Fitness is undoubtedly a complex topic. There are many different aspects to it as well as many differing opinions about what matters. I’m going to make the case that strength is the single most important aspect of fitness. It’s the most important aspect of fitness for everybody from the 18 year old linebacker to his 85 year old grandmother in the stands.
Bodybuilding has done a great disservice to our society by making people think that strength training is the domain of meatheads lifting hundreds of pounds in the effort to get an extra centimeter on their biceps. When most people think of weightlifting, they think of these large, drug-infused men on stage flexing their spray-tanned muscles for the camera. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Strength training is for every single person who has a physically intact body. This is because strength is foundational to our very existence on earth. Strength is how we interact with the external world. Most people overcomplicate it – let’s start with a simple definition of what strength actually is:
Strength is simply defined as “the ability to produce force against an external resistance”. Every single thing that you do in the physical world requires some degree of strength, and this is something that most people take for granted until they’re forced to acknowledge it later in life.
An extreme example can be found in the 90 year-old who can’t stand up off the toilet because he can’t produce enough force to move his body off of the toilet seat. Many people have died in ways similar to this because they couldn’t move their body to a place where they could call for help.
If you’re reading this, then that scenario probably seems pretty distant. When we’re of good health, we take for granted everyday things like being able to walk, stand up without help, etc. These are all displays of a certain degree of strength. Like most things in the natural world, strength exists on a continuum. The example of the 90 year-old is on one end of the continuum, just as the strength athlete squatting 800 pounds is on the other end of the continuum.
Most people see only the tails of this distribution and conclude that strength training isn’t important for them. This conclusion is wrong. The vast majority of people fall somewhere in the middle of this strength continuum, and they will see immense benefits to nearly every aspect of their lives by putting some effort toward improving their physical strength.
In our world, it’s normal to focus on the tails of a distribution. Just think about the distribution of health. Essentially all attention goes to the extremes of health. Attention either goes toward people who are of such poor health that they need medical attention or it goes toward the top 0.01% of athletes who embody everything that a healthy human body is capable of. The person of average health just isn’t as exciting (or as profitable).
In fact, strength training is most important for normal people of average health. These people can see incredible benefits from a relatively small expenditure of time and effort. The problem is that most people either don’t know what to do or don’t understand the benefits – usually both.
Before we get into the laundry list of benefits of strength training for everyday people, we have to dispel the most pervasive myth that “if I start lifting weights I’ll get bulky and look like a bodybuilder”. This myth is widely due to the intrusion of bodybuilding on popular culture in the past 50 or so years as mentioned earlier. The image of a 250 pound man at 5% body fat wearing a thong and boasting a heavy spray tan while doing poses reminiscent of an exotic bird’s mating ritual – that leaves a mark in peoples’ minds. Most people understandably don’t want to look like that, and since they associate weightlifting with bodybuilding, they decide to avoid weightlifting. Let me explain why this is ridiculous.
Avoiding weightlifting because you don’t want to look like a bodybuilder is like avoiding driving because you don’t want to race in the Daytona 500. Or avoiding running because you don’t want to compete for the Olympic track & field team. This is all to say that looking like a bodybuilder is REALLY difficult. It requires elite genetics, immense effort, years of dedication, and lots of drugs. These people devote much if not all of their lives to looking that way. The photos can also be deceiving as to how those people actually look in real life. It’s kind of like how actors don’t look as good in real life as they do in movies. There’s a lot of production that goes into it.
Put simply, nobody has EVER gotten bulky muscles by accident. If you do, then I will personally hire you as my strength coach because you have discovered something that has eluded millions of coaches and athletes before you.
Now we’re finally ready to look at a short list of just some of the benefits associated with strength training (in no specific order):
- Increases muscle strength
- Improves bone density
- Enhances joint flexibility
- Boosts metabolism
- Enhances endurance
- Improves balance and coordination
- This is why falls are such a big deal for the elderly
- Enhances posture
- Reduces risk of injury
- Improves cardiovascular health
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves blood sugar control
- Increases energy levels
- Boosts mood
- Improves mental focus
- Reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Improves sleep quality
- Increases lifespan
- Improves self-esteem
- Stress relief
- Enhances brain health
- Improves digestive function
- Enhances immune function
- Improves skin health
- Improves sexual health and libido
- Reduces the risk of certain cancers
- Improves cholesterol levels
- Improves oxygen utilization
- Increases tendon and ligament strength
- Improves body awareness & proprioceptive ability
- Improves pregnancy and postpartum recovery
- Regulates hormonal balance
- Reduces inflammation
- Promotes better nutrient utilization
Most of these are physical benefits, but the mental benefits are just as significant if not greater. This is something that surprises everybody who gets into strength training, but every single person who’s gotten strong knows it to be true. Strength training changes the way that you think and the way your mind works. I have entire posts that go deeper into this topic.
Now – if you could put all of this into a pill (and patent it and combine it with the advertising budget of big pharma), you would make trillions of dollars. The good news is that it’s available to you for free.
Chances are, many of you are already aware of the long list of benefits of physical activity. My point is that strength training is by far the BEST and most RELIABLE form of physical activity, in addition to having far greater benefits.
This is simply due to the biology of the human body. Exercise is fundamentally about creating beneficial adaptations in the body. Let’s take a brief detour into some biology.
All biological systems respond to changes in the environment. These changes are driven why what’s referred to as stimuli. The human body is the most complex biological system in the known universe, but it still responds to the same biological laws as all other biological systems.
If the right amount and type of stimulus is applied to a biological system, then there will be a positive adaptation. Too little stimulus and nothing will happen. Too much stimulus will result in harm.
End of biology 101 lecture and back to fitness.
So the goal of fitness is to create beneficial adaptations in the body. Strength just happens to be the most trainable and longest-lasting of the beneficial adaptations we can create.
This becomes obvious to anybody who has spent time trying to improve their fitness. You can make significant changes to your cardiovascular fitness in a few weeks, and the changes will go away just as quickly. Strength, on the other hand, adapts more slowly and can be incrementally improved for much longer. It also takes a lot longer to go away.
Imagine we took an untrained group of 18 year old kids and tested their starting mile time. It would probably be somewhere around 8 minutes. If those kids started training, some of them might be able to get to around a 4 minute mile if they became world-class. That’s an improvement of 2x. Imagine we took the starting bench press of that same group. It would probably be around 80 pounds. If they started training for strength, they would have to increase their strength about 10x before they became world-class. This is just one example of how strength is far more trainable than other aspects of fitness. Here’s why that is so important: long-term improvement is what drives most of the benefits I mentioned above.
Another important aspect of strength training is that it’s simply more enjoyable and sustainable for most people when done properly. It’s been my experience, as well as everyone I have worked with, that it’s easier to stick to a proper strength training program than it is to a cardio-based program. And remember, strength training has substantial cardiovascular benefits too!
The fact that strength training is more sustainable than cardio training can be explained by psychology, both from theory and studies. This psychology is beyond the scope of this post, but there’s ample evidence available to those who are curious. Start by researching motivation theory, both in humans and animals.
This post is meant to be a brief introduction into why strength is the single most important aspect of fitness. Note that I did not say the only important aspect of fitness. But it is CERTAINLY the most misunderstood. Just consider that for most people, the marathon is seen as the ultimate athletic achievement for a weekend warrior. In recent years, strength training has started to gain ground in the lives of normal, everyday people. This is highly encouraging, and it shows no signs of slowing. We need more people in the weight room who aren’t bodybuilders or elite athletes. Because every time someone has their life changed, they tell their friends. This is how we can build positive momentum and build a better world through better health and better fitness.