According to the latest recommendations from the American Council on Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association, you should be including strength training twice a week as part of your overall fitness routine. Research shows that strength exercises are safe for all ages and that strength training combined with aerobic exercise can improve your physical and mental health.
Strength Training is important for everybody, but even more so for older adults because it can slow down the loss of bone and muscle that goes along with aging. Other benefits include:
- Weight control
- Lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Relief from arthritis
- Better balance and fall prevention
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Fighting depression
You can get strength training from calisthenics, free weights, machines, and other types of equipment. The important thing is to exercise all the major muscle groups including your arms, legs, back, and stomach. The muscles around your center, called your “core muscles,” are especially important to target since they stabilize the rest of your body.
Strength training is usually divided into sets and repetitions. Repetitions, or “reps,” are the number of times you do an exercise. A group of repetitions — usually between 8 and 15 — is called a set. If you are able to do more than one set of an exercise, always rest for a few minutes between sets. The ACSM recommends 8 to 10 strength training exercises of 8 to 10 repetitions each, twice a week.
Strength Training Equipment Options
The type of strength-training equipment you use will depend on your individual needs and preferences. Here are the key choices:
- Free weights. Barbells are long bars with weights attached at the ends. Dumbbells are smaller, hand-held weights. The advantages of free weights are that they are inexpensive and versatile. The disadvantage is that they require proper training and technique to get the full benefit and avoid injury.
- Machines. Strength training with machines is as effective as free weights, plus machines have the advantage of being safer and easier to use. Since strength training machines are designed to exercise specific muscle groups, you can get a faster, more efficient workout by moving from machine to machine. The disadvantage is that machines are not portable and can be expensive, so you may be limited to using exercise machines at a gym. For home use, you might investigate an all-in-one machine that has different pulleys and stations attached, allowing you to work various muscle groups with a single piece of equipment.
- Stability balls. These strength-training devices look like overgrown, colorful beach balls, but can be very effective pieces of exercise equipment. By learning exercises that involve body curves and rolls using different positions on the stability ball, you can strengthen the important core muscles of your body. The advantage of the stability ball is that it is inexpensive and adaptable to many uses. The disadvantage is that you need some training and you may need an expert opinion to be sure you buy a ball of the right size and pressure to fit your needs and abilities.
- Weighted body bars. Body bars are foam-covered weights that may be used in a total body workout class to combine aerobic exercise with strength training. After you learn the exercises, you can use a body bar when you exercise at home, too — they are relatively inexpensive. Body bars are available in different weights to fit your strength and ability. Because they are about 4 feet long, they can be cumbersome to carry around, so they are not ideal to travel with.
- Exercise bands. Bands are portable and inexpensive. Basically, they are just big elastic bands with different degrees of tension. Though the bands themselves weigh almost nothing, by working your muscle groups against the resistance of the bands you develop muscle strength and endurance. Once you learn how to use them, you can do the exercises anywhere with just a chair for support. You do need to learn the proper technique for each exercise, and as you strength increases, you will need to graduate to stronger sets of resistance bands.
- Kettlebells. This fitness tool was developed in Russia for use in strength training and aerobic exercise to work all muscle groups at the same time. The Russian kettlebell looks like a cannonball with a handle and is another form of exercise equipment that is inexpensive and versatile. A kettlebell workout is high-intensity and involves full range of motion. It requires the ability to stretch and be flexible, so you will need some training and time to work up to a full routine.
If you have any health issues, or if you have not done strength training before, you should check with your doctor before getting started. Remember that using any kind of strength-training equipment requires proper training to get the all the benefits and avoid hurting yourself. Once you have been properly trained, you can begin to enjoy the many mental and physical benefits of adding strength training to your fitness routine.