The days of strength training being a pursuit of body builders and gym rats has passed.
Strength training has been linked with benefits from healthier bones to stronger muscles to a better mood and longer lifespan. These are just a few reasons resistance exercise is included in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) physical activity guidelines and recommended for all adults.
So, what makes strength training so important (and beneficial)? And how much do you have to do for health perks?
What Is a Strength Training Workout?
Strength training (or resistance training) is a type of exercise that causes your muscles to resist an external force, according to the definition from Penn State College of Medicine. The force can be applied by your body weight, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, resistance bands, exercise machines, or several other tools.
Types of Strength Training
According to the Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine, there are two primary types of resistance training:
- Isometric Resistance This type involves static muscle contractions, so your muscles contract without changing length (or without movement). Examples include holding a plank (the top of a push-up) or performing a wall sit (holding your body in a seated position with your back against a wall).
- Isotonic Strength training This type involves contracting your muscles through a range of motion. Examples include bodyweight squats and push-ups.
Isotonic strength training can be divided even further into two phases of muscle contraction: concentric and eccentric. The concentric part is the portion of the exercise in which the muscle shortens, whereas the eccentric is the portion in which the muscle lengthens, according to research.
So during a bicep curl (where you hold a weight in your hand and bend your forearm toward your chest from hanging straight down toward the floor, and then release your arm back down), a concentric contraction occurs as you curl the weight toward you, while the eccentric occurs as you lower the weight.
What Exercises Count as Strength Training
According to the HHS physical activity guidelines, all adults should complete at least two total-body strength workouts per week for general health. That’s in addition to the weekly 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (the category of exercise that raises your heart rate, such as, brisk walking, jogging, or water aerobics).
According to the Physical Activity Guidelines, muscle-strengthening activities count if they involve a moderate or greater level of intensity or effort than you’re accustomed to and work the body's major muscle groups (the legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms).
The guidelines specify that strength workouts, in addition to overloading the targeted muscles, should work them to the point of fatigue (meaning it would be difficult to complete another repetition when you’re finished).
Some examples of these types of strength workouts are:
- Olympic weight lifting
- Functional strength training
It’s also worth noting that some lower-impact activities — like Pilates, yoga, and barre — that focus on muscle-strengthening may not actually count toward the twice weekly strength workout recommendations from HHS if these activities aren’t targeting all the major muscle groups and if they’re not working the muscles to that point of fatigue (where you can’t do another repetition of an exercise when you’re finished).
But that’s not to say those activities aren’t still good for your muscles or overall health, says Mike T. Nelson, PhD, an exercise physiologist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “If someone is going to do yoga, Pilates, or barre over doing nothing, any of those activities is light years ahead of doing nothing.”
Potential Health Benefits of Strength Training
Research has identified many health benefits associated with strength training. Some include:
Resistance training builds more than muscle — it builds bone, too. According to Harvard Health, strength training tugs and pushes on bone, which spurs bone-building cells to begin work. This action makes strength training helpful for preventing and improving osteoporosis (a condition characterized by weak, brittle bones) in older adults, according to a position paper published in August 2019 in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
In one study, postmenopausal women with low bone mass saw improvements in bone density and strength after training for 30 minutes twice a week for eight months.
With strength training, by definition, you build muscle. But you’re also promoting healthy aging of your muscles. Thanks to aging, we start losing roughly 3 to 5 percent of muscle mass per decade around the age of 30, notes Harvard Health. By the time many people reach 80 years, approximately 50 percent of their muscle is gone, per a research review. Age-related loss of muscle (known as sarcopenia) has many consequences, including limited mobility, a lower quality of life, and an increased risk of falls and fall-related injuries, according to a review.
Strength training is one of the best ways to safeguard against sarcopenia. It’s also recommended as the first-line treatment for counteracting loss of strength and function related to sarcopenia in older adults, according to a research paper published in February 2022 in Age and Ageing.
And you don’t necessarily need to strength train for hours each week to see results. One review found that frail, elderly adults who performed one to six strength workouts per week (with each session consisting of one to three sets of 6 to 15 repetitions of an exercise) saw 6 to 37 percent gains in muscle strength, 3 to nearly 8 percent gains in muscle mass, and 4 to 58 percent increases in functional capacity (a measure associated with risk of falls).
Resistance training may extend your lifespan. In one study, researchers analyzed data collected from over 80,000 people and found that participating in any form and amount of strength training lowered the risk of death from any cause by 23 percent over an average 9.2-year follow-up period, and lowered risk of death from cancer by 31 percent.
The researchers recommend strength training at least 50 to 60 minutes per week and doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per week to boost longevity, based on their results.
According to a meta-analysis in JAMA Psychiatry, evidence supports strength training as a complementary therapy modality for treating depression symptoms, and possibly as an alternative treatment to standard approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants. However, more research is needed to compare the effectiveness of these treatment modalities.
And a study in obese adolescents found that lifting weights led to a greater self-esteem boost after four weeks than aerobic exercise.
Learn More About the Ways Strength Training Boosts Your Health and Fitness
Is Strength Training Good for Weight Loss?
Strength training doesn’t burn as many calories as aerobic exercise. Harvard Health estimates that a 155-pound person burns roughly 108 calories in 30 minutes of general weight lifting and 252 calories in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling on a stationary bike. So strength training may not be the best option if burning maximum calories is your main goal.
But evidence suggests that strength training can aid weight loss efforts when combined with a healthy diet.
A systematic review and meta-analysis published in February 2022 in Obesity Reviews concluded that resistance training is an effective weight loss intervention in people with overweight and obesity when combined with calorie restriction.
In another study, dieters who did four weekly strength training workouts for 18 months lost more fat than dieters who didn’t exercise and those who did only aerobic exercise (about 18 pounds for strength exercisers, 10 pounds for nonexercises, and 16 pounds for aerobic exercisers).
As we age, we gradually lose muscle mass. Much of that muscle is replaced with fat — even if the number on the scale doesn’t change, according to past research. “Circumventing that change [through strength training] makes a huge difference over the course of many years,” Dr. Nelson says.
According to a review published in 2019 in the Journal of Obesity, maintaining or adding muscle mass often prevents people from gaining weight as they age.
Unlike fat, muscle is metabolically active tissue, which means that it requires energy to maintain, “The more muscle you have, the better you can dispose of calories, especially glucose, during daily movements,” Dr. Nelson continues. “That adds up over time.”
Learn More About Strength Training for Weight Loss
How to Make a Strength Training Workout Harder
Once you feel more comfortable lifting weights, look for ways to make your workouts more challenging.
Here are a few ideas:
- Increase weight. Once you can complete your prescribed sets and reps without much effort, it’s time to bump up the intensity. One way to accomplish this is to lift a heavier weight. Typically, dumbbells increase by 2.5- or 5-pound increments, whereas kettlebells increase by 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds), Prendergast says. She recommends simply choosing the next available weight of whichever tool you use. “If you feel like the last two reps of your set are hard but doable, you’ll know you picked the correct weight for that exercise and rep range.”
- Do more sets or reps. “Rep” is short for “repetition,” which refers to how many times you do a specific exercise (each push-up, for example, is one rep). A “set” refers to how many reps you do at a time (a set of push-ups for you, for example, might include 8 or 10 reps). Another way to boost the intensity is to add more sets or reps. Prendergast likes to start her beginner clients with three sets of 8 to 10 reps per exercise during their first week and increase to three sets of 10 to 12 reps with the same weight the following week. You can progress by doing four sets of 8 to 10 reps the next week and four sets of 10 to 12 reps the following week. “After that, it’s time to increase the weight,” Prendergast says.
- Slow down. Performing your reps at a slower pace boosts the intensity of the exercise. “If you think of a dumbbell chest press, lowering the weights more slowly will increase the amount of time each repetition takes,” Prendergast says. This can be a great method if your weight selection is limited and you can’t bump up your lifting load. Spend three or four seconds on the eccentric, or lowering, portion of an exercise, Prendergast suggests.
- Pick a harder exercise variation. You can also make your strength workouts more challenging by choosing more advanced variations of the same exercises. For example, you can swap a traditional two-legged squat for a single-leg or split squat. “You're still training the same leg muscles, but because you're doing it one at a time, you won’t be able to use as much weight,” Prendergast says.
Nutrition Tips for Strength Training
As with any form of exercise, nutrition plays an important role in strength training. Use these guidelines to fuel up right.
If you haven’t eaten for a few hours, grab a light snack about 30 to 45 minutes before your workout, suggests Roxana Ehsani, RDN, CSSD, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
Look for a snack that contains easy-to-digest carbohydrates and keeps protein, fat, and fiber to a minimum, “as they take longer to digest and will slow the quick carbs from hitting your bloodstream,” Ehsani says. “We want those carbs to hit quickly to give you an energy boost pre-workout.”
She recommends these options:
- 1 cup of 100 percent pomegranate juice
- 1 cup of applesauce
- A handful of pretzels
If you work out at the beginning of the day, you may opt not to eat anything beforehand. However, Ehsani recommends at least having a small snack (like one of the options above). “After an overnight fast, your energy stores are low. Eating something before training can help you achieve better results from your workout,” she explains.
If your workouts are an hour or less in duration, you can probably stick to water during your workout, Ehsani says.
But if you train for over an hour, bring an electrolyte-rich beverage like a sports drink with you, too. “It gives you a mix of fluids, electrolytes, and simple carbs to keep your energy levels up during a long workout,” Ehsani says.
You can also opt for a small, easy-to-digest snack instead of a sports drink. Think dried fruit, applesauce, or even jelly beans, Ehsani says.
Ehsani says to make sure you’re hitting the three “R’s” after your workout: rehydrate, refuel, and repair. “A lot of athletes may complain that they aren’t hungry after tough training sessions, but I always encourage them to start by sipping something to start the recovery process,” she says.
Ehsani suggests a fruit smoothie made of:
- 1 cup of milk (dairy or nondairy)
- ¾ to 1 cup of plain nonfat Greek yogurt
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of chia seeds
- 1 banana or mango
- 1 cup of berries
- 1 to 2 handfuls of baby spinach or kale
Or snack on a handful of pistachios. “Pistachios are one of the highest-protein snack nuts and provide all nine essential amino acids, making them a complete protein and the perfect post-workout snack,” Ehsani says.
Then, aim to have a well-balanced meal consisting of veggies, fruits, complex carbs, healthy fats, and 20 to 35 grams of high-quality protein within two hours post-workout.
“One of my favorite post-workout meals is wild Alaska salmon, because it’s a high-quality source of protein that helps rebuild muscle,” Ehsani says. She recommends pairing 3 ounces of salmon with 1 cup of roasted veggies like broccoli or cauliflower, and 1 cup of quinoa or brown rice for a nutrient-dense meal.
Resources We Love: Strength Training
American Council on Exercise
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) is a nonprofit organization that certifies health coaches and exercise professionals. It also offers plenty of free resources on its website, including a robust blog, calculators (for body mass index, target heart rate zone, blood pressure), and an extensive exercise database and library with detailed descriptions and photos.
National Academy of Sports Medicine
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has been certifying fitness professionals since 1987. Check out the NASM website for free resources that include a blog, podcast, calorie calculator, exercise library, and mini education courses.
Founded by Steve Kamb in 2009, Nerd Fitness is a blog and community of certified strength training professionals that strives to provide a fun place for “nerds” to learn about health and fitness. You’ll find tons of articles for beginners, covering topics like finding a good personal trainer and beginner-friendly gym workouts.
Certified strength and conditioning specialist Tony Gentilcore maintains a consistent fitness blog. Here, you’ll find answers to common lifting questions, form tips, advice for handling pain, and more. While the blog is geared toward fitness professionals, recreational lifters will learn a lot, too.
The Body of Knowledge
The Body of Knowledge is a central hub where you can access free resources created by Andy Galpin, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton. It includes video explainers on exercise physiology, articles (you can access by providing your email address), and Galpin’s personal book, blog, and podcast recommendations.
The Future app takes the guesswork out of training. It pairs you with a strength coach, who creates personalized weekly workouts tailored to your goals. Plus, Future boasts a robust blog where you’ll find articles about postpartum fitness, eating for weight loss, mobility exercises, and more.
This app offers numerous at-home strength classes, from barre and dumbbell workouts to bodyweight-only and low-impact options. You can get your cardio workouts from Alo Moves, too. The app includes plenty of walking, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and boxing routines.
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