What is Resistance Training: Your Guide to Build Muscle Safely and Sustainably - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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What is Resistance Training: Your Guide to Build Muscle Safely and Sustainably

Key Takeaways:

  • Resistance training is intended to build muscle and strength for better mobility, injury prevention, and healthy aging. 
  • Both body weight and weighted exercises are valid methods for resistance training.
  • Other benefits of resistance training include improved mental health, decreased pain, cardiovascular health, and gut health.
  • When starting out with resistance training, it’s more important to maintain consistency than find the “perfect” training program. 
  • Combine resistance training with cardio for the best all-around health and longevity results.

Over the last several months, I’ve been educating myself and my patients a lot more on the necessity of a consistent fitness routine for health and longevity. As I work on improving my own strength, endurance, mobility, and flexibility, I’ve truly come to believe in the power of exercise to make significant changes in how you feel on a day-to-day basis. 

While diet and sleep remain important cornerstones of health, I think clinicians tend to gloss over exercise. Though they
often recommend it, they may not understand how to help you implement it in real life. So today we’ll dig into one key component of a well-rounded exercise program: resistance training, aka strength training. 

If you’ve never exercised consistently before, resistance training might sound intimidating, but don’t worry — building strength and muscle mass doesn’t have to mean going to the gym, lifting weights, or following a strict schedule. There are plenty of ways to incorporate resistance training into your weekly fitness routine, and for many people bodyweight exercises are a great place to start. 

If you are interested in leveling up your preexisting resistance training routine, I’ll share some more specific tips on optimizing reps, sets, and rest time as well. 

In this article, we’ll define resistance training, including the different types, benefits, and how you should balance resistance training (anaerobic exercise) with cardio (aerobic exercise) for a well-rounded weekly fitness routine that promotes your health in the short and long term. 

What is Resistance Training?

Resistance training literally refers to training that requires your muscles to act against some kind of resistance, whether that’s pushing or pulling weight, stretching an exercise band, or even moving your own body weight. It can certainly get your heart rate up and make you sweat, but it’s not intended to work your heart like cardio (consistent walking, running, biking, etc.) does. 

The main goal of resistance training is to increase muscular strength and endurance by building major muscle groups. Resistance training has three main subtypes, based on the type of muscular contraction [1]:

  1. Isotonic: moving a muscle group through its range of motion with a consistent load/weight (i.e. squats, bench press, deadlifts).
  2. Isometric/ static: muscular contraction without movement (i.e. plank, wall sits). Can hold a position at the end of an isotonic exercise to make it also isometric.
  3. Isokinetic: constant speed and velocity with a variable load/weight (stationary bike). Primarily used by athletes and/or in a therapeutic setting, like physical therapy, as it often requires special equipment [2].
What is Resistance Training: Your Guide to Build Muscle Safely and Sustainably - Types%20of%20Resistance%20Training 01 L

You can also customize resistance training by:

  • Weight type and load
  • Number and duration of repetitions (reps) + rest between reps
  • Sets (contain multiple reps) + rest between sets
  • Frequency of exercise
  • Intensity of exercise

When you’re just getting started, don’t think too hard about these variables. Building resistance training into your routine 2-3 times a week will quickly push you out of beginner mode, and then you can think about adjusting your reps, sets, rest time, and so on to continue challenging your muscles. 

Types of Resistance Training 

The most common examples of resistance training are [3]:

  • Body weight exercise (where the external resistance is gravity: push-ups, squats, lunges)
  • Barbells exercise (deadlifts, chest press) 
  • Resistance bands, adds additional resistance to body weight exercises like squats and glute bridges
  • Exercises with free weights (dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls). Includes bicep curls and triceps extensions.
  • Weight machines
  • Calisthenics (gymnastics-styled exercise that includes body weight exercise)
  • Crossfit (resistance exercise is one component)

Strength training differs from other types of similar exercise, including high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and bodybuilding, as the overall goal of strength training is building muscle strength and endurance [4, 5]. 

Which Type is Right for You?

Research suggests that all types of strength training can improve muscle strength and other health outcomes [1], so which type you choose comes down to personal preference, equipment availability, cost, and convenience

Getting started with a consistent fitness routine is all about making it as easy to do as possible (in terms of making it a consistent habit, not necessarily choosing easy weights), so learning simple bodyweight exercises is a good place to start. Learning the correct form on exercises like lunges, squats, curls, presses, etc. will also prevent injury when you progress to heavier weights or more complex exercises. We will get into more examples of specific exercise routines below. 

Resistance Training Benefits

Resistance training offers many of the same general benefits of other types of exercise, including [1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14]:

  • Cardiometabolic health
  • Decreased pain
  • Improved bone density
  • Improved body composition
  • Increased strength
  • Balanced mood
  • Lowered anxiety levels 
  • Improved type 2 diabetes
  • Improved osteoporosis
  • Altered bowel habits
  • Decreased back pain

Since you know I love highlighting the research, let’s take a look at a few studies on some of the major health benefits of resistance training.

Heart Health

A 2022 randomized controlled trial (RCT) had 56 physically active participants perform multimodal exercise (resistance, interval, stretching, endurance) in the morning or evening, while following meal plans providing adequate protein. The resistance training component was performed approximately 1 hour per week for 3 months. Core, upper body, and lower body exercises were performed for as 2-3 sets with 10-15 reps per set

Though the effects were variable between men and women, both the morning and evening exercise groups had improved [9]:

  • Physical performance
  • Total body, abdominal, and hip fat %
  • Cholesterol
  • Blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Mood

I like that this study shows that you don’t need multiple hours per week to see positive results in your health. As little as an hour per week can make a difference as long as you make it part of your regular routine. Perhaps this looks like two 30-minute sessions or three 20-minute sessions spread out over the course of a week. 

Brain Health/Mental Health

A 2022 RCT with 27 anxious, sedentary, female college students found that resistance training significantly improved their muscle strength. More remarkably, the women saw benefits in their mood, primarily improving their anxiety levels. This is likely due to the effect of strength training on the parasympathetic nervous system and modulating heart rate variability (HRV), a marker for how well the body is handling stress [11].

The resistance training was performed 2x per week for 2 months and was designed to have 30-second rest between reps and 90-second rest between sets. This pattern of work and rest is very achievable for a beginner and can be scaled up as needed. 

There is also good evidence for exercise being helpful in the treatment of depression; check out my YouTube video all about this topic here

Gut Health 

Research shows that positive shifts in the gut microbiome occur with resistance training [15], though other studies suggest that these changes only happen when combined with aerobic exercise [16, 17]. Regardless, by improving metabolism, cardiovascular health, and nervous system health with resistance training, you are likely to see benefits for the gut as well. However, we do need more specific research on these outcomes.

Healthy Aging

A recent RCT with 28 older adults found that 3 months of resistance training increased muscle strength and metabolism [12]. It’s extremely important to maintain muscle and mobility as you age to prevent falls and injuries later in life. Mobility is also highly correlated with happiness and satisfaction alongside aging.

Another systematic review analyzing ten studies found that undertaking any amount of resistance training reduces the risk of all-cause mortality by 15%, cardiovascular disease mortality by 19%, and cancer mortality by 14%. A maximum reduction of 27% in all-cause mortality was found at about one hour of resistance training per week [18]. 

Lastly, a systematic review found that strength/resistance training and combination training (aerobic + strength) consistently improved cognitive inhibition and visual working memory, as well as executive function in older adults [19].

Resistance Training Regimen for a Beginner

Unless you are already a highly-trained athlete looking to optimize your routine, it’s safest to start a resistance exercise program of 1–2 sessions per week without getting caught up in all the possible variables. Finding something that you can be consistent with is more beneficial than trying to come up with the “perfect” regimen.

YouTube has a massive collection of beginner-friendly strength-building workouts that you can start from your living room, using either bodyweight or weights like dumbbells and kettlebells. 

If you’re the type of person who prefers to get out of the house for your workouts, joining an exercise group or class can provide guidance and community until you feel more comfortable exercising on your own. If you are interested in weight machines but are too intimidated to start, consider having a personal trainer or experienced friend show you the ropes.

Do I Have to Go to the Gym? 

Absolutely not! In fact, if you are a beginner, it may be better to start out with bodyweight exercises at home. But whether you are a beginner or not, going to the gym is not required for resistance training. You can do weight training with bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, and a number of other tools from the comfort of your own home. 

A Note on Protein

If you are beginning a new exercise routine and challenging your muscles to build strength, it’s important to fuel muscle growth with an adequate amount of protein. A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least 1.1–1.4g protein/kg (2.2 lbs) of target body weight per day. Another way to think about it is to aim for 30–50 grams of protein per meal, depending on your weight and muscle-building goals. 

If that seems like a lot, don’t stress. Start by tracking how much protein you typically eat in a day and see where you could increase your intake from there. Getting into the ideal range could be as simple as adding a high protein snack or protein shake after your workout. The MyFitnessPal app or Cronometer app are helpful for tracking your daily protein intake. 

How Often Should I Do Resistance Training vs. Cardio?

When regular strength training and cardio aerobic exercise are imbalanced (too much strength training and not enough cardio), it can lead to abnormal development and thickening of the heart, poor cardiovascular function, and decreased performance over time [20, 21, 22]. 

What this means is that we should do both resistance/weight training and cardio for a well-rounded range of health benefits. Resistance training can increase muscle strength, improve blood vessel function, and increase muscular endurance, while aerobic exercise increases cardiorespiratory fitness and heart function [23]. However, comparative studies show that resistance training may also have significant effects on cardiorespiratory fitness [24]. 

Regardless, research routinely shows that combining aerobic and resistance exercise is likely most beneficial for health, and is suitable for both active and sedentary populations [9, 24].  

Both cardio and resistance training may have overlapping benefits on cardiovascular health but combining them increases these heart health effects [9, 24, 25], lowers the risk of complications from at least one type of autoimmunity [10], increases muscle strength [24], improves lipid levels [9], improves cognition, and reduces depression [26].

As I explain in my book Healthy Gut, Healthy You, I personally recommend that you incorporate at least one strength training session — two if possible — for every cardio session. So a beginner weekly schedule might look like one day of cardio and two days of resistance training for a total of three exercise days per week, or two days of cardio and resistance training each, for a total of four exercise days per week. 

Depending on your time constraints, you can challenge yourself by increasing the number of workouts per week over time or increasing the difficulty of the workouts you already have. There’s no rule that says you can’t do both! 

But I’m just as busy as anyone else, so I always come back to this rule: doing something is better than nothing. If you only have 10–15 minutes for a short resistance workout, that’s better than nothing. If you can only fit in a 20-minute walk on your lunch break, that’s better than sitting at your desk. Keep building the habit, stay consistent, and if you fall off the wagon, it’s okay to rebuild your routine five, 10, and 15 minutes at a time. 

Example Weekly Fitness Routine

Here’s what your weekly fitness routine might look like. Whether you exercise three or six days of the week, taking the time to plan out your schedule will help keep you accountable.

MondayCardio – Day 1Options: Running, biking, swimming, sports, indoor cycling/spinning, barre, dancing, kickboxing, etc. 
TuesdayResistance training – Day 1 Full body/all muscle groups
WednesdayRest day With a light walk or yoga
ThursdayCardio – Day 2You can repeat your Cardio – Day 1 activity or switch it up
FridayResistance training – Day 2 Full body/all muscle groups
SaturdayRest day
SundayFun activity dayGo for a hike, bike to the farmer’s market, garden, play kickball with the kids, pickleball, etc.

Reaching the Next Level in your Training

Once you have a basic schedule down and you feel comfortable with different movements like hinge, press, lift, etc. in your resistance training sessions, then you can play around with the number of reps, sets, and rest time to continue making progress toward your goals. 

Rest: Having appropriate recovery time between your reps and sets is very important to be able to do good work and build muscle, so you don’t want to cut your rest time too much. However, you should be resting just enough to feel like you’ve fully recovered from the previous rep/set before starting the next one, and you’ll find that you need a little less recovery time once you’ve gained some experience with consistent exercise.

Reps: The number of reps you perform of an exercise depends on the type of exercise and the weight you’re working with. A good rule of thumb for building lean muscle and improving mobility is 8–12 reps per set. But once again, this is all relative. If the weight you’ve chosen feels challenging at 6 reps, shoot for 8 reps. If you want to stop at 8 reps, do 10 reps. This ensures that you’re continuing to challenge your muscles at your current load, whether you’re using body weight or external weights. 

But if you reach that upper limit of 12 reps and your current weight no longer feels challenging, it may be time to consider adding weight. 

Sets: A good rule of thumb for the 8–12 rep range is doing 3–5 sets, resting completely between each set. For a more significant increase in your output, you can increase your number of sets in your workouts, but tread carefully! You don’t want to burn out by increasing too much too quickly. 

As you can see, there are many variables to consider when you want to challenge yourself with your strength workouts. You can also introduce new and compound movements that challenge you to use multiple muscle groups in combination. You can work based on time intervals instead of reps and simply complete as many reps as possible in the given time. If you have access to a gym and you’re interested in heavier lifting, you’ll want to do lower reps the closer you are to your max weight. 

Remember, resistance training should be enjoyable, not about punishing yourself. So find what works for you and continue to challenge your body and mind as you gain both experience and muscle. 

Combine Resistance Training and Cardio for a Fitness Routine that Supports Health and Longevity 

Resistance training is intended to build strength, maintain muscle, and increase mobility, especially as we age. It’s most effective for overall health when practiced for about an hour a week and combined with cardio training. From there, you have loads of options when designing a training program, but the trick is to simply get started with something. Whether it’s bodyweight exercise or Olympic-style lifting, find something you can commit to and feel good doing. 

For more of my perspective on exercise, gut health, and more, check out my book Healthy Gut, Healthy You.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

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