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Strength training, which helps boost your muscle power, certainly benefits those who enjoy participating in sports, but this activity also helps all of us to more easily perform everyday movements – such as getting up out of a chair or mowing the lawn. And that’s far from the only benefit.
Developing stronger muscles through strength training – also called weight training or resistance training – may increase your lean mass and bone density, improve your cognitive abilities, lower your resting blood pressure, boost your metabolism, and even improve your self-esteem, studies have shown.
Resistance training also may help prevent and manage type 2 diabetes, enhance cardiovascular health, reduce low back pain and relieve some of the discomfort brought on by both arthritis and fibromyalgia, according to a report issued by the National Institutes for Health. And the US Department of Health and Human Services’ latest physical activity guidelines recommend strength training for everyone.
Specifically, the guidelines said children and adolescents should do strength-building activities three days per week, while adults should perform muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups at least twice a week, at a moderate or greater intensity. Older adults and those with chronic health conditions or disabilities are not off the hook, either. The agency recommends they should incorporate strength training into their weekly activities as they are able. In fact, strength training is more beneficial for these groups, as it can help them better function at home and live independently.
Resistance training, however, can be done using your own body weight, free weights or weight machines. So which way is the best? Experts say it all depends on your goals, fitness level and training preferences.
Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.
Use your body weight with calisthenics
Strength training via body weight means performing calisthenics such as sit-ups, lunges, squats, push-ups, pull-ups planks and step-ups. These exercises are a great option for those who travel frequently, prefer to work out at home, or do not have a gym membership. Calisthenics typically incorporate balance and functional movement, too, which help improve your stability, flexibility and coordination. And body-weight exercises are the best for torching calories, as they require more whole-body movement.
“With body-weight exercises, you can typically complete a high-quality workout in 11 minutes,” said Garret Seacat, head coach at Manhattan, Kansas-based Absolute Endurance. Most people find body-weight exercises easy to do, Seacat said, which is another benefit. And people tend to stick with them compared to other forms of exercise. You are also less likely to injure yourself performing a series of calisthenics compared to using free weights or machines.
Another bonus to body-weight exercises is that they recruit multiple muscle groups at once, said Nandini Collins, a coach manager at digital health company Noom. “They are also more functional and allow individuals to mimic real-life movements such as unloading groceries from the car and lifting and holding children.”
Body-weight exercises do have some drawbacks, though. You can dial them up to some extent – for example, moving from a wall push-up to a knee push-up to a classic push-up – but they will only take you so far in increasing muscle mass, as you are limited by your own body weight. And if you are trying to isolate and work on one muscle, machines will achieve this more effectively and easily.
Free weights enable you to gain muscle mass
If gaining muscle mass is your goal, you have to start picking up the iron, said Seacat, who is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist. Muscles enlarge when you progressively overload them with higher levels of resistance, or weight. This overloading causes microtears in the muscle fibers, which the body repairs by fusing together, increasing their size and mass.
Free weights and weight machines are perfect for building muscle mass, as you just need to select progressively heavier weights. Free weights have the advantage in that they are more versatile, cheaper and smaller than weight machines. This distinction is an important consideration if you have a home gym. “Free weights can be used by any person, from beginners to advanced individuals,” Collins added. “They also help to incorporate stabilizer muscles that are not recruited as much when using machines.”
The major shortcoming of free weights is that it’s easier to sustain an injury with this equipment than when strength training by using your body weight. Seacat said injuries most commonly occur when people try to lift heavier weights than their body is ready for, or use improper form while squatting, dead-lifting or doing overhead lifts. One solution to this problem is to ask an expert to watch your form, or to film yourself on your phone.
Weight machines pinpoint muscle groups
Weight machines have many of the same pros and cons as free weights: They help you build muscle mass more easily than using your body weight but increase your risk of injury from selecting a weight that is too heavy. That being said, machines are better than free weights at isolating muscle groups, easier for beginners to master, and carry less risk of injury than free weights.
Collins, Seacat and other experts say all three types of strength training are beneficial, with most people profiting from a combination of all three. “And remember, doing anything is better than doing nothing,” Seacat said.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specializes in hiking, travel and fitness.