Why EveryBODY Should Strength Train: 8 Evidence-Based Benefits
"Skeletal muscle is the organ of longevity." ~Dr. Gabrielle Lyon
Hola Readers! I am so glad you are here! In this month's blog post, I will go over the documented benefits of regularly participating in strength training exercises (sometimes referred to as "resistance training," "weight training," or "lifting"). And special shout-out to the best training gym/yoga studio around - Move+Breathe located in Cumming, GA (for more information click here), where all of these photos were taken from. This is legit the BEST place to train and practice yoga. I regularly strength train at this gym, and I also teach weekly yoga classes at this studio. Check out the schedule and join my classes if you're local.
Strength training essentially involves doing various movements (e.g. bicep curl, shoulder raises, squat, etc.), using a variety of weighted objects (e.g. free weights, machines, etc.) to increase a muscle's ability to generate, or resist, force. There are many types of adaptations that can be trained in skeletal muscle tissue (including stability, endurance, power, size, and strength - for more information on these individual concepts, click here). Strength is the adaptation that causes a muscle to be able to generate, or resist, force to overcome external resistance, such as lifting and carrying your grocery bags, moving furniture around your house, or tackling a football player on the opposing team. Skeletal muscle is the type of muscle that we voluntarily control; in contrast, smooth muscle (e.g. in the digestive system or lining blood vessels) and cardiac muscle (i.e. in the heart) are not under voluntary control.
Strength training can be completed using the following tools/objects: dumbbells, kettlebells, exercise machines, cable machines, resistance bands and tubes, medicine balls, suspension equipment, and even your own body weight. Strength gains can occur relatively rapidly when doing regular resistance training. The general recommendation from health professionals and organizations is that adults should engage in strength training exercises at least two times per week. And, while it used to be the thought that children and adolescents should avoid resistance training, this idea has been discredited several times in the research. When designed properly, there are no adverse effects for resistance training in the youth, and on the contrary, strength training for children and adolescents may help with motor development and prevent injuries from occurring. It is also recommended that elderly adults participate in regular resistance training. Thus, people across the entire age spectrum should engage in regular strength training. So, what's the dealio with strength training? Why do health and medical professionals alike recommend that everyone do this type of exercise? Well, let's chat about some of the evidence-based benefits of strength training!
1). Improved Cardiovascular Functioning
Regular strength training can lower blood pressure (BP), LDL cholesterol (i.e. the "bad" cholesterol), and strengthen the heart and blood vessels. The research also suggests that a combination of resistance training with aerobic endurance exercise (also referred to as "cardio" or "cardiorespiratory exercise" - for more information on this click here) might lower your LDL levels and BP more than either type of exercise could do alone. Research has also shown that resistance training is as effective as aerobic endurance activity for reducing the major cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as blood lipid levels (e.g. triglycerides).
2). Increased Bone Density
Resistance training is crucial for bone health. Weight-bearing exercise, such as strength training, puts temporary stress on bones, which causes specialized cells within your bones (known as osteoblasts) to actually synthesize more bone tissue, increasing the density and strength of your bones. Having strong bones decreases your risk for osteoporosis, falls, and fractures. Adults who do not resistance train can experience a 1 - 3% reduction in bone mineral density every year of life. Regular strength training can prevent, and even reverse, bone mineral density losses. Studies also show that termination of a resistance training program can lead to a reversal of bone mineral density gains. This means you need to keep up with your resistance training; it should be a life-long commitment and investment in yourself.
3). Increased Metabolism and Reduction in Body Fat
When you resistance train, you increase the activity and recruitment of the muscular system. Muscle tissue is more "metabolically expensive" than adipose (or fat) tissue, meaning that at rest, muscle tissue naturally consumes, or burns, more calories than fat does. Also, a good amount of research suggests that your metabolic rate (i.e. the baseline rate at which your body burns calories) remains elevated for up to 72 hours after a single strength training session. This increased metabolic rate is due to two things - 1) the immediate tissue recovery that occurs within hours after training, and 2) the tissue remodeling processes that occurs days or weeks after training.
An elevated metabolic rate means that your body burns more calories at rest or during any activity of daily living (ADL). Regular weight training can also help to reduce body fat, especially around the abdominal area. Increased levels of abdominal fat are associated with type 2 diabetes, so a reduction in abdominal fat can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This reduction in abdominal fat may be due to the increased endurance and strength of the core muscles, which are required to keep your spine, shoulder, and pelvis in good alignment during lifting. And, speaking of type 2 diabetes... regular weight-training helps to improve blood glucose management and can reduce the insulin resistance seen in type 2 diabetes. When we lift weights, our skeletal muscles burn through glucose in order to provide energy for the activity, and this allows more glucose to be taken up by skeletal muscle cells. With regular resistance training, our skeletal muscles actually get better at this glucose uptake, decreasing, and sometimes even eliminating, type 2 diabetes.
If you are looking to lose weight or reduce your body fat, then strength training is an absolute MUST in your fitness programming. If you are not looking to lose weight, then strength training is still essential for you, as certain types of weightlifting (combined with an appropriate diet and supplementation strategy) can actually cause muscles to grow and get larger (known as "hypertrophy" - to read more about this click here). Similar to the benefits for the cardiovascular system, research has shown that a combination of both aerobic endurance activity and strength training actually results in greater amounts of weight and fat loss than either activity on its own.
4). Increased Muscle Size and Prevention of Age-related Muscle Loss
Regular strength training taxes muscle tissue, which can result in the muscle growing and adapting to accommodate this new external demand. The stronger (and potentially larger) muscles can now withstand a greater external load (e.g. holding your child for longer periods or carrying heavier groceries), and this allows you to complete your activities of daily living (ADLs) much more easily. And don't worry - if you are not looking to grow large and bulky muscles, your strength training program will be individualized by your personal trainer to avoid super large muscle growth, while still increasing your overall muscle strength. On the contrary, if you are looking for large and bulky muscles, your trainer will design your program to help you achieve this goal.
In healthy adults who do not resistance train, muscle mass declines between 3 - 8% each decade after age 30. After age 50, muscle mass actually decreases about 5 - 10% each decade. This age-related muscle mass loss is known as sarcopenia, and it can lower your metabolic rate, increase your body fat levels, and increase your risk for things such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Since muscle is involved in human movement, sarcopenia can also result in more falls, decreased independence, and reduced quality of life in older adults. Regular resistance training, usually 2 - 3 days per week, can slow, or even prevent, this sarcopenia (and all the health consequences therein) from occurring.
5). Increased Neuromuscular Control
Regular weight training can increase the number of motor units that are recruited, and the synchronicity between motor units, for a particular movement task. This allows the muscle to contract with more coordination and strength. A motor unit consists of a neuron and all the muscle fibers (or cells) it innervates; when more motor units are recruited to complete a functional movement task (e.g. putting away a heavy dish in a cabinet overhead), movement is more efficient and safer for the body. When motor units fire with better synchrony, movement is more coordinated, efficient, and fluid. Resistance training with increasingly heavier loads over time increases the neural demand, recruitment, and synchronicity of more muscle fibers. Thus, increased muscle strength is not only a function of the muscle tissue itself, but it is also a function of the nervous system since muscles are under direct control from your nervous system.
Strength training can also lower your risk for falling since your muscles will be stronger, more stable, and operating with more efficiency. Your risk of injury can also decrease with strength training because your joints will have more reinforcement and stability due to stronger muscles. This makes completing ADLs as well as fitness endeavors much easier, more comfortable, and safer. Research has also shown that athletes who participate in strength training have much lower rates of injury compared to athletes who do not, including endurance athletes, such as runners.
With this increased neuromuscular control also comes an improvement in power, which is the ability of a muscle to contract with the most appropriate amount of force, in the shortest amount of time. You might think power is only a feature applicable to athletes, but you would be wrong to think so. Power in the neuromuscular system is SUPER important for safely navigating your environment each and every day. For example, if you notice an obstacle where you are walking (e.g. one of your children's or pet's toys on the floor), adequate power allows you movement system to quickly, but efficiently, change course in order to navigate around this obstacle. If the power of your muscle tissue is deficient, your body might not recruit the right muscles, with the right amount of force, at the right time, and this could get you injured.
6). Increased Endurance
Endurance is a feature of muscles that refers to a muscle's ability to sustain contractions over a long period of time (click here to read more). Regular resistance training can increase the endurance function of muscle tissue, especially when higher reps and lower weights are used. Strength training also improves the endurance of the core musculature since your core muscles need to engage during weightlifting in order to keep your spine safe and stable. Improved endurance in the core muscles allows your body to maintain appropriate posture for longer periods, which reduces muscle imbalances and breathing problems. A carefully designed strength training program can also rebalance the muscular system, so that underactive/lengthened muscles can get stronger, and shortened/overactive muscles can get stretched. A certified personal trainer can help determine what muscle imbalances you may have and then individualize a program to help you rebalance those tissues.
7). Improved Mental Health and Quality of Life
The mental health benefits of resistance training include: reductions of symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, and depression; pain alleviation in people with osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and low back issues; improvements in cognitive abilities in older adults; and improvements in self-esteem. Regarding depression, a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) showed that across 33 RCTs, all participants showed a significant reduction in depressive symptoms regardless of their age, gender, health status, or the variables of the resistance training program (intensity, frequency, volume, etc.). It's also been found that people with Alzheimer's disease show decreased plaque formation in the brain with regular resistance training, and some studies suggest improvements with dementia symptoms after strength training sessions. Resistance training is also recommended for patients in rehabilitation post-stroke to improve strength, gait, and participation in daily activities. Positive changes in self-esteem (i.e. one's perception of him, or herself) have also been observed as a result of resistance training in many populations (e.g. older adults, young adults, women, cancer patients, patients undergoing cardiac rehab, etc.).
8). Increased Survivability and Longevity
There have been numerous studies that have shown that muscle loss and weakness is positively correlated with death and a shorter life span. And, while I know that correlation does not imply causation, it is still alarming to me that if you let your muscles just waste away, you are more likely to meet an earlier death in life. I don't know about you, but I want to be able to take as many breaths in this lifetime as a possibly can. There have also been other studies that have shown that people undergoing extensive medical treatments (e.g. chemotherapy, surgery, soldiers injured in battle, etc.) fare much better and have better outcomes re: survival if they have more muscle mass. And even more, other studies have shown that grip strength in older adults is positively correlated with a longer life span. Regular strength training is amazing for improving grip strength since your hands have to hold and grip various weighted objects. The data seems to be pretty clear - strength training enhances skeletal muscle functioning, which is associated with a longer life span.
Weight training is often thought of as a task that professional athletes and avid gym-goers complete, but the reality is that everyone should be strength training at least twice per week. Regular resistance training has been shown to result in many wonderful benefits for the human body, including: improved cardiovascular function, increased bone density and metabolism, reductions in body fat (especially abdominal fat), improvements in motor coordination, enhancements to mental health functioning, and increased life span. These benefits are seen in children, adolescents, young adults, adults, and elderly adults. Simply put, everyone and everyBODY benefits from weight training.
Strength training does not have to be fancy or expensive. While you can absolutely spend a ton on the "latest and greatest" exercise equipment, all you truly need for resistance training is some type of external resistance. This could be your own body weight, weighted objects found around your home (e.g. canned foods, bags of potatoes, etc.), or traditional workout equipment (e.g. dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.). There are a ton of strength training exercises available for free on the internet and social media. I will caution you, however, that it is important to not only train with good mechanics, but also training with the right variables (e.g. sets, reps, weights, rest, etc.) for the fitness outcome you are achieving.
I highly recommend that you seek out the advice and guidance from a certified personal trainer, ideally through National Academy of Sports of Medicine (NASM-CPT) or the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM-CPT). As stated in the introduction above, if you are local to Cumming, GA, I absolutely recommend training at Move+Breathe (click here for more information). If you have pre-existing conditions, such as a past injury or other condition, talk to your doctor before beginning a resistance training program, and definitely let your personal trainer know. The research is clear - strength training