Is It Really *That* Bad to Never Strength Train? Fitness Pros Weigh In

Photo: Getty Images/ yacobchuk
These days, fitness personalities on Instagram and TikTok love to pit workouts against each other. It’s not uncommon to see videos claiming that “running won’t get you the results you want” or that “Pilates could never.”

If you’re a cardio-only kind of a girlie and feeling personally victimized by these attitudes, you might be wondering whether or not weightlifting is all it's cracked up to be—and if you’re getting other workouts in, do you really need to add strength work to your repertoire, too?

You might not like it, but the answer is a resounding yes. It doesn’t mean you need to go full meathead and spend hours in the weight room, but for the sake of your long-term health, you should consider adding “get stronger” to your fitness goals for the year.

Experts In This Article

Here’s why strength training is, frankly, worth everyone’s time, and how to get it done.

First, what counts as strength training?

This is important to address before we dive in because the answer may surprise you.

“Strength training is when we train our muscles to produce force against resistance,” explains certified personal trainer and functional strength coach Chris Travis, CPT, CFSC, owner of Seattle Strength & Performance. “That resistance can come from bodyweight, resistance bands, weights, or machines.”

That means even bodyweight activities like Pilates are considered strength training because they focus on not just stretching but also strengthening muscles, adds Gregory Rubin, DO, primary sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery at Naples Comprehensive Health.

Bodyweight exercises can have comparable benefits to gym-based exercises,” he says. “This is important because it helps eliminate the stigma that you have to be in a gym to perform strength training… Any resistance training will have cardiometabolic, musculoskeletal, and mental health benefits.”

In other words, you don’t need to go anywhere near a dumbbell to partake in strength training and get the perks. However, there’s a caveat.

“The key to great strength training results is using progressive overload, which means progressively adding more resistance over time as your muscles get stronger,” Travis says. “Any workout that’s done against resistance and that can be progressively made more difficult over time ‘counts’ as strength training—but this will vary on an individual basis.”

With beginners, for example, activities like yoga and bodyweight calisthenics can build a lot of strength. As you get stronger, those exercises will no longer challenge your body in the same way. If you don’t find a way to increase the difficulty, it won’t stimulate your body the way strength training should, and you’ll stop making gains, he says.

“Strength training is essential to longevity, independence, maintaining bone density, injury prevention, weight management, and health.” Chris Travis, CPT, CFSC

How important is strength training, really?

For starters, if you’re working out at all, you’re doing great—any activity is better than none at all, according to Travis. Even if you’re not doing dedicated strength work, you’re likely still getting some muscle-strengthening benefits from your workouts—plus, all the other mental and physical benefits that come with cardio training. That alone deserves a round of applause.

That said, you really should have some strength training in your routine. There’s a reason the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and American Heart Association (AHA) all recommend adults engage in resistance training at least twice a week: It provides benefits that other workouts simply can’t match.

“Strength training is essential to longevity, independence, maintaining bone density, injury prevention, weight management, and health,” Travis says.

The longevity piece is big here. It doesn’t matter what your fitness goals are; if you want to live a long and healthy life, strength training is key. A 2022 review published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that any amount of resistance training reduces your risk of early death from all causes by 15 percent, cardiovascular disease mortality by 19 percent, and cancer mortality by 14 percent compared to doing no resistance training at all.

And, a small 2019 study published in PLoS One compared the results of an eight-week workout program on untrained individuals and found that people who did both cardio and strength training reaped significantly more health benefits than those who did either one exclusively.

If you stop using your muscles enough, it causes what’s called disuse atrophy3; your body won’t spend energy taking care of muscles you aren’t using, and instead will start to break your muscles down, causing them to decrease in size and strength. This in turn can make you more susceptible to injury and disease; muscle atrophy is linked to a higher prevalence of several chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and depression, and even higher risk of early death. (FYI: You need to fuel your body sufficiently, too. If you’re strength training but not eating enough protein and keep this up chronically, you’ll also experience muscle atrophy4.)

Strength training and cardio aren’t an either/or situation; the truth is that they go hand-in-hand. If you’re doing other training like running, walking, or cycling, you need adequate strength to keep your body moving efficiently.

“Building and maintaining muscular strength will help support your bones and joints through other activities,” Travis explains.

Research5 shows heavy resistance training boosts running and cycling performance, for example, and may help6 prevent injuries in runners.

Resistance training also helps maintain your ability to do everyday functional things as you age, like climbing stairs, carrying groceries, and even rolling over to get out of bed, Travis says. That might seem like no big deal to you now, but if you’ve ever been injured, lost your strength, or dealt with a debilitating illness, you’ll know that you shouldn’t take these abilities for granted.

The many benefits of strength training

Strength training comes with plenty more perks in addition to the not-so-little longevity and cross-training benefits mentioned above.

“Participation in strengthening exercise can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, improve blood pressure, decrease insulin resistance, lower cholesterol, and decrease inflammatory markers,” Dr. Rubin says.

Resistance training also improves bone health, per 2018 research in Endocrinology and Metabolism, which is key for preventing fractures later in life.

Strength training is key to maintaining muscle mass, which promotes a healthy metabolism and helps with weight management, Travis adds. The aforementioned PLoS One study found that untrained adults who did an eight-week strength training program of three, 60-minute strength workouts per week reduced their waist circumference, while a cardio-only program did not.

Moreover, research shows that resistance training can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety8 and depression9, and improve cognition10, body image, and self-esteem11. And, honestly, this is just scratching the surface of strength training's many benefits.

“Any movement is better than none at all, so if all you can do is walk, ride a bike, or something of the sort—great, and please keep doing that!” —Chris Travis, CPT, CFSC

So, how much strength training do you need?

Good news: You don’t need to ditch your cardio routine completely and become a bodybuilder. In fact, you’re much better off if you tweak your routine so it regularly includes both cardio and strength work.

“There is no perfect answer to ‘how much strength training do you need?’ but ideally two to three sessions per week of full-body, progressively programmed strength training that takes 30 minutes to an hour will yield great results for health and longevity,” Travis says.

Dr. Rubin and the WHO agree.

“The WHO recommends that adults participate in muscle-strengthening activity at least two days per week,” Dr. Rubin says.

They also recommend adults do either 150 to 300+ minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, 75 to 150+ minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or an equivalent combination of both.

“Those who followed these guidelines have seen a 20 percent reduction in all-cause mortality,” Dr. Rubin says.

To put these recommendations into practice, that means an ideal workout schedule could look something like this:

  • Monday: Strength, 30+ minutes
  • Tuesday: Cardio, 45+ minutes
  • Wednesday: Strength, 30+ minutes
  • Thursday: Cardio, 45+ minutes
  • Friday: Strength, 30+ minutes
  • Saturday: Cardio, 60+ minutes
  • Sunday: Rest

You could also knock out strength and cardio in one workout or try boot camp or circuit training that seamlessly combines both. Keep in mind that activities that naturally fit into your daily life—like walking the dog or mowing the lawn—may also count toward your cardio quota, too.

Remember: “Any movement is better than none at all, so if all you can do is walk, ride a bike, or something of the sort—great, and please keep doing that!” Travis says. “However, if you can incorporate even one or two sessions, 30 minutes each, of strength training into your routine, I think you’ll be amazed at the results and how you feel.”

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Shailendra P, Baldock KL, Li LSK, Bennie JA, Boyle T. Resistance Training and Mortality Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Am J Prev Med. 2022 Aug;63(2):277-285. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2022.03.020. Epub 2022 May 20. PMID: 35599175.
  2. Schroeder EC, Franke WD, Sharp RL, Lee DC. Comparative effectiveness of aerobic, resistance, and combined training on cardiovascular disease risk factors: A randomized controlled trial. PLoS One. 2019 Jan 7;14(1):e0210292. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0210292. PMID: 30615666; PMCID: PMC6322789.
  3. Nunes EA, Stokes T, McKendry J, Currier BS, Phillips SM. Disuse-induced skeletal muscle atrophy in disease and nondisease states in humans: mechanisms, prevention, and recovery strategies. Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2022 Jun 1;322(6):C1068-C1084. doi: 10.1152/ajpcell.00425.2021. Epub 2022 Apr 27. PMID: 35476500.
  4. Phillips SM, Glover EI, Rennie MJ. Alterations of protein turnover underlying disuse atrophy in human skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009 Sep;107(3):645-54. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00452.2009. Epub 2009 Jul 16. PMID: 19608931.
  5. Vikmoen O, Rønnestad BR, Ellefsen S, Raastad T. Heavy strength training improves running and cycling performance following prolonged submaximal work in well-trained female athletes. Physiol Rep. 2017 Mar;5(5):e13149. doi: 10.14814/phy2.13149. PMID: 28292885; PMCID: PMC5350167.
  6. Šuc A, Šarko P, Pleša J, Kozinc Ž. Resistance Exercise for Improving Running Economy and Running Biomechanics and Decreasing Running-Related Injury Risk: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel). 2022 Jun 24;10(7):98. doi: 10.3390/sports10070098. PMID: 35878109; PMCID: PMC9319953.
  7. Hong AR, Kim SW. Effects of Resistance Exercise on Bone Health. Endocrinol Metab (Seoul). 2018 Dec;33(4):435-444. doi: 10.3803/EnM.2018.33.4.435. PMID: 30513557; PMCID: PMC6279907.
  8. Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Lyons M, Herring MP. The Effects of Resistance Exercise Training on Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Sports Med. 2017 Dec;47(12):2521-2532. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0769-0. PMID: 28819746.
  9. Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Hallgren M, Meyer JD, Lyons M, Herring MP. Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Psychiatry. 2018 Jun 1;75(6):566-576. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.0572. PMID: 29800984; PMCID: PMC6137526.
  10. Landrigan JF, Bell T, Crowe M, Clay OJ, Mirman D. Lifting cognition: a meta-analysis of effects of resistance exercise on cognition. Psychol Res. 2020 Jul;84(5):1167-1183. doi: 10.1007/s00426-019-01145-x. Epub 2019 Jan 9. PMID: 30627769.
  11. SantaBarbara NJ, Whitworth JW, Ciccolo JT. A Systematic Review of the Effects of Resistance Training on Body Image. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Oct;31(10):2880-2888. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002135. PMID: 28723817.

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