Why resistance training?
As mentioned in our previous blog post, successfully incorporating both cardiovascular and resistance training into any training programme is vital for your health and wellbeing in the long term and can pave the way to your fitness goals. Resistance training provides huge benefits both physically and psychologically, making it a great training method to use.
Resistance training, also referred to as strength training, encompasses any movement that works against gravity. When working against a resistance, such as a dumbbell, band, or even our own body weight, movement is driven by muscular contractions. All our muscles work in antagonistic pairs; they work in tandem with another closely located muscle. In order to work against gravity and initiate movement, one of the muscles (the agonist) contracts which shortens the muscle. The antagonist muscle then relaxes, enabling it to lengthen and facilitate the movement. Think of a bicep curl; in order to curl the weight up towards the shoulder, the bicep acts as the agonist contracting and shortening, whilst our triceps lengthens acting as the antagonist. When our muscles face repeated stress caused by resistance training, muscle fibres begin to break down as they develop ‘microtears’. Recognising these microtears, our body responds by growing new muscle fibres in these areas through a process known as protein synthesis. Provided our diet contains sufficient protein, these fibres will grow in a greater volume than they are broken down in, contributing to gains in both strength and muscle mass (hypertrophy). Resistance training can be undertaken in many different forms (free-weights, kettlebells, bands, bodyweight etc.) with the most common being using free weights. It’s origins can be traced years back to the Greeks who used to compete against each other in lifting large stones, with the first person able to lift the rock being given the honour of inscribing their name into the stone. Modern day lifting culture remains strong, popularised by figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Rock, as well through social media. Whilst achieving physiques like these may not be possible for us given how busy our lives are, resistance training can still provide significant benefits. After all, the NHS recommends doing some form of exercise to strengthen major muscle groups at least twice a week.
Resistance training confers a wide range of anatomical benefits. Most obvious of all is improvements in muscle mass. Both high-load training (high weight, low reps) and low-load training (low weight, high reps) have been shown to result in significant hypertrophy. Over 8 weeks of training, high-load training resulted in 5.3% increases in bicep thickness, 6.0% for the triceps and 9.3% for the quadriceps. Low-load training resulted in 8.6% bicep growth, 5.2% triceps growth and 9.5% for the quadriceps (Schoenfeld et al., 2015)). Research seems to indicate a frequency sweet spot to maximise hypertrophy; gains will be large from increasing major muscle group training frequency from once to twice a week, however increasing from twice to thrice a week may not result in much greater muscle growth (Schoenfeld et al., 2015). Well-designed resistance programmes can provide huge benefits for athletes of all disciplines. Even endurance runners who may typically shy away from resistance training see great progress. Over an 8-week programme, runners who undertook heavy resistance training saw improvements in not just their maximal strength and muscle activation, but also in their maximal running endurance, illustrating the benefits to be wide-reaching (Mikkola et al., 2011). The physical benefits don’t just stop at muscular growth, they also positively impact on our bones. Resistance training has been shown to improve our bone density by between 1% and 3%, helping ease arthritis induced discomfort and guard against osteoporosis. (Westcott, 2012). These findings may suggest that suitable resistance training programmes may provide benefits in age-related injury prevention and that training can truly benefit all ages.
It can also be hugely influential on a psychological level. Male law enforcement personnel subject to four months of circuit weight training demonstrated significant mood improvements and reductions in anxiety, depression and hostility, whilst those who dropped out experienced these in greater levels (Norvell and Belles, 1993). Resistance training could also have a rehabilitative impact; recovering substance abusers using bodybuilding programs had a significant reduction in depressive symptoms in as little as four weeks (Palmer et al, 1995). It has been suggested that such psychological benefits are a result of the self-efficacy and mastery that gym-goers realise. Resistance training improvements are often quick and easily observable (for example increasing reps or weight form sessions to session), which may help to create a perception of growing control, helping to empower individuals and create more positive self-perceptions (McAuley, Wraith and Dunc 1991, cited by Palmer et al. 1995). Much of the psychological benefits can be explained by neuroplastic impacts of training, whereby neural connections in the brain sprout as a result of its learning and experience. Significant adaptations are found in the frontal lobe which controls important cognitive functions such as memory, language and emotional expressions. Whilst research into the influence of resistance training on our brains is in its relative infancy, early findings appear to suggest that regular resistance training throughout life is crucial for both our physical and our brain health (Herold et al., 2019)
Metabolically, resistance training can have beneficial effects. Even a minimal amount of training (sessions lasting as little as 11 minutes) performed for a period of 6 months can chronically increase our daily energy expenditure (Kirk et al, 2009). Other studies suggest that just 10 weeks of resistance training can increase resting metabolic rate by as much as 7%, or the equivalent of half a Mars bar (Westcott, 2012). If this higher metabolic rate exceeds the energy intake from diet, then the trainee will be in a calorie deficit, and consequently should see some weight loss which may counter the common perception that such training will only lead to a bulky physique. Even in scenarios where individuals are looking to regain weight following intense aerobic-induced weight loss, adverse effects on metabolic improvements were not found. Body fat percentage, waist circumference and oxygen consumption were maintained, and muscular strength and lean body mass increased (Warner et al, 2010). Findings indicate a complementary role between resistance and aerobic training in maximising metabolic benefits, something that should be considered when programming to achieve the greatest success. Resistance training can also aid the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes through decreasing visceral fat around our abdominal organs, reducing blood sugar levels, and improving insulin sensitivity, enabling our body to metabolise blood sugars faster (Westcott, 2012). Skeletal muscle as plays an important role in glucose uptake via glucose transporters GLUT-1 and GLUT-4; with increasing muscle mass from resistance training, the number of transporters will increase serving to further help manage diabetes and blood glucose (Klip and Pâquet, 1990). This displays the power of exercise alongside traditional treatments to improving health outcomes.
Hopefully this brief overview of resistance training and just some of its benefits has highlighted why it’s so important. When incorporating resistance training, it is crucial to always check with a medical professional before starting, particularly if you have never trained this way before or if you have a pre-existing condition. Whilst it may be tempting to test your absolute limits in terms of weight, in order to be effective and safe, resistance training must be performed with good technique. Try to focus on good form and adjusting where necessary; having someone record your technique on a phone and watching it back is a great way to see if you’re performing the movement properly. If you are coming back to lifting after an extended break, like many of us are doing post lockdown, make sure you start light in order to minimise your injury risk and build yourself back in gently. If you are keen to include it into your training regime but aren’t sure where to start, get in touch – it’s something we consider for all our clients at AtHome GetFit regardless of their experience levels, gender or training frequency due to the benefits it can provide not just physically, but also for our mental well-being. Resistance training can truly benefit all and is a great way to train.
Written by Matt Bowen, Katie's brother and gym instructor in training. Edited by Katie.
Herold, F., Törpel, A., Schega, L. and Müller, N.G. (2019). Functional and/or structural brain changes in response to resistance exercises and resistance training lead to cognitive improvements – a systematic review. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity, 16(1).
Kirk, E.P., Donnelly, J.E., Smith, B.K., Honas, J., LeCheminant, J.D., Bailey, B.W., Jacobsen, D.J. and Washburn, R.A. (2009). Minimal Resistance Training Improves Daily Energy Expenditure and Fat Oxidation. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, [online] 41(5), pp.1122–1129. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862249/
Klip, A. and Pâquet, M.R. (1990). Glucose transport and glucose transporters in muscle and their metabolic regulation. Diabetes Care, [online] 13(3), pp.228–243. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2407478/
McAuley, E., Wraith, S. and Duncan, T.E. (1991). Self-Efficacy, Perceptions of Success, and Intrinsic Motivation for Exercise1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 21(2), pp.139–155.
Mikkola, J., Vesterinen, V., Taipale, R., Capostagno, B., Häkkinen, K. and Nummela, A. (2011). Effect of resistance training regimens on treadmill running and neuromuscular performance in recreational endurance runners. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(13), pp.1359–1371.
Norvell, N. and Belles, D. (1993). Psychological and physical benefits of circuit weight training in law enforcement personnel. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, [online] 61(3), pp.520–527. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8326055/
Palmer, J.A., Palmer, L.K., Michiels, K. and Thigpen, B. (1995). Effects of Type of Exercise on Depression in Recovering Substance Abusers. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 80(2), pp.523–530.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Peterson, M.D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B. and Sonmez, G.T. (2015). Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(10), pp.2954–2963.
Westcott, W.L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current sports medicine reports, [online] 11(4), pp.209–16. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22777332/.
Warner, S.O., Linden, M.A., Liu, Y., Harvey, B.R., Thyfault, J.P., Whaley-Connell, A.T., Chockalingam, A., Hinton, P.S., Dellsperger, K.C. and Thomas, T.R. (2010). The effects of resistance training on metabolic health with weight regain. Journal of Clinical Hypertension (Greenwich, Conn.), [online] 12(1), pp.64–72. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20047634/