Strengthen Your Heart with Strength Training

When you're told that exercise improves your heart health, you probably think of cardio exercise, right? After all, "cardio" is short for "cardiovascular" exercise, named as such because it utilizes the cardiorespiratory system, which consists of your heart, lungs and blood vessels, which work together to supply oxygen and nutrients to all of your vital organs. But did you know that heart-pumping cardio isn't the only exercise that helps to keep your heart healthy? That's right, pumping iron in the gym can help your most important muscle in the body—your heart—pump better, too!

The latest research shows that strength training doesn't just build strong muscles and bones; it offers big benefits for your ticker, too. That's why the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends it as a tool in maintaining heart health, preventing heart disease, and even helping those with heart disease to improve their condition.

In 2000, the AHA's Committee on Exercise, Rehabilitation, and Prevention, Council on Clinical Cardiology published research in the journal Circulation that concluded that when appropriately prescribed and supervised, resistance training has favorable effects on muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular function, metabolism, coronary risk factors and psychosocial well-being—all of which are factors that affect heart health. Additionally, researchers found that resistance training was beneficial in the prevention and management of other chronic conditions, such as low-back pain, osteoporosis, obesity and weight control, diabetes, and improved physical function in frail and elderly persons. The paper recommended that all healthy individuals should strength train two to three times a week for overall health and to reduce their risk of chronic disease, including heart disease and its related risk factors.

Later in a 2007 edition of Circulation, researchers expanded their recommendation further, concluding that proper resistance training is beneficial for people suffering from heart disease, too. Besides strengthening the heart, scientists found that strength training helps people with heart disease to develop bodily strength, improve their endurance and generally have more independence and a higher quality of life.

Why exactly is strength training so beneficial? Well, it's because when you lift weights at a moderate intensity where you get your heart rate up and keep it up, strength training can simultaneously engage both the muscular system and the cardiovascular system. Basically, when you make your muscles stronger, you make your body stronger, which helps everything.

Other benefits of weight training include:
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Increased bone density
  • Increased lean muscle mass
  • Increased insulin sensitivity
  • Increased endurance (although not as much as aerobic exercise)
An Important Caveat
While strength training has amazing benefits, not everyone is cleared to lift weights. A July 2006 study found that in some people, heavy weight-lifting can lead to a splitting of the wall of aorta, which can be fatal, as it was in the case of actor John Ritter. Although it's fairly rare, for people with pre-existing mild to moderate aortic enlargement it is a serious issue.

In addition, people with the following heart conditions should not lift weights, according to the AHA:
  • Unstable coronary heart disease, such as those with angina
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Severe pulmonary hypertension
  • Severe, symptomatic aortic stenosis
  • Acute infection of the heart or tissues surrounding the heart
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure (greater than 180/110 mmHg)
  • Aortic dissection
  • Marfan syndrome
As with any exercise program, it's important to talk to your doctor before you begin lifting weights to see if it's right for you.

Your Weight-Lifting Plan for a Healthy Heart
Once cleared to exercise, it doesn't take much time to reap the heart-healthy benefits of resistance-training! The AHA recommends that healthy adults perform 8-10 strength-training exercises (to work the whole body) twice a week. They advise picking a resistance level that allows you to fatigue your muscles within 8-12 repetitions, but beginners and older or frailer individuals should use much lighter weights, aiming for 10-15 repetitions per set. Following these guidelines shouldn't take more than 20 to 30 minutes a couple times per week.

The workout plans will help get you started, and you can meet with an experienced personal trainer at the gym to show you proper form if needed. All of the plans are designed to be done in circuit-training format where you quickly switch from an upper-body exercise to a lower-body move without resting between exercises; this will help elevate your heart rate so you burn calories and gain even more heart benefits!

If you're new to strength training, read this reference guide first and follow these basic principles for safety and efficacy:
  • Lift weights in a slow and controlled pace,
  • Aim for a full range of motion—or as close to a full range of motion as your body will allow in good form.
  • Exhale during the contraction (the hardest part of the lift) and inhale during the relaxation phase. Never hold your breath! Get more tips on breathing here.
  • Always warm-up with light cardio for five minutes before starting a strength-training workout. End your session with some stretching as a cool down.
Beginner Plan
If you've never lifted weights or don't do so regularly, start with any one of three workout plans below. Perform the workout twice a week on non-consecutive days.
Intermediate plan
Once you've mastered the beginner routine(s) above, move on to one of these intermediate plans to keep challenging your muscles and your heart! Perform the workout twice a week on non-consecutive days. Select a weight that feels heavy yet allows you to complete the prescribed reps with the last two being challenging. Advanced plan
These advanced workouts are only for those who have been lifting weights for a year or more. Perform your workout three times a week on non-consecutive days using a weight or body position that feels heavy yet allows you to complete the full reps with the last two being very challenging.
  • Option #1: This gym-based plan includes some tough combination lower- and upper-body moves and challenging balance work!
  • Option #2: Put that stability ball to good use with this challenging Total Body Ball Challenge!
  • Option #3: Don't have access to fitness equipment? No worries! This Advanced Workout puts your body weight to good strength-building use!
Although weight training has incredible benefits, the AHA is quick to point out that strength training shouldn't be seen as a replacement to cardio exercise; instead it should act as a complement. So ideally, in addition to the strength-training recommendation, you should also get in at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio exercise most days of the week. So what are you waiting for? Boost the strength of your muscles—and your heart—with strength training!

This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople fitness experts and certified personal trainers, Jen Mueller and Nicole Nichols.

Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. "Resistance Exercise in Individuals With and Without Cardiovascular Disease," accessed March 2011.

Cybex Institute for Exercise Science. "Strength Training for a Healthy Heart," accessed March 2011.

DeNoon, Daniel J. "Weight Training for Heart Disease," accessed March 2011.

Pried, Robert. "Weightlifting Can Break Your Heart," accessed March 2011.