Strength training is one component of a well-rounded physical activity plan, but to get all of the benefits, make sure you’re doing the moves right.
If you follow recommendations in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults, you’re incorporating strength training into your workout routine at least a couple of times a week. The recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services are to do moderate- or high-intensity muscle-strengthening activities (such as lifting weights or using resistance bands) involving all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.
Exercises that increase your strength — also called resistance training — are especially important as you age, which naturally brings about a loss of muscle mass. Strength training not only helps protect you from falls and other potential injuries, but it also strengthens your bones. If you are on a weight-loss program, strength training helps maintain your muscle mass as you lose weight.
Strength training can take many different forms. You can work with free weights or machines, you can work out with resistance bands, and increasingly, fitness experts are coming up with creative ways to build strength using just your body weight.
To get all the benefits, make sure you’re working all your body’s major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, chest, core, shoulders, and arms. Although there is no recommendation for a specific amount of time, the guidelines say you should perform a specific exercise to the point where it would be difficult to do another repetition without help. The commonly accepted formula is one to three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions for each exercise.
As important as it is to have strength training as part of your fitness program, it’s equally important to be doing the exercises correctly to get the most out of them, and to reduce your risk of injury.
Benefits of free weights
The term “free weight” means the equipment will not restrict your movement, which is why many trainers and fitness enthusiasts prefer them. Free weights — generally dumbbells and barbells — are versatile and allow you to use your full range of motion. Exercises can be structured with free weights that mimic movements of everyday living, promoting agility and whole-body stabilization.
The flip side of that coin is that they also require more muscular coordination than other options. If you are new to working with free weights, it may take some time before you are comfortable with them.
If you’d like to determine whether free weights are a good fit with your exercise routine, one of the best ways to get started is to hire a personal trainer. Most gyms have trainers with whom you can schedule sessions to learn basic moves and techniques. Typically they will put together an entire routine for you to follow, depending on your fitness level and goals. Once you master a given routine, subsequent training sessions build on what you have achieved, advancing your level of fitness and weight-room knowledge.
Whether you are new to the gym or returning after an extended time away, keep these points in to get the most out of your workout and avoid injury.
- Do some research and familiarize yourself with the proper technique for different exercises. Weight lifting has been around for a long time, and there are many resources that demonstrate the proper form, and often also suggest whole routines.
- Be sure to warm up. Start out with 5 to 10 minutes of aerobic activity, such as on the treadmill or elliptical. Warming up your muscles before you start will facilitate a fuller range of motion and help avoid injury.
- Move the weight in a controlled manner. This isolates and focuses your effort on the specific muscle you’re trying to work. Don’t let gravity or momentum move the weight for you. If you can’t do at least 8 repetitions in a controlled manner use a lighter weight, gradually increasing it as you become stronger.
- Don’t forget to breathe. It can be tempting to hold your breath when you’re lifting weights. Instead, use your breath as a way to focus your effort. Breathe out as you lift the weight and breathe in as you lower it.
- Make sure you allow ample recovery time after a workout. Don’t exercise the same muscles two days in a row.
- Pay attention to pain. If an exercise causes pain, stop. Check your form and try using a lighter weight, or return to the exercise on a different day.
Keep these additional concepts in mind to get even more from your efforts.
Start out big
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, it’s more effective to start your workout training larger muscles first, progressing to smaller muscles as your workout continues. Studies show if you start with smaller muscles and progress to the larger ones, they’re significantly weaker, making your workout less effective. So, for example, if it’s your day to work chest, shoulders, and triceps, you would start with your chest, progress to your shoulders, and finish with your triceps.
Working specific muscle groups together can also be beneficial, depending on your goals. Try structuring your strength training days so that you are training your back and bicep muscles on the same day, your shoulders, chest, and triceps muscles on another day, and your legs on a third day. Also consider moves to strengthen your core every time you have a strength training day.
Mix it up
Whatever combination of techniques you use, make sure you mix up your routine (muscle confusion). Studies have shown that the body adapts quickly to resistance training, so make sure the time you’re putting in counts by building in some variety. For example, if you usually do bicep curls with dumbbells, try occasionally doing them with a barbell or using a cable machine. There are countless techniques for exercising a given muscle, so don’t get into an inflexible routine. By incorporating variety, not only will your muscles reap the rewards, but you’re less likely to get bored, making it more likely that you’ll stick to your workout routine.
January 11, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN