The nine health benefits of regular strength training

Want to lose belly fat, sharpen your memory and stay supple into old age?
Want to lose belly fat, sharpen your memory and stay supple into old age? - Andrew Crowley

Want to lose belly fat, sharpen your memory and stay supple into old age? Grab some dumbbells – strength training is the best workout to age-proof your body and brain, according to the latest science. It’s not about having a six-pack or looking lean and toned (though that’s a bonus) – building more muscle is seriously good for your health.

“Strength training in midlife is essential for mitigating age-related decline,” says Athalie Redwood-Brown, senior lecturer in sports science at Nottingham Trent University and founder of Fiit for Life.

“It improves your metabolism, strengthens your bones and joints, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, boosts mental wellbeing and may even help stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

A study of 80,000 people, published in The American Journal of Epidemiology, found that strength training lowers the risk of death from all causes by 23 per cent over several years and reduces risk of death from cancer by 31 per cent. More recently, Danish researchers tracked more than 450 healthy retirees who were randomly assigned to different exercises. The study published online in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine found that those who took up resistance training with heavy weights fared best at maintaining leg strength, some four years later.

So clear are the benefits, the UK Government recommends all adults do at least two sessions of muscle-strengthening activity a week, alongside 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity. Yet while many of us strive to do our 10,000 daily steps, only around one in 20 people do any regular strength exercise, according to a study of 275,000 adults by the University of Essex.

How to start strength training

The good news is you don’t have to pump iron to build a stronger body. Strength training, also called resistance training, is any activity where your muscles have to resist an external weight or force, and that includes your body weight. Squats, lunges, planks, even yoga poses, such as downward dog and warrior, all count.

matt roberts plank
Any activity where your muscles have to resist your body weight are a good start – including the plank - Andrew Crowley

“It’s anything that makes your muscles feel warm, taut and shaky,” says Dawn Skelton, professor of ageing and health at Glasgow Caledonian University. “For people who are already strong, that’s going to the gym and lifting weights.

For others, it might be as simple as repetitive sit-to-stands from a chair, lifting shopping bags up onto the counter three or four times in a row, or repeatedly walking up and down stairs.”

For beginners, “compound” moves such as squats, lunges, press-ups, calf raises, deadlifts and tricep dips are ideal because they work multiple large muscle groups (such as your thighs and core), helping you build strength quickly and safely.

By mirroring everyday movements, such as bending and lifting, practising these exercises regularly makes daily tasks easier. For instance, doing squats helps you lift heavy bags and boxes.

“You’ll be able to pick up your grandchildren and spin them around your head, do the garden and not get out of breath, and lift your suitcase up into an overhead locker on a plane with ease,” says Redwood-Brown. Once you’ve mastered the technique, you can progress to using weights.

Read on to discover the top benefits of strength training and how to reap the rewards. Or skip to the best exercises for strength training.

Build stronger muscles

“From the age of 40, we need to do strengthening activities to offset age-related muscle loss,” says Dr Richard Blagrove, senior lecturer in physiology at Loughborough University and accredited strength and conditioning coach.

“If we don’t take action, we can lose 1-2 per cent of our muscle mass every year.” By the age of 80, a sedentary person can have half the muscle mass they did in their 20s. This age-related decline, called sarcopenia, makes daily life more effortful, increases the risk of metabolic disease, such as diabetes, and can lead to frailty and falls.

However, the right strength-training programme can almost halt muscle loss, says Dr Blagrove. “Start with bodyweight exercises and, in weeks, you’ll feel stronger,” he says. “Your nervous system quickly adapts and recruits more muscle fibres so you become more skilful at each exercise, and daily activities feel easier.” Don’t expect to see bulging biceps or rippling abs yet – muscle growth takes longer. “You get small changes after six weeks but it takes a few months to look different,” says Dr Blagrove. He recommends doing the following programme twice a week.

Include several exercises to target all your main muscle groups – legs, hips, back, abdominals, chest, shoulders and arms. Build up to three sets of 10 repetitions (or reps) of each bodyweight move with a two-minute rest in between each set. This will probably take you a month to six weeks.

Then progress to holding a pair of light dumbbells while you exercise, or use a resistance band or the weights machines at your gym, ideally supervised by a personal trainer. Start with a light weight and build back up to three sets of 10 reps. Then, try varying your reps and how heavy the weights are to keep your muscles challenged.

Add bands or weights to your routine for extra resistance
Add bands or weights to your routine for extra resistance - Andrew Crowley

“Research suggests you can go as high as 20 reps with a lighter weight or as low as three reps with a heavier weight and still increase muscle mass,” says Dr Blagrove. “The key is to work your muscles hard enough that, by the final rep, you can’t lift the weight many more times.” To avoid sore muscles and injury, focus on good technique and avoid progressing too quickly.

Boost your bone health

If you want to prevent falls and fractures in later life, pick up some dumbbells today. “Better bone health is one of the biggest benefits of strength training,” says Redwood-Brown. “The mechanical stress stimulates your bones to grow denser and thicker.”

From midlife, bone density declines by about 1 per cent a year. This accelerates at menopause due to falling oestrogen levels, when women can lose 10 to 20 per cent of their bone mass, increasing the risk of osteoporosis. Strength training, along with high-impact exercise such as explosive jumping and skipping, is proven to stave off bone loss.

“It used to be thought that by a certain age the body couldn’t make new bone cells, but more and more research shows we can maintain and maybe increase bone density, even in later life,” says Redwood-Brown. A landmark study, the Liftmor trial, found postmenopausal women with low bone mass who did two 30-minute sessions of high-intensity resistance training a week, plus high-impact explosive jumping, significantly improved bone density and function after eight months.

“Bones respond to being worked hard and having new activity,” says Sarah Leyland, clinical advisor at the Royal Osteoporosis Society. “To maximise bone strength, you need to do progressive resistance training, gradually increasing the intensity,” she says. Do two 20-to-30-minute resistance-training sessions a week, targeting legs (squats, sit-to-stand and lunges), arms (bicep curls, wall press) and spine (back extension, deadlift).

Lunges are good for bone health
Lunges are good for bone health - Andrew Crowley

Start with bodyweight only, doing eight to 12 reps and building up to three sets of each move. Progress to using free weights or machines, ideally supervised by a personal trainer. “Once you can lift a weight eight to 12 times, aim to move on to a heavier one,” says Leyland. “Also do weight-bearing, moderate-impact exercise such as jogging or low-level jumps.”

Protect your heart

Just 30 to 60 minutes of muscle-strengthening activity a week can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease by 10-20 per cent, according to research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM). “Resistance exercise lowers blood pressure by improving the elasticity of your arteries and promoting better blood-vessel function,” explains Dr Lewis Macgregor, lecturer in physiology and nutrition in sport at Stirling University. 

“It increases high-density lipoprotein (‘good’ cholesterol), reduces low-density lipoprotein (‘bad’ cholesterol) and improves glucose metabolism, lowering blood-sugar levels and helping prevent damage to blood vessels and plaque build-up (which can lead to heart disease).”

Strengthening your muscles and losing excess body fat also reduces strain on your heart. In a study of more than 12,000 people by scientists at Iowa State University, lifting weights for less than an hour a week reduced the risk of heart attack or stroke by 40-70 per cent.

“A combination of resistance and aerobic exercise (such as running or swimming) is best for protecting your cardiovascular health,” says Macgregor. This two-pronged approach reduces risk of cardiovascular disease by 46 per cent, the BJSM study shows. If you have an existing heart condition, check with your GP before exercising.

Burn more fat

Are you spending hours on the treadmill but not losing weight? Add some squats and lunges to your sessions. “Everyone thinks, ‘If I do more cardio, I’ll lose more weight,’ but strength training is the best exercise for fat loss,” says Mitch Raynsford, strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer at P3rform. “Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, meaning it burns more calories, even at rest. The more muscle you build, the higher your resting metabolic rate.”

Research shows that just two sessions of strength training a week can reduce risk of obesity by up to 30 per cent. Crucially, strength training burns body fat while preserving lean muscle mass – good news for your health as well as your waistline. In a study published in the journal Obesity, adults who combined a calorie-controlled diet with progressive resistance training for 18 months lost more body fat and less lean body mass than those combining diet and aerobic exercise. 

When fat loss is your goal, strength training should be your number-one focus,” says Raynsford. “If you can only do two workouts a week, make them both full-body strength sessions and then increase your daily steps. You should see weight loss after two to three weeks if your nutrition stays on track.”

You should feel the burn to make sure you’re on target. “If your last set is a struggle on the final couple of reps, you’re training in the right zone,” says Raynsford. “If you plateau, increase your effort or drop your calorie intake a little to ensure you’re in calorie deficit.”

Prevent diabetes

Good news if you’re worried about developing Type 2 diabetes. Strength training is an effective way to control your blood-sugar levels and avoid the debilitating condition and its associated risks of heart disease and stroke. “Resistance exercise increases your muscles’ need for glucose as a source of energy so they become more effective at taking up glucose from the bloodstream,” explains Dr Macgregor. “This lowers blood-sugar levels, reducing your risk of insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.”

Research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows up to an hour of muscle-strengthening exercise a week can lead to a 20 per cent lower risk of death from conditions such as diabetes. If you already have Type 2 diabetes, resistance exercise helps control the condition. “Even a single session can positively affect glucose management in Type 2 diabetes patients,” says Dr Macgregor. “But regular resistance exercise is needed to improve long-term glycaemic control.” For maximum protection, research suggests you should lift relatively heavy weights – around 70 per cent of the heaviest load you can lift for one repetition.

Research suggests you should lift relatively heavy weights – around 70 per cent of the heaviest load you can lift for one repetition - Andrew Crowley

Ease joint pain

Fed up with niggling sports injuries, stiff joints or back pain? “Resistance exercise strengthens your tendons, ligaments and the connective tissue within your joints, reducing wear and tear from repetitive movements such as walking, climbing stairs and everyday tasks,” says Dr Blagrove. “You’ll be able to do sport without your body succumbing to injury and play with your grandchildren without pulling a muscle.”

Strength training keeps you supple too. “Performing resistance exercises through a wide range of motion, such as squatting until your thighs are around parallel to the ground, lunging until your knee is just above the floor or doing press-ups until your chest touches the floor, helps improve joint health and strength through range,” he explains. “Strength training can help prevent arthritis and reduce pain associated with the condition by fortifying muscles around the joints. It also reduces lower-back pain and the chance of developing it, as long as you have good technique.”

During your strength workouts, focus on good posture, ideally with the help of an instructor. For most standing moves, keep your feet hip-width apart with your knees slightly bent. Keep your back upright and engage your core to stabilise you.

Stave off Alzheimer’s 

If you want a better brain, build a stronger body. Strength training is proven to sharpen memory, increase thinking speed and brain plasticity (needed for learning) and protect grey matter from age-related decline. In 2020, scientists at the University of Sydney showed that regular strength training slows down degeneration in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, responsible for learning and memory and vulnerable to Alzheimer’s. People with mild cognitive decline who did 90 minutes of high-intensity strength training a week for six months had better cognitive powers and minimal hippocampal shrinkage one year later, compared to a control group who did stretching exercises.

“Maintaining the size of your muscles protects your brain health,” says Dawn Skelton. “The stronger you are, the better cognition you’ll have.” It’s thought that strength training improves blood flow to the brain, reduces inflammation that can accelerate cognitive decline, and stimulates the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps produce new brain cells.

Strengthen immunity

Lifting weights could help you stave off winter colds and flu. “Strong muscles are vital for good immune function, helping us fight infections, even Covid,” says Skelton. “One of the reasons Covid hit elderly people so badly is because they were frailer and didn’t have strong muscles. If someone is weak and has lost muscle, they’re prone to absolutely everything coming to get them, so muscle-strengthening exercise is vital.”

Just one session of resistance exercise is enough to stimulate changes in immune-cell function, while several weeks of training leads to better immunity and reduced inflammation, shows research published in the journal Experimental Gerontology. For best results, don’t push yourself too hard, as overexercising suppresses immunity. Include a couple of recovery days between each strength session and get plenty of sleep.

Beat the blues

Strength training boosts your mood as well as your muscles. Research shows that even a single session can ease stress and anxiety. “Just like cardiovascular exercise, strength training triggers the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids through your body,” says Raynsford. “These feel-good chemicals have been found to reduce anxiety and depression and improve self-esteem and mood.”

A review of the science in JAMA Psychiatry found that people with mild to moderate depression who did two sessions of resistance training a week significantly reduced their symptoms. Seeing yourself getting stronger also brings a huge sense of achievement and body confidence, boosting your workout motivation.

“If you’re trying to lose weight, focus on gaining strength instead of losing pounds,” says Raynsford. “Hitting your strength goals boosts your confidence and reduces stress, and by increasing your muscle mass, you’re burning more calories and improving fat loss.” For maximum stress-busting effects, exercise at a low to moderate effort, lifting about 40 per cent of the maximum weight you can manage for one repetition.

The six strength exercises you need to know how to do

Bench Row

Helping to improve posture and feel stronger in the upper body, bench rows are a powerful mass and upper body strength builder, working all the major muscle groups of the back.

Weighted Single Leg Deadlift

This focuses primarily on the glutes, hamstrings and core muscles, and it’s excellent for improving balance, coordination, strength and stability.

Bulgarian Split Squat

This exercise targets all the big muscles in the lower body such as glutes, thighs and hamstrings. With the rear foot elevated, there is much more emphasis on the front leg, which challenges stability and muscular stamina.

Bird Dog

Do this for a stronger core, improved posture and a reduction in back pain. The movement mainly targets the core muscles, specifically the abs and lower back, and also engages the glutes.

Lateral Lunge

This exercise will help to fix any imbalance in the lower body and ankle joints, minimising the risk of injury from trips and falls by building greater balance and coordination. It targets the large muscles in the legs such as the quads, hamstrings, adductors and glutes.

Bench Press-Up

This is what we’d call a regressed version of the standard floor press-up as the hands are higher than the feet, making the leverage less difficult in order to reduce the intensity.