Exercise Benefits, Part 3: Why You Should Do Strength Training
I'll be honest: I hate strength training. Well, "hate" is maybe a little strong, but I definitely I fall solidly into the cardio camp. Give me an open trail and I’ll happily run for miles. Ask me to do burpees and you just made a lifelong friend. But when it comes to strength, with almost every rep, I think to myself, “Am I done yet? How many more reps? Why am I doing this?!?” But I do it. In part, I do it for aesthetic reasons. But a large part of it is to be healthy. Cardio is only part (the best part!) of a well-balanced fitness regimen. If I want my body to be—and stay—in its best shape, I need to throw everything at it that it can handle.
At 32, I’m no spring chicken anymore. I’m starting to get to the point where injuries are more probably and where I’m not going to recover as quickly from injuries I do sustain. I also have a somewhat bum knee that can sort of tell the weather. So whatever I can do to keep my body in working order, I’m going to do that. As it turns out, strength is the answer. It’s arguably the best form of exercise for injury prevention. But that’s just the start. Let’s look at the top reasons you should be including strength training aas part of your weekly workouts. If you need help designing a well-balanced weekly routine to do from home, our online fitness trainers would love to help.
Benefits of Strength Training (a.k.a., Resistance Training)
As mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, any activity is good for your body. Strength training does put stress on the cardiovascular system, so it can help improve cardiovascular fitness and help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. However, cardio is more effective in these areas. Similarly, strength training also improves mood and cognitive function, but, again, the evidence suggests that cardio is better for that. So let’s take a look at the areas where strength is the winner, hopefully convincing you that we need both cardio and strength.
More Muscle Mass/Muscular Strength/Muscular Endurance
Let’s start with the obvious one: strength training builds muscle. Depending on how you train, you can focus more on building muscle strength and size or more on improving muscle endurance. But that’s a discussion for another time. For now, it’s enough to know that resistance training builds muscle.
The basic principle here is one I’m sure you’ve heard: use it or lose it. When we exert our muscles through resistance training, we actually break down muscle fibers. This so-called “muscle damage” is the body’s signal to rebuild and repair the fibers, usually better than before, leading to stronger—and often bigger—muscles.
So, even though a workout doesn’t have to be intense or uncomfortable to be good for you (heck, walking is one of the best things you can do for your body), when it comes to strength, that just isn’t the case. If you want to strengthen your muscles, you need to first break them down. This means that you should aim for something that feels at least a little effortful and challenging, maybe even to the point that you feel a little (or a lot) of that uncomfortable muscle burn during your reps. That burn is the feeling of your muscle fibers breaking down. But, hey, in this context, what doesn’t kill you makes you literally stronger.
Younger Muscle “Age”
Speaking of muscles, recent research has shown that resistance training can reverse the aging process in our muscles. Yep, you read that right: resistance training makes our muscle cells younger, all the way down to the molecular and genetic levels. This is arguably part of why resistance training is such an important part of healthy aging and why you might want to consider working with an experienced online fitness trainer.
Better Bone Density
It’s not just our muscles that get stronger when we strength train; our bones do, too. Specifically, bones adapt (i.e., strengthen) based on the loads (stresses) they bear; this is known as Wolff’s Law. So when you do heavy squats, you’re putting stress on bones in your legs, hips, spine, and shoulders; when you do chest presses, you stress the bones in your arms as shoulders; and so on with other moves. In response to this stress, the bones get stronger and denser.
This is another reason why strength training is essential for healthy aging. As we age, our bones tend to get weaker. Even though our peak bone-strengthening years are when we’re young adults (if that’s you, do heavy lifting now to build bone mass while you still can), even past those peak years, strength training can help preserve what we have. This helps to prevent the typical age-related decline in bone strength, such as with osteoporosis.
Enhanced Injury Prevention
When your bones are stronger (thanks to resistance training), if you experience a fall, get hit, etc., your bones are less likely to break. You might still end up with a bruise or a sprain, but those are much more manageable injuries with much quicker recovery times. Plus, who knows, the added muscle mass that you built through strength training could provide extra cushioning that further softens the blow and reduces the likelihood of breakage.
But strength training can also help prevent injuries altogether, especially if you are working with an online personal trainer who can help you strength train smartly and safely. More muscle means more stability, especially at crucial joints like shoulders, hips, and knees. This added stability means that you’re less likely to make a wrong movement that could cause serious injury.
As an example, consider runners. Running entails moving almost exclusively in the sagittal plane (i.e., front-to-back). This means that, unless they cross-train or do strength training, runners may not have great lateral stability, which could lead to injuries, such as blowing out a knee if they take a bad step. But with more muscle to stabilize those joints, they’re less likely to have that bad step lead to an injury.
This is another reason why strength training is so crucial for healthy aging. Older adults who strength train will have stronger, more stable joints, meaning they’re less likely to fall. However, if they do fall, they’re less likely to suffer as serious of an injury (e.g., broken bone) as a result: because they have stronger bones that are less likely to break, and because they have stronger muscles to help them be better able to get back up.
Healthier Body Composition/Easier Weight Management
Body fat, especially visceral fat (the stuff inside your abdomen that surrounds your vital organs), is a health risk (it’s associated with heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer). So reducing body fat can have far-reaching health benefits. While both cardio and resistance training help burn and keep off unhealthy body fat, strength training can make it easier to keep your body composition under control.
Muscle tissue is more metabolically active than is fat tissue; at rest, it burns about three times as many calories. So when you build muscle mass through strength training, you increase your resting (or basal) metabolic rate (RMR or BMR)—that is, the amount of calories your body burns at rest just to keep everything alive and functioning. This higher BMR can make it easier to maintain a healthy weight and body composition. However, you still can’t out-exercise a bad diet, which is why it's so helpful to work with an online trainer or nutritionist who can help you determine your nutritional needs based on your unique body and activity level. But more on nutrition another time.
Hopefully by now you can see why both strength training and cardio are necessary parts of a well-rounded, active lifestyle. Both types of exercise improve mood, lower stress, reduce inflammation, and boost immunity. They also both lead to other health benefits that promote longevity and quality of life, but in different ways: cardio is better for improving cognitive functioning, enhancing cardiovascular fitness, and reducing various disease risk factors (e.g., blood pressure, cholesterol), while strength is the winner when it comes to preventing serious injury and maintaining healthy body composition.
However, there’s an important caveat with strength training: while it might help to reduce the risk of future injuries, strength training itself can be a more risky form of activity. Trying new movements and/or trying loads that are too heavy can open the door to serious injury. So play it safe, and consider working with a trainer for advice.
Secondly, there’s a risk of overtraining when it comes to strength. The research suggests that our muscles need at least one to two days to recover after a strength session. If you work the same muscle group again without sufficient recovery time, not only might you inhibit the muscle growth processes you worked so hard to start, you could actually injure yourself by pushing too hard on un-recovered muscles. But, when done safely and with proper recovery time, strength training will prove to be an integral part of a long, healthy, and active life.
If you’re looking to incorporate strength training into your fitness routine but aren’t sure where to start, our virtual personal trainers would love tohelp! Browse their profiles, message an instructor of your choice, and get personalized, one-to-one video sessions tailored to your goals and your needs.
“Aerobic vs. Resistance Training: Is This the Battle of the Fitness Titans?”, Len Kravitz (University of New Mexico)
“Cardio vs Weights”, Kristen Barta (reviewed by Peggy Fletcher) (Healthline)
“Resistance Training: Adaptations and Health Implications”, Len Kravitz (University of New Mexico)
“4 Differences in How Cardio and Strength Affect Your Health”, Ruben Castaneda and K. AleishaFetters (U. S. News)
About the author
Dustin R. Meriwether, Ph.D., has a doctorate in cognitive psychology from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities and is a certified group fitness instructor through AFAA