Want to Live a Longer, Healthier Life? It's Time to Start Strength Training

At this point, the benefits of cardio are well known. A brisk walk or jog is good for the joints, cardiovascular health, mental health, and more. But strength training is right up there too.

The perks of pressing are continuing to stack up. People who do some sort of strength training live longer, better lives, according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. This January, the results of a supervised exercise trial of people who were overweight or obese published in the European Heart Journal found that cardio paired with strength training might be as effective in staving off cardiovascular disease as cardio alone. Unfortunately, not enough people are reaping these possible benefits.

The National Center for Health Statistics found that “only 24.2% of adults aged 18 and over met the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.” These guidelines recommend a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of “moderate-intensity” aerobic exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of “vigorous intensity” aerobic exercise, and “muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity” that target all major muscle groups, twice or more per week. In short, not enough people are getting their strength training in, if they’re exercising at all.

Strength training might conjure images of bench presses, bulging pecs, and visible veins, but it’s becoming much more common for doctors to recommend it. It’s not just for your coworker who keeps their protein shaker cup visible on every Zoom call. While a full-on split lifting workout regimen might feel intimidating for someone just beginning their strength training journey, there are other more accessible ways to get the work in. (If you want to go right to the barbell, there’s Starting Strength, a popular program that splits lifting into just two workouts, to complete three times a week.)

We spoke to GQ wellness columnist Joe Holder to understand what strength training actually means, how to get it in, and the difference between building strength and building muscle.

Some Common Misconceptions

Many people conflate building strength with building muscle, Holder says, “and that’s really not the same thing.” Many people also think strength training will take loads of time or loads of volume (i.e., total pounds lifted), but that’s not the case either.

But first, it’s important to define what strength is. It’s “the ability for the muscle to produce force,” Holder says. “And you don’t want that to decrease as you age.” (More on that later.)

Getting Started

“You can’t really ‘hack’ strength,” Holder says. It’s about figuring out the way to do it that’s most efficient for you based on what you can do and what you can access.

If you’re just starting, Holder recommends focusing on bodyweight strength under tempos (i.e., switching up your speed on exercises like squats and push-ups) and key movement patterns, which are things like push, pull, squat, walk, carry, hinge, and rotation—all movements that often occur in everyday life. Such movements can include squats, planks, lunges, rucking, and hip swivels. All of these can be done without a single dumbbell. If you do find yourself needing more resistance, a sturdy reusable bag filled with canned goods can make a decent adjustable weight.

Keeping Things Balanced

A well-rounded, full-body strength-training program doesn’t have to be complicated. In general, try to pull twice as much as you push, Holder says. It’s easy to get a tighter upper body in the front, he says, but pulling movements can serve as a countermeasure to the hunched positions we find ourselves in daily at work, in the car, or on the subway. “If somebody’s just starting on their strength program, they’re not really going to run into that issue.”

Aside from targeting the major muscle groups, Holder recommends “prehab” exercises (those that can prevent injury before you need rehab) on overlooked areas like the ankles and shoulders. Mobility work—Holder has a 15-minute morning routine on YouTube—which ensures that your strength is functional, meaning that you can be strong and able to move optimally. (Picture the opposite of a bodybuilder struggling to complete a single rep of butt wipes.)

Mixing It Up

There are ways to progress with strength training that don’t involve bumping up the weight. Though the one-rep-max (the maximum amount of weight you can lift once, or 1RM) is often touted online as a benchmark, it “isn’t really applicable to everyday life,” Holder says.
If anything, focus on the three-to-five-rep-max (which should be around 85% of your 1RM), but also consider other factors, like building muscular endurance with higher reps and still being able to move well.

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