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Why Should I Start Strength Training?

If all the benefits of strength training could be bottled up as a pill, it might well be considered the single greatest blockbuster drug of all time, comparable with the discoveries of aspirin or penicillin. The benefits of strength training are incredibly profound, wide-ranging, and become ever more important with age. Exercise, including strength training, may well be the closest thing to a Fountain-of-Youth type panacea that we will ever have.

With regular strength training you will experience:

1) Increased muscle mass

2) Increased metabolic rate, so that you will burn fat even on days you don’t train

3) Decrease in cellulite and a bulging belly

4) Positive effect on blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels – may benefit cardiac disease and type 2 diabetes

5) A more powerful immune system

6) Better, more toned skin through increased collagen production – anti-aging benefits

7) Better posture – less neck and back pain

8) A better mood and increased self-esteem

As we age, the following series of events tends to take place, which is associated with a variety of different illnesses, diseases, and injuries.[1] After the age of 30 we start to lose 3-8% of our muscle mass per decade, increasing to 5-10% of total muscle mass per decade after the age of 50.[2] This loss of muscle leads to a slowdown in our metabolism, the amount of calories our bodies burn daily at rest, just to exist and stay alive. A reduction in the resting metabolic rate tends to result in fat gain, causing almost 80% of men and 70% of women over 60 years of age to be classified as overweight or obese.[3] (Excessive body fat is defined as above 22% for males and above 32% for females, and can be measured by your doctor or by special types of scales)

Loss of muscle mass and a gain of excessive body fat can be a vicious cycle as they both reinforce each other – i.e. the more muscle you lose the more easily you will gain fat, and the more fat you gain the more easily you will lose muscle. This age-related process slows the metabolism by about 2-3% per decade in adults[4] is associated with elevated cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels, which can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, both of which can significantly impact not only the length of your life, but perhaps most importantly the quality of your life.[5]

That’s a lot of bad stuff. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to happen to you. Many studies have shown that relatively brief strength training sessions (consisting of only 12-20 total exercise sets, or about 20-30 minutes worth, only 2-3 times per week) can increase the muscle mass of adults of all ages – even through the 10th decade of life.[6]

Strength training has a two-fold positive impact on your resting metabolic rate – the amount of calories you burn per day even while at rest. First, when it is performed regularly, it results in greater total muscle mass in your body, and the more muscle you have, the more energy (calories) you will burn per day. Every 10 lbs of muscle tissue you gain may raise your metabolic rate by about 200 extra calories per day (the amount of a large muffin or small plate of pasta.)[7] Second, immediately after a session of strength training, relatively large amounts of energy are required to repair and grow the muscles you trained. This may cause the resting metabolic rate to increase by 5-9% for up to 3 days after a single training session.[8] This acute increase in the amount of calories burned per day is in addition to the metabolism increase from regular exercise via increased muscle mass. Now, even if you aren’t changing your diet, this increase in muscle mass and metabolic rate from strength training is likely to reduce your body fat, as found by Strasser and Schobersberger in their review article, which recommends strength training for managing obesity and metabolic disorders. Additionally, the neurotransmitters released during exercise can help to target stubborn fat that you may find difficult to lose otherwise, such as cellulite or stomach fat.

Mental health can also be improved by strength training. A thorough review of research done by O’Connor et al. found that the mental health benefits of strength training include a reduction of symptoms in people with fatigue, anxiety, depression; pain alleviation in people with osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and low back issues, improvements in cognitive abilities in older adults and improvements in self-esteem.[9]

Strength training can make you (or, at least your mitochondria – the powerhouse of your cells) young again. Typically with aging there is a deterioration in the mitochondria that power your cells, but after 6 months of training, older adult participants (mean age 68 years) had a reversal in gene expression that resulted in them having mitochondria more characteristic of those as found in moderately active young adults (mean age of 24). This can also help result in increased immune system strength through a reduction in inflammation.[10]

[1] Flegal KM, Carroll MD, Ogden CL, et al. Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults, 1999Y2008. JAMA. 2010; 303:235Y41.

[2] Flack KD, Davy KP, Huber MAW, et al. Aging, resistance training, and diabetes prevention. J. Aging Res. 2011; 2011:127315.

[3] Flegal KM, Carroll MD, Ogden CL, et al. Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults, 1999Y2008. JAMA. 2010; 303:235Y41.

[4] Keys A, Taylor HL, Grande F. Basal metabolism and age of adult man. Metabolism. 1973; 22:579Y87.

[5] Strasser B, Schobersberger W. Evidence of resistance training as a treatment therapy in obesity. J. Obes. 2011; 2011:482564

[6] Campbell WW, Crim MC, Young VR, Evans WJ. Increased energy requirements and changes in body composition with resistance training in older adults. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1994; 60:167Y75

[7] Strasser B, Schobersberger W. Evidence of resistance training as a treatment therapy in obesity. J. Obes. 2011; 2011:482564.

[8] Hackney KJ, Engels HJ, Gretebeck RJ. Resting energy expenditure and delayed-onset muscle soreness after full-body resistance training with an eccentric concentration. J. Strength Cond. Res. 2008; 22:1602Y9.

[9] O’Connor PJ, Herring MP, Caravalho A. Mental health benefits of strength training in adults. Am. J. Lifestyle Med. 2010; 4:377Y396

[10] Sardeli, A. V., Tomeleri, C. M., Cyrino, E. S., Fernhall, B., Cavaglieri, C. R., & Chacon-Mikahil, M. P. T. (2018). Effect of resistance training on inflammatory markers of older adults: A meta-analysis. Experimental Gerontology, 111, 188–196. doi:10.1016/j.exger.2018.07.021

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