Strength training is truly for everyone. I’m talking athletes, grandmas, librarians, yoga buffs, engineers…you name it. Unfortunately, too many women don’t bother to lift weights unless they’re playing a sport or chasing a fitness goal. And that’s a shame, because even if you’re not looking to build bigger muscles or dominate the playing field, there are still plenty of great health-related reasons to strength train on the regular.
For starters, strength training helps keep your bones strong and sturdy.
Not-so-fun fact: Peak bone mass—the point at which your bones have reached maximum strength and density—actually occurs by the age of 30. Therefore, “the crucial time to develop bone mass is when you are young,” Lisa K. Cannada, M.D., associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, tells SELF.
Estrogen, which helps balance bone mineral buildup and breakdown, decreases as women enter menopause. Add this drop in estrogen levels to the fact that women tend to have smaller, thinner bones than men to begin with, and it’s no surprise that, of the estimated 10 million Americans with the weak bone condition known as osteoporosis, 80 percent are women.
Cannada says that just a 5 percent increase in peak bone mineral mass can significantly decrease the risk of osteoporosis later in life.
One key way to build and maintain bone mass is strength training. And when it comes to strength training for bone health, doing anything from full-on Olympic lifts to bodyweight-only exerciseswill be beneficial. You just need to do something, and do it regularly.
“Our bones respond to resistance,” John C. Garner, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., professor and chair of the kinesiology and health promotion department at Troy University, tells SELF. He cites Wolff’s law, or, the “use-it-or-lose-it” principle: “If we place the bones under stress, the body will respond by sending the material that it needs to make those bones stronger,” he explains. On the other hand, if your bones seldom encounter any resistance, they’ll grow weak faster and become more susceptible to breaks later in life.
Similarly, strength training can help offset the age-related decline in muscle mass and strength that hits right around ages 30 to 35.
Loss of musle mass is also known as sarcopenia. This is actually another one of those “use-it-or-lose-it” situations. If you never challenge or stop challenging your muscles, over time they will shrink and when coupled with a poor diet, waste away (atrophy). Eventually, you may lose the strength to do the ordinary, mundane activities—like pushing a shopping cart or carrying a heavy suitcase—you likely take for granted today.
“What we need to do is resistance train to maintain that muscle mass, so that we don’t wither away,” Garner says.
In the long-term, resistance training can help keep you strong even as you age. In the short-term, strength training simply makes everyday living easier. “If you’re shopping and you’re picking up bags and a child and everything else, if your body’s already used to lifting weights, it’s not going to be that big of a deal,” Garner says.
Unlike your bones, you have to tear down your muscles in order to make them stronger. As you lift a weight, the targeted muscle shortens (also known as concentric muscle contraction), and as you lower the weight back down, your muscle lengthens (also known as eccentric muscle contraction). “As it lengthens, you develop little micro-tears,” Garner says. These micro-tears signal an inflammatory response in the body that calls for cells to come and help the muscle repair and grow back stronger.
Research has shown strength training can also help keep your heart healthy.
For example, one small study found that strength training may significantly lower blood pressure, while another found that those who strength train have better-functioning high-density lipoprotein (aka “good cholesterol”) than those who never strength train. However, if you’re following a general resistance program, “you will still need to incorporate cardiovascular exercisesfor maximum benefit,” Garner says.
Hannah Davis, C.S.C.S., founder of Body by Hannah, advises pairing your strength training routine with 20 to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio daily, which is about the same amount of activity recommended for overall cardiovascular health by the American Heart Association. “[Moderate-intensity cardio] means anything from taking a walk, riding your bike, or going for a jog,” Davis says.
Davis recommends completing three to five strength sessions per week, and trying to keep your routine consistent. Focus on complex, multi-joint exercises to hit the most muscles as possible (think: squats, chest presses, and lat pull-downs), and pair those with a couple of single-joint exercises like bicep curls and reverse flys. Not sure where to start? Here’s a great 20-minute strength workout you can try.