Gone are the days when lifting weights was just for bodybuilders and pro athletes. In fact, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that all adults should do at least two full-body strength-training workouts a week.
That's not because we should all aspire to bulging biceps or chiseled abs — although weight-lifting can and will change the appearance of your muscles. The recommendation to strength train comes from the combination of all the benefits, from the physical (and very visible) to the emotional and mental (aka the not-so-visible).
"Moderate levels of strength benefit almost any activity, whether athletic or part of everyday living," says Jason Li, CPT, personal training manager at SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. "Name any activity and strength training will most likely be beneficial in some way."
Also known as resistance training, strength training involves any activity that puts a load on your muscles, which stimulates them to become stronger. Strength training might involve just your body weight, a set of resistance bands, dumbbells, kettlebells or barbells.
Although the load of certain cardio exercises (like running) is enough for beginners to build some strength, you have to continue to increase the resistance you challenge your body with in order to continue building strength, Li says. And with so many strength-training tools available, there are nearly endless ways to progress with resistance training and continually build strength.
Maybe you've never strayed from your usual cardio routine or just aren't convinced you need to strength train (trust us: you do). Either way, these 12 benefits of strength training will finally convince you to give it a go.
1. Strength Training Supports Fat Loss
Ever hear of the after-burn effect? It's technically called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, and it means that you need more oxygen after training as your body works to cool itself down. In the process, you're burning more calories than usual, even once you've plopped yourself down on the couch.
This mini metabolism boost is stronger with more intense exercise, like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and heavy strength-training sessions with little rest, because you'll need loads of oxygen to fuel harder workouts, according to the American Council on Exercise.
But when you're hitting that high-intensity level, the metabolism lift isn't so mini after all: The after-burn can linger for up to 21 hours post-strength training, according to a small June 2015 study in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. Over time, this increased energy expenditure adds up, supporting your ability to shed body fat.
You'll also burn more calories at rest if you have more lean mass, aka muscle, than fat — and strength training is the best way to make that happen. "Resistance training has been shown to be more effective for building lean body mass over time than cardio," Li says.
2. It Can Transform Your Body
If you're only using cardio to change your body composition — the amount of muscle vs. fat on your frame — you'll typically plateau quickly. Consistent strength training, on the other hand, can seriously transform your physique.
Sure, cardio can help you lose weight, but if your goal is to see strong, defined shoulders, abs and legs in the mirror, strength training is the way to get there.
3. Strength Training Builds Confidence
The physical changes that come with strength training are motivating and exciting in themselves, but building strength has an undeniable influence on your confidence that might be even more valuable. "Most people don't start out able to do great push-ups or pull-ups, for example, but training to achieve these things and unlocking those new skills is highly motivating," Matheny says.
Don't be surprised if the sense of pride that comes with reaching new strength goals carries over into your life outside of the gym.
4. It Can Help Your Mental Health
Though aerobic (aka cardio) exercise like walking and cycling has been extensively researched — and applauded — for its mental health benefits, strength training has begun to claim its share of the spotlight.
In fact, a July 2013 review published in Neuropsychobiology found that strength training, particularly high-intensity strength training, can help lessen symptoms in people with depression.
"A combination of moderate-intensity aerobic training and high-intensity strength training may provide more positive benefits than other exercise programs," the study authors wrote.
5. Strength Training Improves Balance
Maybe you want to finally nail that one-legged yoga pose or get up and down the stairs without feeling wobbly. No matter your goal, strength training can support your stability.
"Many strength-training movements require balance and mobility from your body," Matheny says. As you move in different planes of motion and at different angles while strength training, your major muscle groups and the smaller muscles throughout your body become stronger and more stable.
Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death in adults over 65, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so feeling balanced and stable in your body becomes increasingly important as you age.
6. It Makes Everyday Tasks Easier
That improved balance will come in handy when you need to stand on your tippy-toes to reach something in the closet. And so will the overall strength you build, for all sorts of daily activities.
"If you have trained to deadlift a heavy kettlebell, for example, you feel much more confident — and are safer — picking up boxes for, say, moving," Matheny says. The stronger you are in your strength-training workouts, the stronger you are out in the world.
7. Strength Training Helps Your Posture
Being stuck in one position all day — like sitting at your computer — fatigues the stabilizer muscles in your torso, which play a major role in your posture, Li says.
Regular strength training will help you move more throughout the week, but it also helps increase the endurance of the muscles in your trunk that are responsible for proud posture, he explains.
8. It Can Boost Your Sports Performance
Strength training might also help you get better at your favorite non-gym activities. "Sports that require a lot of short bursts of power and longer periods of low activity or rest benefit tremendously from strength training," Li says.
Whether you want to knock a baseball out of the park, perfect your golf swing or even just run faster, developing strength and power with resistance training can level up your performance.
A large body of research backs this up, including a March 2012 review in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, as well as smaller sport-specific reports. For example, a June 2016 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that six weeks of strength training improved professional soccer players' sprinting ability, while a May 2014 study in Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found 25 weeks of heavy lifting helped cyclists pedal more powerfully.
9. Strength Training Supports Healthy Bones
Though you may think of your bones as static, they break down and renew themselves, much like your muscles.
Over the years, though, bone breakdown increases — especially in women, who have smaller bones to begin with, says Vivian Ledesma, DC, owner of Alliance Healing Arts in Seattle. (Many women develop osteoporosis, the condition of porous, weak bones in middle-age and beyond, according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation)
Though nutrition, age and hormones all influence bone health, people who regularly strength train tend to have higher bone density, Li says. Just as strength training stimulates the repair and growth of your muscles, so it does for your bones.
Ultimately, strength training is important both for supporting bone growth during our younger years and maintaining as much of that bone as possible as we age. A small August 2013 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Physical Fitness, for example, found that full-body resistance training was an effective way for premenopausal women to maintain bone mineral density.
10. It Can Help Keep Your Blood Sugar Healthy
Strength training can help reduce your risk of diabetes, a metabolic disease characterized by high blood sugar that affects 422 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
In fact, April 2019 research in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that people with moderate levels of muscular strength had a 32 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those with low levels of muscular strength.
Researchers think resistance training has this effect by helping to improve body composition and sensitivity to the sugar-regulating hormone insulin, according to an American Diabetes Association position statement published in November 2016 in Diabetes Care.
11. Strength Training Supports Your Heart
Though cardio has long gotten credit for its heart health benefits, January 2017 research in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggests resistance training deserves some, too.
The study authors found that women who reported engaging in any strength training had a 17 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease than those who did no strength training.
12. It May Help You Live a Longer, Healthier Life
Remember those guidelines for physical activity at the top of this story? Well, following those — doing two full-body strength-training workouts and 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio each week — has been associated with "greatly reduced risk of all cause and cause specific mortality," according to a July 2020 study published in The BMJ.
And given all the other benefits listed here — improved heart and bone health, healthy blood sugar levels and better mental health — it makes sense that resistance training would result in a longer, healthier life.
Additional reporting by Jody Braverman
- World Health Organization: "Diabetes"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Falls Among Older Adults: An Overview"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport: "EPOC Comparison Between Isocaloric Bouts of Steady-State Aerobic, Intermittent Aerobic, and Resistance Training"
- International Osteoporosis Foundation: "What Is Osteoporosis?"
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: "Association of Muscular Strength and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes"
- Neuropsychobiology: "Neuroscience of Exercise: From Neurobiology Mechanisms to Mental Health"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Effects of Strength Training on Squat and Sprint Performance in Soccer Players"
- Journal of Sports Science and Physical Fitness: "The Effects of Power and Strength Training on Bone Mineral Density in Premenopausal Women"
- Diabetes Care: "Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes: A Position Statement of the American Diabetes Association"
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: "Strength Training and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease"
- American Council on Exercise: "7 Things to Know About Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC)"
- International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance: "Strength Training for Athletes: Does It Really Help Sports Performance?"
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports: "Strength Training Improves Performance and Pedaling Characteristics in Elite Cyclists"
- The BMJ: Recommended physical activity and all cause and cause specific mortality in US adults: prospective cohort study