If you want to look and feel more powerful—and show us the woman who doesn’t these days— step off the stationary bike and approach the squat bar. Strength training is a remarkably effective way to improve and protect your overall well-being, both physical and, according to recent research, mental. The mechanics are simple: When you push and pull against resistance—by working out with free weights, machines, or bands, or by raising and lowering your own body weight (doing push-ups, leg lifts, or calf raises)—your body mends the damaged muscle tissue afterward, strengthening, toning, and adding to it in the process.
That new muscle mass propels you through your daily activities with more energy and reduces your chances of injury. A resistance- based regimen has also been linked to better cardiovascular health and a more stable blood-glucose level (a number over 140 mg/dL is an indicator of prediabetes), and helps with weight maintenance to boot. (Cardio can burn more calories per minute, but as you accumulate lean muscle mass, your metabolism revs up and burns more calories at rest.) Yet despite these big positives, only about a quarter of Americans count resistance training as part of their exercise routine. If you don’t know a barbell from a kettlebell, schedule a session or two with a trainer or physical therapist to get started—and consider these compelling reasons to make it a lifelong practice.
1. It's Good For Your Brain
In 2015, researchers from the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, reported that women ages 65 to 75 who did resistance training twice a week for a year slowed the progression of whitematter lesions of aging, compared with women who did little or no such exercise. They also walked more quickly and smoothly, which can indicate better cognitive fitness. And while therapists have been telling downbeat patients to get moving for decades, a study by Irish researchers at the University of Limerick, published last year in JAMA Psychiatry, bolsters the idea that this specific type of exercise is a mood lifter. After reviewing past studies of resistance workouts, the researchers found that people who kept it up— regardless of how healthy they were, how much they did, or how much stronger they got—were far less likely than those who didn’t to feel or develop symptoms of clinical depression.
2. Bones Benefit, Too
Multiple studies have shown that improving muscle strength substantially reduces the risk of fractures. That makes doing so imperative for women, since after approximately age 30 we typically start to lose muscle mass. As we enter menopause, our levels of the bone-protecting hormone estrogen decline, making us four times as likely as men to suffer a fracture due to osteoporosis after age 50, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Resistance training helps offset all of those changes.
3. It Makes You More Agile, Not Less
We have two main kinds of muscle fibers: slow-twitch ones, which control our posture and balance; and fast-twitch ones, which kick in when we need to react quickly—to catch ourselves when we trip, for instance. A savvy fitness circuit activates both by combining slow and steady reps with faster-paced ones. Lori Thein Brody, a physical therapist and senior clinical specialist at UW Health, in Madison, Wisconsin, suggests following the principle of fartleck, a Swedish word that translates as “speed play.” Do the first several reps in a set of weight-lifting exercises, such as biceps curls or leg presses, at a slow, steady pace, then go double-time for the ones in the middle, and decelerate for the last few. The same principle works with body-weight moves, like lunges or triceps dips.
4. Your Joints Will Feel the Relief
Resistance training targets your muscles in a variety of ways, with the goal of building balanced, complementary strength, whereas cardio activities like biking, jogging, and gliding on the elliptical engage the same muscles over and over again. As your quadriceps and hamstrings shape up, the hip-rotating muscles you’re not using may weaken, putting abnormal stress on your joints and other soft-tissue structures, like your kneecaps and iliotibial (IT) bands, and potentially causing pain, says Janice Loudon, Ph.D., a professor of physical-therapy education at Rockhurst University, in Kansas City, Missouri. She sees plenty of cyclists and runners with chronically achy hips and knees in her clinical practice. To resolve this problem (or avoid it altogether), Loudon recommends exercises such as multidirectional lateral and posterior lunges, and sidestepping with a resistance band around your thighs. Switching between barbells and weight machines also works muscles differently.
5. It's Time-Efficient
You don’t have to curl, press, or plank every day to see results. In fact, you shouldn’t. Twice a week, aim to do 8 to 10 exercises that enlist the three major muscle groups—arms, legs, and core—per the American College of Sports Medicine. You can check them off in any order you like, and in any combination. Then give each zone 48 hours off before you focus on it again. “Strength and physique changes happen during recovery, not the training itself,” says Shefali Christopher, a board-certified sports physical therapist and an assistant professor of physical therapy at Elon University, in Durham, North Carolina. An effective routine doesn’t have to take as long as an episode of Serial, either. Research demonstrates that performing even one set of sufficiently challenging reps can be as effective as three for most people (more on that below).
6. You Won't Look Like the Hulk
An appropriate weight fatigues the targeted muscles after just 8 to 12 reps. That means that when you’re maneuvering one or a pair of them, you want to feel challenged. But rest assured: “Getting too bulky from lifting happens about as often as making too much money,” Christopher says. “Some of the leanest women in the world hit weights hard, heavy, and often.” Those who have never lifted should learn how to do exercises correctly first, to avoid injury, and then work up to a demanding load. But if you usually do three sets of 12 biceps curls with fivepound hand weights, try one set with 12-pounders instead. You’ll know you’ve gone too heavy if you can no longer maintain good form.
7. It Keeps You Young
Studies show that adults who take up strength training can slow and even reverse agerelated muscle loss at almost any age. Even nonagenarians can gain power and stability. Brody says her mother went from being largely sedentary to commando-crawling under her deck to fix a dryer vent about six weeks after she started lifting weights at age 60. “It breathed new life into her,” says Brody. “She’s 84 now and still goes to the gym three days a week. She’s so much more independent and physically agile. She can do things now that she never could before.”