Strength training – also called weight training or resistance training – is the type of exercise that increases muscle size, strength, and power. Strength training workouts normally consist of multiple sets of up to 15-20 reps of the same exercise, broken up by periods of rest.
Strength training is a fundamental component of a balanced exercise plan, and is crucial to maintaining good physical health as you age, since it can counterbalance the physical decline of our bodies that begins in our mid-30s. For maximal health and fitness benefits, use a strength training program targeting all the major muscles of the body. Many (but not all) strength training benefits are specific and localized to the muscles performing the movement, such as:
- Strength training builds and maintains muscle mass. Muscle mass (the amount of muscle you have) allows you to produce good quality movement with ease, and can help minimize risk of overuse injury and promote good posture. Low levels of muscle, or imbalances in muscle mass from left to right, or front to back, can lead to poor movement abilities and painful joints. Your overall muscle mass is also one of the most important factors in long-term health. It’s easy to not think about old age when it’s a long time away, but your level of muscle mass can greatly impact the quality of your later years, again due to its influence on movement ability, balance, and posture.
- Strength training builds and maintains muscle strength and neurological connections. The connection between muscle size and strength is strong. The contraction force of a muscle is limited by its overall size, so muscles that are relatively small will also be relatively weak. This can limit how well your body responds to the physical demands of everyday life – things like carrying bags of groceries, picking up the kids or grandkids, or climbing a set of stairs all rely on muscular strength. Strength training also helps maintain a strong neurological signal from your brain to your muscles, so that when they are needed, they’ll produce strong contractions and support good quality movement. In fact, weak muscles and poor muscle activation are some key reasons for common musculoskeletal conditions like chronic lower back pain, knee pain, and even some types of headaches.
- Strength training can improve the visual appearance of muscle. Even if your main goal is to improve your health and physical fitness, it’s definitely nice to like how you look. Strength training exercises are an excellent way of achieving a toned muscular appearance (if that’s what you’re after). If you use a muscle frequently – whether during daily activities or frequent strength training – your nervous system prepares your muscles to work more efficiently by maintaining a very low level contraction in frequently used muscles. This shortens the time and activation needed to fully contract the muscle, and creates the look of “toned” muscles.
- Strength training helps prevent or stop progression of osteoporosis. Each muscle and bone is covered by a fine layer of connective tissue, helping each piece of your body connect to the others. The tension and pull of muscle contraction, and the impact forces of some exercises, stimulate the bone to either increase bone density or decrease bone mineral loss, which occurs as a natural part of aging.
Benefits that are localized to the working muscles also have a flow-on effect, providing an element of benefit and protection for the entire body:
- Strength training improves body composition. Muscle mass requires energy to maintain, so more muscle will increase your resting energy expenditure. This means your body will need to use more of its fuel stores simply to exist. Provided you are taking in the same amount and quality of food and drink, strength training will shift your body composition so that your body fat percentage will decrease while your muscle mass increases.
- Strength training can decrease risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases. This benefits stem from improvements in the way your body releases and uses stored fat and carbohydrates.
- Long-term insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, or diabetes risks and severity can be decreased via strength training. As working muscles require more energy, the muscles become more efficient at responding to insulin levels and absorbing and using blood glucose (what you may know as blood sugar). Physical exercise and muscle contraction can also have an immediate, short-term effect on blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity.
- High cholesterol and triglycerides levels can also be decreased via strength training. Just as working muscles become more efficient at insulin response and blood glucose use, muscles also become more efficient in using cholesterol and triglycerides for fuel. This includes and enhanced use of muscular fat stores, and an increase in use of whole body fat stores. Also of benefit, strength training has been shown to increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels, which help clear excess fats from the bloodstream.
- Blood pressure can be improved via strength training too. It is thought that the positive impact comes from maintaining the health of blood vessels in your arms and legs. Blood vessels are naturally elastic and all exercise helps them maintain this characteristic, meaning they are better able to respond to changes in pressure and blood flow that occur with exercise or stress. Blood pressure decreases from strength training are small, but often significant enough to decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. And strength training can be safe even if you have higher levels of blood pressure, provided exercises are performed under control and with steady breathing.
Including some type of strength training in your exercise program or daily movement is immensely helpful in maintaining good health and quality of life, no matter your age or current health status. Different sets, reps, and exercise choices can significantly impact the results you get from your training program; speak with a professional qualified in strength coaching or exercise physiology to maximize benefit. Programs can be safely done at gyms or as an in-home workout, and you can use all sorts of exercises ranging from bodyweight to resistance bands to free weights. Give it a try – your body will thank you!
For more detailed information, read these…
Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics.
Lira, F. S., Yamashita, A. S., Uchida, M. C., Zanchi, N. E., Gualano, B., Martins, E., . . . Seelaender, M. (2010). Low and moderate, rather than high intensity strength exercise induces benefit regarding plasma lipid profile. Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome, 2(1), 31. doi:10.1186/1758-5996-2-31
Mann, S., Beedie, C., & Jimenez, A. (2013). Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations. Sports Medicine, 44(2), 211-221. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0110-5
Nikander, R., Sievänen, H., Heinonen, A., Daly, R. M., Uusi-Rasi, K., & Kannus, P. (2010). Targeted exercise against osteoporosis: A systematic review and meta-analysis for optimising bone strength throughout life. BMC Medicine, 8(1). doi:10.1186/1741-7015-8-47
Sillanpää, E., Laaksonen, D. E., Häkkinen, A., Karavirta, L., Jensen, B., Kraemer, W. J., . . . Häkkinen, K. (2009). Body composition, fitness, and metabolic health during strength and endurance training and their combination in middle-aged and older women. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 106(2), 285-296. doi:10.1007/s00421-009-1013-x
If you are Brisbane based and would like to start strength training in-home with personalized guidance and accountability, HealthFit can help! Contact us now to take your first step towards better health and fitness.