If you think strength training is only for bodybuilders and athletes, it’s time to challenge your assumptions. Strength training offers a bevy of unique benefits, whether you’re swinging kettlebells, lifting heavy barbells or cranking out bodyweight moves in your living room.
Here are seven benefits of strength training:
The fact is, by the time you celebrate your 30th birthday, you’ve already reached your peak bone mass. And if you’re not careful, your bones will gradually weaken, making them more susceptible to breaks and fractures. This is especially concerning for women, who represent a whopping 80% of the estimated 10 million Americans with osteoporosis. To keep your bones strong and sturdy, you need to challenge them. Strength training is one of the most potent bone-building weapons according to a research review in Clinical Cases in Mineral and Bone Metabolism.
“[Strength training makes] the muscles pull on the bones, causing them to slightly bend and ‘squeeze,’” says Michele Olson, PhD, FACSM., a senior clinical professor at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. This “squeeze,” she says, increases the process of turning over and laying down new bone.
If you run, bike or play recreational sports, regular strength-training sessions can keep you healthy and injury-free. Many running and sport-related injuries are caused by muscle weaknesses, notes Janet Hamilton, MA, certified strength and conditioning specialist, registered clinical exercise physiologist and owner of Running Strong in Stockbridge, Georgia. For example, knee injuries in runners can often be traced to weakness in the hip muscles, Hamilton says; in particular, the medial glute muscle that powers lateral movement and keeps the hip stable. Strengthening this and other sport-specific muscles can lessen the impact on your joints, tendons and ligaments, keeping you running, jumping and lunging sans pain.
If you’re currently injury-free, you can maintain adequate strength with a couple of workouts per week, Hamilton says. On the other hand, if you need to address an underlying weakness, plan on doing specific rehab exercises 3–5 times per week.
BOOSTS ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
Just as strength training can help you stay injury-free, it can also elevate your performance in your sport or activity. “Strong muscles will be better able to produce greater force, generate greater power and sustain for longer durations before fatigue or failure,” Hamilton explains.
How you structure your strength sessions depends on your primary activity. For example, if you’re an endurance athlete, you’ll benefit most from higher-repetition exercises (15 reps or more). If you prefer to play basketball or rugby, aim for lower-rep exercises (6 reps or fewer) to build power.
Using data collected from more than 80,000 U.K. residents, researchers from the University of Sydney discovered strength training reduced risk of death from any cause by 23% and death from cancer by 31%, regardless of whether that training involved bodyweight-only or weighted exercises. If you add some good old-fashioned cardio, your risk of death from any cause is reduced by a total of 29%. To live long, researchers recommend strength training at least 50–60 minutes per week and doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio every week.
PREVENTS AGE-RELATED DECLINES IN MUSCLE MASS
Just as your bones quit bulking up around age 30, you also start losing muscle mass (also known as sarcopenia) at about the same time. Often, the older you get, the less you move, Olson says. This only speeds up your strength declines and makes everyday activities — like getting up from a chair and carrying groceries — incredibly challenging. Regular strength training can not only help you maintain your current muscle mass, it can also help you create new muscle. When you lift weights, you damage your muscle fibers. As your fibers repair themselves, they add more protein to each fiber, ultimately making them denser and stronger, Olson explains.
New research from the University of Limerick, Ireland, reveals that lifting weights can ease anxiety, especially when done in group settings. After analyzing 16 studies on more than 900 subjects, researchers discovered that resistance training 2–3 times per week significantly improved anxiety symptoms regardless of session length. To keep anxiety at bay, grab your buddies for a group lifting session at least two times per week.
BURNS MORE CALORIES AT REST
When it comes to torching calories, cardio typically gets all the credit. But while cardio burns more calories during exercise than strength training, building muscle through strength training allows you to burn more calories after exercise. This is because, unlike fat, muscle is a metabolically active tissue. In other words, every pound of fat you replace with a pound of muscle raises your basal metabolic rate or the number of calories your body burns at rest. According to Olson, one pound of muscle burns about 7 calories per day at rest, while fat only burns about half that amount.
To focus on muscle growth (also known as muscle hypertrophy), perform sets of 6–12 reps with a moderate weight and limit rest to 1–2 minutes between sets, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Keep in mind: No matter how much muscle you add, it won’t be enough to out-burn the excess calories from a poor diet. So be sure to prioritize vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, proteins and whole grains.