Strength Training and Blood Pressure: The Heart of the Matter

Over the past several years, numerous research studies have clearly demonstrated that sensible strength training is an essential physical activity for middle-aged and older adults.

Regular resistance exercise has been shown to provide important health and fitness benefits for both the musculoskeletal system and the cardiovascular system, as well as to reduce the risk of various degenerative and debilitating diseases.22

Unfortunately, many of the men and women who have the most to gain from a strength training program are least likely to do so. Leading their litany of reasons for avoiding this physical activity is the unfounded fear that resistance exercise produces adverse affects on blood pressure. Somehow, they have heard that strength training spikes blood pressure to dangerous levels during exercise execution and that it raises resting blood pressure beyond safe limits over time.

While improperly performed resistance exercise can indeed be problematic in this regard, be assured that sensible strength training is not harmful to blood pressure during or after the workout. In fact, research reveals that well-designed strength training programs are just as beneficial for blood pressure as aerobic exercise programs.23, 24 On the contrary, there is much research that indicates beneficial blood pressure adaptations to sensible strength exercise.25, 26

Keep in mind that people with certain medical conditions (e.g., uncontrolled hypertension, aneurism) should not perform resistance exercise; that certain resistance training actions (e.g., breath holding, isometric holding) can raise blood pressure readings beyond recommended levels; and that exercise participants should always follow their physician’s guidelines regarding strength training. With this precaution, consider some of the studies we have conducted on blood pressure response to resistance exercise. These will be addressed in three separate categories:

  • Immediate Blood Pressure Response – This represents the blood pressure change during performance of a strength exercise.
  • Short-Term Blood Pressure Response – This represents the blood pressure change at the end of a strength training session.
  • Long-Term Blood Pressure Response – This represents the blood pressure change at the completion of a strength training program (8 to 10 weeks).

Immediate Blood Pressure Response to Strength Exercise

In 1983, the YMCA and the New England Cardiovascular Health Institute teamed up to assess blood pressure changes in 24 men and women (mean age 38 years) as they performed 10 dumbbell curls with the heaviest weight load possible.27 The study revealed a 34 percent increase in systolic blood pressure, which represents a normal cardiovascular response to vigorous physical activity and is well below the 225 mm Hg caution level for exercise systolic readings recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.28

Because lower body strength training involves more muscle mass and force production than upper body strength training, we later conducted a similar study with 25 men and women (mean age 38 years) as they performed 10 leg presses with the heaviest weight load possible.29 In this instance, there was a 50 percent increase in systolic blood pressure, which represents a normal cardiovascular response to vigorous physical activity and is be.