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When it comes to developing an exercise program, many people focus primarily on their cardiovascular activities. They hit the gym and attend a cardio class or spend 30 minutes or more on the treadmill, elliptical or stair-climber machines. Sure, there are weights and resistance machines available, but most people avoid them. “I’m not a bodybuilder,” they say. “I’m trying to lose weight, I don’t want to gain muscle,” others may claim.

strength training

The truth is that strength training is a vital part of any exercise program. Not only does incorporating resistance, whether you use free weights, machines or your body weight in flexibility exercises, help you build strength, it can also improve your endurance and performance, prevent injury, improve your cardiovascular health and keep your body fat at a healthy level.

In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incorporating strength training into your workout routine can increase metabolic function — also known as calorie-and-fat burn — by up to 15 percent. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn and the easier it is to control your weight.

Beyond Weight Loss: Build Strength, Build Well-Being
While the weight loss benefits of strength training are appealing to many people, there are some other benefits to lifting a few weights in addition to sweating it out on the treadmill.

Injury prevention is one of the major benefits of strength training, even for those who aren’t athletes. Studies have shown that strength training improves overall balance and coordination while also increasing bone density. For those who are vulnerable to broken bones or stress fractures, including athletes in high-impact sports and older adults with osteoporosis or osteoarthritis, building stronger bones can mean the difference between staying active and watching from the sidelines as an injury heals.

But in addition to strengthening the body, lifting weights can also strengthen the mind. In fact, regular strength training has been shown to have the same effect as antidepressants on overall mood; the happiness-inducing effects are linked to both a biochemical change in the brain that occurs when muscles are engaged, and the overall self-esteem and confidence that comes from being healthy and challenging the body. It probably doesn’t hurt that strength training is also linked to better sleep quality — and we all know a great night’s sleep can do wonders for improving anyone’s mood and overall outlook.

Incorporating Strength Training
While strength training is important for maintaining optimum health and fitness, that doesn’t mean you should run to the gym, toss a few 20-pound weights onto a bar and start lifting. Overdoing it early on, in terms of both amount of weight and repetitions as well as improper form, can do more harm than good and even lead to serious injury.

Before you start any strength-training program, consult your doctor to ensure you don’t have any ailments or restrictions to keep in mind. People who have had previous injuries to their joints are at risk for further injury with weight training, and therefore the importance of having a pre conditioning evaluation by a trained physician. Once you have the all-clear from your physician, work with a fitness professional, such as a certified trainer, to develop a strength-training program that will help you meet your goals while staying safe. Your trainer should help you with proper form and demonstrate how to use any equipment so you can avoid injury.

Ideally, strength training should be incorporated into your workout two to three times each week. Aim to work all of the major muscle groups, which usually means between eight to 10 exercises, doing two to three sets (performing a series of exercises without stopping) of eight to 10 repetitions. For example, you may do three sets of 10 quad exercises before moving on to two sets of eight bicep curls on each arm.

To gain the maximum benefits of strength training, you must incorporate rest days into your routine. Rest gives the muscles time to recover and rebuild, making them both stronger and less susceptible to injury. As time goes on and the exercises get easier to complete, you can increase the number of reps or sets, or the amount of weight you use to maintain your conditioning. A fitness professional can help you devise the right plan.

Whether you are training for a sport, trying to drop a few pounds or simply want to maintain the best possible health, it’s important to incorporate strength training into your workout routine. Lifting weights or performing other resistance exercises won’t turn you into a burly bodybuilder, but it will improve your physique, your mood and your health.