The physical benefits of weight lifting are many and well-known: gain some muscle, look better, increase metabolism, lift heavier. Increased levels of cool with every heavy bench press performed.
But do the benefits extend further than the physical? You don’t often hear about the mental or emotional benefits of weight lifting, maybe because we’re less likely to talk feelings inside the gym… Or maybe just because there is less evidence out there about it. But a Journal of Lifestyle Medicine report shows that exercise – and strength training in particular – has positive benefits for mental health.
Focus and determination
With shaking legs and sweat pouring off your brow, you contemplate your final set. You’re beat; surely we’ve had enough for today, says the mind. Skipping the last set won’t matter. Despite your mind’s insistence, you know reaching your goals depends on you following your strength program to the letter, and skipping one set now will only lead to skipping further sets in the future.
It takes a lot of mental strength but you gather all of your determination then you’re under the bar, and the final set is done. You take this focus and determination into other walks of your life, too, whether it’s tackling a stressful work project or a difficult situation at home, and you know the extra level of determination you sometimes need to work through rough patches in order to reach your goals.
Strength training is a numbers-based game, so it’s easy to measure progress which is directly attributed to you. Sure, your coach adjusted your form, and maybe there was a spotter there to keep you safe, but the work came from you. The confidence that comes from achieving something you’ve been working towards beats flukey hits and shallow compliments, whilst also lasting longer and, as it’s internalized, it’s more difficult to budge that self-confidence.
However, this has the potential to have the opposite effect if you’re having a bad day – maybe you’re tired, or didn’t eat enough before your workout, and you missed a lift you’ve done many times before. It’s good to reflect on these reasons and recognize this isn’t your usual performance, and use this analysis to better your next training session.
Studies have shown that strength training can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression whilst also increasing levels of cognition. Although there is no conclusive evidence as to what strength training does to have such a positive effect, it is thought that the social interactions of strength training and receiving support from peers makes a difference.
The physical benefits of strength training could also have a knock-on affect for mental benefits: your body uses neural mechanisms to communicate different actions to the body – to squat, deadlift or bench press, for example – and the use of these during strength training is thought to increase cognitive capacity. Exercise also improves vascular health, meaning that blood, oxygen and nutrients reach the entire body, including tiny vessels inside the brain, so you can use it to a greater capacity.
Finally, expecting that weight lifting has benefits, both physical and mental, means that you are more likely to feel the benefit – the placebo effect!
Strength training vs. aerobic exercise
Although the greatest mental and emotional results come from combined strength and aerobic training, weight lifting appears to have more benefits than aerobic training alone. This could be down to the way muscles and nerves are activated during lifting, the extent of the load on muscles, the rest period-to-work ratio, or the range of movement undertaken during strength training.
Not only could weight lifting be the key to a strong, sculpted body, it could also make you more determined in all aspects of your life, improve your self-esteem make you feel happier overall. There are so many benefits of weight lifting – time to grab that bar and get training!