STRENGTH TRAINING— an umbrella term for exercises that work against resistance, and are neither aerobic like jump roping nor for flexibility like stretching—offers lots of pros, along with its share of cons. Once you’ve decided to give strength training a try, choosing a specific reason such as to counter aging, weight gain or depression can provide the motivation to keep going.
“One of the most important things when you kick-start your [strength exercise] journey is to know your ‘why,’” Mayo clinic health and wellness coach Lynne Johnson told Anahad O’Connor in the New York Times.
Adding muscle can slow and even reverse the fat-gain/muscle-loss that occurs with age, which in turn can up physical work capacity and ability to perform activities of daily living (ADLs), increase bone density, improve coordination and balance and lower the general risk of injury.
But the most oft-cited, research-supported benefit is slowing the aging process at the cellular level—by increasing the number and health of mitochondria, the source of energy in the body’s cells, writes O’Connor. Metabolism-boosting also burns calories: according to one formula, each pound of muscle gained burns an average 7-15 extra calories/day.
Coping with anxiety as well as depression can be another motivator. While most research on depression has focused on aerobic exercise, a recent analysis showed that strength training can reduce people’s “gloom—no matter how melancholy they feel at first, or how often —or seldom —they actually get to the gym and lift,” writes Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times.
Positive effects on mood also occurred regardless of the numbers of repetitions of each exercise performed. On the other hand, the general recommendation is at least two to three strength-training sessions per week, and at least eight repetitions of eight different exercises.
After motivation, another key to success is setting goals that are short-term and realistic—such as in the first month increasing the number of pushups by 10, rather than aiming to go from zero to 50. Up to 65% of people who begin an exercise program drop out in three to six months, but smart goal-setting has reduced the likelihood of dropout by more than 50%.
Finally, have a plan: don’t head into the gym looking for a good place to start. Successful plans to kick off strength training range from those created by a personal trainer—useful especially for those choosing weight machines, and on offer at most gyms at introductory discount rates—to sequences available online like the “9-minute strength workout.”
Popular plans such as the 9-minute workout and programs at Cross-fit gyms include exercises in “sets”—for example, doing three different exercises 10 times each in a row, then repeating that sequence over and over for a 10-12 minute period before moving onto a new set.
Disagreement about strength training arises most over the particular choice of exercises, generally divided between those that rely on equipment—machines, free weights and resistance bands —and those that rely on body weight, including Pilates, Yoga and exercises like push-ups and lunges.
Resistance machines have the advantage of isolating one body part or region, of making it easier to adjust the weight load and of enhancing spinal stability – all of which makes it safer to exercise alone.
On the other hand, using machines in a busy gym can make it hard to do exercise sets because you usually need to finish with one machine entirely and then move on. Also, machines can encourage overconfidence, accompanied by the temptation to increase weight-load to the point of injury. And providing spinal stability can prevent strengthening the exact muscles needed when moving to heavier weights.
A final issue with machines: movements that are “forced” or constrained to specific paths, and thus unnatural, risk causing joint injuries as well as expending less energy than free-range exercises in which more body parts work together.
Using free weights has the drawback of requiring careful attention to form in order to avoid injury. Even under the guidance of a personal trainer, it’s easy to use the wrong muscles. Lifting light arm weights, for example, can incorrectly engage shoulder and neck muscles, risking migraine headaches as well as rotator cuff tears and shoulder bursitis.
But compared to machines, free weights provide three-dimensional training closer to real-life movement. Also, free weights and most other strength training works not just on muscles but also on the fascia—connective tissue that envelopes and connects muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones—increasingly viewed as crucial for both strength and coordination.
Resistance training—either using machines such as the elliptical where it’s possible to adjust the load, or one’s own body weight as in Pilates—may be safest on joints. Using body weight alone merges exercises that are isokinetic, involving muscle lengthening and shortening, such as lunges—and isometric, with no change in muscle, such as planks.
Among the risks of all strength training, accumulating muscle mass too rapidly is associated with stress fractures in women. Also, muscle damage that is the basis for building muscle mass can result in tears as well as damage to the ligaments and tendons—the reason strength training days should be done on alternate days to give muscles a day off in between for repair.
Despite distinctions between strength training and aerobic exercise—strength training works the outside (arms and legs) of the body while aerobics work the insides (heart and lungs)—most aerobic exercises also provide some resistance. Jogging offers the most strenuous resistance, but swimming exercises the entire body, as well as improves flexibility and muscle function. Water helps protects against muscle and bone problems, according to Kenneth Cooper, medical expert on exercise who originated the aerobics concept in the late 1960s.
Finding the best exercise combination for personal motivation and goals, as well as those that can make up a doable plan, can take trial and error, with progress and slippage and hopefully more progress. Regular repetition can, however, produce visible improvement fairly quickly in both physical and emotional well-being.
Every Tuesday Mary Carpenter reports on the state of our well-being, taking on topics like medical marijuana, living longer and psychedelic therapy.