Did you know that globally fitness is an $84 billion industry? According to the CDC 70% of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight and of that 35% are considered obese. Discussions about healthy living and fitness trends are filling up social media feeds. Gym memberships are soaring and small boutique fitness centers are popping up all over. It seems like everyone on Instagram and Facebook is suddenly a life coach selling weight loss shakes and leading groups of people to exercise. The thing about the fitness industry is that its overwhelming. There are so many buzz words and trends flying around its hard to know what is real and effective and what is bullshit. One of the buzz words that keeps popping up is strength training. Strength training is picking up in popularity since its recognition as an important tool to weight loss. Traditionally, we have been told that cardio is the way to achieve weight loss but new research shows strength training is the key to successful weight loss.
There is a science to exercise and fitness. Successful fitness programs are crafted with a person’s goals, nutritional requirements, and physiology in mind. One of the biggest deterrents to strength training is the fear of becoming too bulky. I hear lots of women say “Oh, I don’t want to do that! I don’t want to look like one of those body builders!” Well, first let me say there is nothing wrong with looking like a body builder. A few of my past boyfriends were bodybuilders and while dating them I got an up close and personal view of the life of a body builder. Let me just say that first, you simply cannot achieve a body builder’s appearance by performing any of the basic strength training routines prescribed for fitness, and you most certainly will not achieve a body builder’s look overnight. Body builders utilize specific and strict training programs and nutrition regimens to achieve their look.
So, why strength train? Because life is easier when you’re strong. Carrying groceries, taking out the trash, shoveling snow, standing up from a sitting position — all the activities of daily living are easier when you’re strong. Strength training is beneficial for everyone. There are lots of benefits to strength training but the top 5 are:
- Increased muscle mass: Weight lifting helps reduce the speed of muscle loss as you age
- Increased bone strength and density: Weight lifting helps ward off osteoporosis
- Better stability: Reduce the number of falls and injuries
- Improved daily activities: Carrying groceries, taking out the trash, shoveling snow, etc. are all easier when you’re stronger
- Lower blood pressure: Studies show that strength training does in fact lower blood pressure
The American Cancer Society and The American Heart Association now recommend strength training a minimum of 2 days a week. Their studies show strength training will:
- Increased muscle mass: Muscle mass naturally decreases with age. Strength training helps reverse the trend.
- Stronger bones: Strength training increases bone density and reduces the risk of fractures
- Joint flexibility: Reduces the symptoms of arthritis
- Weight control: As you gain muscle your body begins to burn calories more easily, making it easier to control your weight
- Balance: As flexibility increases so does your balance which reduces falls and injuries.
The physical benefits of strength training are not the only reason you should incorporate this activity into your daily routine. There are mind-body connections as well.
- You will feel more competent. You develop a sense of mastery when you go from lifting 3 lbs to 5 lbs to 10 lbs to 15 lbs.
- You will see the difference. You gain muscle definition and notice your increased strength.
- You could boost your brain power. Research shows that strength training may improve cognitive thinking and ward off dementia.
- You will feel like you can do anything!
- You will be more in tune with your body. The soreness and fatigue at the beginning is off putting but over time you will see it as progress
- You will forget about the day’s problems. The intensity and focus required for strength training makes it impossible to be anywhere else but in the moment. It distracts you from the stressors of daily life.
- You will stop obsessing about your weight. Strength training shifts your perspective. Happiness doesn’t come from achieving a number on a scale but from the process of becoming stronger and the feeling of empowerment as you realize your success.
I know that despite all these benefits many of you are still reluctant to start training. I know the excuses you will use because I’ve used them myself.
- I don’t’ have time: I am the Queen of “I don’t have time.” But, the truth is you can always make time for the things you want to do. If you can make time to sit and drink a cup of coffee then you can make time to strength train.
- I can’t afford it: You do not need to spend a lot of money. In fact, you don’t have to spend any money. Strength training can be done using your own body weight or with a set of dumbbells either in a gym or in your home. You can begin for $0 or as much as you can and would like to spend.
- I don’t want to get bulky: Like I explained above bulky does not happen by mistake or overnight. It is achieved on purpose. Strength training will make you lean and strong.
- I’m too fat to strength train; I need to lose weight first: When you are overweight you need to preserve the muscle you have while losing the fat. Strength training is critical for success and is where you should start your exercise journey. Overall, weight loss will be slower but you will lose inches faster. And bonus! Strength training increases your metabolism.
- Its boring: You need to switch it up! There are so many ways to strength train. If what you’re doing is boring or you just don’t like it, switch to something else. Strength training can be done with your body weight, a set of dumbbells, machine weights at the gym, kettlebells, the TRX suspension equipment. You can stick with one of these or mix them all up to create your routine. The possibilities are endless. Make it fun!
So, now that I have sold you on the value of strength training and eliminated all of your excuses its time to share some of the basics with you. First, its helpful to understand the physiology behind strength training. Let’s start with a basic understanding of muscles. Muscles cover our skeleton and provide us mobility. Muscles are made of smaller cells known as muscle fibers. Muscle fibers are long and cylindrical and roughly the size of a strand of hair. Muscle fibers are made up of myofibrils surrounded by a fluid called sarcoplasm. We have around 642 skeletal muscles, and they all work together to help our body move. For example, when you bend your arm your bicep muscle contracts and your triceps muscle elongates allowing your elbow to bend. Every muscle in your body works alongside the other to help you move. It’s the ultimate teamwork.
I don’t’ want to bore you with a lot of anatomy but its important to know that we have different types of fibers in our muscles. These fibers determine what type of training we respond best to and helps us develop our goals and routines.
- Type I fibers (slow twitch fibers) are used for aerobic exercises when we need to convert oxygen into fuel over long periods of time. They are resistant to fatigue but don’t move quickly. These fibers help with sports like long distance running.
- Type II fibers (fast twitch fibers) fire quickly but fatigue quickly so they don’t last long. These fibers help with short distance running like sprints.
Each person has a different percentage of fast twitch and slow twitch fibers. This is why some runners are better at long distance running and others are better at sprinting.
Why did I tell you all this? We don’t increase the number of muscle fibers with strength training. We’re born with a specific amount of muscle and we cannot create more, but we can increase the size of our muscles or our muscle mass. Scientifically, this is known as hypertrophy. There are three kinds of hypertrophy.
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy focuses on increasing the amount of sarcoplasm in our muscles. Sarcoplasm is the non contractile fluid in our muscles. In fact, 30% of a muscle’s size is attributed to sarcoplasm.
- Myofibril hypertrophy focuses on strengthening the myofibril or the contractile part of the muscle. You strengthen the actual muscle fiber itself.
- Transient hypertrophy is the temporary increase in muscle size that happens during and immediately after weight training due to fluid accumulation in the intracellular space. Think of body builders being pumped up. There is, in fact, a scientific reason why body builders will pump iron just before walking out onto a stage to flex.
When we strength train we do 2 things to our muscles. We break down the muscle tissue so that our bodies heal and rebuild the muscle back stronger. As we increase the repetitions we increase the glycogen storage in the muscle, which is where the definition and size of the muscle comes from. So, strength training is not just lifting heavy things and putting them back down again. How we strength train depends on our goal.
If you want to strengthen your muscles (myofibrillar hypertrophy) you need to keep the number of repetitions low and the weight heavy. If you’re looking to increase the size of the muscle or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy you need to keep the weights lighter but do more reps. Its all about the reps with sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. As Arnold Schwarznegger says, reps, reps, reps!!!
No matter what kind of strength training you do there are eight sacred rules. But, before I go into those let me say a word about nutrition. Body builders have a saying “Muscles aren’t built in the gym they’re made in the kitchen.” No matter how hard you train, if you eat crap when you leave the gym, you will not see results. When we’re not working out we are healing and getting stronger. Good nutrition is an important part of this process. Its also important to have adequate rest days. The general rule of thumb is to wait 48 hours before working the same muscle group again. Remember that our muscles work together so when you are working on your chest you are also working the muscles in your shoulders and upper arms. This leads me to one last point before I share the eight rules, DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness. DOMS is the pain you feel after exercising. Its no joke. It can be miserable. It’s a normal part of the process of repairing muscles damaged while training. Expect to be sore for a few days but don’t let this scare you away from exercising. Over time this will lesson. The key to DOMS is to exercise again. Train a different group of muscles the next day.
Now, as promised, below are the classic rules for strength training.
- Train consistently. Consistency is the name of the game.
- Work hard but work SMART: You do not have to kill yourself every time you exercise. Its important to listen to your body every day and make adjustments to your workout if needed.
- Stimulate the musculature of the entire body. Yes, you need to do big lifts to stimulate muscle growth but don’t’ forget about the weak points! If a muscle never gets activated it won’t grow. Muscles must be stimulated on a regular basis to grow. If you want maximum muscle mass in a particular body part then make sure you get strong at the exercise that elicits the highest activation in that muscle. For example, do you envy that Kardashian butt? Hip thrusts or glute bridges elicit the highest glute activation. So, while you may be doing lots of squats and barbell deadlifts you need to add hip thrusts, or glute bridges, into your circuit to achieve maximum gluteus maximus size.
- Basic strength must improve, especially on compound exercises: Progressive overload is the most important aspect in the strength training game. If you’re strength training 3x a week but you’re not getting any stronger then you are not gaining muscle. You need to use heavier weights and perform more reps over time.
- Warm ups are essential: Failing to take time to warm up properly will end in disaster. Your injury risk is sky high if you are exercising without doing a warmup first. A warmup can be as long as 20-30 minutes or as short as 5 minutes. The important thing is to get your heart rate up and perform dynamic stretching to get the blood flowing and your joints and muscles ready to lift.
- Use Good form: I am obsessed with form. You need to be strict with your exercise form and you need to learn the right type of form for your body and the exercise. Failure to pay attention to form and technique results in pain and injury which will stop your progress in its tracks. Also, its worth noting that exercising in bad form means you are not getting the most out of the exercise. Why work so hard only to cheat yourself of the full benefit?
- Daily nutrition habits are responsible for progress. The best training program in the world is no match for a crappy diet. No matter how hard you work in the gym its meaningless if you’re relying on processed convenience food, fast food, and pizza for nutrition.
- Sleep well and avoid persistent distress. If you’re not sleeping well and you are mentally stressed out around the clock your body physiology will work against you. You need to care about both the quality and the quantity of your sleep. Its not realistic for anyone to suggest you eliminate stress from your life. In today’s fast-paced hectic world stress is the norm, but we can optimize it. Its good to be challenged in life but you need to understand the difference between eustress(positive stress ex: the joy you feel after accomplishing a big task around the house or a good workout) and distress (negative stress). Aim to stay in eustress most of the time for the best results.
Now that you know some of the science and physiology of strength training its time to get started! Below are two strength training programs. The first requires no equipment and can be done anywhere in about 10-15 minutes. It’s a full body workout. The second requires a pair of dumbbells and takes about 15-20 minutes. Both are full body workouts that can be done at home or in the gym. Good luck and be sure to perform at least a 5-minute warm-up first and a 5 minute cool down after!
Bodyweight Strength Training
1. Plank hold for 30 seconds, rest for 10 seconds. Repeat 4x
Get in push up position with your hands directly under your shoulders. Your shoulders should be pulled down with your back, abs, glutes engaged. Keep your hips tucked under and your legs extended. Your body should be a straight line from head to toe. Hold for 30 seconds and then release.
2. Glute bridge – Hold for 5 seconds, repeat 20 x
Lie on your back with your arms at your sides. Feet should be flat on the floor with your knees bent. Push through your heels to activate your hamstrings and lift your hips and back off the floor until you are resting on your shoulders. Hold for 5 seconds and then release.
3. Walkouts – x10
Stand with our feet shoulder width apart. Bend at the waist and place your hands on the floor. Without moving your feet, walk your hands out in front of you until you are in plank position. Perform a push up. Walk your hands back and come back up to standing position. Repeat 10x
4. Squats – 20 reps, 10 second rest. Repeat
Stand with our feet shoulder width apart and toes pointed outward. Keeping your chest tall bend your knees and sit back into your heels until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Push back up through your heels and use your legs and glutes to come back to standing. Perform 20 reps, rest for 10 seconds and repeat another 20 reps.
Strength Training with your choice of dumbbells anywhere from 1 lb to 8 lbs.
- Dumbbell thrusters – Stand with feet hip width apart and a dumbbell in each hand. Keep your palms facing in and your elbows bent so your hands are at your shoulders. Hinge your hips back and lower into a squat going as low as you can. Push through your heels to stand up and as you are doing so press the dumbbells overhead in one movement. Return to squat and repeat 15 times.
- Renegade rows – Assume a high plank position with a weight in each hand. Your hips should be lifted and your body in one straight line. Row your right arm up keeping it close to your body with the weight in your hand. Your elbow should go past your back as you row towards your chest. Bring your right arm back to the starting position and repeat with your left arm. Perform 15 reps on each arm.
- Reverse woodchop – Stand with your feet wider than hip width. Hold one dumbbell with both hands. Lower your weight towards your left foot and bend your knee. Stand up as you rotate your torso to the right and lift your right heel bringing the dumbbell diagonally across your body. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position. Repeat 15 times and then perform 15 times on the other side.
- Reverse lunge with a twist – Stand with feet hip width apart. Take a big step back with your left foot and bend your knee to lower yourself into a lunge while twisting your torso over your right leg while holding a dumbbell with both hands at chest level. Return to standing and repeat with the opposite leg. Perform 15 reps on each side.
- Dumbbell bent over reverse fly – Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent. Bend forward at the hips so that your upper body leans forward and your core is engaged. Raise your dumbbells straight out to the sides and lower back down to the starting position. Repeat 15 times.
Repeat all five exercises for a total of 2 rounds.