Make Strength Training a Consistent Part of Your Weekly Exercise Routine
Recent research shows that resistance training can help lower your risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
If your exercise is limited primarily to aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, bicycling or tennis, you’re missing an important aspect of fitness that can greatly benefit your heart health.
Strength training should be a regular part of your exercise regimen. In a recent study, researchers found that people who did strength training for up to an hour a week reduced their risk of developing metabolic syndrome by as much as 29 percent. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of risk factors that raise your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. You are considered to have metabolic syndrome if you have three of the following risk factors:
- Waist circumference of greater than 40 inches in men or 35 inches in women;
- Triglyceride level of 150 milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL) of blood or greater;
- HDL cholesterol of less than 40 mg/dL in men or less than 50 mg/dL in women;
- Systolic blood pressure (top measurement) of 130 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or greater, or a diastolic blood pressure (bottom measurement) of 85 mm Hg or greater;
- Fasting blood glucose (sugar) of 100 mg/dL or greater
“Strength training can help increase the skeletal muscles’ ability to metabolize glucose and improve blood sugar control,” says Mike Crawford, manager of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Cleveland Clinic. “Having more muscle mass increases the body’s metabolism to help burn up more calories at rest and may help with weight control. Not to mention that while you are doing strength training you will be using up calories.”
Crawford adds that strength training can also help improve your aerobic or cardio exercise by having stronger muscles to support your walking, cycling, elliptical, or whatever type of cardio you prefer.
Strength Training Basics
The widely held perception of strength training as simply lifting heavy weights is not accurate. In addition to free weights, such as dumbbells and barbells, there are machines and stretchy exercise bands that can help you strengthen your muscles. Even your own body weight—think push-ups and lunges—can be effective.
“You may want to start with weight machines to ensure proper technique,” Crawford says. “Free weights and complex lifts can cause injury if not done properly. Some people like to use resistance bands, and there are a lot of great examples on how to use bands if you just do a little Internet search.”
He recommends focusing on the large muscle groups, especially if you’re new to strength training. Some good exercises to start with include:
- Leg press
- Leg curl
- Chest press
- Lateral row
- Arm curls
- Triceps extension
- Core exercises, such as abdominal crunches
“Aim for 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise that cause the muscle to fatigue,” Crawford says. “If you can do more than 15, increase the weight; if less than 10, then decrease the weight. Do one to three sets of each exercise with 30 to 60 seconds of rest between sets.”
Strength training can be done as part of your regular trip to the gym or as a separate workout. The study showed that an hour a week is all that’s needed to produce significant benefits. Few metabolic syndrome benefits were gained after an hour, the study showed.
“If you are pressed for time, don’t do isolated muscle groups,” Crawford says. “Choose exercises that can hit multiple muscles at one time. An example would be instead of doing leg extensions, gluteal and calf exercises, just use the leg press. You can get greater muscle definition by isolating muscles, but muscles are designed to work in groups, so make it functional.”
Strength Training Safety
Like any type of exercise, strength training comes with some potential injury risks. Before adding this to your exercise regimen, consult with your doctor. This is especially true if you have a health condition that puts you at a higher risk for injury or a health complication.
For example, weight lifting may not be appropriate if you have any of the following conditions:
- Unstable angina
- Congestive heart failure
- Severe pulmonary hypertension
- Severe and symptomatic aortic stenosis
- Uncontrolled hypertension
If you have any questions about safe and unsafe exercises, ask your doctor. A cardiac rehabilitation specialist may be able to advise you about safe forms of exercise based on your heart health.
If you have the go-ahead for strength training, Crawford advises never working the same muscle group two days in a row.
“The muscles need time to rest and repair for the strength gains,” he explains. “Some people like to do strength training every day. So you just have to alternate the muscle groups. For example, do legs on Monday, arms on Tuesday and then back to legs on Wednesday. Another approach is to perform strength training to all the large muscle groups two to three times per week.”
Crawford also stresses the importance of breathing steadily when strength training. “Never hold your breath while lifting weights,” he says. “Blood pressure can become very high during the actual lifting of weights, and by controlling your breathing this can help keep the blood pressure from increasing significantly. Ideally, you should exhale when lifting the weight and inhale when lowering the weight.”
In general, cardiovascular/aerobic exercise should be done four or more days of the week, and strength training two to three times weekly. The third component of a complete exercise program—flexibility—can be done daily. Crawford adds that if you do want to start lifting weights, you can’t give up your brisk walks or tennis games. “Strength training does not replace cardio exercise,” he says. “They both have their benefits.”