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Expert Reviewed
Physical activity, including resistance training (often referred to as muscle training), is essential when it comes to health, wellness and disease prevention. In fact, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends all U.S. adults practice some form of resistance training at least two days a week, in addition to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise[1]. Resistance training not only builds, defines and maintains muscle, but also reduces a person’s risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to the HHS.
When many people think of resistance training, lifting weights is one of the first things that comes to mind. However, if you don’t like spending time at the gym doing bench presses and curling dumbbells, there are a number of alternative ways to practice resistance training that prove plenty challenging for your muscles.
Here’s what you need to know about resistance training to improve your strength and overall health—without touching a set of weights.
Resistance training is a type of exercise that boosts your endurance and strength by working your muscles against an external force, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
There are two types of resistance training exercises:
Before beginning a resistance training program, it’s important to establish clear personal health and fitness goals, which may help you select the best exercises for you. Here are five major goals resistance training can help you achieve:
Resistance training does far more than optimize your strength and increase your muscle size. In fact, it can help reduce the loss of muscle mass that often occurs with aging.
Another potential benefit of regular resistance training is it can help improve balance and stability by improving joint mobility, muscle strength and bone density. This enhanced musculoskeletal support reduces the risk of falls as well as the risk of bone fractures in the event of a fall, which is particularly important for older adults. About 36 million U.S. adults ages 65 and older fall each year, according to the CDC[2].
What’s more, regular resistance training may decrease heart disease risk. A comprehensive 2011 meta-analysis in Hypertension found this training style helped decrease blood pressure levels—a key component of heart health—among participants in several studies[3].
Resistance training may delay or prevent the development of type 2 diabetes, too, according to a 2021 review in Sports Medicine, which found resistance training to be an effective method for managing healthy blood sugar levels[4].
Many people may equate resistance training with lifting heavy barbells, curling large dumbbells and working with weighted cable machines in the gym, but there are many ways to work your muscles without lifting weights.
Many workouts rely solely on your body weight for resistance training. “Body weight is a simple source of resistance that can be used in a multitude of different ways,” says Matt Tanneberg, a chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist in Scottsdale, Arizona.
From push-ups to pull-ups to squats to crunches, there are myriad bodyweight exercises you can use to work just about any muscle group in your body, says Tanneberg. In fact, if you’re a beginner, Tanneberg recommends learning to work with your own body weight first before even thinking about weights.
Although some people don’t realize it, swimming can benefit your joints, muscles, heart and overall health in big ways—and it can be considered a type of resistance training as well. Remember, resistance training is based on the idea that you apply your body against an external force, which can include water, according to Tanneberg.
“Swimming is an excellent [form of] resistance training with cardiovascular benefits,” he says. “It’s very easy on our joints, [and] it doesn’t put the same stress as running does on our ankles, knees and hips.”
“Suspension training uses your body weight and gravity to generate resistance,” says Josh Schlottman, a certified personal trainer and nutritionist based in Napa, California. All you need for suspension training is a sturdy anchor point and something to use as straps, such as a TRX suspension trainer, says Schlottman.
Exercises you can do with a TRX trainer include biceps curls, rows and chest presses. Once you have your TRX trainer, attach its anchor to an overhead location like the top of your door. Then lean away from the straps while holding them, so that your weight is now resting on the straps and your feet. You can then pull or push against the straps to perform your desired exercise.
In a 2018 study in the Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, suspension training improved the strength and explosive power of exclusively male participants (female participants showed no improvements) compared to those who didn’t use suspension training[5].
“There are many benefits of suspension training, including improved core strength, increased stability and balance,and increased flexibility,“ says Schlottman, who adds that one of the best things about suspension training is it can be done anywhere without expensive equipment or a gym membership.
Resistance bands, which are elastic bands with different levels of force measured in kilograms or pounds, are versatile and can be used for a wide range of strength training exercises. The best part: They may be just as effective as traditional weights. According to a systematic review and meta-analysis in SAGE Open Medicine, resistance band training produced a similar improvement in participants’ strength as traditional weight-based training[6].
“Using anchors or your own body, you can do many different exercises with resistance bands,” says Allan Misner, a Panama-based certified personal trainer and nutrition coach who says he’s a huge fan of resistance bands. Misner also points out that resistance bands are compact and lightweight, making it easy to carry them around and train anywhere.
“Plyometrics are a form of training where you go through a movement, such as jumping and landing, in an explosive way,” says Misner. It’s a great way for athletes to build strength and explosiveness at the same time, he adds.
That said, plyometric training isn’t just for athletes. According to a review in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, plyometric training improved the strength of participants regardless of their gender or fitness level[7].
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It’s always best to speak with a health care provider familiar with your unique medical history prior to beginning any new exercise program, including resistance training. Furthermore, if you’re completely new to this type of exercise, it may be a good idea to work with a personal trainer or other fitness professional as you get started.
The largest risk associated with resistance training is injury, according to Schlottman, Tanneberg and Misner. “You could easily tear a muscle or damage a joint by using poor technique and [too much resistance]” says Schlottman. There are a few ways to minimize your risk of injury, however, according to both Tannenberg and Misner.
“When many [people] start resistance training routines, they mainly focus on upper body pushing movements like push-ups and bench presses,” says Schlottman. “But for proper balance, your body also needs pulling exercises, such as pull-ups and rows, as well as lower body strength exercises,” he adds.
For best results, Tanneberg recommends starting by setting realistic goals that account for your exercise background, schedule and fitness goals with resistance training. Also, to remain consistent, he recommends making small changes to your daily habits. ”If you’re waiting 30 seconds to microwave your food, do 30 seconds of air squats,” he offers as an example.
“Start by consulting a personal trainer,” says Tanneberg. “They will help you find a path that will lead you toward your exercise goals.” He also recommends finding an “exercise buddy,”  such as a friend or family member, to hold you accountable and foster camaraderie to keep you motivated.
Schlottman cautions against asking someone for training advice simply because they work out and appear to be in shape. “I’m sure they could offer you some helpful advice, but the routine they’ll recommend is what works for them, which may not be best for you,” he says.
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Sabrena Jo is the senior director of science and research at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). A member of the fitness industry since 1987, she is a certified group fitness instructor, personal trainer and health coach. She’s taught group exercise and owned personal training and health coaching businesses. She previously worked as a full-time faculty instructor in the kinesiology and physical education department at California State University, Long Beach. Sabrena Jo is always searching for new ways to help people start and stick with physical activity.


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