The Surprising Benefits of Strength Training Over Running
When I first set out to lose weight and get in shape, I did what most of us do: I started running. I worked my way up to running three miles with the Couch to 5k program, and I went on from there. Some days I ran as far as I could as fast as I could. Some days I ran sprints. Some days I ran intervals or hills. But every day I ran. And while I certainly did lose weight, I never quite got the body I wanted. I didn’t get any stronger or any more muscular, I just shrunk proportionally. I became a scaled down version of my overweight self. So then, when running wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be fitness-wise, I finally started researching that much more taboo exercise regime: strength training and body building.
And when I made the switch from constant cardio to serious resistance training, what surprised me the most was how many questions I was asked about the safety of strength training. While I was running, I got injury repeatedly and it was considered normal; just taken as par for the course. But suddenly, when I started lifting heavy, everyone was worried about my health and the long-term risks of lifting weights. According to everyone I spoke to about my lifting, I was doing irreparable harm to my joints and tendons. I was poisoning my kidneys by eating too much protein. So, to ease my friends’ and family’s concern, I started researching the so-called long-term risks of strength training, and what I found surprised me. I've listed the health concerns (or rather, benefits!) related to strength training below.
Strength training has a lower injury rate than running
I hear all the time from otherwise well-meaning people that weightlifting is dangerous and can cause serious, long-term injuries. Before I starting strength training, I assumed anyone who lifted weights was just asking to get hurt. Cardio was King because it didn't have any risks associated with it. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is, strength training, and in particular the sport of powerlifting (the most dangerous of all athletic pursuits, I had been lead to believe), has some of the lowest injury rates of any exercise or sport. In fact, powerlifting not only has a lower injury rate than running, it has a lower injury rate than most cardio exercises. Powerlifting comes in 13th behind running, basketball, and even badminton in injury rates (1). But wait, there’s more! Not only do weight lifters have nearly negligible injury rates compared to other athletes, but lifting weights has been shown to even reduce the risk of injuries (2).
On the other hand, running has exceptionally high rates of injury, and a wide variety of injuries can plague runners. Some of the most common are runner's knee, achilles tendonitis, stress fractures, and turf toe (3). Or, in other words, the majority of injuries and risks associated with strength training are in fact much more common in runners.
Strength training is better for losing weight.
When you want to lost weight, it's simple: burn more calories than you take in. And running certainly burns no small amount of calories. But, running only ramps up your metabolism while you're running and shortly thereafter; lifting weights raising your metabolism for much longer. Or, in other words, strength training has a much better "after burn" effect (4). Not only that, but the weight you lose from running is a mix of both fat and muscle. With strength training, you lose more fat than muscle (5). It's basically what I noticed when I was a staunch runner: I lost weight, but I never got more toned or muscular. Strength training is just the better choice for losing weight.
Strength training is better for your long term health
This is the big one. This is the one that came up every time I tried to discuss strength training. I was told over and over again that if I kept lifting, I was going to blow my joints out. I was going to be crippled in my old age and turn into a tired old man that could barely walk. Every rep I performed did irreparable harm to my body. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Strength training doesn't hurt our joints, it actually makes them stronger as we age. The longer we lift weights, the stronger our joints, tendons and ligaments get (6). Furthermore, weight lifting also increases bone density (7). In addition to these major benefits, strength training boosts testosterone production, which helps to keep our bodies young (8).
An introduction to proper squat technique.
How do you work out?
Now, of course, all of these benefits only apply if proper weightlifting form is followed. Weight follow form, as they say. You have to make sure you're lifting the weights right, or else you won't see these benefits. Done improperly, weight lifting can lead to serious injuries. So before jumping into a strength training program, make sure to spend time researching and practicing correct form before you begin seriously lifting weights.
At the end of day, what matters most is that you exercise, and you exercise doing something you love and makes you feel good. I don't want to dissuade anyone from running. It was a wonderful introduction to exercise for me and helped me down the path to fitness. What I do want to do is show you that there's more than one way to get fit, and what you may have heard about strength training is likely false. Don't jump straight onto the cardio train without first at least considering the many benefits of weightlifting first.