The Benefits of Heavy Lifting (Whatever That Means for You), According to New Research

When it comes to building muscle strength, bodyweight training may not be enough.

  • When it comes to strength training, lighter loads may “grow” your muscles, but it’s the heavier weights that will make them much stronger, new research shows.
  • Building your muscle and joint strength can make you a faster runner and decrease injury risk.
  • Experts recommend strength training two to three times per week, performing eight to 12 reps max per exercise.
  • Most importantly, consider getting a trainer to design a safe and effective regimen for your individual goals and needs.

We know that running boasts a range of benefits—in fact, studies show that even 10 minutes a day at slow speeds can be a boost to your cardiovascular health—but the sport isn’t known for being an ideal muscle builder.

That’s why increasing your strength through resistance training can be key for some cross-training balance. (Plus, resistance training strengthens your muscles and joints, which can make you faster and decrease injury risk.) For that, new research suggests it really does help to lift heavy.

Published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers reviewed 28 studies that included 747 healthy adults total. Looking at what type of weight—called loads—would increase muscle growth, the researchers found that a wide spectrum of load amounts resulted in a very similar increase in muscle size. However, it was only with higher or moderate loads that there was a significant improvement in strength.

That means lighter loads may “grow” your muscles, but it’s the heavier weights that will make them much stronger, according to lead researcher Pedro Lopez, M.Sc., Ph.D.(c), at the Exercise Medicine Research Institute at Edith Cowan University in Australia.

He told Runner’s World these results seem particularly true for those new to strength training compared to those with a training background. For those who train regularly, Lopez said adding more sessions to their routines would likely be more beneficial than simply adding more load.

In terms of why muscle strength might be boosted by high-load resistance training programs, he said one reason may be greater neuromuscular adaptation. That means the connection between your brain, central nervous system, and muscles adapts to be able to recruit more muscle fibers and increase the frequency of them “firing” or engaging.

That improves coordination within and between muscles in ways that contribute to more force. Translation: More strength through increased firing frequency.

If you’re new to strength training, Lopez advises following the recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine, which suggests a frequency of two to three times per week, performing eight to 12 reps max per exercise—which means selecting a weight that you can do for that many reps but feel fatigued by the end of that set.

“However, don’t forget two important points here,” he added. “First, every strength training program should be based on each individual’s goals and needs, and second, look for an accredited exercise professional to assist you with designing your workouts.”

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