Strength training, also referred to as weight training or resistance training, is for everyone… and everyone should strength train to live, feel, and look better.
Getting stronger can positively change your life, no matter what goal you have. We could take all day to list the benefits but the TL;DR: Strength training can help you:
lose excess body fat
increase your structural bone mass
allow you to move more efficiently during any task
prevent you from losing much-needed muscle mass as you age
head off joint degeneration
develop healthy muscle tissue
increase brain production
make you more powerful (inside and out!)
How Strength Training Benefits Everyone
A review of 16 studies showed that muscle-strengthening exercises were associated with a 10–20% lower risk of all-cause mortality, including heart disease, total cancer, and diabetes. Maximum benefits were observed when people completed 30 to 60 minutes of strength training a week. That means you can reap the benefits of strength training in just two 30-minute full-body sessions per week.
Additional research shows that inactive adults experience a 3–8% loss of muscle mass per decade, accompanied by a reduction in resting metabolic rate (how many calories you burn at rest) and fat accumulation. Ten weeks of resistance training may help you build 3 pounds (1.4 kg) of muscle, increase resting metabolic rate by 7%, and lose 4 pounds (1.8 kg) of body fat.
To recap and expand upon the list above, the benefits of resistance training include improved physical performance, movement control, walking speed, functional independence, cognitive abilities, and self-esteem.
All of these benefits can help monumentality in real-life scenarios, depending on your goals and situation. Foundational strength helps you perform better at any and every sport. Adding core-strengthening exercises to your weekly routine helps you move more efficiently and protects your spine, whether you’re an elderly walker or a high school high jumper.
Strength training also creates structural body stability to avoid injury caused by muscle imbalances or falling. Moving heavy weight improves your brain-body connection through firing nerves. These increased performance markers boost your self esteem, too. Think of a real life movement scenario — envision yourself walking across a stage in front of a large audience or ice skating at a crowded rink. Strength training will help you move better and more efficiently in any circumstance.
Multiple other studies, experts, and my experience as a personal trainer who helps clients meet their health goals, shout out that strength training can and should be done at any age. I’ve had individuals in their 50s accomplish things like lunging without pain, deadlifting their body weight, and other awesome accomplishments that they couldn’t even do in their 30s and 40s. I’ve also worked with high school athletes who have achieved personal bests in their sport just by adding a strength program to their routine.
Now that you’re on board with the benefits of strength training, let’s learn what happens to your body when you do this type of exercise.
What Happens to Your Body When You Strength Train
Strength training means moving resistance against an opposing force — on one end of the spectrum is your body weight, the other is heavy weights. The stimulus of these movements force a mild oxidative stress called hormesis, where you create micro-tears in the muscle tissue. This stress forces the body to set a stage for positive adaptations such as:
hypertrophy (muscle fiber growth)
strength gains (increased muscle fibers, motor unit recruitment, ligament and tendon stability)
improved body function (biomechanical fluidity through loaded range of motion)
As you complete strength training workouts consistently and factor in rest days for your major muscle groups, something called “supercompensation” happens. This is a fancy term for improving overall performance over a period of time. Your body prepares itself for the next strength session and eventually you become capable of performing better — lifting more weight with good form, performing more reps, advancing to harder compound movements, and more.
The great thing about these stresses and adaptations: They apply to anyone's level of fitness, from first-time weightlifters to elite athletes.
4 Strength Training Myths Debunked
Now that you’re well versed about the benefits and what happens to your body during strength training, it’s time to squash some myths about resistance training. As a certified personal trainer who’s worked with clients for 10 years to improve health, build muscle, and burn fat, I spend a lot of time educating people about what’s true and false about fitness.
Misconceptions about the benefits and potential harm strength training can cause individuals abound. Some common examples:
“It can stunt a child's growth by causing stress on their growth plates.”
“I don’t want to look bulky.”
“It’s not safe for the older generation to add resistance to their movements because their bones aren’t strong enough.”
“Lifting while pregnant is not safe.”
Let’s debunk each of these examples and provide proven reasons why everyone and anyone should include some form of strength training in their weekly routines.
Before we dive in, it’s worth pointing out that too much of anything can be harmful — and that includes strength training.
Myth: Strength training is not beneficial for children
A clinical report by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that children and adolescents can incorporate resistance training with low injury rates if the activities are supervised and performed with proper technique.
Gains in childhood strength are primarily attributed to the neurologic mechanism of increases in motor neuron recruitment, allowing for increases in strength without resultant muscle hypertrophy. In simple terms, the brain and body connect through the nerves to increase strength for children who first start strength training. Low volume, low intensity, and multi-joint strength training is very safe for children and can be beneficial for their development.
Myth: Lifting weights will make you bulk up
There’s certain stress that you have to place on the muscle fibers to promote growth that looks “bulky.” This type of stimuli is referred to as hypertrophy, which simply means to increase the growth of the muscle fibers. This type of training causes your muscles to grow and look bigger. Individuals who want to look “bulky” will use this as their main focus, but there are many other ways to stimulate the muscles to provide benefits.
Myth: Strength training isn’t safe for older folks
We actually need strength training as we grow older to stay mobile and complete everyday activities. The goals of training for this age group are to reduce muscle loss and stave off the decline of motor function.
Strength training in the elderly builds muscle and improves how the muscles respond when they’re needed for activities like walking up and down stairs, carrying groceries, or standing up from a chair. Muscle mass can be increased through training at 60% to 85% of the person’s maximum strength. For example, this effort could be squatting four sets of 8–10 reps at 90–110 lbs. if your 1-rep max is 150 lbs. This percentage range stimulates the muscle fibers to get stronger. It also stimulates the ligaments and joints to thicken.
Improving the rate of force development requires training at a higher intensity (above 85%), which is the same for all age groups.The rate of force is simply defined as how fast someone can move something. It’s now recommended that healthy elderly people should train three or four times weekly for the best results; beginners can achieve improvement with less frequent training (and lighter weights).
Myth: Pregnant women shouldn’t lift weights
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women with uncomplicated pregnancies should complete aerobic exercise and strength training before, during, and after pregnancy. They include weight lifting and strength work with resistance bands as forms of resistance training that have been studied extensively and found to be safe and beneficial for pregnant women.
What’s more, children born to women who performed weight-bearing exercise three to five times per week throughout pregnancy were longer and had more lean body mass than babies whose moms didn’t exercise. Other research showed that resistance training reduced the risk of mothers giving birth to abnormally large babies.
If you’re pregnant or hoping to become pregnant, talk to your doctor about your exercise plan. You may need to reduce the intensity, amount of weight you lift, and duration of your workouts while pregnant. You may also need to modify some exercises (including those that have you lie on your back after the first trimester) along the way.
The pregnant body undergoes respiratory (breathing) changes, a shift in the positioning of the pelvis, and increased sensitivity to temperature, among other things, so take it easy when you need it. Pregnancy and labor are some of the most rigorous feats of endurance the human body experiences, so take care.
To learn how to put this information into action, check out part II in our strength training 101 series, The 3 Secrets to Building a Strength Training Program That Gets Results.