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Strength training benefits

Strong muscles aren’t just something you need for heavy lifting — or a body building contest. They’re a real asset to health and fitness at every life stage. They help keep your bones strong and your waistline trimmer at any age. And in your 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond, they’re a powerful antidote to frailty and falls.

How can I boost my muscle strength?

You can help your muscles become stronger by doing regular strength training (also called resistance training or weight training). It’s a form of exercise that strengthens muscle, resulting in many health benefits including a reduced risk of diabetes and osteoporosis.

How does strength training work?

Strength training challenges muscles, forcing them to work harder and get stronger. It also improves joint flexibility. Different ways to challenge a muscle include:

  • Lifting barbells or dumbbells
  • Using weights machines at a gym
  • Using improvised weights (such as a can of food at home)
  • Using resistance bands — light elasticised bands you can anchor on a door handle, the bedpost or under your foot, for example, to create ‘resistance’ when you pull on them
  • Using your own body weight — push ups and chin ups are old favourites and good examples of exercises that recruit your own body weight to strengthen muscles.
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How does strength training help with weight loss?

By itself, strength training may not help you lose much weight, but pairing it with aerobic exercise like walking, jogging or cycling gets better weight loss results than with aerobic exercise alone. This is because muscle is active tissue that burns up kilojoules — and the more muscle your body has, the more kilojoules it burns up. Combining two weekly sessions of strength training with aerobic exercise will help you lose weight more quickly — and tone your body at the same time.

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What are the other benefits of strength training?

  • Increased muscle strength. This can improve your endurance so your muscles can do more without getting fatigued as quickly.
  • Better bone density. As muscles get stronger they exert more of a ‘pull’ on bones and this helps stimulate bone growth.
  • Better balance, flexibility and stability. Stronger muscles help reduce the risk of falls and injury at any age — this becomes more important as you get older.
  • Lower risk of insulin resistance and diabetes. Strength training improves blood sugar control and lowers insulin resistance which can help to manage existing diabetes. Muscles also need glucose for fuel — by using up more glucose, stronger muscles can help keep blood glucose levels healthy to lower your risk of developing diabetes.
  • Reduced depression symptoms. Strength training has been found to be beneficial for people with depression and can help them experience fewer symptoms.
  • Less pain from arthritis. By strengthening the supporting muscles around joints, strength training can ease the strain on joints and lessen the amount of pain experience. It can also help relieve the strain on weight bearing joints because of its role in weight loss.
  • Improved physical function in older age. Now that we’re living longer, strength training helps older people make the most of these extra years by helping them maintain strength and flexibility — and by reducing the risk of chronic disease. A review by the Office of Senior Victorians found studies that showed strength training can improve ability to do everyday tasks even in people in their 90s, and concluded that a wealth of evidence supports strength training to improve quality of life for older people. An estimated 10,000 or more seniors in Victoria alone now do regular strength training.
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What age should I start strength training?

People who are over 100 can benefit from strength training — so can teenagers and everyone in between. Your teens, 20s and early 30s, for instance, are when your body is building its peak bone mass. The more ‘bone in the bank’ at this stage of your life, the better off you are when you begin losing bone density as you age — usually from around your mid-30s in both men and women.

By forcing muscles to work harder, strength training helps you build more bone. As you head into midlife, strength training also helps fight off middle-aged spread. But although you can start strength training at any age, the sooner you start, the greater the benefit.

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How often should I do strength training to get the health benefits?

For maximum benefit, the Victorian Government’s Go For Your Life program recommends two to three strength training sessions a week lasting up to an hour.

Consult your doctor and/or a exercise professional to determine most suitable time and routine for your individual circumstance.

But isn’t it difficult to lift heavy weights?

The idea is to start off with light weights — as low as 500g if necessary. You gradually increase the weight as you get stronger. Being older is no barrier to strength training either — frail older people can improve their function by using weights.

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I’m convinced — where do I start?

You can do strength training on your own at home, but it’s best to have supervision by a qualified instructor at first to learn how to do it safely and effectively. Strength training classes are available at many community centres as well as gyms or through personal trainers. Remember that before you start any new exercise program, it is always best to check with your doctor to make sure the activity is appropriate for you.

For people at risk of diabetes or who already have diabetes, Lift for Life is a strength training program based on research at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, available in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and SA. Details about how you can find out about instructors or fitness centres providing the Lift for Life program in your area can be found in the Further Information section below.

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Further information

Australian Institute of Sport: Factsheets
www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets

Go For Your Life: Strength Training
www.goforyourlife.vic.gov.au/

Lift for Life
www.liftforlife.com.au/

Sources

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Physical activity and public health guidelines. [online] Indianapolis, IN: ACSM. c2007 [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from:
http://www.acsm.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home_Page&TEMPLATE=CM/HTMLDisplay.cfm&CONTENTID=7764

Arthritis Victoria. Strength training and arthritis. [online] Elsternwick, VIC: Arthritis Victoria. c2009 [last updated 6 Dec 2007, accessed 19 Aug 2010] Sourced from: http://www.arthritisvic.org.au/

Black Dog Institute. Exercise and depression. [online] Randwick, NSW: Black Dog Institute. c2009 [accessed 11 Aug 2010]
Available from: http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/ExerciseandDepression.pdf (PDF 259Kb)

Dolezal BA Potteiger JA. Concurrent resistance and endurance training influence BMR in non-dieting individuals. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1998; 85: 695-700.

Donnelly JE, Blair SN, Jakicic JM et al. Appropriate physical activity intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Feb 2009; 41(2): 459–471.

Go for your life. Strength training is for over 50s too. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Department of Human Services. 2008 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from:
http://www.goforyourlife.vic.gov.au/hav/admin.nsf/Images/Strength_training_for_Over_50s.pdf/$File/Strength_training_for_Over_50s.pdf (PDF 1Mb)

Minne HW. Invest in your bones — make it or break it. [online] Nyon, Switzerland: International Osteoporosis Foundation. 2005. [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.osteoporosis.org.au/

Office for Senior Victorians. Strength training for older adults. [online] Melbourne, VIC: State Government of Victoria. [last updated 13 Jan 2010, accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.seniors.vic.gov.au/

Penny B. Prescribing exercise for diabetes. Australian Prescriber. 2007; 30: 130–133.

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Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2010