WE DON’T NEED to remind you that exercise is vital for good health. Exactly how you exercise, though, is also important. It is worth a reminder that strength training should have a place in your exercise routine.
Strength training is no longer only for the meatheads and professional athletes. Step into a gym, and you’ll probably notice a wide range of people on the weight room floor. Pull up YouTube or Instagram and you’ll find videos 70-year-olds repping out heavy barbell deadlifts or elementary school kids practicing their front squats with a PVC pipe during gym class.
This is the new normal for people of all ages and fitness levels—and it’s far more than just a trend. The health and wellness benefits of strength training go well beyond getting stronger.
What Is Strength Training?
Simply put, strength training, otherwise known as resistance training, is a type of exercise that requires your muscles to contract under the load of an external resistance. That external resistance can be applied via your body weight, like in push ups or pull ups, or with equipment like as dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, resistance bands, or cable machines.
Strength training improves the strength of your muscles—the amount of force they are able to produce. Strengthening your muscles has several benefits. Here are a few, with guidance from Eric Sung, C.S.C.S., a trainer and member of Men’s Health’s Strength in Diversity Initiative.
The Top Benefits of Strength Training
Increases Muscle Strength and Size
It’s the goal of many gym-goers to alter their physique by building muscle. Strength training is the means of making that a reality. While cardiovascular exercise helps work your cardiac muscle, to build skeletal muscle strength and size, though, you’ll need to incorporate consistent resistance training.
The stability of your joints is dependent on the strength of your muscles. Muscles absorb some of the impact that you place on the joints through movements like walking, running, and jumping. They also help protect from directional forces that may push our joints in directions they’re not designed to move in.
“The muscles help hold the joints,” Sung says. “Think about 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 injury at our joints. Strength training also limits risk of bone injuries, too. Bone density increases when the bone is placed under stress the way it is when you lift heavy weights. An increase in bone density can reduce the risk of fractures and breaks. That can also help to reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis, or the deterioration of bone tissue, later in life.
“That’s a pro that coincides especially with the elderly population, [by] reducing the risk of falls, and increasing the chances of [being able to] get up after a fall,” says Sung.
Help Burn More Calories
Consistent strength training will increase muscle mass in the body. A pound of muscle burns around 13 calories a day, whereas a pound of fat tissue only burns about 4. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a ton calories—but if you’re training enough to put on muscle mass, you’re likely working out and moving which will also burn more calories. That calorie burn may translate to fat loss if you’re expelling more calories than you’re taking in, bettering your body composition.
Enhances Quality of Life
Building muscular strength through strength training makes movement of everyday life easier, which promotes a better quality of life, says Sung. “Whether it’s running, walking, pulling, or pushing a door—it makes daily activities easier to do.”
If you ever heard your mother yell at you to “stand up straight” as a kid, you might benefit from strength training. Incorporating a well-rounded strength program into your means training your back muscles. Strong back muscles help better your posture, Sung says.
Good posture disperses the pressure of gravity evenly through the skeleton, so no one portion of our body is overly stressed. That keeps our spine healthy, promotes better digestion, improves lung capacity, and keeps us balanced.
Better joint stability means better balance, which may improve agility and change of direction movements.
Plus, incorporating more explosive moments, like hang cleans and push presses, into your strength training can improve our power output. That can translate into better performance in whatever activity you enjoy participating in. If you’re a fan of hitting the pickleball court with your friends on a Saturday morning, strength training may help to give more force to your serve. If you’re a runner, strengthening your muscles can improve the push off portion 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 large effect on mental health. Several studies have concluded that resistance training specifically can help increase cognition levels and self confidence, and decrease feelings of depression and anxiety.
How Often Should You Strength Train?
The Department of Health and Human Services’s 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, though, the amount of times per week you’ll want to train is largely dependent on what you’re looking to get out of strength training. If you’re looking to build muscle mass to gain size, you’ll want to be in the gym a bit more than two days per week. “If you don’t train frequently enough, you don’t produce repeated stimulation. You don’t take advantage of the increase of strength and size,” says Shawn Arent, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., chair of the Department of Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina, told Men’s Health.
If you’re looking to improve your general health and fitness, aim for three days per week, says Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.. If you’re aiming for weight loss, try to be as active as possible, with a minimum of three strength training sessions a week. If you want to build muscle, you’ll want to pop up your frequency to three to five times a week.
What Are the Risks of Strength Training?
With any physical activity, there’s risk of injury. But, strength training is relatively safe as long as you approach it correctly.
Injuries in strength training typically come when exercises are performed incorrectly, or progressed in load too quickly. Performing technical exercises like the back squat or barbell deadlift require months of practice to teach the body proper mechanics. If you’re stacking up the plates before your muscles are ready, they may not be able to stabilize and control the movement under such load. That can cause anything from minor muscle strains, to muscle tears, to joint dislocations and bone fractures.
Make sure that you never attempt any exercises without knowing the basics behind proper form first. Connecting with a certified personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach will be the best way to ensure you are learning proper form and progressing safely.
Who Should Avoid Strength Training?
The only people who should not incorporate strength training into their routine are people with medical considerations. If you’re fresh out of an injury, are recovery from surgery, or have some kind of muscular disorder, your doctor might suggest you should stay away from strength training, Sung says. Always gain clearance from your doctor before starting a new exercise program, including a new strength training program.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.