Pumping iron isn't just for bodybuilders.
Working out with weights, machines or bands — also known as resistance or strength training — helps many of your body's most important systems do their best work. Strength training also may help protect you from the side effects of some cancers, including breast cancer.
While aerobic exercises like running and swimming strengthen your heart and lungs, resistance training helps strengthen all your other muscles.
Use strength training to power up your body
Why is it important to exercise and strengthen your body's skeletal muscle? Carol Harrison, senior exercise physiologist at MD Anderson, says strength training offers big benefits. Here's why she recommends including it in your workout.
- It aids your metabolism. This means it helps your body turn food into energy, and to grow and rebuild cells.
- Strength training helps you lose weight. While people usually associate aerobic exercise with weight loss, strength training also helps you shed pounds while building healthy, lean muscles.
- It builds bone density. Your bones tend to break down and become frail as you age. Strength training can help you avoid these bone-wasting effects of aging, called osteoporosis.
- Strength training helps improve and maintain physical functioning. We tend to lose muscle mass as we age, which can make it more difficult to do daily activities like climbing stairs and carrying groceries. Strength training can help maintain these abilities.
Strength training also helps cancer survivors cope with some of the energy-draining side effects of cancer and cancer treatment. "A strong body can better withstand treatment," Harrison adds.
Customize your strength-training plan and start slowly
Whether you've spent years in the weight room or you're just starting out, Harrison says you should aim for two or three strength training sessions a week. That's in addition to moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise -- such as walking, running, swimming or even gardening – which you should be doing most days. In total, you should aim for a total of two-and-a-half hours of moderate aerobic physical activity every week, or an hour and 15 minutes of more vigorous exercise.
During each session, do a series of 10 exercises that target all your muscle groups, Harrison advises.
A personal trainer or physical therapist can help you craft a good training routine. Harrison offers these suggestions if you're just starting out.
- Start with light resistance. Try to complete one set of 10 to 12 repetitions of each exercise. If you can't do at least 10 reps, you're using too much weight. Take a 30-second to one-minute break before moving on to a new exercise.
- Try to do two exercise sessions at least 48 hours apart the first week. The next week, add a second set of repetitions.
- By your third or fourth week, add a third set of reps. You can break up your exercises over a couple of sessions, Harrison says. For example, one day complete your back and arm exercises, then the next day focus on your lower body.
Quality, not quantity, is key
Rest is essential if you want to get the most out of your strength training, Harrison stresses. Why? You're breaking down muscle fiber, which needs time to build up again.
"You can train other muscles or complete aerobic exercise during that rest period," she adds. You just don't want to overwork tired muscles.
Also, Harrison says proper exercise form — steady, controlled motion — is more important than lifting a lot of weight. If your form is poor, you're more likely to injure yourself.
"Three reps using perfect technique are better than 20 using poor technique," Harrison says.
Talk to your doctor if you have health issues
As with any exercise regimen, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a training routine if you have health problems, particularly if you have old injuries, are overweight or have heart problems.
All of this may sound daunting. But the health benefits of strength training are definitely worth it.