It’s January again, so it must be time for another round of New Year’s resolutions. This noble tradition has roots in our best intentions, and we may even be able to stay the course into the spring or longer. The unfortunate truth is that more often than not the bright, shining optimism that launched us into a new year starts to fade and gets subsumed by other concerns. We’re probably lucky to make it to President’s Day.
There’s no resolution more fervently associated with a New Year’s resolution as adopting a new exercise regimen. Each year something similar happens: we run the gauntlet from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s, constantly under attack from an endless barrage of sweets and baked goods and peppermint spiced mochas and all the best foods we can get our hands on. And we resolve: I’m finally getting in shape in January!
Regardless of the outcome, the urge to get in shape is worthy of the effort. Besides the all-important willpower required to stick with a new exercise plan, one of the biggest obstacles for most people is simply not knowing how best to exercise. So many voices in media and entertainment seem to focus almost exclusively on cardio exercises, but those voices miss one of the most important activities you can do both for your short-term goals and your long-term health: strength training.
What is Strength Training? How Does it Work?
In the simplest terms, strength training is working out with weights in order to build muscle. The physiological explanation is slightly more complex: our muscles are made up of long, thin cells that contain the same organelles as our other cells but with the addition of numerous muscle proteins. When our brain activates our muscles, the proteins in those muscle cells generate force and cause the muscle to contract.
Strength training is also known as resistance training because we are essentially forcing our muscles to contract when there is an external force resisting the movement. A classic example is a biceps curl; when we lift a dumbbell, for instance, the muscle cells in our bicep are made to generate a larger force than would normally be required to just lift your arm. When we do this repeatedly, additional muscle proteins are incorporated into the muscle cells, and the muscle gets bigger and stronger—in other words, it’s able to overcome even more resistance. This increased muscle size is called hypertrophy.
This kind of exercise can look different for different people, but there are some typical features and implements that most people use, including free weights, like dumbbells or a barbell, or weight machines. Most exercises are divided by the overall body parts they work, usually upper body and lower body. Here are some of the most common exercises associated with weight lifting:
- Bench press
- Kettlebell swings
- Triceps extension
- Leg press
- Bicep curls
Why Strength Training?
Many people are generally dismissive of strength training, either because they don’t understand or believe its value, they can’t find the time in their schedule, or they think the primary purpose is a vain attempt to become something akin to a body builder. While strength training can be used for subjectively improving one’s physical appearance, its true value goes far beyond those concerns.
While strength training has been around in one form or another since ancient times, it’s only in recent decades that the practice has gained wider acceptance around the world. For years cardio workouts were the primary activities associated with exercise (think running and biking and Jane Fonda step-up videos), but recently more and more Americans are incorporating strength training into their lives.
One of the reasons more people are participating is because of new research that has further identified the benefits of strength training. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) official Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults “do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.” In other words, doctors now overwhelmingly agree that strength training should be a regular part of everyone’s regular exercise routine.
Besides any cosmetic benefits, or simply becoming stronger, research has shown that strength training can have a number of other short term and long-term benefits:
- Burn body fat and lose weight: for many, one of the most appealing aspects of strength training is the fact that building muscle causes your metabolism to improve so that you burn calories more efficiently. This means that you’ll burn calories in the process of building strength AND you’ll burn more on a regular basis as you gain lean muscle. For people struggling to lose weight, strength training is a no-brainer.
- Improved bone strength: strength has actually been shown to increase bone density; this is especially beneficial for elderly people as greater bone density reduces the chances of developing osteoporosis.
- Improved flexibility: regular strength training can also improve flexibility in your joints as well as reduce the likelihood of joint pain and arthritis. It can also give people a better range of motion.
- Better balance: related to improved joints and flexibility, strength training can also improve one’s balance, an increasingly important thing as we get older.
- Chronic condition management: in addition to arthritis and osteoporosis, strength training can also help improve or better manage chronic or long-term conditions like heart disease, obesity, depression, or diabetes.
- Sharpen your mind: some studies have suggested that strength training can even improve cognitive abilities.
How Often Should You Train?
As per the Department of Health and Human Services, the minimum recommendation for adults is two days a week of moderate intensity strength training. But that is meant to accompany 150-300 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity. While any exercise is better than no exercise, you need to meet or exceed those minimums for any substantial, lasting health benefits.
How Do I Get Started With Strength Training?
As anyone who has tried and failed at following through on a New Year’s resolution knows, though, it can be difficult to maintain such a routine, especially if you don’t already have a history of exercise being a part of your life. For this reason, it’s better to start small if that’s all you can manage. One way to start is with one day a week doing some aerobic activity that is challenging and that you enjoy doing (like jogging or biking or swimming). Then add a second or third day. If you can establish a healthy routine and make it a regular part of your week, you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
Eventually it will be time to add weight training. This is the part that can be intimidating for some people—maybe the idea of hanging out with the muscular gym bunnies is too much to handle. The good news is that you can start with bodyweight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, sit-ups, or burpees. The combo of these exercises and aerobic activity will quickly make a noticeable difference in your cardiovascular health and ability to workout without getting totally winded.
Ultimately, though, to really get stronger and more fit, you’ll need to add weight training to your routine. You can buy dumbbells or a barbell at home to use, but you’ll soon find that some kind of gym will be necessary (and cost-effective) to really start building strength. One of the benefits of the internet age is that there are endless tutorials and routines online that can help you figure out a routine of exercises that is right for you. Beyond that, you should consider working with a trainer in the beginning so that you can learn from a pro how to safely do all the exercises.
Strength Training Can Bring a Lifetime of Healthy Living
The benefits of strength training have been well-documented, but of course it requires more than just intellectual knowledge of the facts to truly embrace and adopt a new training routine. Ultimately you’ll be much more successful if you’re not doing it alone. That’s why a trainer or a friend or an exercise class can be a big part of you taking your New Year’s resolution from a flame out to a long-term life change.
If you’re trying to lose weight and you need help getting started or knowing what your weight loss options are, another possibility is to talk with a weight loss professional. For more information about strength training or any other available weight loss methods, contact NEW You Weight Loss to speak with a qualified medical professional.