How Lifting Weights Can Benefit Your Health and Fitness

No disrespect to cardio, but if you want to get in shape and jump every hurdle that comes your way — both in and out of the gym — weight training is where it’s at. You can’t open any social media feed without some fitness pro or athlete telling you to get on board with not only lifting weights but lifting heavier ones. And experts agree: Weight training has some incredible benefits.

But what are the real deal benefits of weight training? And should you try it if you’re already happy with your current workout routine? Here are nearly a dozen reasons that’ll convince you to pick up those heavy dumbbells.

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The Benefits of Weight Training

By mixing weight training into your fitness practice, you’ll improve your muscular strength, bone health, flexibility, and more.

Defines Muscles

Want powerful, defined muscles? “If [people] want more definition, they should lift heavier, since they cannot get bigger muscles because of low testosterone levels,” says Jason Karp, Ph.D., M.B.A, a USA Track and Field-certified running coach, exercise physiologist, and author. “So, lifting heavier has the potential to make [them] more defined.”

Strength training may have a reputation of making you “bulk up,” but it’s not true. The more your weight comes from muscle (rather than fat), the more defined your muscles will look. Plus, it’s difficult for folks with low levels of testosterone, which impacts your muscle-building potential, to get bodybuilder muscular, says Jen Sinkler, an Olympic lifting coach, RKC-2 and KBA certified kettlebell instructor, and author of Lift Weights Faster. To seriously gain size, these individuals would pretty much need to live in the weight room.

Improves Bone Health

Weight lifting doesn’t only train your muscles; it trains your bones. When you perform a curl, for example, your muscles tug on your arm’s bones. The cells within those bones react by creating new bone cells, says Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., founder of Women’s Strength Nation. Over time, your bones become stronger and denser.

The key to this one is consistency, as research has shown that lifting heavy weights over time not only maintains bone mass but can even build new bone, especially in the high-risk group of post-menopausal people.

Targets Body Fat, Not Muscle Mass

Build more muscle, and you’ll keep your body burning calories all day long — that’s the science behind why weight training targets more body fat than many other fitness modalities. “Lifting weights can increase your lean body mass, which increases the number of overall calories you burn during the day,” says Jacque Crockford, C.S.C.S., spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise.

Burning extra calories post-workout plus building muscle? It may sound too good to be true, but it’s actually backed up by research. In a 2017 study on overweight adults age 60 and over, the combination of a low-calorie diet and weight training resulted in greater fat loss than a combination of a low-calorie diet and walking workouts. The adults who walked instead of weight trained did lose a comparable amount of weight, but a significant portion of the weight loss included lean body mass. Meanwhile, the adults who did weight training maintained muscle mass while losing fat. This suggests that while aerobic exercise burns both fat and muscle, weight lifting burns almost exclusively fat.

May Reduce Risk of Diabetes and Heart Disease

Weight training can help reduce your risk of serious health conditions, in part by helping to minimize excess visceral fat. ICYDK, there is more than one classification of body fat. Subcutaneous fat is found right under the skin, and it’s the fat that you can feel and see, while visceral fat is found deep in the body and lines your vital organ, according to an article from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Both types of fat are necessary parts of the body’s composition, and both are distributed differently based on many individual factors.

However, an excess of visceral fat can put you at greater risk of developing illnesses such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease, according to a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) study. But weight training can help: The UAB study found that the women who lifted weights lost more visceral abdominal fat than those who just did cardio. Further, it found that the women who kept weight training kept the visceral abdominal fat off for a year, even if they gained weight overall. So TL;DR: Weight training can improve your cardiovascular health by preventing an excess of visceral fat.

Burns More Calories Than Cardio

Just sitting on your tush reading this, you’re burning calories — if you lift weights, that is.

You may burn more calories during your one-hour cardio class than you would lifting weights for an hour, but a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that women who lifted weights burned an average of 100 more total calories during the 24 hours after their training session ended. Another study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Metabolism found that, following a 100-minute weight training session, young women’s basal metabolic rate spiked by 4.2 percent for 16 hours after the workout — burning about 60 more calories.

And the effect of this benefit of weight training is magnified when you increase the load, according to a study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Women who lifted more weight for fewer reps (85 percent of their max load for 8 reps) burned nearly twice as many calories during the two hours after their workout than when they did more reps with a lighter weight (45 percent of their max load for 15 reps).

Why? Your muscle mass largely determines your resting metabolic rate, aka how many calories you burn by just living and breathing. “The more muscle you have, the more energy your body expends. Everything you do, from brushing your teeth to sleeping to checking Instagram, you’ll be burning more calories,” says Perkins. And this could be especially beneficial depending on your goals. (That said, burning calories isn’t the be-all and end-all; the other health benefits of weight lifting are just as — if not more — important.)

Strengthens All Over

Lifting lighter weights for more reps is great for building muscle endurance, but if you want to increase your strength, increasing your weight load is key. Add compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and rows to your weight training regimen and you’ll be amazed at how fast you’ll build strength.

This particular benefit of weight training has a big payoff. Everyday activities (carrying groceries, pushing open a heavy door, hoisting a kid) will be easier — and you’ll feel like an unstoppable powerhouse, too.

Prevents Injury

Achy hips and sore knees don’t have to be a staple of your morning run. Strengthening the muscles surrounding and supporting your joints can help prevent injuries by helping you maintain good form, as well as strengthening joint integrity.

So go ahead, squat low. Your knees will thank you. “Proper strength training is actually the solution to joint issues,” says Perkins. “Stronger muscles better hold your joints in position, so you won’t need to worry about your knee flaring up during your next run.”

Improves Athletic Performance

This might be a surprising benefit of weight training for some long-time runners, but it’s one that shouldn’t be ignored. Stronger muscles mean better performance, period. Your core will be better able to support your body’s weight and maintain ideal form during other exercises (e.g. running), plus your arms and legs will be more powerful.

What’s more, since weight training increases the number and size of muscle fibers fueling your performance, weight training could actually help you burn more calories during your cardio workouts, says Perkins.

Increases Flexibility

Researchers from the University of North Dakota pitted static stretches against weight training exercises and found that full-range resistance training workouts can improve flexibility just as well as your typical static stretching regimen.

The keyword here is “full-range,” notes Sinkler. If you can’t complete the full motion (i.e. going all the way up and all the way down) with a given weight, you may need to use a lighter dumbbell and work up to it.

Boosts Heart Health

Cardiovascular exercise isn’t the only exercise that’s, well, cardiovascular. In fact, weight training can up your heart health, too. In one Appalachian State University study, people who performed 45 minutes of moderate-intensity resistance exercise lowered their blood pressure by 20 percent. That’s as good as — if not better than — the benefits associated with most blood pressure pills.

Makes You Feel Empowered

Throwing around some serious iron doesn’t just empower people in the movies. Lifting heavier weights — and building strength as a result — comes with a big self-esteem boost, and this might just be the biggest benefit of weight training. Your strength will not only show in your body but also in your attitude.

“Strength has a funny way of bleeding into all areas of your life, in the gym and out,” says Sinkler. By constantly challenging yourself to do things you never thought possible, your confidence grows.