It wasn’t an energy bar or power drink that propelled me up the steep south rim of the Grand Canyon. It was barbells. One squat, lunge and deadlift at a time, I had built the glutes, legs and confidence I needed to achieve my bucket-list goal of doing the challenging 24-mile hike from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the south.
When we think of weight-lifting, the first thing that pops into many people’s heads may be a pumped-up bodybuilder with biceps the size of hams. But that image is outdated in the world of modern fitness knowledge. “Strength training gets a bad rap,” says Shawn M. Arent, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health & Human Performance at Rutgers University, who has spent his career studying the impact of resistance training on mental and physical health. “People are afraid they will get big and bulky. But it’s not as easy as you think to put on that much muscle.”
Resistance training isn’t just for folks who want to look like superheroes. It’s for everyone, whether your goal is to run that 5K, look better in your jeans, or improve your overall health. Bulking up to the level of bodybuilders requires much more than weight-lifting — it involves a complex program of diet, exercise and often supplements. The average person is not going to transform into a bodybuilder without putting in a lot of specific effort toward that goal.
However, if your goal is to maintain a trim waistline; retain your strength and balance as you age; avoid weakening bones and muscle loss; and reduce stress, resistance training may be for you.
So why do resistance training? “I would answer that with a second question: Why not? There are so many benefits,” says Arent, a fellow with the American College of Sports Medicine and with the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Here are a few.
Reverse Muscle Loss
Lots of things can cause our bodies to lose muscle mass, Arent says. Aging is one prime culprit: After age 30, physically inactive people begin losing as much as 3 to 5 percent of their muscle mass each decade. But even those of us who are active can experience muscle loss. Thankfully, we have a silver bullet: a dumbbell.
“If you diet to lose weight, you will lose muscle as well as fat,” Arent says. Similarly, if you do regular aerobic exercise, like running and cycling, you can experience muscle loss. “Resistance training will help you replace a lot of the mass you will lose during those activities.”
“One of the problems we have, as a natural part of aging, is loss of strength and muscle mass,” Arent says. “That resistance training preserves muscle, and can even increase it, is a huge upside. It’s very much a fountain of youth.”
Boost Heart Health
Researchers have long known that aerobic workouts help keep our hearts healthy, but now they’re discovering that resistance training also offers benefits, especially for blood pressure.
A study done at Appalachian State University found that resistance training increased participants’ blood flow to their extremities, lowering their blood pressure by as much as 20 percent. The benefits lasted up to 24 hours for people who trained for 30 to 45 minutes three times a week.
Prevent and Manage Diabetes
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Southern Denmark found that men who do resistance training regularly can reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 34 percent. When research subjects combined weight-lifting with aerobic exercise, they reduced their risk even more, by up to 59 percent.
In addition, Arent says, resistance training has been proven to help people with diabetes manage the disease. “For as much as 24 hours after you train, you improve your insulin sensitivity.”
Improve Bone Density: As we age, we lose bone mass. This means weaker bones that are more prone to fractures. In extreme cases, the result can be osteoporosis. But putting strain on our bones through strength training will spur the bone to become stronger and, as a bonus, strengthen the connective tissue and tendons that support the muscles and bones. “The higher level of strain your muscle puts on your bone, the more you get in overall bone density,” Arent says.
Reduce Body Fat: Muscle fitness helps burn more calories, even when we’re at rest, because it takes more energy for our bodies to maintain muscle than fat. So, while cardiovascular exercise typically stops burning calories shortly after the workout is complete, lifting weights helps us burn more calories all day every day.
Manage Stress-Related Disorders: “There is pretty strong evidence of the benefit of resistance training for managing stress-related disorders” ranging from anxiety to depression to post-traumatic stress disorder, Arent says. Research also suggests that moderate-intensity resistance training is more effective at stress management than high-intensity training. So, if promoting your emotional health is your goal, he suggests doing fewer reps with less weight instead of stacking on the weight and lifting to the point of muscle failure.
Improve Quality of Life: Life just goes better when we are stronger. We have more stamina for our favorite activities such as walking, dancing, kayaking, or playing with our kids or grandkids. Strength also makes it easier to do everyday work such as schlepping groceries or dragging the trash cans to the curb. Plus, it makes us look better in our clothes. And it provides a mood boost, as well. “It’s never too late to start,” Arent says.
Three Steps to Success
1. Pick a Program You Like
You may enjoy going to a group weightlifting class, working out with a buddy, or putting in your earbuds and getting lost in your favorite podcast while you pump iron on your own. “The best weights program is the one you will actually do,” says Shawn M. Arent, Ph.D.
2. Keep Doing a Little More
Don’t rest on your laurels. “One of the keys to improving your fitness is progressive overload. You need to try to do a little more,” Arent says. For example, increase the number of days you lift, the number of sets, or the load.
3. Think of it as a Lifestyle Change
“In general, when it comes to exercise, it’s a lifestyle change. You make a commitment to make physical activity a part of your daily life,” Arent says.
Weight-Lifting Versus Body Weight
Resistance training comes in two forms: Weight-lifting and body-weight training. In weight-lifting, you are using free weights or a barbell to perform exercises: a bench press, a dead lift, a bicep curl. Body-weight training refers to resistance exercises that rely only on body weight: push-ups, lunges, tricep dips. Both of these strategies are effective ways to build muscle and strength — our muscles don’t know the difference between resistance caused by holding a 25-pound barbell or the resistance of our body pushing against gravity. Both offer benefits. Weight-lifting proponents cite its ease in measuring progress (10 pounds last week, 12 pounds this week); the fact that you can always add on and aren’t restricted by your own body weight; and some say body-weight exercises are only for beginners. On the other hand, body-weight exercises require no equipment or gym membership and can be less likely to produce injury. In order to ensure your body-weight routine will work to build muscle, not just use muscular endurance, make sure to continue to increase the difficulty, not just the reps. For example, once you’ve mastered 25 pushups, start doing dive-bomber pushups, which increase your range of motion, or clapping pushups. You can also do a one-handed pushup. If you’re ready to progress beyond these advanced body-weight exercises, it may be time to add in weight. Most people can achieve the results they want with nothing more than a well-designed body-weight resistance program. — Jessica Kellner
5 Tips for Starting a Resistance Training Regimen
1. Hire a Certified Personal Trainer to Design a Program for You. Shawn M. Arent, director of the Center for Health & Human Performance at Rutgers University, suggests starting your new program with a few sessions with a certified personal trainer who has an educational background in exercise science or kinesiology.
“If you get a good trainer, their job is to prescribe something for you that fits your needs,” he says. “We don’t want it to be a one-size-fits-all program. People have different strength deficits or movement issues. If you get a good trainer working for you, they can identify your strengths and weaknesses.”
2. Don’t Be Afraid of Free Weights. Many beginning weight-lifters gravitate to training machines because they seem safer and easier to use. But Arent recommends using free weights because he says weight machines are built to fit the size and strength of the “average” man. In contrast, when you work out with free weights, you can modify the program to fit your unique needs, like muscle imbalances or joint issues. To reduce risk of injury, ask your trainer to demonstrate proper form, or check online demonstrations of proper form. Prioritize proper form over weight level and repetition number. If fatigue makes you begin to lose form, stop the exercise or reduce your weight.
3. Include Compound Exercises. These are the moves that incorporate more than one joint, such as a bench press or squat. Include six to ten exercises that target major muscle groups.
4. Lift at Least Three Times a Week. That’s the minimum, Arent says. Start slowly, with single sets, working your way up to multiple sets.
5. Let Your Muscles Rest and Recover. In order to give the muscles a chance to heal between weights workouts, Arent suggests working the upper body one day, then the lower body the next.