Resistance Training to MMF Offers a Wide Range of Physical and Mental Health Benefits

New scientific research credits resistance training with improved cognitive function.
Staff writer Donna Trump tapped into the expertise of personal trainer Jim Trnka, pictured above at Discover Strength, in her own first-person experience lifting weights to improve mental alertness.

I’m an old physical therapist. Let me rephrase that: I’m a former physical therapist, and although I’m not old (58), gravity is taking its toll. X-rays show yet another droop (added to all the droops I can see with the naked eye). The bone that sits above the tip of each of my shoulders is sagging into the soft tissue directly beneath, resulting in compression of thinning muscle and sensitive nerves, and making my upper arms and shoulders ache.

After digging up some information online and reviewing the anatomy, I designed a weightlifting program to strengthen my upper back and shoulders. A few months into the routine, my shoulder pain decreased, and I saw improvements in muscle contour. But something else happened, too, something I didn’t expect: my head felt clearer. I couldn’t account for it, but I knew it to be true.

As women, we know we should lift weights—the word about the positive effects of weight-lifting on bone density has been out for some time. Luke Carlson, founder and CEO of Discover Strength (a scientifically designed, evidence-based resistance-training program) concurs, but is quick to add, “We have only scratched the surface of the health-related benefits of resistance exercise.” The newest studies, says Carlson, demonstrate resistance exercise’s ability to decrease anxiety and depression. What’s even more exciting, he says, is scientific evidence of its ability to actually improve cognitive function as well.

Yes, you read that right: Lifting weights has been shown to improve what’s known as executive function, Carlson says. Executive function is defined as a set of mental skills that help you get things done and includes time management, paying attention, switching focus, planning, organizing and remembering details.

Ladies and gentlemen of a certain age: The days of strength training’s merits taking a back seat to those of aerobic exercise are over. If you want to think better, think more clearly—more effectively—scientific evidence suggests you should consider a resistance exercise program. I didn’t know it when I started my arm strengthening routine, but I felt it. And you can, too.

The question is, where to start? I had an evaluation (a 45-minute introductory session free and available to anyone) with Jim Trnka at Discover Strength in Plymouth, who took me through an initial workout on five different exercise machines. Studies show, Trnka says, that the health benefits we’re all looking for in a resistance exercise routine, from increased strength and endurance to better thinking, happen best when a very specific goal is achieved: momentary muscular failure, technically known as MMF, but affectionately known (by me, anyway) as “Ooommf!”

Trnka and his fellow trainers are highly educated professionals, says Brandon Jonker, Discover Strength’s director of operations and a trainer himself. All Discover Strength trainers, says Jonkers, have health and exercise science degrees, many advanced, and all are American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)-certified in exercise physiology. MMF is achieved in Discover Strength workouts by a trainer gauging what resistance will result, for a given participant, in absolute muscle failure (trust me, this means you cannot budge another quarter inch) in eight to 12 repetitions of a single exercise. (Remember: If you don’t get to “Ooommf!” you have not gone far enough.) And then that’s it. You’re on to the next machine.

This results in not only a very effective workout, but an extremely efficient one, as well. David Schwandt has worked out in one manner or another for 15 years; the 60-something Schwandt investigated Discover Strength on the recommendation of a friend and was “immediately impressed with the science behind what they’re doing,” he says. He is making more progress in less time compared with all strengthening programs he’s tried before. “I continue to reconfigure my body in positive ways that include better posture, building muscle tissue and burning more calories,” Schwandt says. “My body mass index keeps improving.”