The Benefits of Strength Training for Improving Insulin Sensitivity

 A woman works out with a kettlebell weight

Strength training exercises, such as working with kettlebell weights, are a great option for improving insulin sensitivity.

Maintaining optimal metabolic health relies heavily on insulin sensitivity, and diet and exercise are both important in this regard. This article will discuss how strength training can enhance overall health and wellness, such as muscle mass, bone density, and metabolic function, while improving insulin sensitivity. Whether you're an experienced athlete or a beginner, understanding the advantages of strength training for insulin sensitivity can help you optimize your health and reach your fitness objectives.

Strength Training and Insulin Sensitivity

Strength training, commonly known as resistance training or weightlifting, has been highlighted recently in research as a way to improve insulin sensitivity. When it comes to exercise and insulin sensitivity, strength training is an often-overlooked and underutilized tool. While cardio and HIIT workouts may steal the spotlight, strength training offers a wide range of benefits for improving insulin sensitivity and overall health.

Insulin sensitivity is the ability of your body's cells to respond effectively to insulin and regulate blood glucose levels. Poor insulin sensitivity, also known as insulin resistance, can lead to a variety of health issues, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.

Research has shown that strength training can improve insulin sensitivity by increasing muscle mass and improving muscle quality. Skeletal muscle is one of the largest insulin-sensitive tissues in the body, and increasing muscle mass can help improve insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake.

In addition to the direct effects on muscle mass, strength training has been shown to have a positive impact on other metabolic markers. Studies have shown that strength training can increase resting metabolic rate, reduce visceral fat, and improve lipid profiles, all of which can contribute to improved insulin sensitivity.

How does strength training affect insulin sensitivity?

So how does strength training improve insulin sensitivity? There are a few different mechanisms at play:

  • Increased muscle mass: As mentioned, skeletal muscle is one of the largest insulin-sensitive tissues in the body. As we age, muscle mass naturally decreases, which can lead to weakness and frailty. Strength training can help combat this process and preserve muscle mass, resulting in better mobility and independence in older adults. 
  • Improved muscle quality: In addition to increasing muscle mass, strength training can improve the quality of the muscle tissue itself. This includes increasing the number of mitochondria (the energy-producing organelles within cells), improving muscle fiber type distribution, and enhancing muscle insulin signaling pathways.
  • Reduced inflammation and oxidative stress: Inflammation and oxidative stress are both associated with and key contributors to insulin resistance and other metabolic disorders. Strength training has been shown to reduce systemic inflammation and improve inflammatory markers, potentially improving insulin sensitivity.
  • Enhanced glucose uptake: Resistance exercise can improve the insulin-stimulated glucose uptake in skeletal muscle tissue, which may improve insulin sensitivity.

 A woman is doing benchpresses

A woman in a blue tank top performs benchpress exercises while a young man spots her.

Strength Training Exercises for Insulin Sensitivity

So, what type of strength training is best for improving insulin sensitivity? While any form of strength training can be beneficial, there are a few key factors to consider.

First, focus on compound exercises that target multiple muscle groups, such as squats, deadlifts, and bench press. These exercises recruit more muscle mass, leading to greater improvements in insulin sensitivity.

Second, aim for a moderate to high volume of training, with 8-12 repetitions per set and 2-4 sets per exercise. This range has been shown to be effective for building muscle and improving insulin sensitivity.

Third, prioritize progressive overload. This means gradually increasing the weight or intensity of your workouts over time to continue challenging your muscles and stimulating adaptations. This progressive overload can be achieved through increased weight, increased repetitions, or decreased rest time between sets.

Finally, be sure to allow for proper rest and recovery between workouts. Overtraining can lead to fatigue, injury, and diminished results. Aim for at least one to two days of rest between strength training sessions, and consider incorporating low-impact activities or flexibility exercises on off days. It's important to incorporate it into your fitness routine at least twice a week.

In terms of frequency and duration, a good starting point for a strength training program might be two to three sessions per week, with each session lasting about 45 minutes to an hour. As you progress and become more comfortable with the exercises, you can gradually increase the frequency and duration of your workouts.

Benefits of Strength Training

In addition to the direct effects on insulin sensitivity, strength training has a variety of other benefits for overall health and wellness. These include:

  • Increased bone density: Strength training can help increase bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
  • Improved balance and coordination: By improving strength and stability, strength training can help improve balance and reduce the risk of falls and injuries.
  • Enhanced mental health: Strength training has been shown to have positive effects on mental health, including reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Increased muscle tone and definition: Strength training can help improve muscle tone and definition, leading to a more toned and sculpted appearance.
  • Lead to increased resting metabolic rate (RMR): Which is the amount of calories your body burns at rest. This means that even when you're not working out, your body is burning more calories, which can help with weight loss and weight management. 

 A young woman in red leggings squats while holding a barbell weight at her shoulders

A young woman in red leggings does squat exercises while holding a barbell weight at chest level.

A study conducted in 2016 by the American Diabetes Association found that strength training resulted in improved insulin sensitivity in older adults with type 2 diabetes. The participants underwent a 16-week strength training program, which led to a significant reduction in their HbA1c levels, indicating better blood sugar control. Additionally, strength training can enhance cardiovascular health, which is closely related to insulin sensitivity, by reducing blood pressure, lowering cholesterol levels, and improving blood flow.

Research has shown that combining strength training with aerobic exercise can be especially effective for improving insulin sensitivity. One study found that a combination of resistance and aerobic exercise led to greater improvements in insulin sensitivity than either type of exercise alone. This is likely due to the complementary effects of both types of exercise on muscle function and metabolism.

Final Thoughts

It is important to incorporate a variety of exercises that target different muscle groups, and to include both compound exercises (which work multiple muscle groups at once) and isolation exercises (which target specific muscles). Isolation exercises might include bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg curls, and calf raises.

Overall, strength training can be an effective tool for improving insulin sensitivity and reducing the risk of metabolic disorders by increasing muscle mass, reducing body fat, and improving muscle function and metabolism. Moreover, it can help to promote overall health and have a positive impact on mental health and better quality of life. So if you're looking to improve your insulin sensitivity and reduce your risk of metabolic disorders and experience the many benefits for yourself, consider adding strength training to your exercise routine. It's still best to work with a qualified trainer or healthcare provider to develop a safe and effective strength training program that meets your particular needs and goals.