- We all start to lose bone and muscle mass sometime after age 30, but strength training can delay and even reverse that process for decades.
- Strength training is not necessarily about getting bulky – it’s about developing the functional strength that helps you do day-to-day activities.
- Here are an exercise scientist’s recommendations for getting started and developing a routine.
On a fundamental level, getting stronger can transform your life.
Exercise in general is the closest thing to a miracle drug that exists. Most of us are familiar with various forms of cardio exercise, like going for a run, and the benefits that can be gained from those efforts. But other forms of exercise like strength training can be more intimidating.
Ignoring strength training is a mistake, according to Shawn Arent, director of the Center for Health and Human Performance at Rutgers University and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
Strength training is also known as weight lifting or resistance training, and it offers a host of benefits that you won’t get from a cardio workout.
“The reality is when it comes to lifting weights, there is a huge functional component to it,” Arent said. At some point after age 30, we begin to lose muscle mass and bone density. Most of us won’t notice those changes immediately, but eventually, certain daily activities can get more difficult. Things like walking up stairs, getting out of a chair, lifting up your kids or grandkids, and even walking with stability – “those are all strength and power,” Arent said.
‘You’re reversing ageing’
Strength-training workouts are not just about bulking up. Most people actually can’t build huge muscles without extreme effort.
“That’s a heck of a lot harder to do than people think it is,” Arent said.
Instead, he suggested that people think of working to get stronger as a really practical endeavour. By building up strength, you can delay and even reverse the loss of bone density and muscle mass that come with getting older.
“You’re reversing ageing,” Arent said.
A recent major review of studies backs up the idea that strength training has life-prolonging effects similar to those people get from cardio exercise. Recent research also shows that lifting weights can help fight depression and has benefits for mental health, just like cardio and other forms of exercise.
For those and other good reasons, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends every person incorporate strength or resistance training into their routines two to three times a week.
Getting started with strength
Bodyweight exercises like push-ups and burpees can be an important component of any routine, but eventually, you’ll need additional resistance to actually get stronger, according to Arent. That means using weights or some other means of applying resistance, such as a suspension training system like TRX.
It can feel overwhelming to walk into a gym, see piles of weights and rows of machines, and not know where to begin. If you aren’t at all comfortable with weights, Arent said hiring a trainer to at least show you some proper techniques and work to develop a personalised program can help you avoid injury.
“[Hiring a trainer] does help remove some of that intimidation factor,” he said. “If you remove some of that unknown from it, people will be amazed by how quickly they can take to weight training.”
But it’s important to make sure that whoever is coaching you is qualified. In general, people who are certified strength and conditioning specialists, are members of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, or belong to the American College of Sports Medicine tend to be knowledgeable.
“Don’t just go to the gym and look for the best looking trainer or the most fit trainer,” Arent said.
There are plenty of recommended books and coaches that can be found online as well, and the same certification criteria should apply to those so you can can distinguish the good from the bad.
Building a routine
Everyone’s routine will be slightly different depending on what they want to accomplish and which limitations they have when they start. For that reason, Arent said he doesn’t have one go-to routine he’d recommend for anyone.
But in terms of basic guidelines, he said a healthy person could develop a good routine by focusing on basic multi-joint movements that target major muscle groups in the body.
These sorts of exercises include squats, bench presses, shoulder presses, deadlifts, rows, and potentially leg presses, according to Arent.
In general, a person wouldn’t do all of these exercises every time they worked out. There are many ways to break up a routine, but Arent said he’s a fan of focusing on the upper body one day, then lower body the next, and then repeating that alternation.
A solid general goal might be to do two to four sets of each strengthening exercise during your workout, with eight to 12 repetitions of each per set (all in good form, of course).
There’s something really fulfilling about developing strength through a routine like this, according to Arent.
“Let’s say you start off using 10-pound weights and now you’re using 20, you know you’ve doubled the amount you can lift,” he said.
But make sure to keep focusing on form while measuring your progress.
“Check your ego at the door. It’s not about how much weight you can get up, but about how much you can get up in good form,” Arent said.
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