There are almost too many benefits from a proper, progressive resistance training program to count. One of the most important benefits that often gets over looked is the positive effects on bone density. This is unbelievable important for both females over the age of 50 as well as anyone who enjoys cycling (as this has a negative impact on bone density). I discovered the following article at www.builtlean.com and thought it did a great job of outlining the what, how, and why. I hope that you enjoy it. -Nate
In addition to helping you lose fat, build muscle, boost mood, improve sleep and so much more, weight training also helps improve bone density. Bone strength is intimately tied to independence, as hip fractures are the #1 reason for nursing home admissions. If you needed another reason to lift weights, here it is.
Bone density (or more specifically, “bone mineral density,” or BMD) is most commonly measured using a DEXA scan, which is like an x-ray. Although measurements at the wrist or other body parts may be added, the basis of bone health is diagnosed through bone density in the spine and hip.When you get a DEXA scan, your numbers are compared to what is considered “normal.” Osteopenia is mildly reduced bone density. Osteoporosis is more severely reduced density. Risk of breaking a bone increases the lower your bone density is.
Who Is At Risk For Low Bone Density?
Post-menopausal, thin women have the highest rates of osteoporosis. Estrogen is a potent bone-builder and the decrease in estrogen when periods stop increases risk. Additionally, men with low testosterone are at risk. Testosterone not only has direct positive effects on bone density, but also acts indirectly through its conversion to estrogen. People taking steroids such as prednisone or cortisone are also at elevated risk.
Note from Nate: I would add endurance athletes and cyclists in particular to the “at risk” group. Endurance type activities and particularly the kind performed in a seated position can be catabolic not only to your muscle mass but to your bones as well.
All of that being said, even if you are not in a high risk group, strengthening bones should be a priority, as the more dense you can make your bones, the more you can lose over time without suffering negative consequences. This is especially true for younger women, who will eventually become post-menopausal women.
Research Supports Weight Training & Bone Density Increase
In my review of the scientific literature as I was writing this article, I came across some surprising studies. One of these was published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism and actually concluded weight training decreased bone mineral density in the subjects, who were premenopausal women.1 Another study showed weight training produced no significant increase in bone density.2 Fortunately, these were the exceptions rather than the rule, and the vast majority of research supports resistance training as a very effective means to increase bone density.3 (Still, I found those papers interesting and thought they were worth mentioning.)
Scientists from Tufts University, in a published paper4, said “over the past 10 years, nearly two dozen cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have shown a direct and positive relationship between the effects of resistance training and bone density. They also acknowledged that some studies do not support this relationship. However, study design and the specifics of the exercise may have influenced the results (and most likely did).
Note from Nate: A few examples of where study design can be a problem are in the exercise selection used for the study. It is quite common for the researchers to use machines to perform resistance training because they are easy to teach to a novice and can be calibrated to help ensure all participants are doing the same exercises, with the same “form”, in the same range of motion, and precisely calibrate loads. In short – there are less variables to account for and draw a conclusion from. The problem is that the participants will be doing their resistance training while sitting on their butts. Even so – they majority of studies still showed favorable results. I would be my hat that if the experiments were done with proper/progressive resistance training that consisted primarily of free weights and body weight exercises the results would be even better as far as increasing bone density goes.
Another paper concluded that weight bearing exercise before puberty protected against osteoporosis later on by increasing peak bone mineral density.5
The list of supporting research goes on and on, and there are benefits of exercise beyond those which you can get from medicine or supplements.6 The degree of improvement in bone density varied with the study, but in the real-world, it doesn’t matter. It is enough to know that weight training increases bone density, which gives you one more reason to do what you absolutely should be doing anyway.
How Can You Increase Your Bone Density?
In addition to taking calcium, vitamin D and other bone support micronutrients, not smoking, possibly taking medication (very controversial7) and addressing medical and hormonal issues that may be predisposing you to osteopenia or osteoporosis, weight bearing exercise and resistance training are crucial. Not only can weight training increase bone density, it can improve muscle mass, balance and connective tissue strength, all of which decrease risk of falling and breaking something (which in an older person, often signifies the beginning of the end).
Here are three exercises that are particularly helpful for increasing bone density in the hips and spine:
- Squats – You can do squats in many different ways, from holding a dumbbell in front of your chest (Goblet Squat), to using an exercise ball against a wall, to doing a traditionalbarbell back squat.
- Lunges – Forward lunges, reverse lunges, side lunges, and other types of lunges that require you to engage your hip and leg musculature while balancing on one leg can help improve bone density, especially when weight is added. You can add weight using a barbell, dumbbell, or weighted vest.
- Step Ups – Similar to a lunge, a step up requires a single leg to propel your body weight in the air. You can use a bench, a chair, or a proper stepper you may find in the gym. You can adjust the height of the platform you are stepping on to and also the weight you are holding.
Note from Nate: While I think all of the above exercises are amazing – the fact is if you already have “sub-normal” bone density you will most likely also have trouble performing the above exercises. This is just an example of what looks good on paper may not actually work out all that well when it is time for the client to “get under the bar”. I would replace the squats and lunges with Loaded Bridges and pulling motions until appreciable relative strength was attained and the client could safely perform squats and lunges.
Below is a video of a loaded bridge. This exercise can also be performed with a resistance band.
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Below is a chest supported dumb bell row.
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Hope this discussion was helpful and it’s yet another important reminder to keep on weight training.
Move Better. Look Better. Feel Better
Nathan “Nate” Stowe BS, NASM-CPT, NCSF-CPT, CES, PES, FNS
Owner/Lead Trainer/Wears all the hats
Stowe Training Systems