It’s become a familiar scene for gym goers and owners: Many ellipticals sit empty while heavy weights are in high demand.

In recent years, strength training has grown in popularity, according to fitness industry experts, due to a combination of pandemic-induced habit changes and increased awareness of the health benefits of muscle building.

Bente Smart, director of education for Crunch Fitness, said the global chain of gyms has reorganized its spaces to better serve the interests of its members.

“We have definitely been revamping and increasing our functional spaces,” Smart said, “so we have included things like more grass area for battle ropes, medicine balls, TRX, suspension trainers, and less cardio equipment to accommodate the growing need for resistance training.”

At ClassPass, where members choose from a variety of fitness classes, strength training was the most popular type of training last year, with a 94% increase in bookings in those classes over the previous year. More than 60% of ClassPass users now include strength training in their routines, the company said.

The experts offered several hypotheses as to why people have changed their exercise regimens. Brad Roy, editor-in-chief of the American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Journal, said the home workouts people did during the pandemic may have played a role, as resistance band and functional exercises are easy to do outside the gym. Many people have also relied on online exercise videos during the pandemic, which may have made strength training more accessible.

Lauren McAlister, ClassPass wellness specialist, suggested that misinformation about weight training has led women in the past to believe that they will develop a bodybuilder-like physique.

But recently, he said, “we’re more and more on our own and saying, ‘No, I want to be strong. I want to be able. I want to be able to experience all the benefits of a strength training program.’

«And I think social media has been a great way to see women do that and give other women permission to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to try it.'»

McAlister, who co-owns a gym, said his classes have changed to focus more on weight-bearing movements in response to customer requests. Strength training may appeal to some people as a way to slow down in the gym after the challenges of the pandemic, he said.

“We’ve all been really stressed out for a long time,” McAlister said, “so taking things a little bit slower and really focusing on form and fundamental movement patterns, that’s why I think people are leaning towards that.”

According to a annual survey in the Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, strength training with free weights ranked as the second most popular fitness trend in 2023, after wearable fitness technology. Bodyweight training took third place, while two highly ranked forms of 2021 and 2022 — online training and home fitness gyms — dropped to numbers 21 and 13, respectively.

Strength training is characterized by a contraction of the muscles, unlike aerobic or cardiovascular training that aims to increase heart rate. Weight lifting, resistance band work, and Pilates and yoga are all its forms.

A large body of research shows that strength training can bring particular health benefits.

“In terms of muscle-strengthening or weight-lifting activities, there are so many different positive health outcomes,” said Duck-Chul Lee, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University. That list includes diabetes prevention, bone health and improved functional ability in older adults, he said.

TO study of more than 400,000 people published last year found that those who regularly engaged in strength training along with aerobic exercise had a lower risk of death than those who did aerobic training alone. And a analysis of 16 previous studies suggested that regular strength training was associated with a 10% to 17% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, lung cancer, and overall death.

Dr. Jacob Erickson, a sports medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic, said resistance training is a smart choice for people working to lose weight because it increases your metabolic rate, prompting your body to continue burning calories for up to three days.

«Walking, jogging, the treadmill will make it easier to do everyday things like climbing stairs, walking your dog, chasing the kids, while resistance training will actually build muscle,» Erickson said. “As we get older, in general, lower body strength and muscle mass will decline faster, so it becomes increasingly important to strength train.”