Strength training isn’t just for building muscle anymore: It’s an all-in-one functional-fitness strategy.
Last year, Bob Speck, a 48-year-old Los Angeles sales manager, sat in his doctor’s office and heard six fateful words: You need to lose 50 pounds.
He had inklings that his weight and health were moving in the wrong direction. A former professional dancer, Speck had become mostly sedentary. Old injuries were starting to nag him. Walking stairs was getting laborious. But it was the first time a doctor had been so blunt about his weight.
For Speck, the recommendation was both a wake-up call and a challenge. “My parents didn’t take care of themselves, and they both died relatively young,” he says. “I didn’t want that to happen to me.”
He also didn’t want to follow a traditional approach to weight loss. “I’d seen too many crash-diet nightmares to know that wasn’t going to work, and cardio just struck me as boring.” From his dance experience, he liked combining different types of movements in one workout, and he had heard that strength training might provide the benefits he was seeking.
So he hit the weights. Hard. Twice a week without fail, he powered through an hourlong strength-training session consisting of exercises many gym-goers think are too tough: Deadlifts. Squats. Pull-ups. He kept track of how much weight he lifted and nudged it up a little every workout.
One year later, the physique of the middle-aged desk-dweller had transformed. His posture was now straight, his arms and legs looked muscular, and he had lost 60 pounds.
Perhaps best of all, his attitude about what he can accomplish physically had shifted dramatically. “I’ve become a take-the-stairs guy,” he laughs. “I’ll run to catch a bus without thinking about it. And the more I can do, the more I’m willing to do.”
Newfound Benefits of Strength Training
A few short decades ago, strength wasn’t considered essential to basic health. Jogging and other forms of steady-state aerobics were the default form of exercise for most adults; strength training was a fringe activity practiced mainly by beach bums and strongmen. Competitive runners, Nordic skiers, and bicycle racers even shied away from lifting weights, believing that the extra muscle would slow them down.
As recently as 1995, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), which sets guidelines for physical activity for optimal health, recommended that adults participate in “moderate-intensity physical activity” most days of the week, but made no explicit mention of strength training.
The ACSM’s most recent guidelines tell a different story. While cardio work is still important, they advise strength training for all healthy adults. The recommendations include two resistance-training sessions a week per major muscle group, with a variety of exercises and equipment.
What’s behind the change? “Strength training confers more health benefits than anything else you can possibly do,” says Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, CSCS, author of The M.A.X. Muscle Plan. “Since the 1990s, there’s been a lot of research demonstrating that.”
The upshot of that research is that the rewards of strength training extend far beyond buff biceps and slim midsections. Strength training, it seems, offers a cascade of physical and mental benefits that exercise scientists are only beginning to understand.
Best of all, most trainers agree, you don’t need a medical degree or an airplane hangar of equipment to do it effectively: Far more important than the techniques or the gadgets you use in any particular workout are the principles you follow in every workout. And those principles apply whether you’re working out in a million-dollar facility or lifting rocks in your own backyard.
A Systematic Change
A good strength-training workout — the kind that builds muscle mass as well as strength — involves three factors:
• Mechanical tension, or some type of force acting on the muscle
• Metabolic stress, or an accumulation of metabolic byproducts like lactate and hydrogen ions in the muscles, which makes the working muscles burn
• Muscle damage, or small tears in the muscles, which can lead to soreness in the hours and days following the workout
Together, these three factors send out a benign, systemwide red alert throughout your body, which responds by shifting into “anabolic,” or muscle-building, mode. Keep the stimulus up for a sustained period, and you will start to see and feel dramatic changes in nearly every system in your body.
People new to training often get stronger quickly as the body grows new neurons to support unfamiliar movement patterns. Research indicates that this break-in period lasts for about 16 workouts.
After the break-in period, muscles start to “hypertrophy,” or grow tougher and larger, as your body compensates for your efforts by repairing damaged muscle fibers to rebuild them stronger than before the workout.
Following a particularly intense workout, hypertrophy can seem to occur almost instantaneously as muscles swell with blood, but this effect is not actual hypertrophy. Instead, it’s a temporary condition known as “the pump,” in which oxygenated blood floods the muscles during hard exercise; it usually diffuses within 15 minutes after a workout.
Actual longer-term growth in muscle fibers does begin almost immediately following training and continues for about two days after a workout, says Schoenfeld. Noticeable growth from a sustained workout program usually takes a few weeks.
Muscular hypertrophy is useful for athletes, of course, but it may be even more beneficial for casual exercisers. “Inactive people can lose up to 5 to 10 percent of their muscle mass every decade,” says Rachel Cosgrove, CSCS, co-owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif., and author of The Female Body Breakthrough and Drop Two Sizes.
That muscle loss is bad news for almost every body system, including day-to-day mobility and digestion, as well as body composition and cardiovascular functioning. According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, age-related loss of muscle mass, or “sarcopenia,” is linked to bone loss, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease.
The No. 1 prescription for reversing age-related sarcopenia, Cosgrove says, is lifting weights. “Strength training is the world’s most effective anti-aging drug.”
More Than Muscles
Above and beyond its effect on your muscles, strength training improves the functioning of your heart and lungs, the density and toughness of your bones, and the speed and efficiency of your metabolism.
Jogging and other forms of aerobic training can provide some of these benefits too, of course, particularly to the cardiovascular system. “But the effect of aerobic work on your bones is limited to the hips, and to some degree the spine,” says Schoenfeld, referring to the bone-building effects of weight-bearing activities.
Exercisers who strength-train build bone density from head to toe. “I’ve had clients come to my gym with copies of a bone scan indicating they were at risk for osteoporosis,” Cosgrove says. “After 12 months of strength training, that risk went from high risk to low risk.”
Since muscle tissue is metabolically “expensive” — that is, it requires lots of calories to maintain — strength training provides a far bigger boost to the metabolism than aerobic exercise because it builds more muscle. This makes it a particularly effective strategy when you’re trying to trim fat.
This metabolic boost doesn’t just help you maintain a healthy weight. It also helps stave off or reduce symptoms associated with more serious digestive disorders. According to a 2005 Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation study, strength training was more effective than endurance training in helping people with type 2 diabetes control blood sugar, lower triglyceride levels, and improve other metabolic factors.
Perhaps the most surprising benefits of regular strength training occur in the brain. A 2010 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that strength training has a positive impact on a host of common mental disorders, including anxiety, low self-esteem, insomnia, and, in many cases, depression.
For people suffering from chronic fatigue, the study showed, strength training proved more beneficial even than drug or cognitive-behavior therapy designed expressly to alleviate the condition. Strength training also appears to improve basic brain function, including decision making, cognition, and memory — particularly among older adults.
Again, you can get some of these perks from other forms of exercise, but many of the mental benefits appear directly related to the unique challenges presented by strength training. In a 2006 study reprinted in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, those who lifted challenging weights saw a larger boost in memory than those who lifted lighter ones.
Older women who strength-trained twice a week for a year saw a 10 to 12 percent improvement in their ability to make decisions, resolve conflicts, and remain focused on a task, according to another JAMA Internal Medicine study conducted in 2010. An additional group that did a balance and toning program instead saw the same capacities diminish by 0.5 percent. “Strength training actually changes your brain. Using advanced neuroimaging techniques, we were able to demonstrate significant changes in both brain function and structure with strength training,” explains Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PhD, who oversaw the study. “It increases factors that promote neural growth and survival, and at the same time promotes self-efficacy, or confidence, which is associated with healthy brain aging.”
Strength training doesn’t just make you stronger; it makes you healthier, happier, slimmer, and more confident.
Pumping Up Properly
Despite all the evidence that strength training is beneficial, plenty of people remain hesitant to hit the weights. “There’s still a lot of fear surrounding strength training,” Cosgrove says. “People think it will hurt, that it will be too complicated or too difficult.” Others (women in particular) still believe that their muscles will become overbuilt.
To be sure, venturing into the strength-training area at your local gym for the first time can be intimidating. Typical gyms are filled with an overwhelming array of weightlifting equipment, but strength training doesn’t have to be complicated. All you need are the right exercises and a handful of basic principles.
The backbone of any strength-training program — from the simplest body-weight circuit to the most complex sports-specific program — should be seven basic moves: squat, lunge, bend, push, pull, twist, and a single-leg movement. Additional moves — like curling a pair of dumbbells, for instance — are OK, but they’re never a substitute for the basics. A smart trainer can help combine these exercises into a solid program, but, broadly speaking, a good workout will touch on all of them. (For more on these seven basic exercises, see “All the Right Moves,” below.)
To build a combination of strength and muscle mass, Cosgrove recommends you perform two to four sets of eight to 12 reps of each of the seven basic moves, two to four times per week on nonconsecutive days. Focus on a different variation of the moves for each workout. “If you’re working out three times a week,” says Cosgrove, “you might do pushups on Monday, overhead presses on Wednesday, and bench presses on Friday. That would cover your pushing exercises for the week.”
Better, Stronger, Faster
Putting together a single workout that touches on all the basic movements is fairly straightforward. Creating a program that allows you to progress over months and years takes a little more finesse.
Your body gets stronger when it has to adapt to a stimulus provided by your workouts, explains Schoenfeld. If your workouts don’t present a challenge that is novel in some way (more weight or more repetitions, for example), then there’s no reason for the body to adapt. So it’s important that each workout is slightly different than what you’ve done in the past. “You don’t need to push yourself so hard that the vein on the side of your neck is bulging like a snake,” he says. “But you do have to get out of your comfort zone.” This is a principle known to exercise physiologists as overload.
Closely linked to the overload principle is the principle of progression. At first, any stimulus will provide a challenge. But after a few months of training, you’ll have to increase resistance or do more reps to get the same benefit. This slow-and-steady progress is one of the simpler and more satisfying pleasures of lifting weights. You put in the work and you get better.
“I like to keep it as simple as possible,” says Los Angeles–based strength and conditioning coach Ben Bruno. “Start by setting a rep range for each exercise in your program. If you hit the prescribed reps, add 5 pounds the next time and try to match or beat the reps you did from the previous session. If you fall short of the rep range, keep the weight the same the next session and try to hit the desired rep goal. If you do, then go up 5 pounds the next time. It might not be sexy, but it works.”
“I advise my clients to stick to a program for about four to six weeks,” Cosgrove says. After that, she mixes up the order of exercises, takes some moves out completely, and changes the sets and reps, all based on a client’s specific goal: losing 10 pounds of fat, adding 20 pounds to a big lift, or gaining 5 pounds of muscle, all of which are attainable by making simple changes to a basic strength-training template.
“Too often, I hear, ‘I want to run a marathon and get stronger and lose 10 pounds of fat.’ But you’ll make the most progress if you focus in on one goal at a time, and take baby steps to reach it.” After two or three months, Cosgrove advises, choose a different goal, or take a different tack on the same one, and start moving toward that.
“Changing your rep range and intensity is key to shaking things up,” she says. You need to make changes to make progress.
Strength training won’t eliminate all health problems, Cosgrove says, or turn an average exerciser into an Olympian. “But it helps you control the controllable,” she says — the strength of your muscles, the density of your bones, the functioning of your brain. It’s hard to find a system in your body that isn’t positively affected by picking up a dumbbell.
On top of all that, it’s a way to discover a version of yourself that looks, feels, and performs better than you may have thought possible.
The iron awaits.
All the Right Moves
People new to strength training often think that each muscle needs its own separate exercise. Not true. Rachel Cosgrove, CSCS, author of The Female Body Breakthrough, recommends you focus on just seven basic movements. Do a variation of each one three times a week for a complete head-to-toe workout.
A push, naturally enough, requires you to push an object away (or push yourself away from an object, usually the floor). Examples: pushups, bench presses, kettlebell push-presses
A pull is the opposite: You pull an object toward you (or pull yourself toward an object, such as a pull-up bar). Examples: pull-ups, pull-downs, rows of all kinds
A twist covers any core or abdominal movement you may run across (even moves where you don’t actually twist), as well as some fancy moves that require you to stabilize through your core while your arms and legs move. Examples: planks, side planks, ab-wheel rollouts, mountain climbers, wood chops
A lunge is similar to a squat except you start with your feet together, then step one foot forward as the opposite knee lowers toward the floor. Examples: dumbbell lunge, walking lunge, rear-foot elevated split squat
A squat covers any move where you’re standing on two feet and lowering your center of gravity with your torso more or less upright. Examples: body-weight squats, front squats, overhead squats
A single-leg movement is an exercise in which you step up on a platform, squat, or bend using one foot only. Examples: step-up, TRX-supported single-leg squat