Building chest muscles through resistance training may help you get a chiseled chest. But it also will help you perform many everyday activities that become more difficult with age.
“Starting at age 50, and especially by the time you get to be 60 or 70, activities of daily living — carrying groceries or cutting the grass — are much more limited by loss of muscle strength than by cardiopulmonary problems,” says Michael J. Joyner, MD, a physiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Many people that age can still walk three or four miles per hour, but 70% of 70-year-olds can’t get up off the floor. They’re not strong enough to do that.”
Building chest muscles — and all other muscles — not only makes you stronger, it also improves your metabolism by helping your body remove sugar from your blood. This protects against diabetes.
“The more muscle mass you have, the easier it is for glucose to go into your skeletal muscle,” Joyner says. “And the more active that skeletal muscle is, the more glucose it’s going to burn. Muscle contraction leads to whole series of events that enable muscles to use glucose efficiently and make the body more sensitive to insulin.”
The importance of lifting weights while losing weight
Lifting weights can be especially important when you’re trying to lose weight, Joyner says. That’s because when you restrict your caloric intake, your body burns muscle as well as fat for fuel, contributing to the muscle loss that comes naturally with age.
“That loss of muscle mass is less of a problem if you strength-train while you lose weight,” Joyner says. “Instead of losing about 60 percent fat and 40 percent muscle mass, it will be more like 80/20.”
And because chest muscles are relatively large, they contain a lot of muscle fibers that can be developed.
Exercises for building chest muscles
The bench press works all the chest muscles and especially helps in building pecs. Lie on the bench facing up. Grasp the barbell on the stand above your head so your forearms are parallel with each other. Lift the weight off the rack and lower it to within a couple of inches of your chest. Then lift it again. For these (and all weight training exercises), exhale when you lift and inhale when you lower the weight. Use low enough weight so you can repeat this 8 to 12 times. After resting for a few minutes, do another set or two of 8 to 12 reps. When you can do more than 12 reps, add more weight.
Gym machines make this exercise safer because the bar is attached to a stack of weights, which eliminates the possibility of dropping the bar on your chest.
You can vary this exercise by using an incline bench, which lifts your torso to about a 45-degree angle.
Another exercise that works chest muscles — as well as the arms, abdomen, and back — involves lifting a barbell from the floor, positioning it in front of your chest, and then lifting it over your head 8 to 12 times. When lifting the barbell from the floor, keep your back as straight as possible and lift with your legs. You can perform this same movement without the stress of lifting a barbell off the floor on several gym machines that allow you to sit comfortably, grip the handles, and lift.
SOURCES: Michael J. Joyner, MD, physiologist, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. Chhanda Dutta, PhD, Geriatrics Program, National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Maryland. Gary R. Hunter, PhD, director, physiology lab, University of Alabama. Justin Keough, PhD, senior lecturer, Institute of Sport and Recreation Research New Zealand, Auckland.