Why Strength Training Matters

“Strength training is not optimal for losing weight”

“Cardio is the most optimal form of exercise to lose weight”

“Strength training = Big. Bulky. Muscular. Weight gain.”

“I just want to look toned”

“Toned = Cardio>Strength training”

“Toned = low weight / high reps”

“I’m too old to be strength training”

“Strength training = injuries”

“Strength training isn’t optimal for sport specific athletes”

“My goals don’t align with strength training”

I’ve heard these statements time and time again and as an educator who will forever value strength training, I think that it is important to share why I do. You might be thinking that this is just a subjective opinion, but no…. let me tell you why scientific research and data prove all of these statements wrong.

BENEFITS OF EXERCISE- ACUTE AND CHRONIC RESPONSES TO EXERCISE

Exercise results in a plethora of benefits and if you know me, you know that I am an ADVOCATE for exercise. As an Exercise Sports Science major and soon to be certified physical education and health teacher, it is my lifetime mission to share the acute and chronic benefits of exercise. Just to name a few major benefits and physiological responses to exercise, that we should all be familiarizing ourselves with, include but are not limited to: increase in VO2 max; vasoconstriction and vasodilation; increase in stroke volume (SV); Frank-Stirling mechanism; reduction in cardiovascular diseases (CVD); quality of life.

An acute and chronic physiological response to exercise is an increase in VO2 max. VO2 max also known as aerobic physical work capacity is the maximum integrated capacity of the pulmonary, cardiovascular and muscular systems to uptake, transport and utilize O2. VO2max (also maximal oxygen consumption, maximal oxygen uptake, peak oxygen uptake or maximal aerobic capacity) is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption [1]. In simpler words, muscles require oxygen, especially when they are being used. VO2 max is a measurement that determines how efficient your muscles are at utilizing the oxygen you breath. Age, gender, and elevation are three important variables of VO2 max. The more active you are, the more efficient you are, the higher your VO2 max is. Based on the study, Interference of Strength Development by Simultaneously Training for Strength and Endurance, after 10 weeks of training, VO2 max increased approx. 25% when measured during bicycle exercise and 20% when measured during treadmill exercise in both [endurance], and [strength and endurance] groups [2].

An acute physiological response to exercise is vasoconstriction and vasodilation. Vasoconstriction is the constriction of the blood vessels. Vasodilation is the dilation of the blood vessels. Vasodilation occurs in the areas with the greatest metabolic need (working muscle), while vasoconstriction occurs at the less active systems. For example, as temperature rises when we exercise (which can be fatal), vasodilation occurs in the skin, which dissipates the excess heat. Why does this happen? It all comes down to survival and how efficient our bodies can be. When our core temperature starts to rise, it has to be dealt with right away as it is a primary concern for survival. What isn’t a primary concern for survival during exercises where vasoconstriction occurs? Our kidneys, liver, stomach, intestine, brain, etc. Figure 1.

Figure 1. Cardiac output % of relative blood flow distribution based on movement levels

An acute physiological response of the heart to exercise is an increase of SV. The definition of stroke volume is the volume of blood pumped out of the left ventricle of the heart during each systolic cardiac contraction. This volume may be calculated as the difference between the left ventricular end-diastolic volume and the left ventricular end-systolic volume [3]. A major influencer of stroke volume is venous return or VR (flow of blood back to the heart) and this is why the muscle pump effect (muscular contractions that enhance VR to the heart) is so important when discussing cardiac output (product of heart rate and stroke volume). When we are standing up, the blood flows from our hearts out to our lower extremities. In order for the blood to circulate back to our hearts, we utilize the muscle pump effect, vasoconstriction, and vasodilation. As a result of this, SV increases with intensity of exercise up to 40–60% of VO2 max.

An acute and chronic physiological response of the heart to exercise is the Frank-Stirling mechanism. When we consistently exercise, our hearts get more efficient; they get bigger and stronger just like any of our other muscles. As a result of athletic hypertrophy of the heart and chambers, and more blood to these chambers, the Frank-Starling mechanism occurs. The ability of the heart to change its force of contraction and therefore stroke volume in response to changes in venous return is the Frank-Starling mechanism [4]. As we consistently exercise, we attain the ability of efficiently pumping the blood out with an increase of SV. By providing more blood and oxygen to our working systems as we exercise, it is allowing us to do more work, more efficiently, even at lower heart rates. The “stretch effect” of the Frank-Stirling mechanism is keeping the heart tissue healthy and efficient.

A chronic response to exercise is a decrease in CVD. The word ‘cardiovascular’ pertains to the heart and blood vessels. When exercising, it’s good to keep in mind that your whole body contains muscles, one of them (a very, very important one) being the heart. Exercise can and should be utilized in primary, secondary, AND tertiary prevention. Regular physical activity helps reduce several cardiovascular risk factors including obesity, dyslipidemia, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes mellitus. CVD has no geographic, socioeconomic, or gender boundaries. It is the leading cause of death in developing and developed countries. Risk factors for CVD are consistent throughout the world, and this includes lack of physical activity. Although the benefits of leisure time physical activity for reducing CVD are irrefutable, only one in three Americans meets the minimal recommendations for activity as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the AHA [5].

An acute and chronic response to exercise is better quality of life. What many aren’t very familiar with is the chemical process that takes place via monoamine neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, and epinephrine, which is a direct result from exercise. The secretion of these neurotransmitters directly regulates mood along with many MANY other functions. An overwhelming majority of studies accredit that the monoamine systems mediate the exercise-induced enhancement of various brain functions [6]. Quality of life can improve at a substantial rate if exercise is implemented in not just the general population and young adults as a primary prevention, but in elderly as well. Exercise as a secondary and tertiary prevention will for a FACT improve quality of life. Improvements in exercise capacity, obesity indexes and lipids were very similar in older and younger patients enrolled in cardiac rehabilitation and exercise training. [This] data emphasizes that elderly patients should not be categorically denied the psychosocial, physical and risk factor benefits of secondary coronary prevention including formal cardiac rehabilitation and supervised exercise training [7].

These are all indicative to the fact that exercise needs to be implemented in EVERYONES daily lifestyle. The type, duration (length), frequency (how often), and intensity (LISS, MISS or HISS) of exercise differs for every individual. As for cardio, it should be strategically implemented into one’s regimen based on their personal goals, metabolism, preferences, biofeedback, etc. As an educator it is a goal of mine to educate others on how running is NOT the only form of cardio and cardio is NOT the only form of exercise. If you don’t like running don’t do it. If you have to force yourself to do something that you are not enjoying, then you are going to start associating cardio with pain and pain with exercise. IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. This way of thinking is simply not sustainable in terms of daily and lifelong exercise. Find something that you enjoy, and I guarantee you, exercise will seem like less of a task and more of a lifestyle.

CARDIO- METABOLIC ADAPTION

Although weight loss, maintenance, and gain are each as simple as calories in vs. calories out, the plethora of variables that MUST be taken into account are very complex. Many think that incorporating cardiovascular fitness into their regimen will magically bring the scale down. Although cardio has many benefits, it is NOT a direct indication of weight loss or maintenance. Cardio is just a tool that one can use to increase energy expenditure thus remaining in a caloric deficit to lose weight. Prior to a starting a caloric deficit, (if you prioritize cardio and/or do excessive cardio) I suggest that you taper down on your cardio. If you choose not to, just understand that breaking through plateaus will be very difficult. Here’s why.

What many don’t know is that as humans, we survive because of our incredible ability to adapt… but what does this mean for those who just use cardio to lose weight? Let’s say that you begin a new program that calls for cardio 5x a week for 5 weeks… During week 1, you are not going to be as efficient as you will be during week 5 because by week 5 your body (cardiovascular/respiratory etc. systems) has adapted for YOUR survival. In order to prevent adaptation, you must introduce your body to new stimuli such as a higher intensity or a longer duration of cardio. As your body adapts, your metabolic output does as well which means that more energy is reserved… so you’ll just be doing even MORE cardio which will eventually lead to MORE metabolic adaptation to get the same caloric output results from week 1. Cardio has many benefits but, in my opinion, after discovering strength training and all of the benefits that result from it, I think it should be utilized and prioritized in everyone’s regimen.

BENEFITS OF STRENGTH TRAINING- WEIGHTLOSS/MAINTENANCE/GAIN

Strength training will forever be a part of my values and something that I will implement into my lifestyle until I physically can’t anymore. Unfortunately, in a world full of cardio junkies, strength training is simply looked at as the runner-up to cardio (pun indented). As I mentioned above, some common thoughts about strength training include: “Strength training is not optimal for losing weight” and “Strength training = Big. Muscular. Weight gain.”

Just like cardio, strength training is a tool to use but it is NOT a direct indication of weight gain or loss. Weight gain ONLY occurs when calories consumed exceeds calories burned (notice that this has NOTHING to do with lifting).

When prioritizing strength training, just like cardio, a few things must be taken into consideration: type based on goals (stabilization, strength endurance, hypertrophy, maximal strength, and power), duration (length), frequency (how often), volume (sets and reps), and intensity (based on 1RM or RPE). I, myself, have prioritized many different types of strength training; hypertrophy and maximal strength is by far my favorite. At one point in my journey, I lost 10lbs while strength training 5x a week. I’ve also gained 10lbs while strength training 5x a week… the difference? My calorie intake.

When cardio is prioritized for a long period of time, adaptation occurs and the only way to reduce this is to introduce new stimuli… same concept with strength training except the new stimuli is progressive overload, time under tension, intensity, volume, etc. Does this require consistent additional time exercising like cardio does? Not at all. What happens when strength training is prioritized for a long period of time and new stimuli is introduced on a consistent basis? We get stronger, we get more efficient, we burn more calories. A lot of people don’t even take into consideration that strength training burns A LOT of calories and as a result of it (IF done properly with proper nutrition protocols), muscle mass increases while body fat may even decrease.

BENEFITS OF STRENGTH TRAINING- BONE HEALTH

In terms of bone health, it has been proven that strength training is superior to aerobic training (cardio). As stated in the systematic review and meta-analysis (research based on multiple independent studies and other research articles to determine the best answer and analysis to a topic), Effects of Resistance Exercise on Bone Health, published in 2018, in an aging society, the prevalence of osteoporosis and osteopenia continues to increase progressively, particularly in older patients. Osteoporosis is characterized by a decreased bone mass and an increased risk of fragility fractures [8]. The general primary, secondary, and tertiary recommendations for osteoporosis is… drum roll please… exercise. Exercise is a very broad term and the research that was conducted in this study was to determine whether aerobic, resistance training, or both, resulted in the best therapeutic option.

As stated in the article, aerobic exercise like walking, running, cycling, and even swimming don’t provide enough stimulus to the bones and has little to no effect on prevention of bone loss. Unlike aerobic exercise, “Weight-bearing impact exercise such as hopping and jumping, and/or progressive resistance exercise (RE), alone or in combination can improve the bone health in adults. Among them, RE has been highlighted as the most promising intervention to maintain or increase bone mass and density. This is because a variety of muscular loads are applied on the bone during RE, which generate stimuli and promote an osteogenic response of the bone. RE has been frequently prescribed because it has been consistently shown to be safe and effective for improving muscle mass, size, and strength in middle-aged and older adults, including the frail elderly and even those with a history of fracture. The greatest skeletal benefits from RE have been achieved when the resistance was progressively increased over time, the magnitude of mechanical load was high (around 80% to 85% one RM), exercise was performed at least twice a week, and large muscles crossing the hip and spine were targeted [8].

This systematic review and meta-analysis that includes postmenopausal women, middle-aged men, and older adults, has ultimately concluded that RE alone or in combination with other interventions may be ideal to preserve bone loss or even increase [Bone Mineral Density] BMD in both lumbar spine and femoral neck. Exercise training, especially RE, is important for the maintenance of musculoskeletal health in an aging society. [RE] exerts a mechanical load on bones consequently leading to increase in the bone strength [8].

BENEFITS OF STRENGTH TRAINING- INJURIES

“Strength training = injuries” and “Strength training isn’t optimal for sport specific athletes” unfortunately, are two very common opinions about strength training. Hate to break it to you, but science > opinions. The article, Strength Training as Superior, Dose-dependent and Safe Prevention of Acute and Overuse Sports Injuries: A Systematic Review, Qualitative Analysis and Meta- Analysis, is a review in which an average of over 8 months of strength training programming (from a total of four studies) was administered to almost 4,000 sport participant individuals. It was stated that strength training programs reduced sports injuries by an average of 66% and were, with 95% certainty, able to more than halve the risk of sports injury [with no reports of] adverse events among their total of 3,991 individuals during or due to the strength training interventions [9]. If that statement doesn’t highlight the importance and NECESSITY for strength training, then I don’t know what else can. Whether you are an athlete or not, that statement is more than enough reason for ANYONE to not only incorporate but to prioritize strength training in their daily regimen/lifestyle.

From personal experience, I have endured a substantial amount of pain in my lower back, hips, and shoulders for as long as I can remember. When I first experienced pain in any of the areas (even after I acquired the knowledge about the benefits of strength training in regards to injuries and pain), my very first thoughts were always geared towards strength training and how hard I push myself and my boundaries in the gym. Doing my own research definitely didn’t help me lean away from strength training as the cause of all my pain. After going to a personal therapist and chiropractor for all three areas of pain, I received the same feedback… strength training isn’t the reason for my pain, in fact, I need to continue strength training as it will continue to HELP with my pain. The feedback I have received in the past has all reinforced the positive practice of stretching, strength training, and rest and recovery.

Fun fact, soccer is one of the most highly studied sports, especially in regard to sports injury research. This is due to the fact that soccer has one of the highest participation rates across the world. With that being said, some of the highest rates of sports induced injury occurs in athletes who participate in soccer. Based on my personal interactions with a DI collegiate soccer player at Texas State (who had two torn ACL’s), she made it very clear that strength training was not integrated into her program. Unfortunately for many sports, strength training is personified as something that is going to impede performance rather than enhance it, which is simply not true. There is nothing wrong with being strong and still to this day, being strong, unfortunately, has such a negative connotation to it. Strength training, not just in regards to athletics, but in regards to longevity as well, sets the foundation for the athlete.

Although many sports programs do incorporate strength training, the ideology behind the programs don’t make much sense. As a former high school and NCAA DII volleyball player, I have personal experience with different training protocols. What I always have and always will preach is that the athlete should, without a doubt, train to the sport and NOT the test. As mentioned before, we adapt and get more efficient, so when we train, we are allowing our bodies to get more efficient at the stimulus that we provide it with. Our bodies don’t care if we’re strong, fast, or have a lot of muscle. WE must give our bodies a reason to be strong, fast, or muscular by providing it with stimulus that is geared towards that specific goal. An athlete must train to the sport by utilizing training programs that are geared towards that specific sport. The strength programming must be optimal and strategically thought through for all athletes participating in all sports. With exceptional strength programming implemented, athlete performance growth along with longevity will occur.

Successful, healthy, resilient, free of injury athlete > Successful athlete

BENEFITS OF STRENGTH TRAINING- MISCONCEPTIONS

Strength training does NOT equate big, bulky, and muscular. Big, bulky, and muscular takes time, lots and lots of time. It REQUIRES consistent progressive overload. It REQUIRES sufficient calories and sufficient protein intake. It REQUIRES rest, lots and lots of rest. It REQUIRES consistency. It REQUIRES dedication. It REQUIRES high muscle mass and low body fat percentage. Only the elite athletes attain the desired look that many strive for. Unfortunately, the misconceptions about these desired looks and what it takes to achieve them is substantially large. Below are individual pictures of the 2019 Mr. Olympia winners from each division (from left to right: bikini, fitness, physique, figure). Each of these individuals have quite a few things in common; one of them being … strength training.

Ms. Bikini Olympia: Elisa Pecini
Ms. Fitness Olympia: Whitney Jones
Ms. Physique Olympia: Shanique Grant
Ms. Figure Olympia: Cydney Gillon

Each of these physiques were achieved through years of hard work, progressive overload, proper fuel, heavy lifting, rest, consistency, dedication, and much more. Many want to look like a bikini competitor and think that nothing but cardio will help them get there. Many think that if they start strength training, they’ll look like a figure competitor in 2 months. Many think that in order to look muscular, the first thing they need to accomplish is a low body fat percentage. Many think that in order to look like any of these athletes, they need to eat very little. These physiques were NOT achieved by eating little food. These physiques were NOT achieved by diets that consisted of no carbs. These physiques were NOT achieved by doing exclusively cardio or even excessive cardio. These physiques were NOT achieved by light weight and high rep only workouts. These physiques were NOT achieved by body weight or dumbbell only workouts. Every decision made every single day for years led them to their physique which resulted in a WIN.

BENEFITS OF STRENGTH TRAINING- TONED

Toned… what does it mean to be toned and why do we see this word on every fitspo magazine? This term can be very subjective but I’m taking a wild guess here that the majority of the population may think that this term can be identified with the following adjectives: petite, muscular, fit, muscular definition, healthy, etc. Just from a simple search on google, toned can be defined as “having firm and well-defined muscles”, “give greater strength or firmness to the body or a muscle”, and “a muscle or other bodily part became stronger or firmer”. Based on google, some sentences using the word ‘toned’ includes, “his leg muscles had toned up” and “exercise tones up the muscles”……………………………………………………………………………………. No Google. No.

Now let me tell you why

“TURN TO PAGE 43 FOR FIVE EASY WAYS TO GET TONED” “DO YOU WANT TO BE TONED? HERES HOW YOU CAN BE” “LIST OF EXERCISES TO HELP TONE YOUR ABS” “TEN EXERCISES TO TONE UP FOR YOUR IDEAL SUMMER BODY” “DO YOU WANT TONED LEGS? WE HAVE THE SECRET FOR YOU” “REP RANGES FOR TONING UP” Do these headlines look familiar to you? If not, let me refresh your memory.

“SEXY ARMS + TONED ABS Easy 15-Minute Workout”
“TRIM & TONE EVERY BULGE Sleek Arms, Abs, Legs in 7 Days”
“4-Week Tone Up Sculpt your legs, butt and abs in just 28 days!”
“TONE UP SLIM DOWN SAVE MONEY DUMP THE DEAD WEIGHT!”

Above are cover pages from 5 different “fitness” and “health” magazine brands. These headlines create revenue by targeting the general population who is naïve to the fact that toned is just a ploy. As a result, ‘toned’ is now a general term that many people correlate with societies standards of what healthy looks like. As stated by one of Team Mihaly’s coaches, Megan Ashley,

“YOU CANNOT TONE A MUSCLE. You can build muscle. That “toned” look you’re chasing after is all about having muscle and a low enough body fat to see it… There are no “toning” rep ranges. The same exercises you do to “tone” are the same ones you do to build muscle, just with heavier weights”.

So how does one achieve the “toned” look? Strength training, heavy lifting, high muscle mass, low body fat parentage. Are any of these components negotiable in achieving this desired look in a natural way? No. Does the most optimal way of achieving this look require rep ranges from 15–20? No. Can it take ten minutes? No. Can it take fifteen minutes? No. Can you target specific muscles to “tone”? No. Can it take seven days? No. Can it take four weeks? No.

IF IT WAS EASY, EVERYONE…. EVERYONE WOULD DO IT.

MY STANCE ON OVERALL HEALTH

I began to establish my core values, beliefs and priorities in regard to health and fitness when I started learning about human anatomy and physiology three years ago. Before I acquired any knowledge about what it means to be healthy, my desired outcomes related to health had everything to do with my physical appearance. I thought that as long as I looked healthy, I was healthy. Not until I learned that physical appearance doesn’t always correlate with being healthy, did I truly know how important it is to take care of my body. I am consistently nourishing my body with things it needs to fulfill all the components of health. I do this for so many more reasons than to just “look healthy”. My everyday life has changed in so many positive ways that I can tribute my consistent healthy decisions to. Health is a part of my lifestyle because of my passion for taking care of the one thing that is keeping me alive at this very moment; my body. I hold a strong belief that every decision we as individuals make impact our health.

We live in a society that is polluted with misconceptions and uneducated individuals sharing, no, selling, uneducated information. As someone who loves to educate others on this topic, I strongly believe that although it may not entirely be your fault, you must take responsibility for being uninformed or misinformed. If you haven’t done your own research, then don’t claim something to be true or untrue. I have learned over the years that the more I read, the more I ask for opinions and help, and the more I learn, the less I know. I am barely scratching the surface with this article. It is your job to stay educated. Don’t add on to this snowball effect of misconceptions, negative connotations, and straight up false information about strength training. Get educated. Read, ask questions, learn how to analyze data, listen to opposing views and learn from them, do literally ANYTHING but add to the snowball effect and create positive change in this industry.

References

[1] Smirmaul, B. P., Bertucci, D. R., & Teixeira, I. P. (2013). Is the VO2max that we measure really maximal?. Frontiers in physiology, 4, 203. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2013.00203

[2] Hickson, R. C. (1980). Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 45(2–3), 255–263. doi: 10.1007/bf00421333 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00421333

[3] Bruss, Z. S., & Raja, A. (2019). Physiology, Stroke Volume. The National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547686/

[4] Klabunde, R. E. (2015, July 3). Frank-Starling Mechanism. Retrieved from https://www.cvphysiology.com/Cardiac%20Function/CF003

[5] Agarwal S. K. (2012). Cardiovascular benefits of exercise. International journal of general medicine, 5, 541–545. doi:10.2147/IJGM.S30113 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3396114/

[6] Lin, T. W., & Kuo, Y. M. (2013). Exercise benefits brain function: the monoamine connection. Brain sciences, 3(1), 39–53. doi:10.3390/brainsci3010039 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4061837/

[7] Lavie, C. J., Milani, R. V., & Littman, A. B. (1993). Benefits of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise training in secondary coronary prevention in the elderly. Journal of American College of Cardiology, 22(3). doi: 10.1016/0735–1097(93)90176–2 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0735109793901762

[8] Hong, A. R., & Kim, S. W. (2018). Effects of Resistance Exercise on Bone Health. Endocrinology and metabolism (Seoul, Korea), 33(4), 435–444. doi:10.3803/EnM.2018.33.4.435 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6279907/

[9] Laursen, J. B., Anderson, T. E., & Anderson, L. B. (2018). Strength training as superior, dose-dependent and safe prevention of acute and overuse sports injuries: a systematic review, qualitative analysis and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(24). Retrieved from https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/24/1557

Just an Exercise Sports Science major sharing as much knowledge as I can!