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Strength training is about more than getting buff

We all know how important cardiovascular exercise is -- how it's great for your heart, cholesterol, and blood pressure. And whether you choose to walk, bicycle, or jog, you know that any exercise that increases your heart rate helps you burn calories and melt away unwanted pounds.

But that's only half the equation.

For a balanced fitness program, strength training is essential. It can slow the muscle loss that comes with age, build the strength of your muscles and connective tissues, increase bone density, cut your risk of injury, and help ease arthritis pain.

"Strength training is very important, not just for your muscles but for your bones," says certified fitness trainer Debbie Siebers. "It's preventative for [bone-thinning] osteoporosis and other problems."

Studies from the CDC have found that muscle-building exercise can also improve balance, reduce the likelihood of falls, improve blood-sugar control, and improve sleep and mental health.

And let us not forget the weight-loss benefits. Not only does it make you look trimmer and shapelier, but building muscle also helps you burn calories -- even after your workout is done.

"Three to four hours after a strength-training workout, you're still burning calories," says Seibers, a creator of fitness videos including the "Slim in 6" series.

Strength training is especially important for dieters. When you lose weight, up to a quarter of the loss may come from muscle, which can slow your metabolism. Strength training helps you rebuild any muscle you lost by dieting -- or keep you from losing it in the first place.

Getting Started

So you're convinced of strength training's virtues. But just how do you go about getting started?

The weight room at the gym, with all the buff bodies and complicated-looking equipment, can be intimidating to a beginner. Indeed, for someone with back or joint pain, just picking up a weight might seem daunting. Then there's the issue of proper form: Without it, you could do more harm than good trying to build strength.

Your best bet when starting out, the experts say, is one-on-one help from a qualified fitness trainer -- whether it's a personal trainer you've hired, or an instructor at your gym. A trainer can address your personal goals and limitations and can help you with alignment and execution of each exercise.

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