WE DO NOT NEED IT to remind you that exercise is vital to good health. Exactly how exercising, however, is also important. It’s worth reminding that strength training should have a place in your workout routine.
Strength training isn’t just for carnivores and professional athletes anymore. Walk into the gym and you’ll likely notice a wide range of people on the weight room floor. Pull up YouTube or Instagram and you’ll find videos of 70-year-olds doing heavy barbell deadlifts or elementary school kids practicing front squats with a PVC pipe during gym class.
It’s the new normal for people of all ages and fitness levels—and it’s much more than just a trend. The health and wellness benefits of strength training go beyond getting stronger.
What is strength training?
Simply put, strength training, also known as resistance training, is a type of exercise that requires your muscles to contract under the load of an external resistance. This external resistance can be applied through your body weight, such as push-ups or pull-ups, or with equipment such as dumbbells, dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, or cable machines.
Strength training improves the strength of your muscles – the amount of force they can produce. Strengthening your muscles has several benefits. Here are a few, with guidance from Eric Sung, CSCS, trainer and member of the Men’s healthThe Strength in Diversity Initiative.
The main benefits of strength training
Increases muscle strength and size
The goal of many gym goers is to change their physique by building muscle. Strength training is the means to make this a reality. While cardiovascular exercise helps work the heart muscle to build skeletal muscle strength and size, you’ll need to incorporate consistent resistance training.
Protects the joints
The stability of your joints depends on the strength of your muscles. Muscles absorb some of the impact you put on your joints through movements like walking, running, and jumping. They also help protect against directional forces that can push our joints in directions they’re not meant to move.
“Muscles help hold the joints together,” says Sung. “Think of it like a building. Strong muscles around the joints are like the backbone of the building.”
It’s clear that building strong muscles can help prevent injuries to our joints. Strength training also limits the risk of bone injuries. Bone density increases when the bone is under stress, such as when you lift heavy weights. Increasing bone density can reduce the risk of fractures and breaks. It can also help reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis, or bone deterioration, later in life.
“It’s a professional that resonates particularly with the senior population, [by] reducing the risk of falling and increasing the chances of [being able to] get up after falling,” says Sung.
Help burn more calories
Constant strength training will increase muscle mass in the body. A pound of muscle burns about 13 calories a day, while a pound of fat only burns about 4. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a ton of calories, but if you’re exercising enough to gain muscle, you’re probably exercising and moving. which will also burn more calories. This calorie burn can lead to fat loss if you burn more calories than you take in, improving your body composition.
Improves the quality of life
Building muscle strength through strength training facilitates movement in daily life, which promotes a better quality of life, says Sung. “Whether it’s running, walking, pulling or pushing the neck, it makes everyday activities easier to do.”
If you’ve ever heard your mother yell at you to “stand up” as a child, you may benefit from strength training. Incorporating a well-rounded strength program into your routine means working your back muscles. Strong back muscles help with better posture, says Sung.
Good posture spreads the pressure of gravity evenly throughout the skeleton, so no part of our body is overly stressed. This keeps our spine healthy, promotes better digestion, improves lung capacity and keeps us balanced.
Better joint stability means better balance, which can improve flexibility and range of motion.
Plus, incorporating more explosive moments like squats and presses into your strength training can improve your power output. This can translate into better performance in any activity you enjoy participating in. If you’re a fan of hitting the pickleball court with your friends on Saturday mornings, strength training can help you add more power to your serve. If you’re a runner, strengthening your muscles can improve the push-off part of your stride, making your gait more efficient.
Improves cardiovascular health
Building muscle mass not only burns more calories, but it can also help lower your LDL (the bad kind of cholesterol) and increase your HDL (the good kind of cholesterol). It can also help lower blood pressure and control blood sugar levels, all of which will improve your cardiovascular health.
Improves mental health
It’s clear that exercise has a big effect on mental health. Several studies have concluded that resistance training in particular can help increase cognitive levels and self-esteem, and reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.
How often should you strength train?
Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend strength training your major muscle groups at least twice a week to improve strength and maintain functionality.
That being said, however, the number of times per week you’ll want to train largely depends on what you want to get out of strength training. If you want to build muscle to gain size, you’ll want to be in the gym a little more than two days a week. “If you don’t train often enough, you don’t produce repetitive stimulation. You don’t benefit from increasing strength and size,” Shawn Arendt, Ph.D., CSCS, chair of the Department of Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina, told Men’s health.
If you want to improve your overall health and fitness, aim for three days a week, he says Men’s health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, CSCS. If you are aiming for weight loss, try to be as active as possible, with a minimum of three strength training sessions per week. If you want to build muscle, you’ll want to increase your frequency to three to five times a week.
What are the risks of strength training?
With any physical activity there is a risk of injury. But strength training is relatively safe as long as you approach it correctly.
Strength training injuries usually occur when the exercises are performed incorrectly or the load progresses too quickly. Performing technical exercises like back squats or barbell deadlifts requires months of practice to teach the body the proper mechanics. If you stack the plates before your muscles are ready, they may not be able to stabilize and control the movement under such a load. This can cause anything from minor muscle strains to muscle tears to joint dislocations and bone fractures.
Make sure you never attempt any exercise without first knowing the basics behind proper form. Connecting with a certified personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach will be the best way to make sure you learn proper form and progress safely.
Who should avoid strength training?
The only people who should not include strength training in their routine are those with medical reasons. If you’ve just suffered an injury, are recovering from surgery, or have some kind of muscle ailment, your doctor may recommend staying away from strength training, says Sung. Always get your doctor’s clearance before starting a new exercise program, including a new strength training program.
Corey Ritchie, NASM-CPT is an associate health and fitness editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work at HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self and more.