Strength Training: the Missing Link
by Karen Schroeder Kassel, MS, RD, MEd
Can you knock off 8 miles on the track or an hour on the bike, but struggle through a few pull-ups? Despite your commitment to fitness, your workout is likely missing something. You know what I'm talking about. Runners and cyclists enjoy cardiovascular workouts so much that we tend to neglect an essential part of total fitness—strength training.
You need not spend hours in the gym getting pumped up to enjoy the benefits of weight training. You can make gains in strength, power, and fitness in as little as 2 sessions as week.
Understanding the Benefits
Regular weight training makes you stronger, and we're not just talking about bulging biceps. Weight training strengthens bones, ligaments, and tendons as well as muscles, all of which translate into improved balance, greater power, quicker recovery, and a reduced risk for injury.
In fact, performing only aerobic exercise could result in an overuse injury. Running for example, works your calves and hamstrings but ignores the upper body. By strengthening all the major muscle groups, you can avoid an imbalance and reduce your risk for injury.
Getting Hard Core
Developing a strong core is important. Your core strength comes from the muscles that stabilize the spine, pelvis, rib cage, and hips. Basic exercises, such as crunches, lunges, and squats, can help build your core.
Weighing the Options
Machines, dumbbells, balls? Which is right for you? All of it. Vary your workout to avoid boredom and maximize results.
Machines are a good way to begin. The machine will guide your movement and reduce the chances of injury.
Beginners should start with light weight to avoid overworking the muscles and to develop a consistent routine. Lift one day per week for the first few weeks, and then add a second session. Start with one set of a weight you can lift for 8-10 repetitions and increase to 2-3 sets.
After you have established a regular routine, increase the weight by 5%-10% per week. Strive for a weight that you can lift 8-10 times for 2-3 sets. By the last repetition, you should be tired and unable to do another, yet still in good form. Do this by lifting and lowering slowly. Do not let gravity pull the weight down for you.
Free weights add a new dimension of difficulty. Now you have to perform the desired movement while keeping your whole body stabilized. The result is that more muscles are engaged and you get a more efficient workout. However, it's easier to cheat with free weights. You can push a weight too fast and use the momentum instead of your own power. To avoid cheating, your form should be slow and controlled, not bouncy or jerky. Lift for 3-4 seconds, pause for 1 second, lower for 3-4 seconds.
Traditionally used only by physical therapists, these portable, multi-colored, oversized rubber bands are commonly found in gyms. They are best used to supplement training with weight machines or free weights. The exact resistance of the bands is difficult to determine, and they are limited by the maximum resistance they provide.
Medicine balls are available in a range of weights and can add a significant amount of resistance to your lifts. Check with a strength and conditioning specialist or a certified athletic trainer for the best way to use them. For instance, you can do sit-ups with your arms stretched straight above your head, holding a medicine ball.
Stability or balance balls are are meant to be sat on. For example, you can balance your behind and lower back on the ball with your feet planted on the floor. Then, you can do sit-ups or upper-body free weight exercises. Using the stability ball triggers your body to use more and different muscles than are normally engaged. And these are the core muscles—abdominals and lower back—that are key to overall strength and power.
What about when you are stranded on a desert island with no equipment? Well, there is one thing you can do: drop and give me 20! By using your own body weight as resistance, you can get a significant workout doing push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, lunges, squats, and triceps dips. Do jumping jacks before and between each exercise to keep your heart rate up.
The fitness industry is constantly developing new tools and techniques to help you change your routine. Keep an open mind about new activities and equipment, but also be cautious. Ask a trusted fitness professional for advice.
Feeling the Burn
Although some muscle soreness is normal the day after lifting, weight lifting injuries are rare. However, if you experience any of the following, rest a few days and see your doctor if you do not feel better:
Putting It All Together
A balanced program includes cardio work, strength training, and flexibility exercises. It may sound difficult to fit each of these into your week, but a personal trainer can help design a weight training program to develop your core as well as your outer strength. Before you know it, you'll be jumping higher, running faster, pedaling harder, and looking and feeling stronger and more confident.
American Council on Exercise (ACE)
Health—Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
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Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 11/13/2013
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