Strength and your health
If you’re reading this article, attaining and maintaining good health over the entire course of your life is probably important to you. Specifically, you probably want to avoid disease and be able to perform all the hobbies and activities that you wish to do. So what general impact do both muscular strength as well as the actual practice of strength training have on health?
A study conducted at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, looked at the relationship between muscular strength and long-term risk of disease in men . In total, 8,672 men participated, between the ages of 20 and 80. At the start of the study, each participant performed one-repetition maximum tests for the bench press and leg press. These tests are generally considered good ways to represent the muscular strength of the upper and lower body while maintaining testing simplicity and efficiency.
The scores of the bench press and leg press one-rep maximums were combined to form one overall “strength score” for each participant. The men were then grouped into thirds based on their overall strength scores (top third, middle third, and lower third). Comprehensive medical evaluations were also performed at the start of the study to make sure no detrimental health conditions already existed.
After an average follow-up of 19 years, deaths were surveyed. All three groups were assessed by risk of death from any cause, as well as risk of death from either heart disease or cancer.
Before getting into the results, it’s well known that people who strength train tend to have better overall health habits than people who don’t. For example, strength training participants are more likely to be physically active, smoke less, and eat healthier diets. To minimize the interference of other causative factors like these, the researchers adjusted the data to eliminate the influence of physical activity level, age, smoking status, alcohol intake, body mass index, and family history of heart disease.
With that in mind, the level of muscular strength each participant started with was strongly associated with better long-term health. Compared to the lowest strength level group, the middle group had a 28% lower death rate from any cause or death due to cancer only. The middle group also experienced 26% fewer deaths from heart disease. The death rates for the strongest group were very similar to the middle group in all three categories. The lesson here is that for health, men with even a moderate amount of strength have a greatly reduced risk of early death.
A research review from the University of Maryland  was more comprehensive than the Cooper Institute study. The researchers gathered 171 studies that mostly included both men and women as well as a wider array of diseases and disease markers. The studies examined included randomized-control trials (which are studies that can prove causation) and observational studies (such as the Cooper Institute study, where researchers can pinpoint associations but not causes).
After condensing the results of the studies, the researchers found that performing strength training has a “moderate to large” impact on improving the following factors:
- Disease markers (such as triglycerides, blood sugar, etc.)
- Overall risk of heart disease
- Ability to do daily activities and overall physical function
- General weakness and fatigue
The results also showed that strength training has a smaller but positive impact on the following conditions:
- Blood pressure
- Bone density
- Rheumatoid arthritis (specifically the amount of pain and inflammation)
- Metabolic rate
- Cognitive function (including those with dementia)
Overall, the research indicates that having even a moderate level of muscular strength provides a lower risk of premature death, especially from heart disease or cancer. And the actual practice of strength training provides enhanced physical and cognitive function while also providing protection from a number of diseases and disease markers.
At The Perfect Workout, optimal strength training requires only two 20-minute workouts per week. Knowing that strength training requires such little time and can give you so many benefits, it’s an understatement to say that it’s time well spent.
1. Ruiz, J. R., Sui, X., Lobelo, F., Morrow Jr, J. R., Jackson, A. W., Sjöström, M., & Blair, S. N. (2008). Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 337(7661), 92.
2. Hurley, B. F., Hanson, E. D., & Sheaff, A. K. (2011). Strength training as a countermeasure to aging muscle and chronic disease. Sports Medicine, 41(4), 289-306.
Matt Hedman is a Master Level Super Slow instructor and the founder of The Perfect Workout, which is the largest privately-owned 1-on-1 personal training company in the United States with over 60 fitness studios nationwide. He graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Washington. He worked briefly as an engineer in GE, until he found his passion for HIT, and pursued a career in personal fitness training.