Resistance training is about more than solely lifting heavy weights for the hell of it. Many people that have never attempted this type of training are often intimidated by its nature and they may have the fear of getting hurt, or have the impression that it is useless to them because it’s only something that “strong people” do.
Anyone that has exercised using resistance training for more than a couple months can attest to how life-changing it can be. They know because they have lived and experienced the immediate and long-term effects that come along with it. While the immediate effects (i.e. muscle soreness and fatigue) can be unpleasant, the long-term effects are quite rewarding.
In this post, I am going to share my top 7 benefits of resistance training that I believe are the most important to consider if you are thinking about beginning a structured resistance training program. In addition, if you have already experienced the benefits of continued resistance training, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn about a few additional benefits you didn’t know you were getting.
First off, what is resistance training? Resistance training is any form of exercise that requires you to overcome an external resistive force. So, what are some common resistance training exercises you might encounter? While there are many movement patterns that can be used with resistance training, a few of the most common ones you will encounter are the squat, hinge, push, pull, lunge, and carry.
These movement patterns translate to resistance training exercises such as the back squat, deadlift, bench press, bent-over row, split squats, and farmers carry. I believe that we all should be developing these movements and challenging them under load after they have been optimally developed. These movements are fundamental to us as humans; we encounter and use them every day, yet many of us do them inefficiently.
Once you learn how to do them properly from an experienced coach who has been trained to teach them, doing exercises such as these while utilizing weights will be an invaluable part of your exercise routine and greatly enhance your quality of life.
That being said, in no particular order of importance, here are my top 7 benefits of resistance training:
- Increased Muscular Strength: This is the obvious one. Our muscles provide the force that we need to generate so we can overcome an external resistance. When we ask our muscles to produce more force than what they are accustomed to, they will rebuild and get stronger so they can handle that load next time. What does this mean for you? Well, if you have stronger leg muscles, for example, tasks such as walking up stairs, getting up out of a chair, running, doing household chores, yardwork, grocery shopping, getting out of the car, etc. will all get much easier! You think walking up a flight of stairs is easy now? Try it again after a few months of structured resistance training. You’ll need to go up 5 flights of stairs just to increase your heart rate a little.
- Increased Bone Mineral Density: When a load is placed on the skeleton that it is not accustomed to, the body sends signals to stimulate new bone growth. So, if we’re doing back squats or presses, for example, our bones (along with the muscles) need to be strong enough to handle that load. If they’re never challenged, there’s no reason for them to be strong. This is extremely important as we get older because as we lose muscle with age, we also lose bone mass and risk osteoporosis and stress fractures if we don’t keep our bones strong. Sorry, but drinking endless glasses of milk or eating foods high in calcium will not do the trick. You need to lift heavy things too.
- Improved Insulin Sensitivity: If you have prediabetes or are diabetic, this is something you definitely want to pay attention to. Even if you’re not, resistance training will help keep you far away from this disease (assuming your nutrition strategy is sound). There is no question that strength training has been shown to be an effective strategy in preventing and treating Type 2 Diabetes. The hormone insulin is released in response to increasing levels of blood glucose (i.e. blood sugar). Insulin signals proteins within muscles to gobble up the available glucose in the blood and store it, but when a person is insulin resistant (as in Type 2 Diabetes) these signals have been worn out and blood glucose stays high and body damage occurs. Resistance training helps by keeping the muscles sensitive to insulin’s signals and allows blood glucose to be taken up again.
- Increased Lean Body Mass & Decreased Fat Mass: As previously mentioned, lifting heavy weights forces the body to adapt to the load imposed upon it. If the load is heavier than the body is ready for, it realizes this, and signals are sent in the form of hormones to prepare it to handle the load better next time. This forces the body to build more muscle (because muscles produce force) and get rid of more fat. Certain hormones are also released that accelerate the burning of fat for energy after exercise.
- Increased Growth Hormone & Testosterone: During heavy lifting, we release human growth hormone and testosterone. These are potent anabolic hormones that our bodies make and are important in building your body back up after you have stressed it with resistance training. Some of the roles of growth hormone are: increased protein synthesis (i.e. rebuilding your muscles), increased lipolysis (i.e. you’re breaking down more fat), and stimulation of cartilage growth. Testosterone also increases protein synthesis, and has many other important roles within the body.
- Increased flexibility: That’s right. I’m sure you’ve seen or heard something at some point in your life that led you to believe that resistance training will make you bulky, burly, and largely immobile. Well, let’s debunk that myth. While resistance training does increase muscle mass and size (the extent of which depends on on various factors), it’s been shown that resistance training can maintain or improve current joint flexibility. When you train your body by putting your muscles and joints through their full range of motion against a heavy external load consistently (assuming you have developed the requisite mobility to do so with light loads first), over time you will continue to improve and maintain that range of motion with those movement patterns.
- Improved Blood Lipid Profile: This, I feel, is a benefit that may go largely unnoticed with resistance training because we tend to see other benefits that are easily visible like weight, muscle size, reduction in fat, energy levels, strength, etc. However, our blood biomarkers are extremely important to be aware of as well because they provide a picture of what’s going on inside our body and how healthy it is. In addition to improvements in blood pressure and blood glucose levels, resistance training has also been shown to be an effective strategy in improving blood lipids (i.e. triglycerides, cholesterol, LDL, and HDL). There is a dose-response relationship between resistance training and blood lipid profile, however. This means that it is more effective if heavier weights are lifted. Doing bodyweight squats the rest of your life won’t do much here.
These are just some of the benefits of resistance training, and the list doesn’t end with the physical benefits. There are also many psychological benefits to be gained as well.
In closing, you may be wondering how much weight you should be lifting to get these benefits. If you are a complete beginner with no resistance training experience, it won’t take much. First, have a trained coach help you develop the appropriate movement patterns with bodyweight, then you can start to incorporate light loads. As you get more experienced and can handle more weight, you can start to estimate your 1-repetition maximum (1-rep max) for certain exercises (i.e. the most weight you can lift, squat, press, pull, etc. for one repetition). Once you have an idea of what this number is (by estimating it through a 10-rep, 5-rep, or 3-rep max attempt with an experienced coach) you can start thinking about what percentages of that 1-rep max you want to lift in an exercise session. These percentages will become more accurate once you do a true 1-rep max test. In the context of this article, the greater the percentage of your 1-rep max you are lifting (e.g. 65lbs would be 65% of a 100lb 1-rep max), the greater the effects and benefits of the exercise. For instance, you will see more of these gains if you were to lift greater than 80% of your 1-rep max compared to always lifting less than 50% of your 1-rep max.
It’s important to note that your 1-rep max will improve quickly when you are in the beginning stages of training. Progress will eventually slow down and you will have to challenge yourself more with heavier weights as you continue with resistance training. But if you stick with it, you will find that many aspects of your life will be greatly improved and the physical rigors of life will seem insignificant.
Now, quit stalling, find a gym, and start lifting some weight!
Baechle, Thomas R., Earle, Roger W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd Edition. 2008.