Why Everyone Should Be Lifting Heavy

In our quest to be healthy and strong, it’s easy to over-complicate the concept of fitness. We can find ourselves stuck in a cycle of expensive, overly intense exercise programs, fixated on the idea of the perfect workout, or dragging ourselves through a routine we don’t actually enjoy. We can forget what exactly we’re working out for—which, in many cases, is simply to feel, perform, and look our best.

woman lifting barbell on back

Most of us want to be strong and fit so that we can enjoy our lives: play with our kids and pets, enjoy the hobbies or sports we love, avoid injury, and feel (and look!) good as we age. With these goals in mind, one of the most effective activities we can engage in is to lift weights—also known as weight training, strength training, or resistance training.

While lifting weights might seem intimidating to some, you can start slowly and progress at the right pace for you. Even with simple movements and lower intensity, the benefits of lifting will be undeniable.

Here’s a look at the numerous ways lifting weights can improve our lives—and some easy tips for getting started!

Lifting weights can help you lose fat, look better, and improve body composition.

One of the most famous benefits of strength training is an increase in muscle mass, known as hypertrophy.[1] Muscle is a very metabolically “expensive” tissue, which sounds like a bad thing—but what that really means is that it takes more energy to maintain and grow, so having more muscle on our body helps us burn more fat throughout the day.[2]

Research shows that strength training significantly increases our resting metabolic rate, the amount of energy the body needs to function at rest.[3] [4] In fact, even very minimal strength training routines (11 minutes per workout) have been shown to increase 24-hour resting energy expenditure, boost fat burning during sleep, and enhance fat burning at rest.[5]

On top of that, strength training specifically combats abdominal fat—the area of fat accumulation with the strongest ties to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and excess inflammation.[6] [7]

It can mitigate the negative effects of aging.

While it’s true we can’t expect to look (or feel!) 20 forever, strength training is a great way to offset some of the natural processes of aging—particularly the loss of muscle and bone mass that comes with getting older.

After the age of 30, humans commonly lose approximately 3 - 8% of our muscle mass per decade, with even more rapid loss after the age of 60.[8] Our bone density likewise decreases as we age, as the rate of bone breakdown outpaces the rate of bone building.[9] This can eventually lead to sarcopenia (age-related muscle wasting) and osteoporosis (diminished bone density)—both of which contribute to health complications and mortality in the elderly.[10] [11]

Load-bearing activities like weight training directly stimulate muscle and bone synthesis, making it one of the best ways to protect against these conditions.[12] In fact, resistance training is considered a first-line treatment against sarcopenia, with abundant evidence that it can preserve or improve muscle mass in older age.[13] [14] Studies also show that lifting weights can reduce the rate of bone loss that occurs throughout adulthood.[12] And among people with existing osteoporosis (and its precursor, osteopenia), following a strength-training protocol can help restore lost bone mass![15]

lunge with chest rotation and reach

It can reduce the risk of injury.

By boosting our strength, coordination, and bone density, weight lifting can also help prevent injuries—a benefit that applies across nearly all age groups and activity backgrounds.

For one, it can reduce the risk of falls, the most common cause of injury in older adults.[16] Human trials show that resistance training alone is effective for improving balance, enhancing flexibility, and reducing other general risk factors for falling—in turn protecting against potentially debilitating injuries and fractures.[17] [18] [19] [20]

For children and adolescents, age-appropriate strength training programs can also be extremely valuable (and, despite myths to the contrary, quite safe!).[21] Research shows that strength training is particularly useful for youth most susceptible to injury, including young girls, sedentary children, and active youth specializing in a single sport.[22] For these groups, engaging in strength training can reduce the risk of injury by 68%.[22]

And among athletes, strength training is a great way to protect against sports-related injuries. Research shows that strength training can cut the rate of overuse injuries in half, while also reducing sports injuries by nearly 70%.[23] There’s also evidence that lifting heavier is better here: for athletes who include strength training in their training program, every 10% increase in exercise volume (the total weight lifted per session) could slash injury risk by 4%.[24]

In other words, no matter how old we are or where we currently fall on the activity spectrum, lifting weight can help keep our body safe and resilient!

It helps improve blood sugar control and protect against diabetes.

Strength training has unique benefits for blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity:

These benefits may translate to longer-term protection against diabetes. In a large study tracking participants for 18 years, those engaging in 150 minutes of strength training per week cut their risk of diabetes by over a third.[36] The risk reduction was even greater for participants under the age of 65, and/or with obesity (BMI of 30 or above).[36]

Strength training can also be extremely helpful for people with existing diabetes. Among both type 1 and type 2 diabetics, engaging in resistance exercise has been shown to improve fasting blood sugar levels, enhance insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation, and reduce HbA1c (a measure of long-term blood sugar control).[37] [38] [39] [40] [41] In fact, strength training appears to be even more effective than an equivalent amount of aerobic exercise for improving blood sugar control in this population.[40] [42]

It has other wide-ranging benefits for disease prevention.

Beyond diabetes, strength training may help protect against other chronic diseases—especially cardiovascular disease and cancer. For example, strength training has been shown to improve a number of risk factors associated with these conditions, including:

Additionally, observational studies show that people who engage in muscle-strengthening activities have lower risk and mortality from several chronic diseases. Specifically, moderate strength training (around 1 hour per week) is associated with a 20 - 30% lower risk of the following:

Although these associations can’t prove cause and effect, the anti-inflammatory, insulin-sensitizing, and body composition-improving effects of strength training would be expected to translate to disease prevention, due to all independently lowering chronic disease risk.[52] [53] [54]

It supports psychological and cognitive health, too.

person working at desk with a laptop computer and papers

Lifting weights has some surprising bonuses for our mental health—including boosting both mood and cognitive performance.

When it comes to mental health, research shows that strength training can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in a variety of populations, ranging from young people to the elderly.[55] [56] [57] [56] In fact, the antidepressant effects of resistance exercise show up regardless of a person’s current health status, strength improvements, or exercise volume, while its anti-anxiety effects occur in both healthy individuals and those with physical or mental illness.[55] [57]

Strength training also enhances our overall cognitive function—that is, our ability to think, reason, and process information.[58] [59] Studies show strength training can improve executive function, which is a set of mental skills that help in planning, organizing, initiating tasks, managing time, paying attention, and regulating emotions.[60] Strength training can also boost cognitive processing speed, helping our brain analyze and respond to information more quickly.[61]

The reasons for these neurological effects? Researchers are still investigating the mechanisms, but so far we know that strength training can increase neuroplasticity (the brain’s to ability to reorganize and adapt by forming new neural connections) and reduce neuroinflammation (activation of the brain’s innate immune system), two important components of brain health.[62] [63] [64]

Best of all, the brain benefits from strength training stick around long after we stop training! Research shows these neuroprotective changes can persist for up to a year after ceasing a weight training program, particularly among people who already had some form of cognitive impairment.[65] [63]

Lifting weight is both primal and functional.

We're not here to tell you how to be fit—if you enjoy non-resistance training exercises like running or pilates, that's great! Any exercise is better than none, and finding a workout plan you enjoy is important.

With that said, there’s something special about expressing body movement in a way that is functional (meaning the skill or movement we’re practicing carries over into other areas of life) and primal (meaning it’s familiar to, and compatible with, the body’s design). Resistance training offers a great combination of these elements. Activities like pulling ourselves up while climbing, lifting things off the ground, or carrying heavy objects are all foundational movements that human beings have performed forever. There’s even evidence suggesting that load-carrying activities influenced the shape of the modern human body—including our anatomical proportions and walking posture.[66]

What’s more, weight-bearing exercise can help us get better at the practical things in our lives, like carrying groceries, picking up our pets or children, house work or gardening, or whatever else life brings us. This can bring a greater sense of freedom and confidence to enjoy and explore our world.

It's fun!

We may be biased on this one, but we just think lifting weights is fun. It’s empowering to witness ourselves getting stronger, and the endorphins released during exercise can improve our mood and increase our energy throughout the day.[67]

So, how do I get started?

The great thing about strength training is you can get started nearly anywhere, at any time, at any current level of fitness. There are virtually no barriers to entry!

That being said, having some foundational pieces in place can help you get the most out of your strength training journey. Here are some tips if you’re a beginner:

woman lifting barbell from ground

How much, how long, and how often?

The answers here depend largely on your personal goals and preferences. On one hand, virtually any strength training program will offer benefits for muscle growth and strength. In fact, a meta-analysis of 178 studies concluded that the best training routine is the one a person likes and can stick with![71]

That said, here are some basic rules of thumb from the field of exercise science, to help you tailor a program that’s right for you.

If you’re brand new to lifting:

If you’re a novice lifter, or if you haven’t lifted weights in several years, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests choosing loads that correspond to an 8 - 12 repetition maximum.[72] This means that by the 8th - 12th rep, you’ve hit muscle failure and can’t perform anymore reps without resting first.

If you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter:

If you’ve already been lifting weights consistently for at least 6 months, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends training with a 1 - 12 rep maximum, eventually moving towards heavy loads with a 1 - 6 rep maximum.[72] Rest periods between sets should be 3 - 5 minutes.[72]

If you’re lifting for strength:

For increasing strength, lifting higher loads (heavier weights) three times per week delivers maximum gains.[71]

If you’re lifting for muscle growth:

Lifting twice per week, and performing multiple sets per exercise, appears to maximize muscle growth.[71] However, some research suggests that differences in training frequency have negligible effects when volume is taken into account—in which case, whatever frequency you prefer is fine![73]

If you’re training for health:

Studies suggest a single hour of strength training per week (1 - 2 sessions) offers the maximum protection against all-cause mortality, with amounts above that offering little or no additional reduction in risk.[74] [48] Other research shows that nearly all the health benefits of strength training can be achieved in as little as two 15 - 20 minute training sessions per week.[75]

To prevent injury:

On the whole, weight lifting is a very safe activity, with studies showing it has significantly lower injury rates than common team sports.[76] However, there are a few things we can do to maximize injury prevention!

No gym? No problem!

While access to a gym can make strength training more convenient, it’s by no means necessary. You can build remarkable strength and fitness using only your body, in the comfort of your own home, backyard, or outdoors at a park or beach. Think about exercises that you only need your bodyweight to do: squats, lunges, push ups, pull-ups, sprints, planks, and burpees. No fancy equipment required!

Similarly, if you have space in your home, you can easily create a makeshift gym with any of the following:

Don’t forget to rest!

When it comes to lifting, the time you don’t spend working out can be just as important as the time you do. Strength training involves making microscopic tears in muscle tissue, with strength and muscle growth being the consequence of the repair process. In fact, our bodies register strength training as physiological stress—and as with any stress, we must combat it with rest. Rest days are when our bodies actually recover, repair, and get stronger from the micro-damage inflicted during our workouts. Sleep is particularly important for this process, too. Without recovery, challenging workouts are just stress and damage.

Exercising on consecutive days with no rest periods can impair recovery and cause persistent weakness, rather than leading to the strength gains that typically come from lifting.[80]

So, while we live in a culture that values “the grind” and tells us that success demands “no rest days,” we offer a counterpoint: the reality is, we need both elements of a workout—the work and the recovery—in order to build muscle and get stronger.

If you have a hard time taking a complete rest day, try a low impact day: lighter weights, extra stretching, a leisurely walk, a bike ride, or another lower intensity activity. There are plenty of ways to move your body outside of lifting weights!

The bottom line

This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as understanding the ins and outs of strength training. The more experienced you become, the more you can play with details like exercise selection, sets and reps, intensity, split versus full-body workouts, and so on.

The main takeaway is that nearly everyone can benefit from some form of strength training, and that you can make it fun, challenging, and effective without exhausting yourself or spending a bunch of money. Being stronger can improve all areas of our lives, and it’s never too late to start.


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