Exercise is one of the most powerful physical and mental health interventions anyone can undertake. Everyone should participate in some form of exercise every day. Unfortunately, most do not exercise regularly at all and even among those that do, participating in a strength training program is more of a rarity than the norm, especially with women and seniors.
But things are changing and strength training is having a real renaissance moment right now.
Until recently, strength training wasn’t always considered to be as important as cardio and many didn’t pay it the reverence it deserves, instead focusing on cardiovascular exercise and events like 5K’s, marathons and triathlons. However, now it’s hard to look through my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feed without seeing updates about squat, deadlift, powerclean and bench press PR’s. Weight training has even made it to prime time TV with the CrossFit Games and National Pro Grid League. This is great because now many people are realizing the power of strength training and how it can completely transform your body.
One of the most obvious effects of a strength training program is the increase in physical strength. And being physically strong has a number of awesome side effects.
Yeah, you’ll notice the obvious things — like you’re not intimidated by the weight room anymore. You’re totally comfortable with a barbell in your hands and you’ve graduated from the vinyl coated dumbbells stored in the group exercise room to the ones on the weight rack.
But you’ll also realize that your life is easier. Never having to think twice about carrying your kids, groceries, or the inevitable snow shoveling this winter. Things that used to be a real chore aren’t such a hassle and don’t leave you out of breath, sore and hurting for days. All of your ADL’s (activities of daily living) become much easier and less of a strain when you’ve changed your body through strength training.
“Lifting weights is excellent for improving bone density, joint mobility, and body composition.” Not to mention that daily tasks such as lugging groceries, moving furniture, and climbing stairs become easier.” —Alexander Koch, Ph.D
Increase Muscle Mass
Let’s face it, most of us start working out to look better naked and strength training is one of the best ways to achieve that goal.
Unfortunately, many “fit” looking people focus only on “cardio”, yoga and other forms of exercise that, while possessing their own benefits, don’t include building muscle. This results in someone who is very thin yet has a high body fat percentage and suffers from the dreaded “skinny fat” phenomenon. They appear to be fit and healthy with clothes on but actually have a comparatively high body fat percentage due to their low muscle mass. Skinny fat is probably most prevalent with women who are (incorrectly) afraid that weights will “bulk them up”, so they focus solely on cardiovascular exercise. Fact is, most women don’t have the hormone profile to add appreciable muscle mass. And even if they do, it usually takes years of dedicated, intensive, weight training and diet to build extreme muscle mass. If you’re still scared you’ll bulk up, keep in mind that research has consistently shown most women feel better about their body after they start strength training.
Adding some muscle mass, changing the size of a muscle, is really the only way to change the shape or “build” of your body. If you finally want the arms, shoulders, legs or butt you’ve been after, you need to lift some weights. This goes for the guys, too. Strength training through progressive overload is the only way to stress the muscles, force them to grow, and add the muscle size and shape you’re after.
Decrease Body Fat
Like cardio, strength training burns fat, too! Although not able to match the fat-burning rates of cardio, strength training results in an “afterburn” effect where calories are burned at an elevated rate after exercise has stopped. The afterburn can last up to 72 hours after exercise. While most people focus on cardio for losing the last 5 lbs of fat, most trainers will agree that the most effective formula for weight loss is usually a combination of nutrition and strength training.
When combined with the increase in metabolism that results from adding more muscle to your frame over time, it’s obvious that strength training can be a powerful tool in the battle against body fat.
Many of us look and feel depressed, sickly, even fat, simply because we have poor posture. Our, “Desk Jockey” lifestyle has lead us to exist in this hunched over, hang off the skeleton, stance. And it is wreaking havoc on our health. Proper strength training can help strengthen weak postural muscles, even out imbalances and help to reverse this posture. Not only will you appear taller, stronger and more attractive, you’ll feel that way too.
“We found that the effect of the direction of thoughts (positive/negative) on self-related attitudes was significantly greater when participants wrote their thoughts in the confident than in the doubtful posture.” —Pablo Briñol, Richard E. Petty and Benjamin Wagner
Build a Better Skeleton
Building and maintaining bone density is important for everyone as we age. Strong bones mean a lesser risk of the debilitating injuries that can result from bone breaks and fractures that can occur to anyone but become especially dangerous and prevalent as we age. Women are especially susceptible to bone loss as a result of age related hormonal and lifestyle changes. Strength training produces strong bones that cardiovascular exercise just can’t match.
“Both aerobic and resistance training exercise can provide weight-bearing stimulus to bone, yet research indicates that resistance training may have a more profound site specific effect than aerobic exercise. Over the past 10 years, nearly two dozen cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have shown a direct and positive relationship between the effects of resistance training and bone density.” —Layne, Nelson
Bones are thought to increase density primarily in response to compressive forces. This is what makes strength training exercises like squats, shoulder presses, pushups, lunges and deadliftts so effective at creating bone mass. They place a compressive stress on the larger bones and lead to an increase in bone density and a stronger, more resilient skeleton.
Improve Brain Function
We’ve known for a while now that cardiovascular exercise can physically change the brain by actually growing brain cells. Now we know that strength training can have brain benefits too. According to Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, weight training can beneficially change the structure of the brain, but “a minimum threshold of exercise needs to be achieved.”
While most of this research is new, it’s promising and is the first to show that strength training, as little as twice a week, may also result in a physical change to the brain.
Strength training and adding muscle mass can literally transform your body. You can start out weak, slumped, soft and frail only to transform into someone strong, resilient and solid. While we’re all bound by our genetics and frame, strength training and adding muscle mass is the only way guys are going to build biceps that bust t-shirt sleeves and girls are going to build glutes they buy jeans show off instead of hide. In fact, many celebrities and models focus primarily on strength training when they need to get in shape fast and look their best.
But, keep in mind, strength training is about so much more than just lifting weights, building your muscles and looking great. It’s about vitality, energy, confidence and independence. Once you’ve experienced the benefits of strength training you’ll understand how strength training can completely transform your body, inside and out.