There’s no question that muscles are an important part of our bodies. Making up half of our weight, over 700 muscles in our body help us move, support our bones and keep our blood flowing, among many other functions.
But when we think of exercise, our first thought is usually cardio – not training to strengthen your muscles. Just how important is building and maintaining muscle?
Benefits of strength training
Strength training offers many benefits, including:
- improving joint function and support for joints
- reducing the potential for injury (the stronger we are, the less chance of injury)
- improving posture
- preventing common pain disorders
- inhibiting age-related decline
- improving metabolism
- increasing bone density
“We know that some of our joints, like our hips, are really well built – but some of them, like our shoulders, are not. So, making sure that our muscles are strong can help with that,” says Kelsey Bos, disability case manager at Manitoba Blue Cross. Certified with the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP), Bos works with injured and sick clients to help them get better and return to work.
Strength training is important across our lives, but becomes even more important as we get older, since our bones become more brittle and our joints become worn, she adds.
Working some muscle groups can help with day-to-day life, Bos says.
“Keeping your core super strong can actually help with back pain,” she says. Upper back exercises can also help with people who are ordinarily sedentary or have desk jobs.
“As we’re sedentary or doing a desk job, we tend to slouch our shoulders forward, head forward, so doing those exercises can really help with pushing our shoulders back and preventing that,” she says.
Also, while weight loss is not typically thought of as a strength-training benefit, it’s actually better than cardio in some respects, Bos says.
“The more muscle mass we have, the more weight that we lose or calories that we burn at rest,” she says. “If you need to see that weight loss right away, then cardio is a good focus. If you want to maintain your weight in the long run, strength training has actually been proven to be more beneficial.”
So why do so many people do cardio over strength training?
“Strength training is really intimidating for a lot of people,” Bos says. “People don’t know what to do, how to do it – they’re scared that if they go in the gym, they’ll do it wrong. Seeking professional help in regard to strength training is ideal. People shouldn’t be intimidated by it. It’s quite easy to learn the proper techniques.”
How to start strength training
“I think the big thing is to start slowly,” Bos says. “Doing a slow progression is probably your best bet. If you don’t know what you’re doing, seek the appropriate help.”
Bos recommends reaching out to a personal trainer with the right qualifications, like CSEP certification, to help you get started safely.
When strength training, technique is very important, she says. “If you don’t know the proper technique to doing these exercises, even booking one or two sessions with someone who’s a professional to show you what the proper technique is will help you significantly.”
For instance, some exercises that many see as training staples – like crunches, which target the abdominals – are actually advanced techniques that are difficult to execute properly, according to Bos.
“Crunches put added strain onto our neck and spine if not executed properly,” Bos says. “The movement associated with crunches is not a movement we do in our everyday activities –- there are many other more beneficial exercises to strengthen the core that actually mimic movements we do regularly throughout the day.”
With strength training, heavy equipment often comes into play. And as with any physical activity, injuries can happen.
“Make sure that you’re having control of your weight at all times,” Bos says. “If your weight is way too heavy, and you don’t have control of it, then your chances of injury are significantly increased.”
Rather than purchasing expensive equipment or getting a gym membership, you can also get creative. Use milk jugs full of sand, soup cans, water bottles – there are a lot of household items that can be used to build muscle, she adds.
If weights intimidate you, you have other options, Bos says. “There are a lot of body weight exercises that you can do as well. You can do a whole-body routine without requiring any weights whatsoever except yourself.”
Strength training frequency
Bos recommends training each muscle group (back, chest, core/abdominals, legs, arms) two to three times per week. Some people choose to focus on a few muscle groups at one time (e.g., back and arms), while others do a full body workout every few days.
“You can strength train every day, but you just have to make sure you’re doing different muscle groups every day and have at least a 48-hour rest in between those muscle groups,” Bos says.
Bos recommends eight to 15 repetitions (reps) per set, with one to three sets per exercise. She recommends a break between each set of between 30 seconds and five minutes (five minutes is recommended more often for sets involving particularly heavy weights).
“Somewhere between those eight and 15 reps, you’re reaching some muscle fatigue and you should notice that it’s progressively getting harder the more reps you’re doing,” she says.
When you can perform all the reps and sets with proper form and you feel you would be able to continue with additional reps, Bos says you can consider increasing your weight in small increments and drop your reps.
“As you gain more strength with your new weight, you can slowly increase your reps until you reach your goal, and then the process starts again,” she says.
Ensuring you strength train in addition to your regular cardio exercise will help you keep your whole body strong and reduce the risk of negative health outcomes.
You can ease into strength training by trying some of our exercises.
To learn more about physical activity, read Physical activity – how much is enough?