A fitness expert says strength training builds and maintains bones and muscles and helps manage symptoms of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and low back pain.

For many, the phrase “strength training” conjures images of bodybuilders straining to lift Herculean amounts of weight. This association can be intimidating. And it discourages some people from trying strength training, which is a shame, because strength training is one of the best ways to improve the way your body functions in your daily life.

Strength training is one of the best ways to improve the way your body functions in your daily life.

Strength training increases the force-generating capacity of individual muscles and the ability to coordinate groups of muscles more efficiently. There are various ways to achieve this: weight machines, resistance bands, free weights and even by using your own body weight. Non-machine exercises are preferable because they are more specific to everyday movements and the strength they develop carries over to day-to-day living better.

I had a client who owned a minivan with a removable third seat that she dreaded having to remove and re-install because it was very heavy. One day, after about six months of regular free weight strength training, she and her husband had to put the seat back in the van. With some trepidation, she prepared for an uncomfortable few minutes.

A deadlift works a lot of muscles simultaneously.
A deadlift works several muscles simultaneously.

To her surprise, she picked it up and put it in the van easily. She was thrilled by her newfound ability. This type of outcome is typical for those who regularly train their muscles to be stronger.

Strength Training Improves Health

There are a myriad of other benefits strength training affords. As part of an overall fitness program, it helps manage symptoms or reduce the risk of developing conditions like diabetes, low back pain, heart disease and arthritis. It also helps build and maintain bone mineral density, which is critical for women who are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis.

If we don’t participate in strengthening activities, we lose muscle mass as we grow older. This can make everyday activities like climbing stairs, getting up out of a chair or lifting a laundry basket difficult.

Strength training preserves and builds lean muscle, helping us stay strong and vigorous through our senior years. A good level of strength makes everyday activities easier, and recreational activities more enjoyable.

Exercises that Work Several Muscles

For rows, use weights that feel heavy during the last one or two repetitions.
For rows, use weights that feel heavy on the last one to two repetitions.

Muscles also burn calories, so having more muscle helps us achieve or maintain a desirable level of body fat. The look commonly referred to as “toned” comes from the accentuated shape of muscles in arms and legs.

To start on your way to a stronger, leaner body, choose exercises that work lots of muscles simultaneously.

Some good choices are squats, rows, dead lifts and pushups. Do up to 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise with a minute or two rest between sets.

Try this routine on two to three non-consecutive days per week. Use weights that start to feel heavy during the last one or two repetitions. Start conservatively, but don’t be afraid to increase weight as you get stronger.

There are a great many exercise choices in strength training. Some are better than others, depending on your level of fitness, but a program should always include exercises to work the major movements of the upper and lower body.

Consult with a physical therapist or qualified personal trainer if you need advice on the best choices for you.

Mike Bento is an advanced trainer at The Clubs at Charles River Park and Massachusetts General Hospital. He holds a master’s degree in human movement and is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a corrective exercise specialist and performance enhancement specialist.