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How Resistance Training Can Help With Depression

How Resistance Training Can Help With Depression

Man resistance training

We all know that when we exercise, it lifts our mood and makes us feel better. In fact studies have shown that if you’re physically active, your risk of developing depression reduces by 15%. Recent research from the University of Limerick found that resistance or weight training significantly reduced depressive symptoms for around 2,000 people who participated in their study. With this in mind, we caught up with Keith McNiven, founder of London based personal training company Right Path Fitness give us his 6 top tips on how resistance training can significantly help with depression.

1) The feel-good factor

When we think of exercises that lift our mood, we tend to automatically think of cardiovascular exercises like running, but, working out with weights can be just as beneficial for your mental wellbeing. So, don’t avoid the resistance machines in the gym, they can be just as effective as the cardio machines at releasing feel-good endorphins.

 2) Clear the mind

A big factor in depression can be an overload of problems and no outlet. Resistance training can help by allowing you to work through emotions like stress and worry. Grab a slam ball, Sandbell or medicine ball, clear a space, and slam the ball down on each and every negative thought that passes through your mind.

3) Body confidence

There’s no doubt that when you look your best physically, it boosts your emotional and mental wellbeing. And weights can actually be a quicker route to improving your shape, burning more calories minute for minute, than cardiovascular exercise.

4) Focus

A key characteristic of depression is a lack of motivation, but having set training days and times planned into your week can give you focus. Plan a weights session at least a couple of times a week, ideally in the morning so you can reap the benefits of your resistance session for the rest of the day.

5) Socialise

Isolation can make depressive symptoms worsen, but the great thing about resistance training is that it often works better as a duo. Grab a friend and do alternate kettlebell exercises like bicep curls where you raise the kettlebell up towards your chest, rows where you hold the kettlebell and raise your elbow upwards, or sit-ups where you grab the kettlebell from the floor in front of you as you sit up. Take turns to do the exercise, whilst the other counts the reps.

6) Strong body, strong mind

When you are in a strong place mentally, you are equipped to deal with whatever life throws your way and developing your body through weight training can help you to reach this place. Resistance training is brilliant for improving bone density and health, and you can also see the physical evidence through the increased amount of weight you can lift or reps you can complete over time. Strengthen your body, and psychologically it will benefit your mind.

Aside from triggering endorphins, strength training allows you to set rewarding goals and achieve them. If you can lift five kilos one week, you’re able to lift seven the next and so on until you build up more and more weight resistance. This factor alone makes you feel good about yourself and helps you to reach individualised goals.

These four strength training exercises, which you can practice in the gym or at home will help to offset low mood and depressive thoughts. Carry out three sets of 10 reps with a minute rest between each set for each exercise.

Barbell squat

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart and toes facing in front of you. Place the barbell on your shoulders, below the trapezius muscles (NOT on your neck!).
  • Keeping your back flat, slowly lower your body, bending at the knees and the hips. Stop when your legs form a 90-degree angle. Do not let your knees go forward past your toes.
  • Slowly push through your heels to return to the starting position, contracting the thigh muscles.

This compound exercise primarily works your quadriceps and also trains hamstrings, glutes, lower back muscles and calves, working with the resistance of your body weight along with added weight from the barbell.


Hang from a bar with palms facing outwards. Place your hands about shoulder-width apart.

  • Pull up and raise your body until your chin reaches the same height as the bar. Avoid swinging as you pull.
  • Lower yourself back to the starting position. Make sure you fully extend your arms

Bracing your core to engage the abs is key to mastering this exercise that works your back muscles and biceps.

Bench press

  • Lie back on a flat bench. Using a medium width grip, lift the bar from the rack and hold it straight over you with your arms locked. This will be your starting position.
  • From the starting position, breathe in and begin coming down slowly until the bar touches your middle chest.
  • After a brief pause, push the bar back to the starting position as you breathe out. Focus on pushing the bar using your chest muscles. Lock your arms and squeeze your chest in the contracted position at the top of the motion, hold for a second and then start coming down slowly again. Tip: Ideally, lowering the weight should take about twice as long as raising it.

This exercise targets the chest, shoulders and triceps and really focuses on breathing techniques which can help in stressful situations outside of the gym.


  • Approach the bar so that it is centered over your feet. Your feet should be about hip-width apart. Bend at the hip to grip the bar at shoulder-width allowing your shoulder blades to protract.
  • With your feet and your grip set, take a big breath and then lower your hips and flex the knees until your shins contact the bar. Look forward with your head. Keep your chest up and your back arched, and begin driving through the heels to move the weight upward.
  • After the bar passes the knees aggressively pull the bar back, pulling your shoulder blades together as you drive your hips forward into the bar.
  • Lower the bar by bending at the hips and guiding it to the floor.

This is a really simple exercise that is often made difficult by over-trying and over thinking. The deadlift works several muscle groups including your back, glutes and legs. It’s one of the only exercises that target both your upper and lower body, therefore making it an imperative part of your weight training. Like the other moves mentioned, the deadlift requires intense focus which significantly helps with training the mind to switch focus when in stressful situations outside of the gym.

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