The benefits of strength training: 10 weightlifting benefits you need to know about
Lifting weights has never been more popular.
It builds muscle, boosts athleticism and improves your health. It can even add years to your life.
If you’ve avoided strength training previously because you lacked the confidence or motivation, don’t worry. It’s never too late to start lifting weight.
These days everyone from gym juniors to senior citizens are getting chalking up and using the power of resistance to upgrade their athletics and aesthetics.
Now it’s your turn.
Here are the Top 10 reasons you should be lifting iron.
#1. Bigger muscles
Most people hit the gym for one reason - to look ripped.
Away from competitive sports, lifting weights is more about aesthetics than athletics. And there’s no shame is wanting to look great.
Complete beginners to exercise can build respectable amounts of muscle from cardio training.1 Even the smallest stimuli to deconditioned bodies can trigger morphological change to skeletal muscle fibers.
But as you get used to the demands of aerobic work, Cardio will no longer give your body the nudge it needs to grow.
You can’t spot-reduce body fat. But you can spot build muscle. Enhancing your physique in particular areas by choosing strength exercises to lift, tone and build specific muscle groups.
If you want a larger chest, you can bench press. A tighter butt comes from lunges and hip hinges. And if your arms are a problem area, you can throw in some curls, rows or extensions.
Strength training for muscle growth doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it’s anything but. All you need is a plan, some commitment and a few general guidelines to follow:
- Choose a few exercises that cover all major muscle groups. Around 6-10 is enough.
- Make sure you follow your program 2-3 times per week.
- Aim to reach 10 total sets per muscle, per week.
- Lift weights that are challenging but not exhausting for 6-15 reps. Once you find it easier, increase the weight.
- Don’t train to absolute fatigue. Stop each set 2-3 reps before failure.
You can’t spot reduce body fat… but you can spot enhance muscle through specific strength training exercises
Strength training isn’t about looking like a bodybuilder. It’s about developing your physique to something you feel proud of.
You don’t need to spend every waking hour grinding under the barbell. Or commit to complex split workouts from champion physique athletes or Instagram ‘stars’.
Research shows that even in a few weeks, you can make noticeable differences to your muscle mass. In less than a month you could develop 3-4 lbs of mass.
Some studies2 have shown that 10 weeks of strength training can result in as much as 12 lbs of solid, functional muscle.
#2. Optimal sports performance
Being a top-level athlete means optimizing every facet of your lifestyle. You can’t expect to hit the podium or perform at your best if you don’t eat, live or train the way you should.
There aren’t many sports where weightlifting isn’t part of the preparation and conditioning. From football to figure skating and from sprinting to sumo wrestling, strength training is a necessity.
Research has shown that strength training boosts pretty much all aspects of athleticism. It is an adaptable and versatile method of training; with several systems and protocols you can use to improve your overall sports performance.
Transfer of strength training
Runners, youth athletes and even those taking part in skill-based sports such as pool and darts are pumping iron to improve performance.
Explosive speed and power can be improved by velocity-dominant strength training.3
High-volume or density workouts assist with stamina and cardiorespiratory fitness. And heavy strength training develops maximal strength that can be used as a foundation for power and robustness.
Everyone from power athletes to endurance runners to skill-based sports players include strength training to perform at their best
It’s worth noting that with strength training, the transfer to sports performance can be specific to the type of training. It’s not just about lifting big all the time.
For example, the force-velocity relationship4 shows that heavy weights have to be lifted slowly as it takes time to recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers to lift the load.
This is great for developing maximal force production, voluntary action, adaptations to the muscle-tendon unit and improving technique at high loads.
Heavy v light weights
But lifting heavy doesn’t always lead to optimal improvements in ballistic activities like sprinting, jumping and throwing.
Lighter weights on the other hand can be lifted quicker and transfer better to speed and explosiveness. But they don’t necessarily enhance maximal force production - an important foundational element of athleticism.
Athletes typically need to be strong, fast AND powerfully. So to achieve optimal results, training needs to structured to periodically vary the load, the range of reps and the speed at which the bar is shifted.
#3. Improved metabolic and vascular health
Whatever your health of stage of fitness, lifting weights will help get you in tip-top shape in no time. Studies have shown quite clearly that as little as one hour per week of strength training improves heart health.9 This came from a study of almost 13,000 adults.
Not only that, regular resistance training has been found to have significant effects on blood pressure and inflammation,10 blood sugar regulation, diabetes management and reduction in risk of metabolic syndrome too.
Looking good and excelling on the sport field are great. But the really important benefit to regular strength training is its dramatic effect on health parameters
Strength training isn’t a fantastic calorie burner, but it can contribute towards fat loss by building positive health habits. It is a great way to boost overall energy expenditure, lengthen the time it takes you to reach fatigue and increase fat free muscle mass.
Being overweight is a risk factor for several metabolic and vascular diseases. And while aerobic exercise has always been the ‘go-to’ for weight loss, research shows that strength training is a valuable tool in the war against fat.
According to some studies, combining strength training with aerobic workouts can lead to more fat loss11 than with aerobic training alone.
Now isn’t that a good enough reason to start lifting?!
#4. Better mood
We all feel a little low from time to time. And for those who suffer with anxiety, low mood and mild depression, daily life can be tough. But hitting the weights can help.
Recent research has shown that weightlifting can boost mental health. Regular resistance training not only helps with motivation, but promotes engagement, interest and improves feelings of self-worth.
If you suffer from symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), strengthening exercises can be an effective way to manage your symptoms. One study12 (of 37 women) found that symptoms decreased after taking part in a twice-weekly resistance training classes.
Regular weightlifting can boost your confidence, motivation and improve social communities
A large review published in JAMA13 looked at the link between resistance training and depression. From 33 separate studies, it found that resistance exercise training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults regardless of health status.
And while this doesn’t mean lifting weights is a ‘cure’, it demonstrates that there can be significant health benefits for day to day sufferers of mild depression.
Note: It is important to stress that severe mental health issues cannot be rectified by lifting weights. Nor should training be seen as an alternative to prescribed medication or any other treatment you might be receiving. For specific mental health advice consult your local health professional.
#5. More confidence
There’s nothing more rewarding than smashing a PB in the gym. The feeling of conquering that heavy barbell and showing the weights room who’s the boss is one of the biggest athletic rewards you’ll achieve.
Many people don’t think about the emotional or psychological benefits of strength training. Transforming your body is one thing, but to see your self-esteem and confidence grow is one of the biggest - and least appreciated - benefits of weightlifting.
General research16 shows that physical activity levels are both directly and indirectly associated with self-esteem. Not only that, being physically active, even perceived fitness levels are too.
The feeling of hitting a new PR in the weights room helps to transform your confidence and self-esteem
Strength training is also a community-driven pastime, meaning it can enhance your social circle with like-minded individuals.
The natural boost you get from completing a tough workout, plus the biochemical “feel-good” release of endorphins will put a smile on your face and a swagger in your step in no time.
#6. Stronger bones
Another side effect of ageing is the gradual (or occasionally fast) loss of bone density.
Much like muscle mass, bone mass also decreases by around 1% each year after the age of 40. This is more pronounced in post-menopausal women due to a decrease in estrogen levels. Putting women aged 45+ at a higher risk of brittle bones.
Diseases such as osteoporosis are characterized by low bone health and leave sufferers susceptible to fractures of the hips, spine and wrists in particular. There are as many as 1.5 million fractures each year, suggesting a solid intervention is required to fight against a reduction in skeletal health.
Training for bone health
Progressive resistance training has a mechanical effect on bone cells. Due to its weight bearing effect, controlled strength training triggers a site-specific improvement in bone health.14
Influencing multiple risk factors for osteoporosis - from direct stimulation of osteoblastic activity to a reduction in falls.
Some studies have shown that lifting weights regularly can slow down re-absorption of bone tissue. But others have even demonstrated bone growth - particularly from power-based or strength-based movements.
#7. Youth development
Currently, only 28% of 5 to 7-year-olds and 12% of 13 to 15-year-olds meet physical activity guidelines. A scary thought.
In addition, the play radius of a child has dropped from 5 miles in the 1950s to just 100 meters. Any way you look at it, our kids are becoming less and less active.
The idea of youth and adolescents lifting weights is surrounded by myths of stunted growth and increased injury. Both false, of course.
Within the last few years though we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of children picking up the iron to develop as athletes. As well as confident, strong adults.
A recent meta-analysis15 found that resistance training is a safe and effective way of promoting strength in young adults and children. So long as they are coached properly - with the emphasis on technique rather than simply lumping weight onto a bar.
The great thing about teaching young people about safe strength training is that their brains are highly elastic. Children can retain information much better than adults. Whether it’s learning a new language, playing a musical instrument or correct bench-pressing technique.
#8. Healthy ageing
During your teens and in your twenties you’re in peak condition. You’re strong, fast and able build significant slabs of muscle.
You not only perform at your best but can tolerate high volumes of training - and recovery quickly. But this changes as you get older. When you reach the age of around 40, your physiology begins to change.
One of those changes is a loss of lean muscle tissue - a condition called sarcopenia. And a related condition (called dynapenia) - which is a decrease in muscle strength.
As you hit 50 years old, you lose around 1-2% of your muscle mass each year.5 At 60, you could have lost as much as 13% of your muscle. And by the age of 80, up to 50% could have disappeared.
Factors such as poor diet, medication and chronic illness will contribute to sarcopenia. But the biggest risk factor is a lack of physical activity - and in particular, resistance exercise.
After the age of around 40, muscle mass begins to decrease. But strength training helps to fight that process
Although ageing is an inevitable process, strength training for older adults provides a ‘fountain of youth’ effect.
Studies have shown that when older men and women take part in planned resistance training, muscle strength and lean mass can be preserved6 - and in some cases increased.
One large meta-analysis7 reported that the use of progressive, high-intensity strength training was most effective for fighting sarcopenia. And that resistance-based exercise is a viable strategy to prevent generalized muscle weakness associated with ageing.
Add in higher protein intakes - and maybe even combining strength training with a creatine supplement8 - and you’ll be one jacked old person!
#9. Boosts brain function
As we age, our physical capacity gradually decreases. The same happens with cognitive function too.
The more senior we get, functions such as memory, decision-making and judgement begin to deteriorate. Along with a slowing down of reaction time and gradual decline of motor skills and executive function.
Older adults experience structural changes to brain cells and specific regions of the brain degrade.
Strength training has been shown to help maintain and often improve brain function. Supporting changes to neurotransmitters and other brain-derived factors, as well as improved brain plasticity.
Studies17 have demonstrated a clear link between lifting weights and cognitive function. Regular resistance training has been found to result in significant improvements in frontal lobe function, enhancing planning, organization and task completion for example.
There is an emerging body of literature that has found moderate to strong associations between physical activity and cognition, mood and human brain function*
(* Kramer et al., 2005)
There also appears to be a large “protective” benefit to strength training too. With research suggesting that lifting weights helps to reduce homocysteine levels – a big risk factor for reduced cognitive performance and diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
#10. Live longer
As the old saying goes, “death is a destination we all share, no one has ever escaped it”.
But that doesn’t mean you should accept your inevitable fate it without a fight.
There’s a clear link between strength training and all-cause mortality – with those lifting weights on a regular basis less likely to die early.
Resistance training is associated with lower mortality rates and appears to have an additive effect when combined with aerobic exercise.
Raising the bar
Lifting weights18 is associated with 21% lower all-cause mortality compared to being sedentary. With that figure increasing to 40% if you sprinkle in some cardio too.
You don’t even have to hit the gym every day to reap the benefits of a longer, fuller life either. Research shows that even moderate amounts of strength training have a favorable longevity19 outcome compared to avoiding the gym floor altogether.
Strength training lowers your risk of early death – especially when combined with regular aerobic activity
It’s not clear yet just how strong the relationship between strength training and all-cause mortality is, as the huge number of associated variables is hard to work around.
But if there’s anything more motivating than lifting weights to add years to your life we’ve yet to find it.