Strength training improves muscle strength, power, endurance and size. It also reduces body fat, increases body metabolism so you burn more calories each day, improves balance and stability, and keeps bones strong.

Getting to the gym for a weight workout isn't always easy, however. That's why it pays to have weights at home as a backup, or even as a substitute.

The Basics

Strength training, also known as resistance training, is different from weightlifting or power lifting, which are sports in which people compete to lift the heaviest weights.

In resistance or strength training, weights or resistance bands are used to force your muscles to work against extra pounds. Over time this builds and strengthens muscle mass by increasing the size of muscle cells. During the first four weeks of a strength training program, the increase in strength is primarily from changes in the neurologic system that controls muscle contraction. The nervous system increases the number of muscle fibers used for training and coordinates their activity, but muscle fibers remain the same size. After about four weeks, changes take place in the structure of the muscle fibers so they enlarge and muscles become larger.

Talk with your health care provider before starting a strength training program. Once you have your provider's OK, talk with a qualified personal trainer to set up a program. If your goal is to increase strength, then your training sessions should use progressively heavier weights. If your goal is muscle endurance, then your program should use lighter weights with more repetitions.

Why It's Important

Strength training is an important part of a fitness routine because your muscles must be strong enough for daily activities like carrying groceries or gardening, as well as for recreational and sports activities walking or carrying golf clubs. As we age, we lose muscle mass and strength. Strength training helps delay and reduce this loss of muscle.

National Institutes on Aging offers these tips for strength training:

  • Your strength training program should work all the major muscle groups at least twice a week.

  • Warm up your muscles for five to 10 minutes before beginning your weight workout with gentle exercises, and follow your workout with a cool down of five to 10 minutes and gentle stretching. There should be at least one day of rest between sessions to allow your muscles to grow and heal.

  • Use a minimum of weight the first week. Starting out with weights that are too heavy can cause injuries. You can determine how heavy a weight to use by your ability to lift it eight to 12 times before your muscle becomes fatigued, or you are unable to lift the weight. Many women beginners start with 5-pound dumbbells; men with 10 to 15 pounds, but you may need to start out using as little as 1 or 2 pounds.

  • When doing a strength exercise, do eight to 15 repetitions in a row. Wait a minute, then do another set of eight to 15 repetitions in a row of the same exercise.

  • Gradually add a challenging amount of weight in order to benefit from strength exercises. If you don’t challenge your muscles, you won’t benefit from strength exercises.

  • If you have had a hip repair or replacement, check with your surgeon before doing lower-body exercises.

  • If you have had a hip replacement, don't cross your legs, and don't bend your hips farther than a 90-degree angle.

  • Avoid jerking or thrusting weights into position. That can cause injuries. Use smooth, steady movements.

  • Avoid "locking" the joints in your arms and legs in a tightly straightened position.

  • Breathe out as you lift or push, and breathe in as you relax. For example, if you are doing leg lifts, breathe out as you lift your leg, and breathe in as you lower it. This may not feel natural at first, and you probably will have to think about it as you are doing it for awhile.

  • Muscle soreness lasting up to a few days and slight fatigue are normal after muscle-building exercises, but exhaustion, sore joints, and unpleasant muscle pulling aren't. The latter symptoms mean you are overdoing it.

  • None of the exercises you do should cause pain. The range within which you move your arms and legs should never hurt.

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