3):134-9, "Cardiovascular responses to short-term olympic style weight-training in young men"

7) Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1988 Apr, 20(2):150-4, "Resistive training can reduce coronary risk factors without altering VO2max or percent body fat"

8) Experimental Physiology, Feb 1 2008, 93:296-302, "Resistance training in men is associated with increased arterial stiffness and blood pressure but does not adversely affect endothelial function as measured by arterial reactivity to the cold pressor test"

9) Journal of Applied Physiology, Nov 2007,103(5):1655-1661, "Combined aerobic and resistance training and vascular function: effect of aerobic exercise before and after resistance training"