Despite the increasing number of people who regularly strength train, majority of the global population associates strength/resistance training (ST/ RT) with bodybuilders. The first picture that comes up to one’s mind when talking about RT is of a muscular guy lifting some really heavy weights while grunting at the gym. Unfortunately, this is not the best association to have in mind and is definitely not the best represenation of whatST is all about. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to explain to you, my dear readers, why you should be strength training on a regular basis.
If I were to ask any person on the street what type of activity they consider optimal for health, 99%, if not all of them, would answer: ‘cardiovascular exercise’. According to The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), aerobic/cardiovascular exercise is defined as "any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously, and is rhythmic in nature." Walking, running, jogging, swimming, cycling and so on, fall under this category. Some of the health benefits of regular cardiovascular exercise include strengthening of the heart and lungs, lowered LDL (bad cholesterol), increased HDL (good cholesterol), reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, improved immune system, increased circulation, and lowered resting blood pressure. It is well established that regular cardiovascular exercise promotes health, longevity and quality of life.
But what about strength training? Where does it fall under the “health and quality of life” umbrella? According to the ASCM, Resistance training is “a form of physical activity that is designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a muscle or a muscle group against external resistance.” Unlike cardiovascular exercise, during RT, your muscles exert force/tension in order to overcome an external resistance, and consequently become stronger. Not only your muscles, but your tendons, ligaments, and bones increase in strength and structure as well. It’s imperative to know that the ‘resistance’ used may be your body weight, free weights, machines, resistance bands etc. But why should we care? Why would we want to strengthen our muscles? Isn’t cardiovascular exercise sufficient enough to strengthen our body? Listed below are the benefits of which regular strength training provides. Some of the benefits are common to both cardiovascular exercise and strength training. The highlighted benefits (4-13) are the ones that can only be achieved by RT. Let’s dive right in.
1.Chronic disease prevention. Regular RT decreases the risk of the most commonly prevalent diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. RT contributes to heart and lungs health, increased insulin sensitivity & improved glucose metabolism, increased blood circulation, lowered resting blood pressure, improved lipid levels, increased basal metabolic rate (BMR) and fat burn, which are all paramount in the prevention of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
2.Increased bone mineral density & osteoporosis prevention. Regular RT increases mineral bone density. When you strength train, you work against external resistance where your muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments are ‘loaded’. As a result, all structures increase in strength. Stronger bones =healthier bones= less prone to breaks and fractures. This becomes extremely important for the elderly population & postmenopausal women who are in a greater risk for osteoporosis and falling accidents.
3. Increased cognitive functions. It has been well documented that regular exercise increases learning abilities and improves memory & thinking skills. When you exercise, more blood circulates throughout your body, which means more blood reaches your brain. In this study, it has been found that elderly women who lifted weights twice per week displayed significanty less shrinkage and tattering of their white matter than those who didn’t. Here as well- resistance training resulted in beneficial cognitive functioning in older adults. This is my 87 year old (now 90) grandfather. You may now go get your grandparents to lift :)
4.Increased muscular strength, power, endurance. These factors will improve with almost any properly designed RT program:
Muscular strength is the ability of a muscle to exert a maximal force = lift weight once. For instance, lifting a heavy box.
Muscular power is the ability of a muscle to exert a maximal force in a short amount of time as possible. This is required in activities of daily living, sport, and work, such as throwing, jumping, and accelerating.
Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle to repeatedly exert a submaximal force = lift weight more than once. For instance, carrying groceries.
5.Increased physical capacity. Physical capacity is defined as one’s ability to perform work. As mentioned in the previous point, with a properly designed strength training routine, your muscular strength, power, and endurance will greatly improve; So, you would move better, for longer durations, with increased range of motion. If you want to move as you age, with no aches and pain, you need stronger muscles.
6.Muscular metabolic capacity. Regular RT allows for better nutrient partitioning. In layman’s terms, this means your muscles will “soak up” the majority of the calories you’re eating as opposed to your fat cells. And since we all love to eat, this is a winning situation!
7.Increased muscle mass/hypertrophy. As we age, we lose about 0.5lbs of muscle mass per year after the age of 25 (called sarcopenia). Regular RT increases muscle mass and muscle fiber size, regardless of age. Yes. It doesn’t matter if you’re 40, 50 or 80 years old, you have the capacity to gain muscle at any age. Now you can happy dance.
8.Increased metabolic function. Muscle tissue is a very active tissue with high energy requirements. When we lose muscle, we decrease our basal metabolic rate(BMR) and burn less calories per day. We can negate the decline in our BMR by adding muscle tissue, resulting in a reduced body fat and favorable aesthetic appearance.
9.Improved appearance. Everyone wants to look good naked. From a physique perspective, cardiovascular exercise burns calories; however, it can never (ever) shape up and tone your body. The only route to a fit, toned looking physique is strength training.
10.Decreased injury risk. Stronger muscles allow for better transfer of energy since this is their function. Let’s assume you want to pick up your heavy laundry basket off the floor, a weak core would fail in bracing (tensing), causing you to strenuously over activate your lower back muscles, which in turn get injured since they lack muscle (I oversimplified this scenario, but you get the point). Muscles also serve as shock absorbers because strong muscles help dissipate repetitive landing forces such as in running. Furthermore, balanced muscle development reduces the risk of overuse injuries seen in athletes and those who do repetitive movements at work (carpal tunnel syndrome).
11.Increase balanced. stronger muscles lead to a better balance. Let’s take lunging for example, you need a strong core (all muscles surrounding the trunk) and leg musculature to balance your way throughout the exercise. You also need joint mobility at the hip, knee, and ankle- all of which regular strength training helps improve. Once again, this is specifically important for the elderly population since RT improves coordination & balance which can prevent falls and accidents.
12.Reduced risk of low back pain & better posture. About 80% of low back problems are muscular in nature and are thought to be prevented by strengthening of the core muscles (trunk muscles). Additionally, strengthening the shoulder girdle musculature promotes an improved, more erect alignment, reduces stress on the ligaments holding the spinal joints together, enables muscles to work more efficiently, and helps prevents muscle strains.
13.Increased emotional health and body image. Both cardiovascular exercise and RT positively affect emotional and mental health. Both also promote self-confidence and a positive body image. However, proficiency in RT means you learn skilled movements and you gradually make incremental increases in strength; so, in my opinion, the effects on one’s self-efficacy and sense of empowerment are second to none. There’s something extremely unique and even magical about getting stronger and witnessing how your body gradually changes, along with your mind. Unlike during aerobic exercise, your mind cannot wander while you strength train, it has to be present and engaged (mind-muscle connection). For me, whatever resistance I try to overcome during training symbolizes the obstacles in my life. As I get stronger physically, I get stronger mentally and emotionally as well; which is the most rewarding & empowering feeling in the world. If interested, look into the studies here, here, and here, concluding that resistance training was associated with an improvement in body composition and psychological well-being.
Both cardiovascular exercise and resistance training are essential for one’s emotional, mental & physical health and well-being. However, there are specific benefits that only RT can provide. In addition to aesthetic benefits, RS can reverse factors associated with aging and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Performing strictly cardiovascular exercise without a proper resistance training protocol is not an optimal route to good health, longevity & quality of life. Strength training is, indeed, the fountain of youth. It is the key to your long term health. The good news is that it is never too late to start.
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