Barbells and Bone Health: A Review of What the Literature Says on Building Strong Bones

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People lift weights for varying reasons. Some want a big bench press, some want big biceps, and some just want to “look good naked” for that special someone.

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But I’ll bet ya that nobody in the gym thinks about how lifting weights affects their bones.

Osteoporosis is a common condition that occurs when we break down more bone than we build up. This causes our bones to become thinner, weaker, and more fragile. Osteoporosis is often called "the silent thief" as many people don't know they have it until they fracture something. While a fracture may not seem like much to you or I, for an elderly individual, the consequences of a fracture are dire and can include anxiety, depression, pain (1), and even death (2).

But thankfully, lifting weights can help to prevent these from happening. When we load our bones we provide a strain that causes bone cells to be stimulated. This leads to osteoclasts (bone absorbing cells) reabsorbing bones just like PacMan eats pacdots.

Photo Credit:  www.quickmeme.com
Photo Credit: www.quickmeme.com

Afterwards osteoblasts (bone building cells) differentiate and lay down new, stronger bone which is almost like new, softer cement which hardens over time (3).

What Kind Of Training Program Do I Need To Do To Strengthen My Bones?

Linear and undulating periodization are the two programming styles that have been studied and shown to increase bone formation and bone mineral density (BMD) (4-6).

*Side note: Before I get any hate messages in the comments - this isn’t to say that the other great training methods out there (e.g. 10/20/Life, Juggernaut, 5/3/1, Westside, Cube etc.) can’t strengthen your bones, it’s just that they’ve never been studied in this regard.

Linear periodization is a method of training where you gradually increase the weight and decrease the repetitions over a period of weeks and "peak" for an athletic event. Note that it only applies to your main or “opening” exercise in a workout. There are many ways to cycle and train assistance work, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Below is an example of a 17 week linear periodization model.

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In contrast to linear periodization, undulating periodization uses a repetition scheme that is varied from workout to workout.

Here's an example of an undulating periodization model which can be applied to almost all exercises in a workout:

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Progressive overload in a training program is critical for improving bone growth. Low intensity training doesn’t have the same effect on improving BMD (6, 11, 13). A 5 or 10 lb dumbbell is appropriate for someone new to the gym, but past that it’s only appropriate for prehab, as a doorstop, or as a paper weight. It’s not gonna improve your bone health. Both periodization styles have similar effects on BMD in women (7) and have approximately the same effectiveness in improving maximal strength in beginner to novice trainees (8-12).

Do Men’s And Women’s Bones Respond The Same Way To Lifting?

College, adult, and middle aged men have all shown increases in their lumbar spine and hip BMD through lifting weights (5, 11, 14).

By contrast, premenopausal women respond more variably to lifting. Some studies show no effect of weight training on BMD (7, 15-17) while others (including a review) show a positive effect of lifting on hip BMD and bone formation (6, 18). Weight training (4), even explosive weight training (19), has been consistently shown to maintain or increase BMD in postmenopausal women (13) – a population at high risk of osteoporosis.

In my biased opinion, when you look at the effect of lifting on overall health, women can’t go wrong with lifting some weights. Your body will thank you for it in the long run.

Strength Sports and Bone Health

Several studies have shown that Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters have a much higher BMD than people who are untrained or train at a lower intensity (11, 20-23). Competing as a high level strength athlete comes with its own health risks (24) but focusing on getting stronger can help your bones, your muscle mass, your athleticism, and your performance (wink).

In the strength and conditioning world you'll be hard pressed to find a strength coach that doesn't recommend a squat variation. But how do squats relate with bone health?

Some research hypothesizes that ground reaction force and rate of force development are linked with bone development (25). When you push into the ground, the ground sends an equal and opposite force into you, that's what a ground reaction force is. Rate of force development refers to the speed at which you can apply force.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that in comparison to traditional squats and powerlifting squats, box squats have slightly lower ground reaction force but conversely have three to four times the rate of force development (26). This suggests that box squats may be a better choice of squat variations for bone development assuming you’re not a competitive strength athlete who has to do back squats in your sport.

What About Plyometrics And Bone Health?

The relationship between jumping and BMD hasn’t been thoroughly researched in young adults. Several recent studies have shown a positive relationship between hip BMD, maximal vertical jump height (27), and maximal broad jump length (28). Low-repetition jump training has been shown to increase BMD in female college athletes (29) and higher-repetition jump training has been shown to increase lumbar spine BMD in pre-menopausal women (30).

Assuming you have no injury history and can land properly, adding in a few sets of jumps (e.g. 2-5 sets of 1-3 reps) once a week before a full body or a lower body workout can be a great way to improve your athleticism & explosiveness. As an added bonus jumps help to improve muscle power, something we lose with age.

Osteoporosis is a common condition that will change the face of the health care system as we age. But doing some periodized weight training & jumps can improve your physique, improve your athleticism, and keep your bones healthy for the long haul.

Practical Takeaways

1.  Both linear and undulating periodization programs have been shown to improve bone mineral density in young adults

2.  To maximize your bone development in a training program, progressive overload must occur while maintaining good form

3.  Assuming you can do them correctly and pain free, adding in a few sets of box squats and jumps into your training program may help to increase your BMD and keep your bones healthy for the long term

Disclaimer: Every training program must be fit to the individual and scientific research is ever-changing. Therefore, I encourage you to take what you read in this article with a grain of salt and shape it to your training needs and goals. I disclaim any liability for injuries or illnesses resulting from use or misuse of the information in this article.

About the Author

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Eric Bowman is a BSc in Honours Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He worked as a research assistant in the UW Bone Health laboratory where he studied exercise and osteoporosis. He is currently in the Physical Therapy program at Western University and is studying to become a CSCS. His areas of interest are orthopedic rehab, exercise for special populations, and strength & conditioning. Add him on Facebook or email him at bigericbowman@gmail.com

 

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