Why physical strength is important for your mental and emotional strength

Find out why physical strength is important for mental and emotional strength – and how you can improve yours.

‘Build your physical strength’ isn’t always a recommendation you’d commonly hear at a doctor’s office. Yet it’s one of the most powerful long-term predictors of health outcomes in practically any demographic group.

But what is strength and how can it impact your daily life in a meaningful way (besides making opening jars easier)?

Strength is literally defined as the ability to produce force against an external resistance. However, this definition doesn’t help us much. We need to know: what causes someone to be strong?

Because the focus of this article will be on being strong for longevity and quality of life, we’ll define ‘strength’ as that which is useful for daily life. As opposed to say – who can squat more weight than who.

This latter definition of strength, although useful for something like powerlifting programming, doesn’t need to be applied in this scenario.

Today, we’re going to examine the ways in which getting stronger can help you overcome conditions, be more productive, and have you feeling younger than ever before.

What is strength?

Let’s define physical strength as a person who has higher levels than average of lean body mass.

I say ‘lean body mass’ in specific because it encompasses everything that isn’t just muscle. That is bones, organs, glycogen stores, skeletal muscle mass (‘muscle’), and any other weight that’s different from “adipose tissue” (‘fat’).

One of the more problematic issues with aging tends to be the steady loss of skeletal muscle mass. This is a natural phenomenon from aging itself, however, people also tend to be increasingly more inactive with age.

This hurts more than it helps because inactivity also decreases the need for your body to maintain muscle mass. Which accelerates the loss of muscle mass.

Because of that: remaining active, especially through your more advanced years, will be critical for maintaining your muscle mass and general well-being.

Are you strong enough?

Although the word “strength” might invoke images of muscular figures carrying heavy weights around, it really shouldn’t. That’s one manifestation of strength.

But strength is relative. 

A young male squatting 600 lbs may easily be characterized as strong for being able to do something that only a few thousand people only the planet can do.

But would a 95 year old person who could still be completely self-sufficient be characterized as “strong”? The 90+ Study showed that 89% of people in that age group had difficulties with “activities of daily living”.

In this instance, someone of very advanced age, still being able to live on their own without external assistance would definitely be characterized as “strong”.

Even more so if they could still strength train with relatively challenging weights. (As is the case with this complete boss of a woman: an active powerlifter at age 97). Or even Shirley Webb, who can deadlift 255 lbs at age 80.

Aging successfully and crushing life

Now that you know that strength training has far more practical applications outside of football and powerlifting, let’s talk about some of the benefits that might be more real to you.

The main thing to remember is that your body is connected to everything else going on inside you.

You cannot separate ‘body’ from ‘mind’ neither ‘body’ from ‘emotions’.

Think of a time you woke up in the morning feeling refreshed and FILLED with energy. What are the chances that you had a ‘bad day’ or that something threw you for a loop?

Bad things may have happened, but  you probably noticed that they didn’t affect you as much.

How about a day when you woke up tired and out of it – what are the chances that you thought to yourself: “is there ANYTHING that can’t go wrong today”?

The body is the mind.

When you feel good, things just seem to be…better. Overall.

And strength training makes you FEEL good. Many people know that there are significant improvements in mood and reduction in symptoms associated with depression as a result of “exercise”.

What’s even better is that there’s a dose-response relationship between the two (exercise and mood). In other words, the harder you train – the better you feel.

And strength training isn’t easy. Which is why it may be unappealing to some. But the benefits are CLEAR.

A strong body is a strong mind. There are immense benefits to regular strength training that cannot be ignored.

In fact, it’s become a regular prescription by forward-thinking medical professionals dealing with patients at any age. From people suffering from clinical depression to those who’ve spent their lives sedentarily – it’s a universally applicable dose to people looking to improve their health.

With all this talk about “strength training”, it’s important to not only understand its benefits but also how to apply it.

How to get strong

Training for strength refers to using multi-joint compound movements that use the entire body. The most popular exercises being the squat, the bench, and the deadlift. Some people may also buy an ab stimulator to aid in building core muscles faster. The most popular exercises being the squat, the bench, and the deadlift.

Squats and Deadlifts are particularly effective at building lean body mass (bones density and muscle simultaneously) because they allow for heavier loading (i.e. more weight on the bar).

Your body must also support the weight throughout the movement. In the case of squats, the barbell rests directly on your upper back. During the deadlift, the barbell is held by you in your hands.

This is different from machine-based exercises where the weight is supported by the machine, and the range-of-motion is fixed. As you may have noticed throughout your life: your range of motion is not fixed.

Not only that, but machines are not as effective at increasing your lean body mass in any way, shape, or form that is superior to strength training. This is because:

  • Barbell exercises use a full range of motion. This means your joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones are being trained in their full capacity.
  • Barbell movements allow for greater loading (stated earlier) which means that your body is under higher levels of stress. This is desired. Remember what I had mentioned earlier: there’s a dose-dependent relationship with exercise-induced stress and health outcomes. This means the harder you train, the greater the benefits.
  • Barbell movements utilize the ENTIRE body. This is unlike machines that are specific to one area. It doesn’t mean machines don’t work: but there’s a greater return on investment by training with full-body movements.

In addition, since the weight is supported by the machine, there is no need for your body to increase bone density. Increases in bone density are one of the more important benefits of strength training.

In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why people choose weight training in the first place. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur: it just means that the effect is not as great when using machines.

So why are machines so popular?

Letting go of unhelpful narratives

Many people fear squats and deadlifts because they’re afraid of getting hurt: but with proper instruction, they’re actually the MOST beneficial exercises in the weight room.

The Starting Strength organization is one of the most competent educators of strength training for beginners. Their videos on the Squat, Bench, Press, and Deadlift are some of the best content on the web.

But not everyone is ready for barbell training. People who may have trouble walking or require assistance may not be readily able to jump right on to training with barbells.

The CDC put together a package that allows those of more advanced age or coming back from debilitating situations to effectively build up their levels of lean body mass.

This is done through the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire and a sample program with careful progression that feels challenging, yet manageable.

The goal is to build up enough muscle to handle barbell training which is when things really start clicking.

For those that are ready to begin training with barbells, look no further than the Starting Strength website. Their books and video content have been used by hundreds of thousands of lifters of across all ages to successfully increase their strength levels.

There’s no better resource on the web to go to for beginner strength training than there.

Strength training is one of the best things you can do for your body

In all, strength training is one of the most beneficial disciplines anyone can take up when looking to improve their health in a meaningful way.

Training for strength refers to the use of barbells and compound multi-joint exercises done in a structured manner to drive specific adaptations.

Adaptations such as:

  • Hypertrophy
  • Increases in bone density
  • Improvements in posture
  • Improvements in mood and mental state
  • Improved health outcomes
  • Increased energy

And so much more!

It’s a universally accessible fitness modality that can have a significant impact in your daily, and long-term life.

Start today, and your future self will thank you.

Photo by Laura Pocho