August 20, 2018

The benefits of strength training

The back of a man doing seated bicep curls

A well-balanced workout routine includes both aerobic training and strength training, but many people are reluctant to try lifting weights, whether because of unfamiliarity with the equipment and exercises, or a fear of “bulking up.”

“It’s easy to set strength training on the back burner,” said Megan Lynch, an exercise specialist with UW Health Sports Medicine's Fitness Center. “As we grow up we’re exposed to more aerobic exercise — running, walking and biking are all forms of play we did as children. Strength training may not feel as natural to us, and it forces us to step outside our comfort zone.”

However, strength training can bring a bounty of benefits for everyone, especially as we age. “Our muscle mass diminishes with age so it’s important to maintain the muscle mass you have and continue to gain more. It’s never too late to start gaining muscle and incorporate a strength-training program into your routine,” Lynch said.

“Strength training not only aids in increasing our muscle strength, but also our bone strength, helping minimize the risk of fracture. In addition, strength training works the range of motion of our joints. All of these things help us to stay independent and perform activities of daily living, such as house and yard work, playing with grandchildren, or caring for a pet.”

How strength training helps chronic disease

Strength training can also help reduce the effects of chronic disease, including:

  • Arthritis: Lifting weights can help with managing arthritis pain. The increased blood flow and range of motion gained through strength training can decrease joint discomfort and stiffness, making it easier to move.

  • Obesity: Strength training burns more calories than aerobic exercise alone. “It takes a lot of energy to use and maintain muscle versus fat, so when we build up muscle, we’re boosting our metabolism and are able to burn calories more efficiently,” Lynch said.

  • Diabetes: Strength training improves insulin sensitivity and increases your muscles’ ability to store glucose, allowing the body to better regulate blood sugar levels.

  • Hypertension: Strength-training can help reduce the pressure on the walls of the heart and lower blood pressure over the long term, which can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

How to build an optimal strength training routine

Before you pick up the dumb bells, consider these tips from Lynch on how to build an optimal strength training routine:

  • Talk to a trained professional. You can get expert guidance through sessions with a personal trainer or a group strength training class. “Strength training is very individualized. It’s a little more complicated than Googling a strength program,” Lynch said. “A professional can help you train for the results you want, teach you the proper form, and get you comfortable with the modality you need to use.”

  • Pick the right equipment for you. Free weights or weight machines? Both are good ways to build up strength, but if you’re a newbie, it might be easiest to start with machines. “Machines are often a great place to start because they set you up to have good form and allow you to perform the movement correctly,” she said. “Free weights are a little more challenging if you’re new to them. You use a lot more muscles to stabilize your body throughout the movement, so you’re working a little harder, and it’s even more important to have proper form.” However, free weights are also more adaptable if you’re unable to maneuver in and out of machines in a particular way.

  • Space it out. Aim for two to three strength-training sessions a week. “It should never be on back-to-back days because we want those muscles to be able to rest, rebuild and repair,” Lynch said. You can alternate strength training with your aerobic exercise or do it on the same day. If you tackle both on the same day, it doesn’t matter which you do first. It’s personal preference. I always like to begin with some aerobics so my muscles are warmed up and ready to perform. However, some people might prefer to do strength training first while their muscles are not fatigued."

  • Remember to warm up. “A warm-up is important for increasing the blood flow to our muscles and increasing muscle temperature. This prepares our muscles to work more efficiently,” Lynch said. She recommends dynamic movement for 10-15 minutes, which involves moving through a range of motion (think jumping jacks, walking, marching, side stepping or similar movements). Another warm-up idea is to use a foam roller, rolling out each muscle group (such as the hamstrings or glutes) for approximately 20 seconds. “Use a foam roller on the areas where you feel muscle tightness, rolling back and forth, working out those problem areas by giving them a deep tissue massage. This activates the muscles and joints, allowing an increase in mobility and blood flow,” she said.

  • Train for the results you want. Whether you’re aiming for strength, hypertrophy (larger muscles), endurance or power, your primary goal will determine how you should design your workout. For example, for strength/endurance (the most common goal for the average person), you’ll want to do 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps at moderate intensity. Use a weight heavy enough to reach fatigue at the end of your reps, but not so heavy you lose proper form. Power lifting or more high endurance training could require a different routine to achieve results. Lynch often hears from men and women who fear that strength training will make them “bulk up,” but in most cases, strength training will actually make your body look leaner. “Those individuals that you see in magazines who are really ripped may have a very intensive routine; possibly training multiple hours a day, and nutrition plays a key role as well. It’s not something that happens overnight,” she said. “The key to strength training is you train for the results you want.”

  • Cool down. Make sure to cool down after a workout for about 5 minutes. This gives the body time to accommodate to the change in activity and allow your breathing and heart rate to adjust to a pre-exercise state. This is also a good time to work on flexibility, as your muscles are more pliable. “If you’re short on time or are simply bored during cool down, I recommend foam rolling,” she said.” It’s a deep tissue massage and can help relax and increase blood flow to the targeted muscle so it can start repairing and rebuilding. It doesn’t have to be overly time-consuming, and it feels good, too.”

  • Choose the best post-workout snack. “Eating after a hard workout is very important,” she said. “Your body has used up a lot of fuel, so you want to replenish those calories for further energy. Your post-workout snack should include protein and carbohydrates. Lastly, don’t forget to rehydrate with fluids.”

  • Vary your routine over time. “Strength-training programs should progress in difficulty as your body adapts to the stimuli,” Lynch said. “If the strength program is no longer challenging enough, you can change repetitions, the weight, add a balance component, or combine exercises for a multi-plane movement. For example, if you have been doing two sets, go for three, and if you become bored with machines weights, try cable bands or free weights. Or if you’re doing a lunge, add a twist with the lunge.” Switching up your routine every six months or so will help keep it interesting and challenging for your body.