Scientifically speaking, strength, weight, or resistance training are physical exercises designed to improve the strength and endurance of your muscles by contracting them against a resisting force. And while plenty of folks use these techniques to build a bulked-up physique, strength training has benefits for all bodies far beyond getting “swole” (and also doesn’t have to result in that look).
Exercising with weights, bodyweight, or other forms of resistance won’t just make you stronger and more metabolically efficient but will decrease your susceptibility to injury and chronic disease and even add years to your life. Here’s how:
Strength Training Preserves Bone Health and Muscle Mass
Strength training is important for increasing lean muscle mass and protecting bone density, which we begin to start losing after the age of 30. Women especially make up 80 per cent of osteoporosis cases as we tend to have smaller and thinner bones than men as well as menopause, which accelerates estrogen loss, the hormone in women that protects their bones.
Every time a muscle contracts during strength training exercises, it puts temporary stress on the bones, which stimulates the cells within the bone to move minerals into the bone and produce structural proteins, making it stronger. Having strong bones reduces your risk of osteoporosis, falls and fractures, especially as you get older. In a 2014 study, just 12 weeks of strength training incorporating squats increased femur (thigh) bone mineral density by 4.9% and lowered spine density by 2.9%.
Weight Training Accelerates Weight Loss
Strength training has been proven to boost weight loss more effectively than aerobic exercise alone. Why? Because the lean muscle mass resulting from strength training stimulates metabolism. This means with more lean muscle mass, your body burns more daily calories and metabolizes more fat.
A 2017 study found that dieters who did strength training four times a week for 18 months lost more fat (18 pounds) than those who only did aerobic exercise (16 pounds) and those who didn’t exercise at all (10 pounds). So, if you’re trying to lose weight by dieting, you may be able to accelerate your weight loss journey with a strength training routine.
And remember that muscle is denser than fat, so even though the scale may not reflect the loss of fat, the measuring tape sure will.
Resistance Increases Metabolism
Muscles are more metabolically efficient than fat mass, allowing you to burn more calories at rest as you build more muscle through strength training. Studies show that metabolic rate is increased up to 72 hours after strength training, which means that you can burn additional calories for days, not just hours, after your session.
Working With Weights Improves Balance
Balance, posture and coordination are crucial factors for functioning and thriving in daily life. From carrying groceries to cleaning up around the house, balance depends on the strength of the muscles that keep you on your feet, and the stronger those muscles, the better your balance. Fall risk, especially amongst the elderly is a great reason to add strength training to your current fitness routine.
In a 2017 review, doing at least one resistance training session a week produced up to a 7.5 per cent increase in muscle mass, and 37 per cent increase in muscle strength and a 58% increase in functional capacity (linked to a risk of falls) in elderly adults.
Strength is a clinical marker for functional dependence with falls a major risk factor for the elderly. Up to 58% of seniors who get a hip fracture from a fall don’t survive past one year following the incident.
Another review studying 23,407 adults over 60 years old, demonstrates a 34% decrease in falls in those who participated in a comprehensive exercise program that included resistance and functional training and balance exercises.
Strength Training Reduces Risk of Injury
Strength training can make you stronger and improve your range of motion, allowing for greater mobility of your muscles, tendons and ligaments. This can help protect against injury and correct muscular imbalances by elevating strength around your major joints like your knees and hips. For example, strengthening your core and glutes can take the pressure off your lower back when you lift and lower the chances of back injury.
One study demonstrates that a strength-training regime decreased the risk of injury by 33% among 7,738 athletes. It reduced the chances of injury in a dose-dependent way, where for every 10% increase in strength-training volume, there was a 4% reduced risk of injury.
A Strong Body is Better at Managing Chronic Disease
Over 35 million Americans suffer from type 2 diabetes. A 2019 study suggests that regular strength training can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, chronic mobility problems, and cancer. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a 2017 study, weight training combined with other healthy lifestyle changes can help improve glucose control.
Research shows that regular resistance training can also decrease total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and improve blood flow by strengthening the heart and blood vessels. A 2013 study concludes that young men who follow a strength training regime have better-functioning HDL (good) cholesterol compared to those who don’t.
In addition, strength training focuses on increasing lean muscle mass and cutting down fat. Visceral fat, which is located in and around vital organs, not only increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes but is also linked to an increased risk of cancer, based on a 2017 study. So, reducing any excess abdominal fat through strength training can certainly decrease the risk of chronic diseases.
Strength Training Improves Mobility and Flexibility
Strength training improves the body’s mobility and flexibility by increasing joint range of motion (ROM). A 2017 study demonstrates that strength training improves flexibility in both men and women and a 2021 review comparing stretching with strength training found they were equally effective at increasing ROM.
A 2006 study shows that eccentric strength exercises may have the strongest benefit, improving hamstring flexibility twice as well as static stretching. Eccentric exercise focuses on muscle lengthening by slowing down the action underload or weight. For example, in a bicep curl, the action of lowering the dumbbell back down from the lift is the eccentric phase of the exercise, as long as the dumbbell is lowered slowly rather than dropped down.
Being Strong Strengthens Your Mental Health
According to a 2018 meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials, strength training can have powerful abilities to tackle symptoms of depression. Although any form of exercise can improve one’s mood, research into neuromuscular and neurochemical responses to strength training suggest it has heightened potential for reducing anxiety.
Strength training also increases your self-efficacy through the process of working towards a goal, overcoming challenges, and witnessing your body’s growing strength. A systematic review that studied 754 adults showed a significant link between strength training and multiple aspects of positive body image, including body satisfaction, appearance evaluation, and social physique anxiety. There are few things better for one’s confidence than feeling—and being—strong.
Training With Weights Will Give Your Brain a Boost
Strength training can boost brain health and provide better protection against age-related cognitive decline. In a 2016 study, men and women ages 55 to 86 with mild impairment performed weight training twice a week for six months, and significantly improved their scores on cognitive tests—whereas participants who spent their workouts only stretching, saw a decline in their cognitive test scores.
This may be because strength training gets your blood pumping. The intensity of resistance training increases the flow of blood, oxygen and many other nutrients throughout the body, including the brain. Research supports that strength training has many neuroprotective effects, such as reduced inflammation and an increased expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important for memory and learning.
Strengthening Your Body Can Lengthen Your Life
A 2017 review suggests that lean muscle mass and muscle strength may be better measures of a person’s overall health than body mass index (BMI). A 2022 meta-analysis found that people who do strength training workouts are less likely to die prematurely than those who don’t. The study demonstrated that 30 minutes to an hour of strength training per week may be sufficient and those who worked out for 30 minutes to 2 hours a week had a 10–20% lower risk of dying during the study period from all causes, particularly from cancer and heart disease, compared to those who did not train with weights.
Safety and Recovery
Strength training has unique impacts on your muscles, joints, and tendons, so it’s important to be mindful of your body’s corresponding needs—especially if you’re starting a new program. If possible, you should work with a certified personal trainer to establish the program that’s best for your unique abilities and goals. The guidance of a skilled trainer is also pivotal for ensuring proper form and pacing of your workouts, to reduce the risk of injury that comes with going it alone.
Additionally, post-workout recovery is a fundamental part of building strength, and simply taking the day off isn’t enough to ensure safe and steady progress.
- ALWAYS remember to stretch! Up to 15 minutes of full-body stretching after a resistance workout (particularly the back, hips, and legs) will decrease muscle tension, minimize soreness, and help your body gradually transition to a resting or near-resting state.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Dehydration can lead to muscle cramping, fatigue, headaches and poor physical performance, so rehydrating during and especially after a workout, is crucial. Adding electrolytes will also help your body replenish its supply of sodium chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium lost while sweating. Just avoid sports drinks laden with sugar and artificial sweeteners, which won’t do you as many favors as naturally electrolyte-rich coconut water, bananas, and (believe it or not) pickle juice.
- Nourish your growing muscles with protein. Protein is critical after a workout—especially one focused on building muscle, rather than just burning fat—because it helps muscles heal and regenerate. At least 20 grams of protein after a workout is ideal. Eggs, nut butter, a protein bar or shake, or even chocolate milk are all great options, but the choices are truly myriad.
- Get a good night’s sleep. After a workout, it’s even more important than usual to get the recommended 7–9 hours of sleep to help your body recharge. Since sleep is when the body does most of its self-healing and growth, not not getting enough of it will deprive you of the full benefits of your workout—and cost your body precious opportunity to rebuild those muscles.
- Get a massage. Whether a calming Swedish massage or intense deep tissue work, massage is proven to calm inflammation, loosen knotted muscles, reduce DOMS, and speed up recovery, so you’ll get more from your workouts (with less pain).
And, of course, always talk to your doctor before starting a new or more challenging fitness routine of any kind.