Everyone and I do mean everyone should consider adding some type of resistance or weight training to their exercise plan. Need some convincing? Well, ok – I am up for the challenge – here are a dozen strong reasons.
Before I decided to centre my fitness regimen around things I can do at home, outside or not in a gym setting, I had been noticing a mass migration in my local gym. Sure, there were still many gym-goers who came in and headed straight to the cardio stuff – the treadmill, the elliptical machine, or the stationary bike. But, at the same time, it was getting harder getting some quality time at the squat rack, half rack, smith machine, weight benches, and cable machines. What’s up with that? In the past, I often had these areas to myself.
This migration to the strength or weight area of the gym signifies to me that people are coming to recognize the value in building and/or maintaining muscle. People are starting to understand that lifting something heavy (which many of us don’t do in our regular lives more than a couple of times a week) is arguably a better use of gym time than, say, hitting the fitness-hamster wheels. This is because the amount of cardio we actually require for good health can easily be incorporated into the other 23.25 hours a day we spend not working out.
When you think of weight or strength training, you might picture big bodybuilders with beefy, oiled-up muscles with a deep tan. Well, erase that image! These days, regular folks hit the weights and even (scrawny) scientists are saying that resistance training offers amazing benefits for everyday, regular-sized people looking to improve their health.
As a coach, I hear a common misconception: “I’m too old, or small, or weak to start lifting weights.” Then, other people think they need to lose a bunch of excess body fat before they hit the weights, or conversely, they’re worried that lifting heavy weights will make them “bulk up.”
Let’s knock those excuses… er, I mean justifications… off one by one.
1. I would put money on the fact that you are currently a lot stronger than you think you are. Certainly strong enough to get off those machines and pick up something heavy. And it doesn’t have to be dumbbells, kettlebells, or weight plates. Of course, no matter how strong you actually are, it is essential that you take it slowly and don’t rush into it. But once you’ve got your technique dialled in, I think you will be surprised and proud of how much weight you can lift. Personally, I hoisted an impressively big rock up and onto my garden rock wall the other day with no ill effects.
2. Let’s tackle the “I’ll get bulky” idea. To really and truly become jacked and muscle-bound, you need to train with a very VERY high volume with very heavy weights. Which, as you will find out, you don’t need to do to get the majority of the benefits most of us are after.
You also need to make nutrition a top priority, and I hate to say it, but you actually have to purposely OVEREAT the majority of the time. Bodybuilders often use the expression “eat like it’s your job.” So that portion of the bulking equation is totally within your control.
Then there is your genetics and gender. Yes, most women find it nearly impossible to get bulky from a basic training program but what they do find is that they lose extra body fat and reveal the muscle that is hiding underneath. So don’t let muscle definition scare you.
3. Everyone from children to seniors can benefit from engaging in some type of heavy lifting. Of course kids, older folks, and anyone with conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, obesity, or cardiovascular disease risk factors will need to be more particular and mindful. But the fact is that we are all capable of training with some form of resistance.
Ok. Got it? Great! Now, let’s look at the benefits of lifting weights and why you should incorporate this into your life.
Benefits of Strength Training
1. Let’s get toned
Getting toned requires two things to happen: you lose excess body fat and you increase the size of your muscle cells.
Toning is mostly about revealing lean muscle which means for most people, the removal of the fat that is covering up the muscle. Then building and shaping the muscle itself provides the real tone which is why simply losing fat doesn’t lead to the same look as losing fat and building muscle.
If a big portion of being toned is losing body fat, shouldn’t we do some cardio? Well, no. The best way (aside from a good diet) to shed unwanted body fat at the same time as increasing lean muscle mass is to prioritize anaerobic exercise with sprints and weights and include one to two heavy-weight workouts a week. Those workouts can incorporate some “classic” weight room moves like squats, lunges, step-ups, presses, rows, and chin-ups because those exercises use a variety of muscle groups.
2. Body Fat as Fuel
Lifting weights elevates your energy expenditure after a workout significantly more than doing a regular cardio workout. This is due to the metabolic stress that weightlifting causes. In a study comparing light versus moderate weights on “afterburn,” women who did two heavy sets of 8 reps at a 70 percent load burned nearly twice the calories for up to an hour after exercise, compared to a group that did two light sets of 15 reps at a 35 percent load.
Training at a higher intensity with heavier weights once or twice a week gives even more of a boost due to the fact that it trains more motor units in the muscles both metabolically and neurologically. This is a magical combination which helps increase coordination and helps you stay lean.
3. Get Smarter
Well, ok. Perhaps you won’t get smarter exactly but check this out: In a 2015 study that explored the effects of resistance training on brain lesions, scientists zeroed in on 54 women whose brain scans showed white matter lesions.
The scientists first tested the women’s gait, speed, and stability, then randomly assigned them to one of three groups: One that performed a once-weekly program of light upper and lower body weight training; one that did that same weight-training routine only they did it twice a week; and one group (the control group) that did a twice-weekly regimen of stretching and balance training. All three groups did this for one year.
At the end of the year, their brains were scanned again and their walking ability was re-assessed. The women in the control group sadly showed progression in the number and size of the lesions in their white matter and a slowing of their gait. The same was true for the women who had only weight trained once per week. The women who had lifted weights twice per week displayed “significantly less shrinkage and tattering of their white matter” than the other women. They also increased their speed and smoothness of walking. That is what I call a positive outcome in the brain and the body.
4. Support Your Testosterone
Studies have shown that it definitely takes lifting heavy weights to significantly boost testosterone, no soup cans allowed here. Full-body and heavy exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and Olympic lifts should ideally be used, at 85-95% of your 1RM (or one repetition maximum), 2-3 full-body weightlifting workouts per week to get good testosterone-boosting results.
The key appears to be that when lifting heavy weights you should use long rest periods if your goal is to increase testosterone. Scientists have studied the effects of very short rest periods on testosterone and found that longer rest periods (around 120 seconds) between sets are better for building testosterone, although you can still build other hormones, such as growth hormones, with shorter rest periods.
If your goals are to increase or maintain testosterone, maximize your time at the gym by doing alternate activities during these long rest periods, such as stretching. Or better yet, do exercises that don’t stress the same muscles you just worked in a superset fashion (supersets are back-to-back exercises performed with minimal rest).
While it can be tempting to focus on what I call “vanity lifts” (exercises like biceps curls and bench pressing) you’ll notice far better results for lean muscle mass, energy, sex drive, and fat loss when you include multi-joint leg exercises such as lunges and squats into your regimen.
5. Joints and Tendons
One of the largest benefits endurance athletes get from training with weights is the strengthening of connective tissue. This is important to prevent degeneration from all that repetitive use of doing your job, yard work, or when training for something like a marathon. If you are loading your body with heavy weights, things called bone osteoblasts occur, which go to work strengthening your bones, tendons, and ligaments.
Weight training allows you to move safely under load which is essential for any athlete hoping to jump, spin, pivot, or twist with vigour. Since knee, ankle, shoulder and elbow joints are not naturally equipped to handle such loaded movements at high speeds, it is important to prepare them and bolster their resilience.
6. Bone Strength
We’ve all heard how astronauts lose a surprising amount of bone mass during a long space flight. NASA even has a term for it: Space Bones. Astronauts usually experience bone loss in their lower body, the lumbar vertebrae, and their leg bones. Researchers suspect the cause of this is weightlessness.
Now, resistance training is pretty much the opposite of being in space and if you put your bones under a greater amount of load (or pressure) than they usually experience in your day-to-day life, they will adapt by getting stronger.
A study on resistance training and women with very low bone density found that weight training was both safe and effective in increasing bone density even for postmenopausal women with very low bone mass. They found that it improved bone mineral density and functional ability without any injuries.
7. Lower Blood Pressure
One way that the body increases blood flow and cardiac output during exercise is by dilating your arteries (making them bigger) and actually decreasing the resistance (peripheral resistance) that the heart pumps against.
Exercise scientists once believed that cardiac output actually decreased during weight training. This was because they thought a contracting muscle would somehow squeeze your blood vessels and make them shrink, which would, in turn, increase peripheral resistance and dangerously raise blood pressure. Thus, it was assumed and still is assumed by many exercise professionals and physicians that weightlifting is not safe for people with heart disease because it puts too much stress on the heart.
The interesting thing is that when you lift a heavy weight, you also produce a hormone called adrenaline, and adrenaline causes the arteries in your muscles to dilate, which causes a decrease in peripheral resistance, an increase in cardiac output, and no changes in blood pressure that are dangerous to the heart. As a matter of fact, the squeezing actions of contracting muscles actually “milks” blood back to your heart. This means that for people with high blood pressure, lifting heavy weights may actually be less stressful to the heart than aerobic exercise, which certainly doesn’t result in that same milking action.
8. Improve Endurance
Do you avoid the weight room because you focus mainly on hiking, climbing, cycling, swimming, or running? Well, that’s not the best reason to stay out of the weight room. Lifting weights helps athletes in endurance sports as well. For example, this review of 26 different studies that looked at the relationship between strength training and endurance sports found that strength training made endurance athletes faster and more efficient.
The results showed that strength training improved time-trial performance, economy, and maximal anaerobic running velocity in competitive endurance athletes. It breaks down like this: strength is defined as the ability of your musculoskeletal system to generate high amounts of force. Or we can look at it like this: strength is the ability of your muscles to move stuff. Whether the stuff you are moving is a barbell, a bike, or your own body, it takes a certain amount of muscle to move it well.
9. Mental Health
I am not going to dive into this too deeply because I did a great interview with a lead exercise and mental health researcher in a previous podcast episode, but in short, exercise affects the brain in many ways.
It increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. It aids the release of hormones, which provide an excellent environment for the growth of brain cells. It promotes brain plasticity by stimulating the growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain. Research from UCLA even demonstrated that exercise increased growth factors in the brain which makes it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. While another study suggested that 12% of future cases of depression could have been prevented if the participants had engaged in at least one hour of physical activity each week.
10. Help Manage Chronic Pain
This review of resistance training on patients with fibromyalgia found several studies that linked the benefits of resistance training to lowered chronic pain in people with fibromyalgia. Simply put, the study concluded that being inactive will eventually lead to more pain on exertion, and for many will result in a symptom flare.
A Cochrane review of resistance training and chronic pain agreed that exercise could help with chronic pain because exercise helps reduce whole-body inflammation in the long run. Interestingly, this study concluded that moderate- and moderate-to-high-intensity resistance training improves multidimensional function, pain, tenderness, and muscle strength in women with chronic pain.
11. Improve Your Liver Health
I know not many of us worry about our liver on a daily basis but fatty liver disease affects between 20% and 30% of Americans. Can you guess what helps reduce those dastardly fatty deposits around your liver? Yup!
This admittedly small study (only 19 participants) on the effects of resistance training and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease found that resistance training reduced liver fat and, as a bonus, it also reduced oxidative stress and insulin resistance. This is the first study to demonstrate that resistance exercise specifically improves non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) independent of any change in body weight.
12. Slow the Aging Process
In the study “Resistance Exercise Reverses Aging in Human Skeletal Muscle,” it was shown that six months of progressive resistance training (weight training that gets heavier over time) made the gene expression pattern of aging mitochondria become significantly younger.
In a process known as sarcopenia, muscles become smaller and weaker with age and evidence suggests that a key part of the decline occurs in the mitochondria (a component of muscle cells that is the ultimate powerhouse).
The study, which was done on 70-year-old men, reported that “…the older individuals were able to improve strength by approximately 50%, to levels that were only 38% less than that of young individuals.” This means that seniors engaged in weight training closed the strength gap between themselves and their counterparts who were nearly 40 years younger from 59% to 38%, which is an improvement of almost 36% in a mere six months of the study.
Yes, you read that right: when it comes to mitochondria, weight training reversed nearly 40 years of aging!
Muscle biopsies from the study showed “a remarkable reversal of the expression profile of 179 genes associated with age and exercise training…Genes that were down-regulated with age were correspondingly up-regulated with exercise, while genes that were up-regulated with age, were down-regulated with exercise.”
Studies have shown that exercise (resistance training in particular) also protects DNA from the wear and tear of aging and that the addition of fast-twitch muscle fibres precipitates fat loss and improves metabolic function by acting on telomeres (the caps on the DNA that protect chromosomes). As you age, telomeres progressively wear and shorten from things like repeated cell division, oxidative stress, inflammation, and other metabolic processes, which can leave chromosomes unprotected. When the caps are eroded, the damage begins to dig into your genes, which causes your cells to become damaged and even be discarded as you get older. The good news is that lifting heavy stuff seems to slow that process down.
What did we learn?
So there you have it. Good news all around. And to be honest, I could have gone on much longer with all the benefits that lifting heavy stuff bestows on our human meat sacks but I think you get the idea.
Many of us know people (or are those people) who say, “I need to get in shape,” and then immediately head out to the store to buy some running shoes or join their local running group. Sure, that offers health benefits of its own. But after what we’ve reviewed today, hopefully, you agree that we really ought to be purchasing some hand chalk, a vat of moustache wax, and one of those old-timey leotards as well.