Imagine a prescription that would make you stronger, healthier, improve your posture, reduce your disease risk and help you live a longer, pain reduced life. It would take only 2-3 times per week – 30-60 minutes at a time.
That prescription exists… that intervention is strength training.
No matter what your goals are, working with (against?) resistance is your most powerful tool you can wield to boost your overall health.
A recent paper has extolled the virtues of strength training – linking moving the iron to a myriad of health preserving, life extending benefits. Here is a summary of the findings:
- Muscle-strengthening activities were associated with a 10–17% lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease (CVD), total cancer, diabetes and lung cancer.
- Maximum risk reduction (approximately 10–20%) at approximately 30–60 min/week of muscle-strengthening activities were found for all-cause mortality, CVD and total cancer, whereas an L-shaped association showing a large risk reduction at up to 60 min/week of muscle-strengthening activities was observed for diabetes.
- Combined muscle-strengthening and aerobic activities (versus none) were associated with a lower risk of all-cause, CVD and total cancer mortality.
This affirms previous trials that have linked strength training to the improvement of a wide array of non-communicable diseases. For example, this 2015 meta-analysis showed strength training to significantly improve muscle strength in people with:
- Parkinson disease (15%–83.2%)
- Multiple sclerosis (4.5%–36%).
- Significant improvements in mobility (11.4%) and disease progression were also reported in people with Parkinson disease after strength training.
- Significant improvements in fatigue (8.2%),
- Functional capacity (21.5%), quality of life (8.3%), power (17.6%), and electromyography activity (24.4%) were found in individuals with multiple sclerosis after strength training.
Conversely, low muscle mass and poor strength are associated with increased mortality. “In the joint analyses, all-cause mortality was significantly higher among individuals with low muscle strength, whether they had low muscle mass. Significant associations between low muscle strength and all-cause mortality persisted across different levels of metabolic syndrome, sedentary time, and LTPA.
When it comes to cancer survival, a cohort study showed 33% lower risk of mortality in those performing free weights or weight training at least 1 d/wk, compared with those who did not.
Strength Training: The Fountain of Youth
A meta-analysis containing 49 randomized controlled trials concluded that after an average of 20.5 weeks of resistance training, older adults gained 1.1 kg of lean body mass
Whole-body progressive strength training (2 sets of 65–85% of 1 repetition maximum) 3 times a week for 6 months attenuated losses in bone mineral density, lean mass, and muscular strength in obese frail participants to a greater extent than combined training or Aerobic training (jogging/running for 60 min at 65–85% of heart rate peak).
Moreover, strength training can improve neurological capabilities (i.e., increased central motor drive, elevated motoneuron excitability), psychological wellbeing (i.e., self-efficacy) and/or cardiovascular function (i.e., maximal stroke volume).
In men, muscular strength is inversely and independently associated with death from all causes and cancer, even after adjusting for cardiorespiratory fitness and other potential confounders.
Bottom line: Strength training boosts physical function in older adults – independent of cardio training and regardless of whether muscle hypertrophy (growth) is achieved.
Women who performed a moderate amount (<150 min/wk) of strength training had a lower risk of mortality, compared with those who did not. When considered jointly with aerobic activity (moderate-to-vigorous), doing any strength training and under 150 min/wk of aerobic work was associated with 26% lower risk of all‐cause mortality; doing any strength training and 150 min/wk or more of aerobic work produced a 46% lower risk.
It is worth noting that there doesn’t seem to be a benefit beyond 150 minutes per week of strength training in either men or women.
Strong Grip, Long Life?
One measure of strength that stands out in the literature is the association with grip strength and longer life. There seems to be a decrease in all-cause mortality with increased grip strength.
A very large prospective study of about 500,000 participants in the UK, aged 40 to 69 years of age were examined and then tracked for a period of 7 years.
After accounting for age and a wide range of other factors, such as diet, sedentary time and socioeconomic status, the researchers found that muscle weakness, defined as a grip-strength measurement of less than 26 kilograms (57 pounds) for men and less than 16 kg (35 lb) for women, was associated with higher overall risk of death and higher risk for specific illnesses.
Each 5-kg (11-lb) increment of grip strength below these thresholds was tied to a 20% increase for women and a 16 percent increase for men in the risk of death from all causes.
For death from heart disease, the risk increased 19 percent for women and 22 percent for men. For death from respiratory disease, the increase was 31 percent for women and 24 percent for men, and for deaths from all cancers, the increase was 17 percent for women and 10 percent for men.
It’s Never Too Late
Even new lifters in their 90’s can gain strength and reap the associated benefits of greater functionality. A 2013 study showed that a 12 week strength training program for participants (ages 91-96) substantially improved their muscle power and strength, balance, getting up speed and reduced falls.
If you are reading this and you are under the age of 90, don’t wait! Start or restart now!
Where To Start?
The good news is, you can start right now. Literally, you can stop reading this and do some body weight movements. All you need is a few dozen square ft. of space. I recommend beginning with 1-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions of the bigger, more compound movements. I would recommend looking into joining a gym, but a home workout situation is just fine too. You can plan a fairly diverse workout by having the following:
- A mat
- A resistance band (with handles)
- A few dumbbells
You can add more dumbbells, bands, kettlebells, medicine balls, a stability ball, a bench as space and budget permit.
A good full body program will consist of the following:
- Moving the body up and down (squats/lunge variations)
- Pulling (rows, pulldowns)
- Pushing (push-ups, presses)
- Hinging (deadlifts)
- Rotation/anti-rotation (abdominal/core work)
Throw in a locomotive one too if desired (farmers carries with heavier weight).
Where Does Strength Fit in to my other Fitness Activities?
In terms of fitting strength into the overall hierarchy picture, here’s my advice:
All activities – whether cardiovascular, strength, mobility, mind-body are awesome! If spin class, yoga or dance group workouts are your thing, that’s awesome – you are doing amazing things for your health. In terms of hierarchy of importance:
- Strength training in the context of an already active lifestyle that includes adequate walking and moving around.
- Everything else.
All other activity should be complementary to, and not a replacement of, strength training. Combine your needs with your goals, interests, accessibility and time constraints.