Strength training is a great way to support bone health, make aerobic exercise more efficient, prevent injury, and promote healthy aging. Even if your goal is to grow your muscles, strength training could still be the best option for reaching your health goals.
But first let’s try to establish a few reasons WHY it’s important for everyone to engage in some form of strength training, even if strength isn’t the main goal.
I say “some form” of strength training because every individual is different and so their needs and goals vary. For example, if you are a long-distance runner, working towards a 600-pound bench press will not be a priority. It will most likely be counterproductive. For now, let me just say that every strength training program should be tailored to your individual needs. Heavy barbell lifting may be beneficial for some trainees. Even in those cases, not every program must be dedicated to setting national records for back-squatting and bench pressing. Strength training doesn’t have to be an end in itself, but can be used to help you reach your primary fitness and performance goals.
In all likelihood, no one reading this will take issue with the health benefits of engaging in a regular exercise program so we will accept that as a given. Aside from health concerns, and assuming that strength gains are not already being actively pursued, the remaining motivations to exercise are usually to improve performance or enhance physical appearance. If you didn’t think that getting stronger had relevance to any other goals, then consider the following three reasons to include strength training in your repertoire.
1) Improve Performance
No doubt about it, developing cardiovascular and muscular endurance is vitally important for endurance athletes. Isolating this aspect of fitness has its limitations, though. You can train yourself to perform an activity for a longer period of time, but increasing your endurance won’t make you any faster. What if you could increase the force applied to each stride, crank of the pedal or stroke of the arm? Logically, you should expect to cover the same amount of distance in less time. In this way, a properly designed resistance-training program will help you get faster, something that endurance-training alone cannot accomplish.
Sprinters are very muscular and their training commonly includes weightlifting, as they are interested in applying as much force to the ground as possible to achieve and maintain maximum speed. If the event you’re training for is a 5k or a half or full-marathon, you don’t need to take muscular development to the same level as an elite sprinter, but the same principle applies. If you increase your strength, you will be able to apply more force and cover more ground with each stride.
More accurately, you will increase the stiffness of your muscles, which will allow you to conserve more energy from the impact of each foot strike, improving your running economy. In no way does this minimize the importance of endurance training for distance events. Obviously, you will still need to train for endurance. However, you can give yourself a better base of strength to start from.
Some of you may be thinking, “But I don’t want to lift weights and get bulky and slow.” This could lead to another article in itself, but for now I can assuage some of your concerns: First of all, building muscle never made anyone slower. Remember the example of our sprinter above. Secondly, the higher volume involved in endurance training will preclude the ability to pack on massive amounts of muscle. Very simply, if training for endurance is your priority, it will be impossible to get big and bulky. And third, developing muscular strength isn’t necessarily dependent on increasing muscle size when you’re a novice weight lifter.
Much of the capacity for expressing strength at the beginner level comes from activating neuromuscular connections and engaging muscle fibers more efficiently. I hope to address these issues in more detail in the future, but suffice it to say, building a reasonable base of strength will not have a negative impact on your performance.
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2) Prevent Injury
Many popular forms of exercise are routinely performed with very poor posture and mobility. For example, it’s very common to see recreational runners with rounded shoulders and extremely tight hip flexors. Some joggers actually appear to be grinding it out through acute physical pain, judging by their grunts and grimaces. While running form can be corrected, cycling is one sport that doesn’t even allow for the possibility of good posture or mobility.
A cyclist’s shoulders are going to be slouched forward, their entire spine will be in flexion, and their hips will never come close to full extension. I hope this isn’t misinterpreted as an attack on jogging or cycling because there is nothing inherently wrong with engaging in either sport, or for that matter any other sport. However, if your preferred mode of physical activity restricts your mobility or reinforces poor posture, it would be very prudent to supplement your program with strength training.
How can strength training help? Well, take a typical runner with rounded shoulders and tight hip flexors and you will notice that he appears to be leaning forward and falling into each stride. This inevitably puts more stress on the knee joint because the center of gravity is always over the toes. If we can correct that posture and get the center of gravity over the middle of the foot where it belongs, then we can distribute some of that load being carried by the knee to the potentially more powerful musculature of the hips.
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This can be accomplished with a targeted strength training program. Sure, the muscles in the anterior shoulder girdle and at the front of the hip would benefit from being stretched, but that is not sufficient on its own. We also need to activate the opposing musculature in order to establish a new movement pattern. If we strengthen the glutes enough to get them firing, and then strengthen the middle and lower trapezius to stabilize the scapulae, then we can exhibit the hip extension and scapular retraction necessary for good posture, with the desirable benefit of protecting the knees. Of course, other factors would need to be considered in each individual case but for the sake of simplicity, this should give you the idea.
Granted, weight lifting can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but there’s no need to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of lifting weights that are currently too heavy for you. If you’re new to resistance-training, then go about it intelligently and start light. Very light. At first, bodyweight exercises may be used to train your musculature to maintain a strong posture and establish healthier patterns of movement. Those skills may then be applied to weighted movements and will subsequently carry over into endurance activities.
Many devoted trainees lack that basic capacity to control the movement of their own body, regardless of how many hours, years, sneakers and miles they’ve spent engaging in sports and exercise. Why does this matter so much? Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter to most people until they’re dealing with a resultant problem such as knee pain, lower back pain, plantar fascitis or a pulled hamstring. The vast majority of non-contact injuries can be prevented by spending a little bit of time developing a base level of “functional” strength.
If you habitually train your body in a pattern of postural or muscular dysfunction, you can expect pain and/or injury to occur. For many recreational athletes, the majority of the week is already spent sitting in poor postural position at a desk, in the car and on the couch. Making the effort to correct your imbalances and improve musculoskeletal stability and mobility will help to prevent pain and injury and keep you more active doing what you enjoy. This will tie back into improved performance, as well. Moving more naturally and efficiently can only provide further performance benefits.
3) Enhance Physical Appearance
The #1 reason for participating in an exercise program would probably be to improve physical appearance. We all want to lose the excess body fat! What many fail to appreciate is that it’s just as important to try to maintain existing muscle mass while losing weight. If your training protocol isn’t helping you to maintain muscle, then you are in effect training yourself to be weaker and you will look weaker. Forget about achieving those chiseled arms, toned thighs and firm butts. You simply can’t have good-looking, healthy muscle without the proper training for it. I fully understand that getting stronger isn’t of critical importance to everyone. But why would anyone want to be weaker?
The guys are diggin’ me at this point but I can already hear the objections from all the ladies, “I don’t want to lift weights because I’ll get huge!” Rest assured, you can stop worrying about that once and for all. I promise, you won’t magically turn into the next Ms. Olympia overnight. Weight training is not magic, regardless of what your well-intentioned best friend’s boyfriend is telling you. Very simply, if you’re eating at a caloric deficit, you’re not going to put on weight in any form, muscle or fat, no matter how you train. By adding resistance training to your program, in conjunction with proper nutrition, you will ensure that the majority of the weight you lose is from stored body fat. How does that sound?
I’m sure that some of you may know someone who always looks great and all they do is eat right and do cardio. They’re slim and toned and everything you want to be. Why does that seem to work for them? The truth is, some people just have exceptional genetics and are naturally muscular. If you weren’t born with the muscle to spare, though, then modeling your training program after the genetic outliers will only lead to frustration. If you’re seeking that “toned” look and cardio isn’t delivering it for you, then consider adding some strength training to your exercise routine.
The bottom line is women can benefit just as much as men, aesthetically and functionally, by building some strength. Of course, I’m going to think that way because I’m a personal trainer, right? Well, it’s not my intention to be dogmatic about everyone’s choice of exercise or judgmental about how anyone should look. If you’re just not getting the results that you want, then maybe this article will help you rethink your approach and start training more effectively.
I’ll repeat that there is nothing wrong with engaging in endurance-based activities and I’m not trying to discourage anyone from doing what they enjoy. To the contrary, I’d like to see more individuals get the most out of their current exercise program. This was by no means meant to be a comprehensive analysis of all the benefits of resistance training, but hopefully it provided some food for thought.
My name is Maria. I am a fitness instructor by morning/evening, & an avid reader & fitness coach when I can fit it in. I write about being a new mom, a fitness instructor, a wife, and a lover of life!