Everyone recognizes the importance of an all inclusive, overall balanced (buzzword of the day: holistic) approach to health and fitness.
Some kind of conditioning exercise (‘cardio’, endurance) is essential. Eating healthy is a must. Getting enough rest and quality sleep is key. The importance of mental health is becoming widely accepted. People even over-emphasize stretching!
But strength training? People still assume it’s only for big muscles.
They don’t want to get ‘too bulky’ (especially women). It might throw off their athletic skills. It’s not good for your heart. ALL MYTHS!
In this article, we will 1. deconstruct the common myths that keep people from doing it, 2. review why it’s actually tremendously important for overall health, and 3. explain how it’s not that hard to include in your overall program. Hint: you don’t need a gym membership.
Skip to the end for a summary if you don’t have time to read the details.
First… the myths:
1. Terrible reasons why people don’t Strength Train.
“I’m going to get too bulky.” – most often from women.
Yes, you are going to build muscle, but it will happen very slowly. Women have about 5 to 10 percent of the testosterone of men (and the more the better 1). To get “too big” you would have to work extremely hard, eat in a very particular way, for decades… and your genetics may still limit you. You may even have to take steroids to get “too big”.
It’s slow… you’re not going to wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and think “oops! I’m too big!”. If only it was that easy… men would all look like superheroes. But it’s NOT easy.
Here’s a video of some girls lifting stuff heavier than most (or almost all) men can:
They exercise way harder than you need to for good health… yet are they bulky?
“If I gain weight, it’ll throw off my skills”.
This might be a problem if you quit your sport and didn’t play again until your muscles were significantly larger. But if you practice as you get stronger, you will adapt accordingly. Strength training typically improves sports performance. In fact, it even improves the performance of endurance athletes 2, 3, 4.
Keep in mind, people who grow larger muscles train and eat in very specific ways to achieve that goal. Strength training will build muscle, yes. But it won’t happen too fast, and you will usually hit a genetic limit that’s much smaller than the bodybuilders you see on magazine covers.
“It’s bad for kids.”
Actually, the National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends it 5. It does not ‘stunt’ growth and all that silliness. As long as they are on a properly designed and supervised program, it’s perfectly safe.
“It’s bad for your heart”.
Not really sure where this myth started. But it’s not true.
Of course, if you are at risk of having a heart attack, lifting something heavy could raise your blood pressure, further increasing risk. So get checked by a doctor before you start. If you are clear, it’s perfectly safe.
Even in high risk people (shortly after their first heart attack) resistance training seems safe 6. In fact, with these high risk people, it may be even safer to strength train than to do aerobic exercise 7. How hard can they work? Even high-intensity strength training is safe in people going through cardiac rehabilitation 8. What about long term effects? Well the long term training of elite power-lifters doesn’t seem to cause negative changes in their hearts 9.
Fear for your heart health is no longer an excuse. In fact, it’s good for your heart, and has health benefits you can’t get from other forms of exercise. Which brings us on to our next section:
Next, the reasons you should:
2. Health Benefits
Why should you strength train?
Most of the time, benefits of strength training are described in terms of functional benefits. It clearly builds strength and power, helping you:
Strength training is clearly important for all athletes, of any level, and of any age.
The most obvious benefits that most people are aware of:
- Get stronger and build muscle. 14
- Lose fat. 15
- Build stronger bones. 16
(in fact, strength training is better than the popularly prescribed and sold Calcium-Vitamin D supplementation combo for improving bone density)
Less known, but super important:
- Provides benefits to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, cognition, fatigue, self-esteem, and sleep. 17
- Beneficial for the rehabilitation of various musculoskeletal conditions, such as knee osteoarthritis, chronic tendinopathy, and after hip replacement surgery. 18
- Has been shown to improve pain and functional ability in people with chronic low back pain. 17, 18
- Protects from symptomatic (i.e. painful) osteoarthritis development. 19, 20
- Integral for rehabilitation with neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease 21, Multiple Sclerosis 22, and Stroke 23, to name just a few.
What people typically don’t realize, however, is:
Besides body composition improvements (basically, your ratio of muscle to fat), there are also quite a few metabolic benefits. To name a few:
- Improves insulin sensitivity (how good your body deals with high blood sugar).
- Improves your good (HDL) to bad (LDL) cholesterol ratio.
- Lowers triglycerides (fat molecules) in the blood stream.
- Improves basic metabolic rate. (burning more calories even at rest)
Check out this chart to see a comparison between aerobic endurance training and strength training. Some arrows point up, and some point down, but they are all good changes (for example, both resistance and aerobic exercise increase ‘good’ cholesterol and lower ‘bad’ cholesterol).
You’ll notice there are things under each type of exercise that are not achieved by the other. This clearly illustrates the necessity of both, making the below argument pretty pointless, but we will discuss it anyway:
‘Cardio’ vs. Strength
The unique benefits of aerobic training are mostly to your cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, and circulation), which are very important for lowering your risk of heart disease (the number one cause of death in the world). This is probably why people are under the impression that ‘cardio’ is more important than strength training.
But don’t forget, ‘cardio’ doesn’t have it all.
Plus, it may be possible that when strength training is performed in circuits (less or no rest between exercises, making it continuous), demanding continuous energy, the workout can provide a simultaneous conditioning benefit. 26
So how important are the unique Strength Training benefits?
Turns out, very important.
Starting as early as the age of 25, people lose about 0.5 to 1.0 % (or about a pound) of muscle per year. This is known as ‘sarcopenia’, and it’s not a disease, it’s normal! 27 This has tremendous implications as you age 28. Things as simple as pushing yourself out of a chair become difficult, and going up and down stairs may not even be an option. Furthermore, your metabolism slows, body fat increases, and a whole slew of other negative health effects can be associated with this loss of muscle 29. Worst of all, the weakness can increase your chances of falling and breaking a bone, which is a very big deal when you are older.
The moral of the story:
DON’T NEGLECT ANY ASPECT OF HEALTH AND FITNESS.
3. Strength Training doesn’t need to be that hard or scary.
Hopefully you are convinced you should be doing this. Great!
But you may be intimidated.
However, realize this: strength training does not equal body building.
You don’t need to go in that intimidating weight room at the gym. You don’t even need an expensive gym membership. Simple body weight exercises at home are excellent at building strength.
You don’t even need to do very much: once a week, and one set per exercise of each major muscle group is enough to produce positive changes. A quick five exercise routine at home can be enough, as long as you keep it challenging.
Here’s a blog about body weight exercise: Ghettofit.
If your goal is simply to be fit and healthy, it’s not that hard to include in your overall exercise program.
- Strength training does not make women too bulky. It makes women hot!
- Strength training will not throw off your athletic skills.
- Strength training is not bad for kids. It’s good for them.
- Strength training is not bad for your heart. It’s good for it.
2. Health and Fitness Benefits:
- Strength training has athletic benefits, even for endurance sports.
- Strength training has numerous physical and mental health benefits.
- Strength training is helpful for rehabilitation of a wide variety of illnesses.
- Strength training can provide much the same health benefits as ‘cardio’.
- Strength training also has unique health benefits that are especially important as you age. Benefits that you can only get through strengthening.
3. Don’t be intimidated:
- Strength training does not equal body building or power lifting. It’s not that intense.
- Strength training does not require equipment or expensive gym memberships.
- Body weight exercise at home can be done once a week to provide great benefits.
Hope that was helpful and informative!
If you want to understand how strength training actually works to provide all these benefits, you can read: How Strength Training Works – Part I for the fundamentals, and Part II for the nerdy details.
– Simple strength training routine at home.
– For my fellow dancers: B-BOY STRENGTH TRAINING FUNDAMENTALS.
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