It All Starts From Strength

It’s never too late to get the benefits from adding strength training to your fitness routine — or from making weights the core of a whole new exercise program.

“Strength training has multiple benefits, including stronger bones, leaner body mass and improved balance and agility,” says Joseph Weaver, Fitness Trainer in Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation at Eisenhower Health. “Lifting weights also helps sharpen your thinking and ward off depression,” he adds, “all of which means better quality of life.”

We lose muscle every year we age, which is why strength training should be a priority for everyone, especially women, who are at risk for weak or brittle bones (osteoporosis) from reduced estrogen.

Some women are under a common misconception about weight training — that it will bulk them up and make them look “masculine.” Experts say this is extremely unlikely, in part because women have up to 20 times less testosterone than men. 

Muscle (by volume) weighs more than fat, but it also occupies less space and can give you a more toned physique. Another bonus: muscle continues to burn calories even after your strength workout is done. 

“First, meet with a professional who can design a program for you and show you the correct form to execute your strength training regimen,” says Weaver. Before starting any new exercise routine, it’s a good idea to check with your primary care physician and discuss your intent. A wellness check will give you a base from which to begin.

Schedule one or two sessions with a trainer to discuss your goals and review the exercises. Then, after trying them on your own, meet again with the trainer to correct any form issues and ensure you are progressing at a good pace for you. Regular “form checks” are advisable. In light of the pandemic, you may wish to do these training sessions through an online format.

Despite the glossy commercials promoting expensive equipment, strength training does not have to be a high-money proposition. Invest in a series of hand weights such as kettelbells or small neoprene barbells that come in sets, from two to 12 pounds. Different movements will require (or tolerate) different weights. As you become stronger, you can increase the weight. Work with a trainer to ensure you’re using the weights properly.

Another popular investment is resistance bands, which you attach to a pole, wall or doorframe or body part for the necessary counter-balance (anchor). But you can just as easily start out by using water bottles or soup cans as your hand weights, “or even do exercises that use your body’s own weight for resistance,” says Weaver, “including sit-ups, pushups, pullups and Pilates.”

Most important, rid yourself of that old-school mantra, “No pain, no gain.” Instead, Weaver says, “If an exercise is causing pain, something’s wrong.” Repetitive motion injuries can take a while to heal, so follow the game plan your trainer sets down and take care when increasing weights.   Take into consideration the number of sets and reps. Reps are the number of times you do each exercise, sets are the number of reps. You may decide to do three sets of 15 reps each, for example.

Joseph Weaver’s Top Six Tips for Strength Training

1. Warm-up and cool-down. Spend about 10 minutes on a warm-up before you begin and another five to 10 minutes on cool-down when you’re done. Think of your muscles as rubber bands, and warm them up with a brisk walk as you swing your arms. Or try a few jumping jacks or modified half-jacks. Adding static stretching — stretching a muscle to near its furthest point and then holding that position for at least 15 seconds — will help to elongate the muscle and increase your flexibility.

2. Aim for balance. Think like a sculptor adding clay and, in this case, you want your muscles balanced. Work all areas equally even if you prefer toning only specific areas, such as legs and arms. How often should you strength train? The American Heart Association says at least two times a week. Other experts recommend three times weekly. 

3. Work out and repair. You can strength train daily if you want, as long as you focus on a different muscle group each day. People often train in opposites — upper body one day, lower the next. Or, legs, back and biceps, followed by chest, shoulders, triceps and core. If you choose to train your whole body on one day, take the next day or two off to let your muscles repair themselves.

4. Personalize your plan. Follow what your trainer advises in terms of reps. “In strength training, there’s no one-size-fits-all,” Weaver says. “As a general guideline, aim for eight to 12 reps for each exercise and work to fatigue or that point when you think you can’t go on.” 

5. Form is everything. Learn to isolate the muscle group you’re working on. Doing a few reps correctly is better than 10 or 20 haphazardly. If you do feel pain or discomfort, try going to a lighter weight for a few days/sessions. 

6. Breathe. Holding your breath and straining won’t fuel a healthy workout. Inhale to prepare to lift the weight or do that pushup, then exhale as you exert yourself. “The breath is so important,” says Weaver. “It will give you energy to keep going.”

For information about Eisenhower Renker Wellness Center’s Pulmonary or Cardiac Rehabilitation programs, call 760.773.2030.