Why Is Strength Training Important?
I’ll let you in on a little secret.
The whole reason I ended up as a fitness coach or strength and conditioning coach, or trainer is quite simply because Neuromuscular System Training. AKA resistance training, AKA strength training, AKA weight training. Whatever you want to call it, this type of training is transcendent in its ability to help people achieve awesome stuff.
It doesn’t matter what physical objective you want to hit; Improved sport performance; Improved body composition; Improved productivity/energy; Improved health profile; doing some strength training a couple of times a week or more can help you with that.
It has allowed me to work with a variety of different people from a variety of different backgrounds and I’ve yet to find any particular objective where strength training 2-4 times a week didn’t yield a huge benefit to a person.
People ask me all the time, why they should do it? Here’s why…
For Healthy Living
The ability to produce force is paramount as we age, and sarcopenia (muscle loss due to aging) is a long-term health risk.
Newer research indicates that things like hand strength and general muscle strength have one of the highest correlations to human longevity.
It's arguably more important for long-term human health than aerobic training, because strength training yields more aerobic improvements than aerobic training yields muscle strength improvements.
In other research, the ability to produce explosive power is associated with the reduction of "intrinsic fall-risk factors in older adults."
Explosive power is one part velocity training (plyometrics/shock training) and one part force training. Both fit under the umbrella of neuromuscular training.
Let’s not forget that having some muscle mass also makes you less likely to develop clinical conditions like obesity and diabetes.
It seems only natural that if we lose muscle mass and strength as we age, then combating this loss with strength and resistance training is a practical approach in prevention.
I know most of us don’t necessarily think of ourselves as 70, but when you are, if you’ve spent some time doing some strength training weekly for many years you’re more likely to be independent.
There is ne’er an activity out there that seems to have more associative benefit with health at this moment in time than strength training, not even aerobic training.
Strength training makes everything easier because it lowers the percentage of nervous system activity you need to complete everyday repetitive tasks.
If you can lift 200 lbs and your groceries weigh 40 lbs, then lifting your groceries will be significantly easier than if you could only lift 100 lbs. It’s a lot easier to do more total work at 20% capacity than it is to work at 40% capacity.
I liken it to a comparison of glasses full of liquid. If you have a 12 oz glass (representing your strength capacity), and an activity requires 12 oz of work, then you’re at 100% capacity.
You’re probably going to zap yourself out quickly.
If you have a 16 oz glass though, and an activity requires 12 oz of work, well that’s only 75% of your capacity. Which scenario is likely to be easier?
You’re so smart, I don't need to tell you…
Be the 16 oz glass instead of the 12 oz glass.
Other Potential Health Benefits:
- Improves functional capacity (as mentioned above)
- Helps reduce body fat (next section)
- Increases basal metabolic rate
- Decreases blood pressure and the cardiovascular demands of exercise
- Improves blood lipid profiles, glucose tolerance, and insulin sensitivity
- Increases muscle mass, bone density and connective tissue cross-sectional area
- Improves mental health, and lowers sensations of pain, like low back pain
For Fat Loss
Anecdotally the leanest people on the planet (bodybuilders and sprint/power-based athletes) are heavily involved in weight training.
Scientifically speaking, muscle is a far more metabolically active tissue (by comparison to fat, AKA: adipose tissue), which increases your basal metabolic rate, which in turn, increases your requirement for calories in a day.
The more metabolically active tissue you have — and in our case, we don’t mean bodybuilder huge… — the more calories you will burn at rest, effectively creating the negative energy balance necessary for weight loss, even if you don’t change your caloric intake — but I recommend that you do make nutritional changes in conjunction with training for optimal results.
The energy burn from lean mass, isn’t even necessarily the most important thing though. You don’t burn a ton of extra energy off adding 10 lbs of muscle but it’s still something.
When we’re trying to lose ‘weight,’ what we really want to lose is fat mass. Resistance training preserves lean mass better than anything else — other than maybe high protein intakes --> or even better, a combination of lifting and higher protein intakes — and ensures we lose the right kind of weight.
You may want to prioritize an energy deficit first and foremost, because it’s easiest to create an energy deficit with food. Beyond that, resistance training should still be the main exercise priority if you can (any exercise is better than no exercise). Then fill whatever time you have left with energy system work, particularly the easy to recover from moderate dose of aerobic work.
Research shows us that neuromuscular training is a completely different stimulus on the body by comparison to energy system work.
Energy system work could be more ideal for oxidizing visceral fat mass but it doesn’t preserve lean mass to the same extent and it probably doesn’t manage subcutaneous fat as well either (the type of fat that hides your muscles from view).
A very recent meta-analysis (March 2015) analyzed the effectiveness of of hypocaloric (energy negative) diet alone, diet plus resistance training, diet plus cardiovascular endurance training, and diet plus resistance training with endurance training. What did they find?
“First, hypocaloric balance is necessary for changing body composition, but the effectiveness for establishing imbalance does not equate with the effectiveness for body compositional changes, or any biomarkers associated with metabolic issues. With analysis showing that there is a necessity to include exercise in combination with diet effectively elicit changes in body composition and biomarkers of metabolic issues.
More importantly, the combination, resistance training (RT) was more effective than endurance training (ET) or combination of RT and ET, particularly when progressive training volume of 2-to-3 sets for 6-to-10 reps at an intensity of ≥75% 1RM, utilizing whole body and free-weight exercises, at altering body compositional measures (ES* of 0.47, 0.30, and 0.40 for loss of BM, FM, and retention of FFM respectively) and reducing total cholesterol (ES = 0.85), triglycerides (ES = 0.86) and low-density lipoproteins (ES = 0.60). Additionally RT was more effective at reducing fasting insulin levels (ES = 3.5) than ET or ET and RT.”
*For those that might not know ES = Effect Size
Basically resistance training in combination with dietary changes was by far the best option for weight loss.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, was that a negative energy diet alone was not particularly effective in creating body composition changes or changing biomarkers of metabolic issues (factors like insulin sensitivity).
Just goes to show you that diet might not actually be 80% of the equation as is so cliche in today’s diet/exercise culture…
It's worth noting that there are significant health benefits to lifting even in the absence of dietary changes and fat loss.
Resistance training still stimulates your energy systems to a degree (the reverse is not as true). In particular, the aerobic system needs to run in the background and aid in recovery between sets.
This process of recovery from resistance training will still require additional calories/energy.
All in all, resistance training, getting strong, almost seemingly as a by-product of the training alone, can lead to improved body composition profiles. The more pronounced an energy deficit, the more important it is.
It also improves blood sugar and hormone management as a big plus in the controlling your weight department after you’ve lost all the fat you want to.
A 2014 review found through 25 studies on 26,610 participants and 3,464 injuries that strength training is probably the most effective way to reduce injuries across a variety of sports participation.
The authors of that paper suggested that strength training can reduce overuse injury by half and that strength training reduces injuries to less than a 1/3.
Yes, it beats out stretching by a long shot.
It makes perfect sense. If you expose muscles/joints to high load stressors in a planned and controlled environment; They are able to tolerate low load stressors done more frequently, in more chaotic environments.
A different more recent review on youth sports, found that neuromuscular training reduced injuries by 42%.
More specifically it also found that 2-3x a week of neuromuscular training had the greatest reductions; That total time investment had to be greater than 30 minutes and interventions were effective in less than 6 months of training.
Generally speaking most research on a wide variety of sports reveals that it reduces injury potential. And that carries over to everyday life too.
This doesn’t even begin to describe the research supporting improvement in performance within athletic environments where we know that strength training improves nervous system efficiency and thus improves performance, even in endurance-oriented sports like running or cycling.
This is perhaps our longest held understanding of strength training and why it’s been a staple within sports performance improvement since the 50’s.
There are dozens of papers all revealing that improved strength leads to improved power and generally performance.
Of course, this bodes well for the sport of life too.
Need to help your buddy move a couch and you know how to deadlift 315 lbs with good technique?
Then moving that couch will be a piece of cake, and your body won’t hurt quite as much after the few beers you get as payment.
There has undeniably been a huge focus on aerobic and energy system training as they pertain to health (and don’t get me wrong, looking after your ticker and cardiorespiratory system is important still) but what many weekend endurance athletes tend to forget is that aerobically based sports are more physically demanding on the body than you might realize.
An activity like jumping can place strain of up to 11.6x your own body weight on your joints, while sprinting can approach 6x your body weight, and light running (jogging) can be 2-3x your bodyweight. Even walking according to the latter paper can yield up to 1.5x the stress of your bodyweight at faster speeds.
Running at slow as 6.7 mph is ~2.5x your bodyweight as a ground reaction force.
Think of that amount of strain for hundreds of repetitions, not just the hundred or so in any given strength training session.
These are incredible forces on the body and are often paltry to the ~2x load a strong person might manage in the deadlift or squat. Which is why I like to include plyometric training into most people's programs too (for improved tendon and bone health) and call this whole thing neuromuscular system development.
Of course, all this tends to be worse in sports that are highly repetitive and don’t get enough amplitude, or movement variability (cycling, rowing, distance running…).
At least with power sports like soccer, hockey and even baseball you’re in a proprioceptively rich environment, and as such your body avoids more of the overuse patterns that come from running straight ahead for 10k a few times a week.
The obvious downfall to participation in those sports is the chaos and the increased risk of acute injury.
Think at how well major league baseball manages pitchers these days, 5 days rest, 100 pitch max count typically, they’ve got great data on what the repetitive action of pitching can do to the human shoulder.
Well we know what happens to distance runners, rowers, cyclists and swimmers too, they develop repetitive strain injuries at some point, unless they grew up participating in the sport and are very well adapted. Or have an ideal structure suited to the sport genetically.
Neuromuscular training is often far less strenuous on the actual joints that most people realize. There is less room for technical errors due to fatigue, because adequate rest is typically provided between efforts. It also seems to be far more forgiving to our fascial tissues and pain perception.
Strength training can serve to protect everyone from all kinds of repetitive strain injuries and acute injuries too. It won't make you injury proof, but it does put the odds in your favour.
So I guess the bigger question really is, “why shouldn’t you strength train?”
Strength training just might be one of the ‘healthiest‘ most productive forms of exercise anybody could participate in so if you’re looking for a Coles Notes Version of above; Here’s a list of the reasons you should highly consider adding strength training to any fitness routine:
- It tunes the nervous system to function more optimally
- It has a very low injury potential relative to chaotic and unpredictable sports, and repetitive impact-oriented endurance sports too
- It reduces injury potential – particularly as we age → think fractures and the risk of falling
- It is naturally very low volume relative to endurance sports – which tend to yield a lot of repetitive strain injuries by comparison
- It has a big bang for the buck – less time invested with better results for your ‘health’
- It has more waterfall effect carry-over to other ‘sports’ and ‘activities of daily living’ than other physical activities do – including aerobic, cardiopulmonary and cardiorespiratory benefits
- Strength and Power production have some of the highest correlation to quality of life as we age – they are also among the best longevity predictors
- It improves cardiometabolic risk/health factors – insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose/blood sugar control, etc...
- It improves weight/fat loss outcomes significantly compared to other forms of exercise
- It even maintains or improves mobility/flexibility when done through full ranges of motion, in a variety of planes of movement
- It improves aerobic and anaerobic energy system development (output) to a decent baseline of ability – aerobic training is still superior in that outcome
- It increases coordination and improves nervous system function – concretes good movement patterns
- It likely improves and maintains "good posture" – both static and dynamic, I keep meaning to write a posture article...
- It combats sedentary life from a variety of angles – heart, strength, muscle health, lungs, flexibility, posture, etc…etc…
- It improves brain function (through increased oxygenation and glucose uptake)
- It maintains (and increases if you like…) muscle mass, bone density and tendon/ligament cross-sectional area
- It increase force production and consequently performance in everyday life
- It’s one of the most complete methods of training for nearly any objective
- It improves your mental health and well-being
- It potentially increases your pain tolerance or at least lowers your perception of pain (it's effective at managing a lot of chronic pain syndromes)
- It’s tears can cure cancer…(and that last one is totally a joke…in case you didn’t get it…)
All I'm saying is, if you had to do some kind of exercise, I think resistance training should be at the top of your list.