Does strength training help your heart and lungs?

By: Sara Novak
strength training
This fitness instructor teaches a women how to correctly position her wrists when lifting weights.
Barry Austin/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Long gone are the days that strength training was associated only with bodybuilding. The idea of buff, macho men "maxing out" on free weights has been replaced with health nuts from all walks of life lifting weights to stay fit. Today strength training is linked to improved overall health. From helping your heart and lungs to increasing muscle mass, strength training is your body's fountain of youth.

These improvements appear in all age groups, from teenagers to the elderly, though the most expansive research has been done on older adults. A large-scale study at Tufts University found regular strength training just two days per week led to a 70 percent increase in general strength and 13 percent increase in balance in postmenopausal women. Spine and hip density increased an entire percentage point [source: Journal of the American Health Association].


Statistics like these move individuals across the spectrum to slim down, tone up and decrease the likelihood of chronic disease through strength training.

The all-encompassing benefits of gaining strength include improving your mental capacity, as well, because it relieves stress. Stress weakens your health, and as stress decreases, sleep quality increases. Without stress, you'll probably sleep deeper and longer than you did before.

But in a country where heart disease ranks as the No. 1 cause of death, and lung cancer is the second most diagnosed cancer, it's strength training's effects on cardiovascular and lung health that perk peoples' ears [sources: Centers for Disease Control, American Lung Association]. More and more studies tell us what many weightlifting addicts already know: Increasing muscle mass means improving heart and lung function while staving off heart disease and other conditions before they set in.

Read on to learn what the American Heart Association thinks about strength training.


Improving Heart and Lung Health

Strengthening the upper body's muscles means decreasing the work of the heart and lungs, and putting less strain on these vital organs makes them healthier in the long run. In simpler terms, your risk of a heart attack diminishes as you tone your body. That's why the American Heart Association recommends strength training for maintenance of overall heart health [source: Centers For Disease Control and Prevention: Growing Stronger].

While strength training has always played a vital role in cardiovascular rehabilitation after heart attacks or heart surgery, today we also use it in preventative cardio health. As muscle mass and strength improve, less demand is put on our most important muscle of all, the heart, which can then pump more oxygen in fewer beats. According to the American Heart Association, as your body's general strength increases, so does your functional capacity, your ability to move through the day's simple tasks. Activities like walking up the stairs or lifting heavy boxes become less taxing on your heart [source: Cybex Institute].


Strength training increases your heart rate just as cardio and circuit training does, depending on resistance, repetitions and rest between sets. As your heart rate increases, so too does your ability to burn calories and lose weight. Lung health improves, as well. While increasing muscular strength doesn't directly improve your lung health, strengthening weak arm and leg muscles increases your body's endurance. This, in turn, reduces your body's exhaustion and breathlessness, which means your lungs don't have to work as hard.

This is especially evident with lung diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis. A report in the medical journal CHEST shows increasing strength in the arms and legs helps chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients move through life with more ease. Household tasks that formerly caused fatigue, such as rising from a chair, become easier with simple strength training.

Read on to learn how the body actually builds muscles, and it's not during your workout.


Strength Training and Weight Loss

Obesity is one of the leading causes of diminished heart and lung function: Extra weight on your critical organs is just too much to bear. But as your muscles tone and strengthen, you become a calorie-burning machine. It's not just the calories that you burn during your workout; it's the calories that you keep burning long after your workout has ended. When you stress the muscles during strength training, you actually tear them, and it's during your recovery time that the muscles repair and build. This recovery time increases your calorie burning potential by creating a metabolic spike.

While strength training doesn't directly increase blood oxygen, weight loss accomplished through strength training does. Increased blood oxygen makes you feel all around better. You feel rested, serene and full of energy.


Further streamline your calorie-burning machine by combining cardio and strength training. You can do cardio exercises every day, while strength training can only be done every other day in order to allow muscles time to recover. Combining the two means burning even more calories. Cardio also increases your heart rate, which makes your body burn even more calories. Not to mention that sweating during cardio exercise pushes out toxins and cleanses the body. And just like strength training, cardio improves your mood.

Strength training should come before cardio in your workout routine. If not, you'll likely run out of energy and not be able to get through your strength training routine. Also, consider including interval training, where you move back and forth from weight training to cardio in about five-minute intervals.

When combining strength training with cardio exercise, pick an activity that you find particularly enjoyable so that you can stick with it. Consider running, hiking, biking, rollerblading or some of the more active forms of yoga. It's about staying active as much as possible.

Learn how to get started in your strength training routine on the next page.


Strength Training Tips and Cautions for All Ages

You now know that strength training increases heart and lung health, and you know that it helps people lose weight fast. So where do you start?

No matter your age, choose a workout plan that meets these basic criteria:


  • Take a day off between weight training days. Shoot for training three times per week to start so that your muscles completely recover between sessions.
  • Include a warm-up in your routine, like brisk walking or jogging on a treadmill, riding a bike or using an elliptical machine for about 10 minutes.
  • Don't overdo it. For beginners, 20 to 30 minutes is a good place to start [source: Mayo Clinic].
  • Cool down with at least five to 10 minutes of stretching at the end of your workout.

Growing teens should be extra careful when strength training. Here are some precautions:

  • Bones, muscles, joints and tendons are still growing, so don't overdo it. If you start to feel sharp pains or your muscles make a popping sound, reduce intensity immediately. In these cases, talk to a professional trainer.
  • When lifting heavy weights make sure that a spotter is nearby so that you don't drop a free weight and injure yourself in the process.
  • Peer pressure can play a role in strength training as in many other teen activities. Steroid use is widespread among teens who misunderstand or ignore the damage it can do. Avoid experimenting with steroids so that you won't endure long-term repercussions like heart disease, cancer and sterility.

The key to strength training in older adults is a deliberate, constant routine. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Consult a doctor before starting a workout regimen.
  • Take it slow and don't hurry through the exercises.
  • Be consistent with your routine.

Read on to learn about exercises that don't require a weight room.


Strength Training Exercises for All Ages

strength training
Strength training, like the bicep curls these women are doing, just twice a week can improve your health and fitness.

You can adapt these strengthening exercises for all age groups. For the most seasoned weight lifters, add weights as needed or increase the number of repetitions. If that's still too easy, increase the number of sets. Simple poses like the ones below remove the need for a pricey weight room while getting your heart and lungs into perfect shape.

To improve arm strength, consider simple bicep curls. If you don't have arm weights, use cans or bottles from around the house. Place a weight in each hand. Your wrists should never bend so that the work comes from the biceps, not any other part of the arm. Repeat 10 to 15 times.


Switch the weight in the other direction and do tricep curls. Lean one elbow on a bench and at the same time lift the arm until it fully extends, working the back of the arm. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

Squats build strength in your large muscle groups including your thighs, buttocks and hips. Start with your feet about shoulder width apart. Extend your arms straight out in front of your body and ensure that your knees don't extend past your toes. Lower your buttocks down and hold. Repeat 10 to 15 times. You can hold free weights on top of your shoulders as you sink down.

Back extensions are ideal for reducing back pain. Start on your stomach. If you have a yoga mat, this is a good time to use it. Place a blanket or pillow underneath your stomach for support. Lift your left arm and right leg and hold for a count of four. Switch sides and lift your right arm and left leg. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

Take a one- to two-minute break between sets.

For lots more information about how strength training benefits your heart and lungs, check out the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Heart Association. "Cigarette Smoking and Cardiovascular Diseases." 2010. (Aug. 19, 2010)
  • American Lung Association. "Lung Cancer." 2010. (Aug. 19, 2010)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Growing Stronger - Strength Training for Older Adults." May 10, 2010. (July 29, 2010)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Heart Disease is the Number One Cause of Death." Jan. 26, 2010. (Aug. 18, 2010)
  • CHEST. "Strength training can help people with lung disease." November 2009. (Aug. 18, 2010)
  • Cybex Institute for Exercise Science. "Strength Training for a Healthy Heart." (July 30, 2010)
  • The Diet Channel. "Cardio and strength training: How do you create a balanced routine?" (Aug. 17, 2010)
  • Jones, Laura S. "Cardio vs. Weights, The Battle Is Over." The Washington Post. April 24, 2007. (Aug. 20, 2010)
  • Kravitz, Len, Ph.D. "Resistance Training: Adaptations and Health Implications." IDEA Today. 1996. (July 29, 2010)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Weight training: Improve your muscular fitness." Feb. 14, 2009. (Aug. 19, 2010)
  • Nelson, Miriam E. et al. "Effects of High-Intensity Strength Training on Multiple Risk Factors for Osteoporotic Fractures." The Journal of the American Medical Association. Dec. 28, 1994. (July 30, 2010)
  • The New York Times. "Health Guide." March 1, 2009. (Aug. 17, 2010)'s-effects-on-the-lungs.html
  • O'Shea, S.D. et al. "Peripheral Muscle Strength Training in COPD: A Systematic Review." CHEST. September 2004. (Aug. 19, 2010)
  • Plosser, Liz. "A WH Fitness Face Off." Women's Health. Dec. 3, 2008. (July 31, 2010)
  • Science Daily. "Exercise And Strength Training Could Improve Physical Decline In Elderly." Oct. 3, 2002. (Aug. 18, 2010)
  • Teen Health. "Strength Training." May 2009. (July 30, 2010)
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. "Smoking." Nov. 18, 2009. (Aug. 19, 2010)