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You’re well aware of how important it is to get regular physical activity to keep yourself in good health and reduce your risk of disease. But if you’re like many people and think “exercise” means walking, jogging, or other activities that get the heart pumping, you’re overlooking something important. When it comes to exercise, resistance training rarely gets the attention it deserves. The fact is that resistance training is equally important as aerobic exercise. So what is resistance training and what are resistance training benefits?
What Is Resistance Training?
If you’ve ever pushed against a wall, lifted a dumbbell, or pulled on a resistance band, you’ve done resistance exercise. Resistance training, also referred to as strength training, is deliberate exercise that challenges your muscles with stronger-than-usual counterforce. Muscles become stronger by using progressively heavier weights or increasing resistance. Resistance training helps you maintain or build strength, tones muscles, and can increase muscle mass and strengthen bones.
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Types of Resistance Training
You don’t have to lift weights to get resistance training benefits. When it comes to resistance exercise, your options are great. The following is only a partial list of the many types of resistance exercises available:
- Weight lifting (free weights or weight machines)
- Bodyweight exercises (chin ups, pull ups, sit ups, plank, crunches, lunges, squats, etc.)
- Resistance bands
- Weighted ankle cuffs, wrist cuffs, vests
- Group exercise classes (Barre, BodyPump, interval/circuit training, TRX suspension training, P90X, etc.)
- Yoga (especially power/vinyasa yoga)
- Rock climbing
- Sports like football, wrestling, track and field, rowing, lacrosse, basketball, hockey, soccer
- Kettlebell training
- Martial arts
Resistance Training Benefits
By conditioning your muscles, you won’t just be changing your physique and getting stronger—strength training gives you the power and agility you need to stay fit, active, and independent, protecting your ability to do everyday tasks and many of the things you love to do.
Resistance Training Benefits are Crucial After Age 50
Muscle strength becomes even more important with aging. The average person loses massive amounts of muscle strength as they age. Just doing aerobic exercise is not adequate to prevent this. Once you reach your 50s, unless you are doing strength training, you will become weaker and less functional. In fact, starting at this age, strength training is critical to preserving the ability to perform ordinary activities of daily living, maintaining an active and independent lifestyle. Without enough muscle power as you age, you’re more prone to accidents and injuries that can compromise your ability to lead an independent, active life. Strength training is the most effective way to slow and possibly reverse much of this decline.
The Problem With Having Weaker Muscles
Having smaller, weaker muscles affects the body in many ways. Weaker muscles are less efficient at getting oxygen and nutrients from the blood. That means that activities require the heart to work more and place more strain on it. Weak muscles can’t sop up sugar in the blood or help the body stay sensitive to insulin (which helps cells remove sugar from the blood). Strong muscles, on the other hand, can help keep blood sugar levels in check, which in turn helps prevent or control type 2 diabetes and is good for the heart. Strong muscles also enhance weight control by keeping metabolism revving higher.
Compelling Evidence Supports Resistance Exercise for Treating Disease
Resistance training doesn’t just keep you strong, fit, and mobile and help to prevent disease. It treats a number of diseases, too. Resistance exercise leads to significant improvements in the following health conditions:
- Anxiety 
- High blood pressure 
- High triglycerides 
- Cancer-related fatigue 
- Osteoporosis/osteopenia 
- Metabolic syndrome 
- Alzheimer’s disease 
- Depression 
- High blood glucose/Insulin resistance/Glucose intolerance [8,9]
- Cardiovascular disease 
- Type 2 diabetes 
How Much Do You Need?
Resistance training workouts take as little as 20 minutes. Within four to eight weeks of consistently doing a simple, well-rounded program, you will experience noticeable gains in strength. Ideally, your resistance training program should be developed to strengthen all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms) at least twice a week. Aim for one set of 8 to 12 repetitions of the same movement. While one set is usually effective, some evidence suggests that two to three sets may be better. Make sure you allow your muscles at least 48 hours to recover between training sessions. You may notice mild to moderate muscle soreness between workouts. This is normal, but back off if it persists more than a few days. Always discuss new exercise plans with your doctor and start slowly to prevent injuring yourself.
Get Started With Resistance Training
Now that we’ve discussed resistance training benefits, you likely realize how much you owe it to yourself to make sure that your physical activity includes some types of resistance training. Just two resistance training workouts a week is all it takes for a lifetime of greater fitness and mobility, with stronger muscles and bones and less risk of disease. With so many kinds of resistance exercises to choose from, you’ll easily find something that motivates you and helps you build upon your success.
ASK THE EXPERT
Orli R. Etingin, M.D., director of the Iris Cantor Women’s Health Center at Weill Cornell Medical College, answers a common question about fitness bands.
Q. I’ve been told that I can use a fitness band for strength training instead of weights. Are these elastic bands really a good alternative?
A. Using fitness bands—or resistance bands, as they’re sometimes called—has some advantages over free weights and weight machines. Fitness bands are inexpensive, and also very portable, so you can take one with you to the office or when you travel. And because the bands rely on tension and resistance instead of actual weight, there is less chance of injury while you work out.
Fitness bands come in a variety of sizes and resistance levels, and some have handles. If you buy a set of bands, it will probably come with a booklet of exercises—you can also find dozens of different exercises online. To improve your strength, do fitness band exercises twice a week. Warm up first, with simple stretches that will increase the blood flow to your muscles, and help you avoid injury. Then do 10 to 12 repetitions of an exercise, building up gradually to two or three sets of reps. You can also challenge yourself by moving to a band with greater resistance.
If you’re unsure how to use fitness bands safely and effectively, book an appointment with a personal trainer who is familiar with these handy exercise tools. Your local YMCA also can advise you.
Originally published in 2014, this post is regularly updated.