Updated: Aug 14, 2021
Much of this article will be a list and brief summary of the current established research and I will also like to add that some of the links to evidence are behind paywalls and only the abstract is viewable, as such I have limited the quoted information in this article to that which is viewable for those without full access. The evidence peices included are all robustly conducted and well established but if you wish to look deeper in to the individual pieces all links are incuded.
Strength training seems to have a unjustified negative connotation within some populations so in this article I am going to look at some of the science relating to the benefits of strength training. From this we will see why you should strive to include it in your training regardless of age, sex or the experience level you have with training. To help address some of these negative perceptions the research that I will be referencing will mainly be focused on populations that are less likely to participate in heavy strength training, this being women and ageing populations.
The first and most well known point about exercise not specifically related to lifting weights is the release of endorphins, there are a number of studies that show the positive mental effect from them but mainly in aerobic exercise. Such as this study by Joanne Gourgouvelis et al (2018) that found the effects from exercising helped treat depression more effectively when combined with conventional antidepressant therapies than alone. But these effects have also been found to be present while performing resistance training as well. Brett R. Gordon et al (2018) concluded that in a large trial of “33 randomized clinical trials involving 1877 participants” concluded in the result that “Resistance exercise training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults regardless of health status, total prescribed volume of RET, or significant improvements in strength.” (RET meaning resistance exercise training). A good take away from this is that the positive results were not linked to “significant improvements in strength”. The benefit of this is it means even if your program is basic and you just go to the gym to lift a few weights without a lot of predisposed knowledge, these benefits will still show. You don't really need a coach, personal trainer or a program to get these effects.
Endorphins have also been linked as a way to help control pain. Adam S Sprouse-Blum (2010) in the article named “Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management” looks at the current understanding that endorphins are neuropeptides and their role in surgery as effective pain management, processing morphine like effects. In all this makes resistance training a great way to stay resilient in older age, and making exercise a good way to manage pain in older age. Improving quality of life and future wellbeing in turn. This can be expanded further by looking at a systematic review by Angela K Lange et al (2008) that looked at resistance training in 2,832 participants with ages from 55-74 years with some level of osteoarthritis and using resistance training as a form of treatment. It was concluded that “resistance training improved muscle strength and self-reported measures of pain and physical function in over 50-75% of this cohort; 50-100% of the studies reported a significant improvement in all but 1 performance-based physical function measure (walk time).”. The effects of training gave participants reduced pain and improved function in many tasks such as sitting and standing from a chair. These benefits to health will vastly improve the function and wellbeing of a person at a more advanced age.
Other benefits of resistance training and especially in heavy weight training where loads will be higher in the compound movements compared to aerobic or casual resistance training, would be the effects on bone density. A review conducted by Amelia Guadalupe-Grau (2009) looked at existing research in the field and summarized that “Unloaded exercise such as swimming has no impact on bone mass, while walking or running has limited positive effects. It is not clear which training method is superior for bone stimulation in adults, although scientific evidence points to a combination of high-impact (i.e. jumping) and weight-lifting exercises.”. This shows that high load based exercise such as lifting weights induces a positive response relating to bone density. In fact there have been numerous studies conducted on powerlifters competing at a very high level, one of which took readings of bone density from two elite senior female powerlifters. This study was done by Walters et al (2012) and took 2 powerlifters aged 48 and 54 years old with 30+ years of training experience and took measurements of bone density, the results found that both were far above average and that the 54 year old had scores that “mark the largest ever reported in the literature for a Caucasian woman of this age”. These measurements were taken from the lumbar spine, dual femur, and total body. From this it can be seen that strength based training is able to add longevity and maintain quality of life in an ageing population, this will all add to an individual's well being and they progress through life.
To further give credence this point another study that was conducted by Wolfgang Kemmler et al (2004) over a period of two years on a cohort of 50 women by that measured the benefits of 2 Years of exercise on bone density, physical fitness, and blood lipids in early postmenopausal osteopenic women demonstrates why including strength training as part of a fitness regime is of benefit to even groups normally not associated with method/style of training. The way the training is laid out is quite robust in this study, by having various training blocks with different focuses throughout the 2 year time frame allowed the participants to make good overall progress towards many health benefits attributed to strength, cardiorespiratory and power based training modalities. Over this 2 year time period the results achieved by the exercise group improved across all measured fields, seeing improvements in bone muscle density, lower cholesterol in blood lipids and lower self reported measurements in lower back pain.
These results show great reasons to train but people still have barriers to entry when it comes to strength training. A motto that I have come to like by Coach Celine Turner who was interviewed by British Weightlifting (2018) helps address some of these barriers. In the article put together for this interview Celine talks about her motto “Strong Is Not A Size” and what it means. “A stereotype that seems to persist is that lifting weights will make women ‘bulky’. One thing I do to help address this is, tell someone how much I can deadlift/squat, let them look me up and down, see that I look decidedly more weedy than bulky, and then make up their own minds! Women who lift come in all shapes and sizes". This combined with initial nerves of taking part in a more obscure sport (Weightlifting) tends to be a factor which add to the stress, Celine also covers this in her interview saying “Fear of being looked at, judged, doing something stupid or injuring myself meant I stayed away from the main lifting area. Being shown how to lift properly gave me confidence and, slowly but surely, I started to feel like I belonged there as much as anyone else.”. This is a great reason to find a local gym or club with a focus of strength training and take part, it will help build confidence and learning new skills as well as the mechanics involved in weight lifting. Seeing progress in these aspects can help keep motivation high. You don’t need to be or aspire to be an athlete to start doing some weight training. There are lots of health benefits that can be gained from just doing a small bit.
I will also include this short video featuring the famous strongman Odd Haugen who to celebrate his 66th birthday attempted an incredible feat of strength. This really shows what the human body is capable of even as it ages.
Jack Lever - Hawkers Hill Gym
Adam S Sprouse-Blum, Greg Smith, Daniel Sugai, and F Don Parsa (2010), Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management, Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3104618/ viewed (10/07/2021)
Angela K Lange, Vanwanseele, B., & Fiatarone Singh, M. A. (2008). Strength training for treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee: a systematic review, Available at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18821647/ viewed (10/07/2021)
Amelia Guadalupe-Grau, Teresa Fuentes, Borja Guerra, Jose A L Calbet (2009), Exercise and bone mass in adults, Available at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19453205/ viewed (10/07/2021)
Brett R. Gordon, Cillian P. McDowell, Mats Hallgren (2018), Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms, Available at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2680311 viewed (10/07/2021)
British Weightlifting (2018), Strong Is Not A Size Case Study - Celine Turner, Available at https://britishweightlifting.org/article/strong-is-not-a-size--celine-turner viewed (10/07/2021)
Joanne Gourgouvelis, Paul Yielder, Sandra T Clarke, Hushyar Behbahani, Bernadette Ann Murphy (2018), Exercise Leads to Better Clinical Outcomes in Those Receiving Medication Plus Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Major Depressive Disorder, Available at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29559928/ viewed (10/07/2021)
Walters, Peter H, Jezequel, Joel J, Grove, Mary B (2012), Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Case Study: Bone Mineral Density of Two Elite Senior Female Powerlifters, Available at https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2012/03000/Case_Study__Bone_Mineral_Density_of_Two_Elite.38.aspx viewed (10/07/2021)
Wolfgang Kemmler, Dirk Lauber, Jürgen Weineck, et al (2004), JAMA, Benefits of 2 Years of Intense Exercise on Bone Density, Physical Fitness, and Blood Lipids in Early Postmenopausal Osteopenic Women, Available at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/217013 viewed (10/07/2021)