You are here:

How and why to add strength training to your exercise plan

Enjoy immediate gains by developing a well-rounded program, performing the exercises with good form, and being consistent.

Regular physical activity promotes general good health, prevents chronic disease, and helps you live a longer and healthier life. For many of us, the exercise prescription comes in the form of walking, jogging, treadmill work, or other “aerobic” activities that get your heart pumping.

But often overlooked is the value of strength-building exercise. Once we reach our 50s and beyond, strength-building exercise is critical to preserving the ability to perform the most ordinary activities of daily living and therefore maintain an active and independent lifestyle.

“People who are physically fit have a much better outlook on life,” says Dr. Robert Schreiber, physician-in-chief at Hebrew SeniorLife and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. “You can engage in a more fulfilling life and do more of the things that bring you enjoyment.” In short, strength training will help you feel better, move better, and even look better.

How much do you need?

Health experts suggest that American adults should get at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week. Strength training adds a couple of brief sessions to that weekly plan.

A beginner’s strength-building workout takes as little as 20 minutes, and you won’t need to grunt, strain, or sweat like a cartoon bodybuilder. The key is developing a well-rounded program, performing the exercises with good form, and being consistent. You will experience noticeable gains in strength within four to eight weeks.

With aging, it’s extremely beneficial to maintain lean muscle mass. The average 30-year-old will lose about a quarter of his or her muscle strength by age 70 and half by age 90. “Just doing aerobic exercise is not adequate,” Dr. Schreiber says. “Unless you are doing strength training, you will become weaker and less functional.”

What is strength training?

Strength increases with exercises that require you to resist an opposing force. This is why strength-building exercise is often called “resistance training.” Strength training encompasses any of the following:

  • Free weights, such as barbells and dumbbells.

  • Ankle cuffs and vests containing different increments of weight.

  • Resistance (elastic) bands of varying length and tension that you flex using your arms and legs.

  • Exercises that use your body weight to create resistance against gravity.

A well-rounded strength-training program works all major muscle groups, although not necessarily all on the same day. The exercise needs to engage muscle groups in the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms. It typically requires eight to 12 different exercises to work all of the body’s major muscle groups.

Three exercises that work the arms, shoulders, and upper back


Forward fly: Sit holding the dumbbells about 12 inches in front of your chest. Your elbows should be up and slightly bent and palms should be facing each other. Lean forward slightly, bending from your hips and keeping your back straight. Pull the weights apart while trying to bring your shoulder blades as close together as possible. Pause. Return to starting position.

Overhead press: Stand with your feet slightly apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height. Your elbows should be bent and the weights should be about six inches from your body. Hold the weights so your palms are facing forward. Slowly lift straight up until your arms are fully extended. Pause. Slowly lower the dumbbells to shoulder level.

Triceps extension: Stand with your feet slightly apart, holding weights with your palms facing behind you. Lift the weights straight up, raising your elbows to a 90 angle. Don’t hunch your shoulders or lift your elbows higher than your shoulders. Bending at the elbows, slowly raise your lower arms so that your arms are outstretched. Pause. Slowly return to the starting position.

Good form is key

How you perform the exercises is important. Weight-training guidelines stress “good form,” which includes a few characteristics:

  • Perform the exercise through a full range of motion—for you. Stay within the boundaries of what you can do comfortably.

  • The motion should be slow and steady.

  • Breathe normally as you perform the exercise.

How often?

Do your strength training at least two days per week, but not on consecutive days. One to two days between is the minimum to allow the body to recover and build new muscle.

The greatest change will be seen in the first four to eight weeks. After that, you can stay at a maintenance level to keep what you have or work harder to gain more strength.

Reps and sets

Reps are “repetitions.” It’s the number of times you repeat the movement. Generally people develop routines that include eight to 12 reps at a time, making a complete “set.”

Resistance training requires at least two sets for each different exercise, with a brief rest between each set. The trick is choosing the amount of resistance for each type of exercise that allows you to perform at least two sets.

It takes some trial and error to find the right amount of weight for each exercise. The goal is to complete each set with effort, although not to the point that you are holding your breath and straining or grunting.

Eating for strength training

Strength (or resistance) training builds lean body mass—primarily muscle.Do you need extra protein in your diet to aid muscle building?

Unless you are a bodybuilder, you probably do not need a lot of extra protein.
The current recommended daily protein intake for adults in the United States is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. That adds up to 65 grams of protein daily for a 180-pound man. The average American gets about 15% of daily calories from protein.

If you would like to increase the ratio of protein to carbs in your diet, use healthy sources. The Nutrition Source website, created by the Harvard School of Public Health, recommends that you favor fish, lean poultry, and moderate amounts of nuts over red meat—especially cured and salted meats.

Too much protein makes your kidneys work overtime to excrete excess nitrogen, which is a breakdown product of protein. That could cause dehydration and increase your risk for kidney stones and gout. People with kidney disease should reduce—not increase—the protein in their diets.

Getting started

Buying your own equipment is the most expensive option, although sets of basic introductory-weight dumbbells are not prohibitively expensive. A basic kit costs $50-$100. Health clubs offer the most equipment choices, but of course you have to pay monthly fees.

Videos, books, and reliable online sources can help you learn some basic moves and start developing a routine. These two Special Health Reports from Harvard Health Publications, designed for the beginner, are produced by Harvard physician-editors and professional health writers:

  • Core Exercises: 6 workouts to tighten your abs, strengthen your back, and improve balance.

  • Strength and Power Training: A guide for adults of all ages.

Get some help

Books and videos are a great reference, but nothing beats a live person by your side showing you the moves. Health clubs have personal trainers and classes available. Also check into adult enrichment classes, which are often free or inexpensive, at community centers and high schools.

Be sure to take it slow so you don’t injure yourself. Do not pile on additional weight too quickly, especially if you have any underlying health conditions. Discuss your new exercise plan with your doctor, and explain the level of workout you expect to achieve. Mild to moderate muscle soreness between workouts is normal, but back off if it persists more than a few days.

Benefits of strength & endurance exercise

  • Strengthen bones and muscles

  • Improve balance

  • Help control blood sugar

  • Boost cardiovascular fitness

  • Improve cholesterol levels

  • Help maintain a healthy weight

  • Prevent or ease lower back pain

  • Relieve arthritis pain and expand a limited rangeof motion

  • Raise confidence, brighten mood, and help fightmild to moderate depression

  • Preserve vitality and independence in daily living

Posted by: Dr.Health

Back to Top