Gone are the days where the only people you see lifting weights at the gym are those impossibly muscly men who seem to inhale protein powder like it’s oxygen. You know the stereotype, the men with gigantic biceps popping out of tiny singlet straps, who are often heard groaning passionately in front of the mirror – noises that inevitably invoke feelings of awkward terror in us timid folk walking quietly on the treadmill. Nowadays, the weight section at the gym isn’t just limited to these hyper-masculine men, but rather I see a whole range of people engaging in strength training. From the 18 year old female who previously felt too intimidated to do anything but cardio, or the 70 year old retiree who can lift impressive amounts of weight for any ones standards, it’s clear that a diverse range of people are dabbling in resistance training.
Anecdotally, over the past few years there has been a surge of people taking up strength training as a form of fitness. This could be due to several factors, such as the monotony associated with cardio, the aesthetically-pleasing results of a good strength program, or just a general enjoyment for weights training. Arguably, another key influence for this interest in strength training is social media platforms such as instagram where we see influencers or personal trainers constantly post accessible and appealing strength-training content. Whether it’s gym workouts, a posed mirror selfie in a cute outfit, or a comparison picture highlighting exceptional results, it’s clear that the content relating to strength training is prolific. It’s hard not to feel motivated to sign up to your nearest gym when you view these inspiring pictures every single day, and when most of them are attributing it to strength training it’s an easy decision to start lifting weights.
Whatever the reason for why we incorporate weights into our training schedule, there is no doubt that there are several benefits of strength training. Here are three overarching advantages of lifting weights at the gym:
- Enhances your physique with no need for the treadmill
Admittedly this benefit might err on the side of shallow BUT I would be ignoring the gigantic elephant in the room if I didn’t mention it. One of the main reasons people start engaging in resistance training initially is because they want to manipulate their body to look a certain way. Whilst this is clearly a subjective measure and there’s probably no established scientific link between lifting weights and being attractive (otherwise I would be a supermodel by now), arguably the reduction in body fat, increase in lean muscle and general improvement in confidence may combine to improve physical appearance. We’ve all seen those influencer accounts on instagram of the curvaceous female posing their well-deserved glute-gains, or the men flexing the 6,000 abdominal muscles he seems to have and we can’t help but be impressed.
It’s not that steady-state aerobic exercise can’t give you a fantastic physique, and this is not to ignore the imperatives of nutrition, however when we do see those incredibly fit influencers and wonder how they managed to improve their body so much, they always attribute it to the weights section at the gym. Years of strength training founded upon the principles of progressive overload can build muscle in a way that is visually appealing, giving people that incredibly toned look. This is excellent news for people who despise the monotonous slog that cardio can often feel like. Instead of having to push yourself on the treadmill for what feels like an eternity, most weights sessions often last about 40 – 60 minutes, and you don’t need to be doing anything more than this to see incredible results. Based on my observations on instagram (so, with absolutely zero scientific support), it seems as though many fitness influencers only do very limited amounts of cardio to achieve their idealised body shape. Importantly, this isn’t an endorsement of ditching cardio altogether because there’s undoubtedly some excellent benefits, but rather an emphasis on the importance of weight-training for achieving physical goals.
2. Strength-training can positively impact mental health and motivation
The benefits of resistance training aren’t just limited to physical appearance, and there’s growing research highlighting the benefits of strength training on our mental health. Studies have shown that a single session of resistance training of low to moderate intensity can reduce acute symptoms of anxiety. Further evidence suggests that weight training can have continuous anxiety-inducing effects in the longer-term. When combined with cardiovascular fitness, this reduction in anxiety symptoms is even greater, suggesting a combination of weights and aerobic fitness may be an optimal approach to training. Other studies have also shown that resistance training can be an effective tool in reducing symptoms of depression in adults with a clinical diagnosis. As always, it’s important to note that resistance training isn’t a cure for mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, and health professionals should be the first port of call for anyone suffering symptoms indicative of a mental health disorder. However, the potential benefits of weight-lifting should not be under-stated, and it can be used as a tool among others to manage symptoms of mental health problems, or play a protective role in their development.
Whilst improving your physical appearance is initially a good motivator to start lifting weights, it doesn’t provide that sustained motivation that you need to continue a gym program and incorporate it as part of your weekly routine. It’s simply just not enough to be consistently encouraged through external rewards such as the desire to look a certain way. Rather, we need internal and meaningful motivators to reinforce behaviours and encourage us to continue to engage in them until they develop into a habit. This type of motivation is called intrinsic, and includes those internal rewards like the feelings derived from completing a workout such as happiness and accomplishment. For me personally, whilst I do have aesthetic goals to improve my appearance, the most profound motivator for me to attend the gym five times a week is because I know it will make me feel good. It’s not just about the immediate endorphins produced after exerting energy, but rather the accumulation of healthy habits and behaviours that have the potential to enhance your life significantly. If you want to give yourself the greatest chance at feeling happy, content and fulfilled, you need to repetitively engage in rewarding behaviours that make you feel this way. For me, it’s strength training, among other things, that I know fundamentally changes my life from mediocre to fulfilling.
3. Various physical health benefits
When the media are focussing on the positive effects of exercise, they often focus solely on the benefits of steady-state aerobic exercises that enhance cardiovascular fitness, such as running, walking or cycling. Arguably, they often omit strength training altogether as an important influence on individual’s physical health. Indeed, most physical activity intervention studies in scientific literature are targeted at increasing walking or running as forms of physical exercise, as opposed to specifically promoting weight-training. Whilst incidental cardio such as walking to work or cycling to the shops can be easier to incorporate into a lifestyle than explicit strength training at the gym, this does not mean the latter should be ignored entirely. In fact, the health implications of strength training are incredibly important and can include significant musculoskeletal benefits, improvements and maintenance in physical function, and disease prevention. Potential benefits of weight lifting include:
- Facilitating and enhancing physical function
As we age we experience losses in our physical function, adversely impacting our ability to perform daily tasks. Consistent resistance training can improve strength, mobility, balance and agility, allowing us to continue to go about our day later in life with reduced impairment.
- Improving cardiovascular health
Research suggests that strength training can be just as effective as endurance training in protecting against the development of cardiovascular-related health problems. For example, resistance training has been shown to reduce resting blood pressure, improve blood lipid profiles such as reducing bad cholesterol levels (although this may depend on genetic factors), and potentially improve blood flow in arteries. These benefits are important to consider because these factors are implicated in the development of serious health concerns such as cardiovascular disease.
- Helps strengthen bones
When bone mineral density and bone mass decreases as we age, so too does our bone strength. This can significantly increase the likelihood of debilitating bone fractures occurring and subsequent impairment of quality of life. Muscle loss is linked with bone loss, and adults who do not perform resistance training exercises experience greater reduction in bone mineral density than those who do lift weights. Therefore, one potential benefit of resistance training is increase in bone strength, which in turn may assist in the prevention of developing osteoporosis, reducing the chance of bone fractures.
Studies have highlighted benefits of strength training in relation to mental and physical health, and there’s no doubt a gym routine can enhance your physical appearance. Whilst there’s some contradiction in the literature about the exact advantages of strength training, there’s no doubt that it has positive implications on overall quality of life. To develop a consistent gym routine signifies an intention to live a healthier life in which value is placed on happiness, your health and general fulfilment. Going to the gym just to do a couple of bicep curls probably isn’t going to confer significant benefits, but making a commitment to your health, creating routines, achieving goals and feeling a sense of purpose will undoubtedly enhance your life. So, if the flexed abdominal muslces appearing all over instagram aren’t enough to motivate you to life weights, maybe this article will!