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Reap the benefits of strength training—no gym required

Adding resistance to your workouts offers so many more benefits than getting swole.

A woman using dumbbells for a chest press at the gym. Credit: Getty Images / vitapix

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No matter what type of activity gets you moving, you've probably heard that you should include some strength training in your routine. It has proven benefits for your physical and mental health, like stronger bones and better sleep, and overall, makes you feel better in your day-to-day life.

But what counts as strength training? And how much do you have to do? To find out these answers and more, we spoke with Pittsburgh-based certified trainer Michelle Parolini.

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What is strength training?

A man doing a squat with a kettlebell.
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Strength training can be done with bodyweight or added resistance.

Strength training, also called resistance training, is exercise where your muscles work against an outside force. The resistance can come from your own bodyweight, external weights such as dumbbells or a plate-loaded machine, or resistance bands. Think squats, push-ups, and lunges—movements that involve pushing or pulling and fatigue your muscles.

Resistance training works by creating microscopic tears in your muscles, which your body then repairs so your muscles grow back stronger than before. It can increase strength, muscle mass, and endurance when practiced regularly.

Why is strength training important?

A woman using dumbbells on a yoga mat.
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Resistance training is great for both your physical and mental health.

Strength training is important for everybody, regardless of your age, gender, or fitness goals. “It enhances your quality of life in everything you do, and it improves your ability to do everyday activities,” says Parolini, who holds a personal training certification from National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and works as a senior master coach for Row House.

There are countless health benefits to resistance training. It can strengthen your bones and increase your metabolism. It can protect your joints and help you develop better balance, which is especially important as you age and muscle mass naturally decreases. Strength training may even help you manage chronic conditions such as arthritis or back pain.

Like any exercise, strength training is also great for your mental health. It can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and can keep your thinking and learning skills in shape as you age. It can also improve sleep quality and be particularly beneficial for those who have trouble sleeping through the night.

How to start strength training

A woman squatting with a barbell.
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Personal trainers can help you make progress and avoid injury.

Most people probably envision dumbbells, barbells, and huge machines when they think of strength training, but you don’t necessarily need heavy gear to reap the benefits. “Bodyweight exercises are probably the easiest and most accessible because you can do them with no equipment or little equipment,” Parolini says. She recommends exercises like push-ups, planks, lunges, and squats that will work larger muscle groups.

Once you get comfortable with bodyweight exercises, you can introduce a resistance band as a way to up the difficulty. “As it stretches, it provides more resistance, so you can accommodate your level of fitness based on how tight you stretch it,” says Parolini. You can use progressively thicker bands as you get stronger.

Another way to challenge yourself, of course, is by using free weights. You can purchase a set of dumbbells to use at home or join a gym to get access to a wider range of equipment.

No matter how you approach it, Parolini recommends working with a trainer to get the most out of your workouts and avoid injuring yourself. “I think cost is one thing that prohibits a lot of people from seeking out professional professional trainers,” she says. “But [hiring a trainer is] the one thing that's going to give you your biggest return on investment.”

If you don't join a gym or yours doesn’t have trainers, Parolini still recommends finding someone to help you. You can go through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) or the American Council on Exercise (ACE) to find certified trainers in your area or who work virtually.

If you end up strength training on your own, ACE recommends starting out with one set of eight to 12 repetitions (which you will hear called “reps” in the gym). Move slowly and with control through the entire range of movement. Lifting for two counts and lowering for two counts should be sufficient. When you are able to complete 12 reps with ease (and without sacrificing form), ACE recommends increasing your resistance by 5% to 10%. If your goal is to build strength, use heavier weights and complete fewer reps. If your goal is to develop muscular endurance (say, to become better at running), do more reps with a lighter weight.

How to strength-train at home

A woman doing a plank on a yoga mat.
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Resistance training is easy to start at home, even without equipment.

Bodyweight exercises are great for home workouts, and resistance bands are easy to add in because they’re inexpensive, lightweight, and don’t take up much space. If you want to add extra resistance but don’t want to buy dumbbells or other weights, Parolini says you can use heavy household items like soup cans, textbooks, or gallons of water (which weigh about 8 pounds and have a handle built in).

There are countless workout apps out there you can use to get some guidance while exercising, but Parolini cautions exercisers to be careful when selecting a home workout program. “A lot of people go to YouTube for stuff like that, and that's where they end up injured,” she says. “Then they're behind the eight ball, because they have to sit it out for a little bit longer.”

To start, double-check the credentials of the instructor whose workouts you want to follow. If you’re totally brand-new, again, she recommends seeing a trainer for a session or two at the least, to learn about how proper form should feel and if your body has any specific limitations to be aware of. “A lot of people start strength training at home and they end up hurting themselves because they're not doing the movement properly or they're not understanding the restrictions that they have,” says Parolini.

How often should you strength-train?

A man lifting a pair of dumbbells out of a rack.
Credit: Getty Images / Mongkolchon Akesin

Experts recommend doing muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week.

All adults should do some form of resistance training at least twice a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This can mean going to the gym and lifting weights for half an hour, or performing squats, push-ups, and planks at your house.

If you’re interested in strength training and want to challenge yourself, Parolini recommends training at least three days a week. You can change up your focus however you like. You can do an upper body workout one day, a lower body workout the next, and then a full body workout for day three.

“It all depends on your goals,” Parolini says. “I think that it's important to have a well-rounded workout and make sure that you're moving in all planes of motion and focusing on mobility and flexibility. Obviously, in order for something to be effective, you have to stick to it. So you have to make sure that your workout works into your schedule. Any amount of strength training is a benefit.”

Will lifting weights make you bulky?

A woman holding a barbell on her shoulders.
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Bulking is much more difficult than you may believe.

One concern many people—particularly women—have when they start lifting weights is that they will bulk up, like professional power lifters. Generally, for a person with lower levels of testosterone, that’s not going to happen without considerable effort. And for anyone, building muscle like professionals takes serious time—we’re talking years.

Contrary to popular belief, lifting small weights, such as 2 or 3 pounds, won’t give you “long, lean muscle.” Maneuvering those few pounds, especially for 15 or 20 reps, will feel challenging at first, but eventually you’ll want to work your way up to some heavier weight to see that muscle tone you desire. You’ll experience way more of the benefits of strength training when you push yourself to move higher loads.

Is strength training safe for everyone?

A woman using the leg press machine.
Credit: Getty Images / gilaxia

Strength training is safe for most.

If you have any pre-existing conditions or injuries, or are still recovering from an injury, or are pregnant. get clearance from your doctor and work with a trainer to ensure your specific needs are addressed. Additionally, if you just haven’t been as active recently, it's wise to work with a professional to avoid injury.

The good news is, some form of strength training is safe for most people and everyone can benefit from it. “Research has really shown that regular strength training makes life better and improves the way you feel,” says Parolini.

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