Strength training is often marketed as a way to get a flat stomach, a perkier butt, or more defined arms. And while it can help with those things, weight lifting can do so much more—and you don't need dumbbells or fancy equipment to reap the benefits.
"Strength training—which is an umbrella term for building strength with bodyweight exercises, free weights, weight machines, kettlebells, and other pieces of equipment—can improve your health and make day-to-day activities easier," says Zoe Schwartz, owner and head coach at Fitness by Zoe. "Want to go for a challenging hike with your kids? Lifting can help you keep up! Struggle to carry your groceries home from the store? Over time, weight training will make it easier."
Editor's note: If you have a chronic condition or haven't exercised recently, be sure to get your doctor's OK before beginning a weight lifting routine.
It can help you burn calories more efficiently.
Get this: Inactive adults lose an average of three to eight percent of their muscle mass each decade. In turn, the number of calories they burn on a day-to-day basis takes a dip. Over time, this can lead to substantial weight gain. And depending on where your body tends to store fat, the implications of this stretch far beyond any concerns you may have about how your clothes fit. Fat stored around the abdomen, for example, is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, and high blood pressure.
The good news is that strength training can help—and all you need to do is hit the weights for thirty minutes, at least two non-consecutive days a week, Schwartz says. "Consistent strength training can reverse muscle loss by helping you build lean muscle tissue," she says. "It can also increase your resting metabolic rate, which is how many calories you burn at rest, driving fat loss." It doesn't take super long to start seeing a difference, either. One Quincy College study found that just 10 weeks of resistance training can spur fat loss and increase resting metabolic rate by seven percent.
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It may lower your risk of falls and injury.
"Strength training helps correct muscular imbalances and improves strength, range of motion, and mobility. And all of these things can help ward off injury and falls," explains Schwartz. "The cool thing about strength training is the benefits continue to accrue as you age. So if you stay consistent, you'll be well protected as you move into later adulthood."
Research backs Schwartz's sentiments. One review that looked at data from 7,738 athletes (aged 12 to 40 years) found that sticking to a weight training program reduced the risk of injury by an average of 66 percent. Add to that this review of data from over 23,000 adults aged 60 and older. After crunching the numbers, researchers found there was a 34 percent reduction in falls among those who incorporated balance exercises and resistance training into their weekly workouts.
"For older adults, falling is a big deal," Schwartz points out. "The elderly can be frail and may have pre-existing medical conditions. A fall that leads to a broken hip or head injury could have serious consequences."
It can support heart health.
You've heard it a million times, but it's worth stating again: Americans are struggling with their collective heart health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds in the United States. Not to mention, heart disease—a broad phrase that encompasses a variety of conditions that affect the heart's structure and function—is the leading cause of death in America.
Many things can raise your risk of heart disease and heart attack, including having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar levels. All three of which can be managed—at least in part—by regular strength training. One 2019 study found that people who did at least one hour of strength training per week had a 40 to 70 percent lower heart attack risk compared to those who didn't. And a small Brazilian study found that people who performed three sets of 10 upper and lower body exercises had a decrease in their blood pressure levels in the 24 hours following their workout. Consider these findings along with this Journal of Endocrinology study that found that weight training can improve blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, and it's easy to understand how vital it is to hit the weights.
The American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice a week. And the American Diabetes Association recommended that adults with type 2 diabetes strength train at least two or three times per week. This is in addition to 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per week. (Think: walking or biking.)
It can help protect your bones.
While your diet plays a role in keeping osteoporosis and fractures at bay (hey, calcium!), weight training can also be helpful. "Strength training stresses the bones. When the body repairs them, they become stronger," explains Schwartz.
If you're lifting to boost your bone health, aim to hit the weights for 30 minutes twice a week. That's how often study participants (aged 65 and older) trained in this Journal of Bone and Mineral Research study over eight weeks. The researchers reported that all participants saw an increase in bone density without suffering any adverse side effects or injuries. Add to that, this University of Arkansas study found that full-body strength training is an effective way for premenopausal women to maintain bone density and strength. (Additional research has found similar benefits for middle-aged men.) In other words, no matter your age or sex, doing weekly squats, rows, and lunges will benefit your bones.
It can improve your mental health.
By now, you probably realize there are loads of physical benefits of strength training. But there are mental health perks, too. "Weight training takes consistency. When you put in the time and see your results and progress, you may feel more confident and more resilient," says Schwartz, who trains many clients who are exercising to improve both their physical and mental health.
"Research shows that lifting can reduce anxiety and symptoms of depression," Schwartz adds. "Plus, I can say from experience that it can also be really fun, which is another mental health perk! Consider evolving your program every few months to avoid boredom and keep pushing yourself mentally and physically."
For more, check out This 20-Minute Toning & Slimming Workout.