What is Strength Training?
Lifting weights, pumping iron, bench pressing, hitting the machines, these are all ways of saying “strength training”.
Strength training is a type of exercise that uses resistance to contract muscles, creating stress to build strength, function and size of muscles. Strength training ultimately helps build lean muscle tissue, changes your body composition to have more muscle, increases your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), and provides health benefits such as preventing bone loss (osteoporosis) and muscle loss (sarcopenia) as we age.
Strength Training Benefits
Why do people lift weights for exercise anyway? Or stay at home and use their body to exert themselves? Or seemingly worse, drive someplace to go inside and lift things? Why bother with any of this? It can sound strange when you think of it that way, but we do it for good reasons—there are so many strength training benefits.
Of course one of the most obvious and visible benefits of strength training is that it will make you look better. Maybe not immediately, but it will in time. It helps you lose weight and body fat. It also develops your musculature so your body has a firmer shape, so that even if you do have some extra pounds, it seems to rest in the right places.
Strength training boosts your metabolism in two different ways. First of all, after you exercise, your body works to recuperate and that takes calories to burn. Some studies show that your metabolism is boosted after a workout for up to 38 hours. Secondly, having more muscle mass increases your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) because it takes more calories to maintain muscle than to maintain fat. And the RMR accounts for the largest proportion of total daily energy expenditure so small changes in your RMR can have long-term benefits for weight management.
Appearance aside, strength is important for us in our daily activities and lives. So much of what we do, going up steps, carrying groceries or children, walking, bending over, and preventing accidents such as falls, depends on our strength. Improving it only improves our abilities to basically do everything when we are not sitting down.
There are so many health benefits of strength training. Strength training improves bone density, helping prevent and mitigate osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercise is anything done against the force of gravity. When bones are put under stress or strain, this triggers them to build more bone cells. This is the same way strength training works, when muscles are put under stress, they are activated to build more muscle cells to be able to handle the stress.
Strength training also helps with joint health. First of all, it keeps the muscles around the joint strong, reducing stress on the ligaments. It also lubricates the joint, which nourishes the cartilage.
As we age, we lose muscle strength (dynapenia) and muscle mass (sarcopenia) naturally. Strength or resistance training has the potential to lessen these age-related changes. Sarcopenia in particular can be combatted with preventative strength training. Starting a strength training regimen at any age will lessen sarcopenia. Even people who were previously sedentary and who start working out at age 85 experience a three-year longer life expectancy compared to sedentary people.
There are also psychological benefits of strength training. Some of the favorable psychological changes in one study conducted include “improvements in mood, trait anxiety, and perceived confidence in physical capability.” In other words, when your body is stronger, you feel stronger too and this can have a positive impact on mood, anxiety and confidence.
It’s important to focus on the health benefits of strength training; it’s not just about getting big muscles, losing weight or looking better. Strength training can help your bones, your balance and coordination meaning you can right yourself if you trip or start to fall, and your ability to live a better quality of life. Strength training can ultimately enable us to live independently as we age, and even stave off death.
Strength Training Exercise
There are different kinds of strength training exercises, but they all involve using weights or resistance to strengthen the muscles. Free weights are weights that are not attached to a machine, such as hand held dumbbells. Weight machines are what you generally see at the gym, or in someone’s home gym. They are machines that position you to push or pull against weights to strengthen muscles. Resistance bands or tubes are also tools to strengthen muscles by creating resistance with them. These are convenient and can be used at home or while traveling. You can also use your own body weight as a means to strength train, push-ups, chair squats, step-ups, lunges, and pull-ups are all examples of how to use your own body weight in strength training.
One important aspects of strength training exercise is rest. Rest in between repetitions, and rest after and in between workouts. Especially in older adults, the training period, intensity, time under tension, and rest in between sets plays an important role in improving muscle strength. Resting allows the muscles to rebuild so they are able to handle the stress that was exerted on them the next time. Eating adequate protein is also necessary in your body’s process of rebuilding muscle.
Strength Training Program
Experts suggest creating a strength training program that will allow you to track your workouts and progress. They also suggest training each muscle group twice a week, so either alternating upper and lower body each day, or a full body workout two or three times a week.
A strength training program involves creating a list of exercises and a number of repetitions that you do for each exercise, also known as a set. The number of sets and repetitions you do changes the outcome of the exercise.
- 1 to 5 reps build super dense muscle and strength
- 6 to 12 reps build somewhat equal amounts of muscular strength and muscular endurance
- 12-plus reps build muscular endurance and size
A strength training circuit means you are completing one set of each of many types of exercise and then repeating the process. A circuit also keeps your heart rate up so if you are interested in burning fat along with building muscle, this might be a good way to go.
Strength Training for Beginners
It’s a great idea to get some help in creating your strength training program. (If you are middle aged or older, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor or health care professional before starting a strength training regimen.) Hiring a trainer, joining a gym, working out with a more experienced friend, these are all good ways to get advice. Many places offer the service of a trainer or coach for just a few sessions, so you can learn what is the right way to do it. But you can also follow a video at home if you are starting out. And watch your own form in the mirror at the same time. Strength training for beginners is like starting anything new, you just have to learn from someone who has done it before until you make it your own.
You want to learn the basics first. This way you will develop good habits and that includes proper form.
In a beginner workout, a good way to go is to do one set of each kind of exercise, such as 10 squats, 10 push-ups, 20 walking lunges, 10 dumbbell rows, holding a plank position for 15 seconds, 30 jumping jacks. Then repeat those exercises for three rounds. There are plenty of mobile apps out there that can lead you through a beginner strength workout. One app you can do anywhere anytime is the 7 Minute Workout Challenge which shows you how to use your body weight in a series of 12 high intensity exercises including jumping jacks, push-ups, chair step-ups, squats, plank and lunges, among others.
One of the key reasons to strength train is to build muscle mass, and that happens when you increase your workout. That can mean lifting heavier weight over time, or increasing the number of repetitions. The point is to continually build so that you are stressing the muscle so that it responds by becoming stronger.
Strength Training vs Cardio
The ideal exercise program for maintaining body composition and health should include both strength training and cardio exercise.
Cardio exercise that elevates your heart rate, like walking fast, jogging, spin classes, and aerobic exercise machines, typically burns more calories while you are doing it. But strength training will help you burn more overall calories every day as it elevates your Resting Metabolism Rate (RMR). Muscle mass requires more calories to maintain at rest than other tissue, say fat, so building muscle mass is a good way to lose weight in the long run, if that’s your goal. Strength training helps to change your body composition overall.
Trainers often suggest warming up your body with some cardio exercise before strength training. However if the goal is weight loss, it might be a good idea to lift weights before the cardio, since your heart rate will be elevated after lifting weights adding more oomph to your cardio. And you will also have more energy for the strength training portion of your workout if you do it first.
Health Benefits of Strength Training
The health benefits of strength training should not be overlooked. For so many years the emphasis was on building cardio endurance and strength to strengthen the heart. But research now points to the very important health benefits of strength training as a way to prevent bone loss and muscle loss as we age, among many other benefits.