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Resistance Training: Questions Answered

As we ring in the New Year, it is coming time to tackle those resolutions! According to a national survey, staying fit and healthy and losing weight were the two most popular New Year’s resolutions in 2015 [i].  If this year’s resolutions follow the trends from last year, health and fitness is most likely at the top of everyone’s list.

From eating healthy to working out in the gym, there are many ways to go about staying fit and healthy. If you’ve recently set up a gym membership, or are just getting back into working out, where do you start? Creating a routine that combines both cardio and resistance training exercises is going to give you the most benefit. Running on a treadmill or using the elliptical is pretty easy, but starting a resistance training routine takes a bit more effort. Here are a few answers to the top 6 questions you might have about starting a resistance training program!


Q: What exactly is resistance training?

According to The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), resistance training is “a form of physical activity that is designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a muscle or a muscle group against external resistance”. This type of training can be accomplished in a few ways that go beyond just using dumbbells. In addition to traditional free weights and dumbbells, resistance training can include the use of weight machines, body weight, resistance bands, medicine balls, or common household items like milk jugs filled with water, or soup cans. Resistance training programs can include a variety of exercises, and can be tailored to fit your individual needs as well as your fitness level [ii].


Q: What benefits am I going to get from resistance training?

The most obvious benefit of resistance training is increased muscle mass and improved muscle strength. However, there are many additional health benefits of resistance training that goes beyond just muscular strength. In fact, resistance training may help:

  • Prevent falls in the elderly population,
  • Decrease lower back pain,
  • Improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, leading to reduced risk of diabetes
  • Increase bone mineral density, leading to the prevention of osteoporosis and other bone diseases, and
  • Increase metabolism, leading to improved weight control
  • Increase your HDL and decrease your LDL levels, reducing your cardiovascular disease risk.

All of these benefits have been seen with a moderate intensity resistance training program of individuals of all ages [iii][iv].  Resistance training also has benefits unique to the cancer patients as well, including reduced fatigue levels and an overall enhancement in mental health. Whole body resistance training should be used to prevent or suppress loss of muscle mass often seen in cancer patients during and after treatment. For head, neck, and breast cancer patients, upper body training has been recommended to improve pain, disability, and range of shoulder movement [v]. With resistance training, it appears that a little goes a long, long way!


Q: I thought cardio was the only way to lose weight!

Yes, maintaining a lifestyle with high levels of aerobic cardiovascular activity and a healthy diet is a proven method to help lose weight. Importantly, during weight loss, most people lose both fat and muscle mass! Resistance training, in conjunction with aerobic exercise, will help to boost your metabolism in order to promote weight loss while helping to preserve muscle mass [vi].  Regardless of whether you are looking to lose weight, or you need to gain any muscle strength lost during treatment, resistance training can be beneficial for everyone.


Q: Is the only way to start resistance training to meet with a personal trainer? Who is appropriate to see?

Resistance training can be done with or without a personal trainer. Depending on your current situation, and for those with head, neck, throat, or breast cancer, you may want to consult with an ACSM/ACS Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer (CET) who will be able to administer fitness assessments and exercise programs specific to your diagnosis, treatment, and current recovery status. To look for one in your area, consult the ACSM ProFinder, and search for CET’s by state or zipcode.

If you have experience resistance training, feel free to start a program on your own. Just be sure that you

  • choose exercises that target all of the major muscle groups,
  • choose a weight appropriate for you, and
  • give your body at least 24-hours after training a specific muscle group before training again.

As always, everyone’s condition is different, so be sure to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program to be sure that it is safe for you.


Q: Can I do it in the comfort of my own home?

Certainly! Resistance training does not necessarily need to be done at the gym, and there are exercises that you can do in the comfort of your own home. Simply doing a few bodyweight exercises are a great way to combine your own weight with gravity to increase your heart rate and work out your muscles. To start off with a set of 5 try the following: the wall sit, calf raises, superman, tricep dips, and mountain climber.


Q: How often should I be resistance training?

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that a strength training program should be performed a minimum of two non-consecutive days each week. You will want to start with one to two sets of 8 to 12 repetitions. Eight to 10 exercises should be performed that target major muscle groups including the biceps, triceps, abdominals, hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, and calves [ii]. With experience and increased strength from training, you should be able to increase the intensity by increasing the weight and number of sets from two to three. Make sure you give the muscles that you exercise at least 24 hours to recover after a training session, as this is when your body repairs itself.


[i] The Nielson Company. This Year’s Top New Year’s Resolution? Fitness!!. Published January 8, 2015. Accessed December 8, 2015.
[ii] The American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM Information on Strength Training for Health and Fitness. Published 2013. Accessed December 8, 2015.
[iii] Phillips SM, Winett RA. Uncomplicated Resistance Training and Health-Related Outcomes: Evidence for a Public Health Mandate. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2010;9(4):208-213.
[iv] Pollock ML, Vincent KR. Resistance training for health. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest. 1996; Series 2, No. 8.
[v] Strasser B, Steindorf K, Wiskemann J, Ulrich CM. Impact of resistance training in cancer survivors: a meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2013;11:2080–2090.
[vi] Willis LH, Slentz CA, Bateman LA, et al. Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults. J Appl Physiol. 2012;113(12):1831-1837.
Katrina Trisko

Katrina Trisko graduated from Boston University in 2013 with a degree in Dietetics and is currently completing her dietetic internship program through Teachers College of Columbia University in NYC, where she has finished coursework for a Masters in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.

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