The above photo is a shot of a place that I have grown to love, the weight room at my gym. No matter how great it is to get away from it all once in a while, when I return I frequently am so happy to be back to this healing space that I want to sob for joy and hug the weight racks. In this place, I have rebuilt muscle that I lost due to years of racing without a thought about how it would metabolize my muscle mass over time, especially over age 40; and it’s also the place where I have been fighting an oftentimes trying but overall successful battle against the side effects of an autoimmune condition that I developed one year ago. Strength has been my savior, and it can be yours too. So let’s talk:
Strength, as I’ve been telling my clients for years, is where it’s at, and it becomes more and more important as we get older. Strength training builds your muscles to support and serve as shock absorbers for your joints. Strong muscles help you keep good posture and hold your alignment, and help protect your body in the event of a trauma, or an unanticipated force or movement. Strength training builds bone density, improves cardiovascular health, and now is thought to boost your brain power due to increased blood circulation. It also is a great stress buster. So when it comes to strength training performed safely and with good instruction of course, there’s no downside!
So why don’t people stick with it? It happens time and time again. I give people exercises, tell them to come back in two weeks, and when they come back they tell me they only tried the exercises twice. Or they stick diligently with their program, get better quickly, and then they’re back in my clinic within three months, having fallen off the wagon with the program–which leaves me wondering what I did wrong. Did I not emphasize the point of the program, or the need to stick with strengthening? I know that didn’t happen. I talk about the importance of strengthening exercise three to four times per week, long term, until I’m blue in the face, and my clients’ eyes glaze over. So here are the main reasons I’ve deduced that prevent people from sticking with a strengthening regimen:
- Strength training initially is not that exciting. If you are a beginner to strength training and starting from a low strength base, you may be performing basic muscle retraining exercises using body weight only, which initially can feel kind of lame and embarrassing, particularly if you have to perform them in public. Strength training is frequently performed indoors in a gym setting, which lacks the “wahoo” factor that we Vermonters who crave the outdoors routinely get. Who wants to do three sets of 10 biceps curls or one minute of crunches when you can go for a hike or go skiing? Plus strength training requires some patience and humility—it really does take a minimum of 3 to 4 weeks to start seeing results in strength and muscle tone, as compared to the immediate gratification blast of endorphins that you get from a trail run up a mountain or mountain bike ride. You have to have some patience, but in my experience, the important things in life are worth patience and hard work.
I understand the joy of being outside and not wanting to go inside. You have a few options. There are some strengthening and conditioning classes in the area that are held outdoors. You also are free to drag your equipment outside and exercise in your yard, driveway, or porch—who says you can’t? And there are also are a couple of parcourses in the area, notably at Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe and the National Life grounds in Montpelier, which can make strength training fun. When it’s a stretch of 20-below Vermont winter weather, however, you are going to need to suck it up and head indoors. And you will find after a few sessions that it isn’t nearly as awful as you thought it would be.
Another very important factor worth mentioning is that the human body is an incredibly adaptable, efficient training machine. The goal is to accomplish a task and conserve as much energy as possible, probably a vestigial remnant of our “caveman” days when the first humans probably ate once a week or so. So your body will adapt very quickly to a training regimen. This is why people may see quick results initially with beginning an exercise program, such as increases in strength, speed, or weight loss, and then hit a plateau where nothing happens. Your body has adapted. How do we deal with this? Well, we’ve got to mix it up to keep your body from adapting. We want your muscles to adapt to the stimulus of strength training and get stronger, but we also need to continue to increase and change up the stimulus to keep the process going. An ideal scenario is to have several different workouts to rotate and change over time. This scenario also works in your favor by preventing boredom.
- “I don’t want to ‘bulk up.’” Another factor that makes some people reticent to get involved with a strength training program is an unfounded concern that it will negatively affect their weight or their appearance. I am perpetually amazed at the people who accomplish incredible physical feats with minimal strength. They wind up in my clinic only when the level of pain they are experiencing is limiting their activity. I have seen elite runners who cannot lift a leg against the resistance of my pinky finger. Even people who you think would know better, such as power lifters who could accidentally toss me through the ceiling when I test their deltoids, frequently cannot lift their arm against gravity when I place them in the testing position to test their scapular muscles (which are very important for shoulder stability). But I love my weight lifters, because these guys get it. They are addicted to strength and they know how important it is. Frequently they are aware that they have a strength deficit in an area they have been neglecting. They even can tell me before I tell them what the deficit is (i.e. scapular muscles), and tell me why they’ve been neglecting it, for example due to time constraints while trying to accomplish a particular goal, such as a 400 lb deadlift! For my marathoners or triathletes, it can be a harder sell to convince them that they need to build strengthening into their training time. Particularly if they are very concerned with keeping their weight down and worry about “bulking up.”
Let’s pause right here and talk about “bulking up.” People don’t just bulk up! You don’t go from being a size 0 or 2 woman to looking like Serena Williams. I should know. No one of course has any sympathy for me, but it’s not always easy to spend my life on the smaller and skinner side, when my goals in life can basically be placed under the category of world domination. What I really want is to be able to look—and squat–like this:
Serena’s awesome!! Who wouldn’t want to be that powerful a woman! But I am always amazed at the number of female clients who are nervous about strengthening because they don’t want to “bulk up.” This makes me sad. Why are women supposed to shrink? Why should we be little and powerless? Who wants to go through life feeling that you always need other people to carry things for you, do things for you, and protect you? My list of crazy goals also includes being able to carry all three of my kids at once out of a burning building, being able to physically control one of my kids if anyone is ever an out-of-control teenager, I’m sure that will never happen to the little angels; being able to disarm a gunman—I swear, being a mom makes you think of crazy shit. But all of it requires strength.
I digress. Back to bulking up—what my endurance athletes don’t realize that if they haven’t been strengthening regularly, they are losing muscle mass. Yes, that’s right, during their long running training sessions and races, when they are pushing past the point where they have used up their immediate available calories and are not refueling adequately, they are metabolizing their muscle as a protein source. And if they are not eating properly and strengthening to rebuild the metabolized muscle, then they are steadily losing muscle mass over time. The same can be said for people around age 40 and over, particularly women, which is why strengthening becomes so important as we get older: In addition to a slower metabolism, people age 40 and over experience the thrill of gradually decreasing hormone levels, notably estrogen, testosterone, and growth hormone, which play active roles in muscle synthesis; and insulin, which carries amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) to the muscles for muscle synthesis.
So, when people commit to a regular strength-building regimen, which also must include eating adequate amounts of protein as part of a healthy diet to provide the building blocks of muscle, they may initially notice a 3 to 5 pound weight gain a couple of months into the program. This is likely attributable to rebuilding of muscle, which some may confuse with “bulking up.” Here is a reality check on your concerns regarding strengthening: Stick with it. Trust me on this. You will not bulk up. If you stick with it, you will end up with gorgeous, lean, toned muscles and lose body fat. Strength training is a tremendous metabolic boost that lasts for a longer period of time than a cardiovascular workout, because it is an anaerobic form of exercise. What this means is that the exercise is such high intensity that oxygen is used up more quickly than the body is able to replenish it inside the working muscle, and therefore stored energy sources (read: fat) must be mobilized to provide contractile energy for muscle. The effect of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, otherwise known as EPOC, leaves your metabolism running higher after a strength training workout than after a cardio workout because of the increased need for oxygen after an anaerobic workout. The EPOC drives your metabolism to replenish energy stores and return your body to a normal resting level. Who’s still with me?
- “It’s too hard.” The last but not least factor that keeps people from committing to a strength regimen: It’s hard! If you can do 3 sets of 10 reps, or a 30-second to 1-minute interval of an exercise and read a book or chat or take a quick nap at the same time, then you are not building muscle. It needs to be uncomfortable! I understand, but if you want to get strong, you need to get over it. Accept the fact that it’s going to be uncomfortable, breathe, and relax into the pain. It will get easier. Life is hard! Anything worth doing is going to take some effort, and you aren’t going to get strong by relaxing all the time. I tell people to first choose a benchmark: That could be 3 sets of 10 reps or a 1-minute interval. The choice is yours. Second, you need to learn good form, and you may need some instruction on this: abs tight, glutes tight, back straight, and you need to be able to do all of this and breathe. The exercise should under no circumstance change your form, which keeps your body in good alignment and protects it. And finally, select an uncomfortable weight at which you can perform 3 sets of 10 or a 1-minute interval, keep good form, and breathe. If you can do all of this comfortably, then it is time to increase your weight or move to a harder form of the exercise. More about the specifics of increasing the challenge in a little while. But there’s no way around it. It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable, but you will be so incredibly psyched and proud of yourself when you are able to lift weight that you never thought would be possible, and when the compliments on your new muscles start rolling in.If you have never done any strength training before at all, I really do insist on a few sessions minimum with a personal trainer. There are some really amazing people in Stowe. If you are local, contact me and I am happy to recommend someone. If you are dealing with an injury or illness, I strongly recommend seeing a PT for a few sessions to get you going in the right direction, and then we can transfer you to the guidance of a personal trainer. If you have done strength training in the past, have fallen off the wagon and want to get back into it, and you are reasonably injury-free I can give you a few guidelines to get started.The hardest part probably is figuring out how to make a strength regimen work into your life. What I’ve learned over the years is that most people have excellent intentions when it comes to an exercise program, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with…The challenge is nailing down the specifics of how your strength plan is going to work.
So, first: When in your life can you carve out time to exercise? And don’t you dare tell me that you don’t have time. I carve out 8 to 10 hours per week to train and you are not busier than I am. You may be as busy as I am, but you are not busier. If you have kids and a job, I understand that it’s a challenge. But it can be done. Frequently the solution involves getting up before the rest of the household arises to get your workout in. I know it’s hard and I sympathize. But I believe that it is for this reason that God invented coffee. The other options that work for people include: Exercising on your lunch break, evenings, if you and a spouse can alternate watching the kids, hiring a sitter if you can afford it, or exercising with the kids. And believe me, I spent years of my life running with a jogger stroller, biking with a trailer, cross country skiing with a pulk and a kid backpack, and doing home strengthening workouts and riding a spin bike either before kids got up, after they went to bed, or with chaos raging around me. It can be done. It does not have to be hours and hours. I would love to have all my clients doing several hours of strength training per week but I fully recognize that this vision does not work for a lot of people. You can fit in 15 minutes per day of varied strength exercises, 6 days per week, no gym necessary. I’ve been there myself and I am here to tell you that it can be done.
Figure out what setting will work best for you. Are you more comfortable exercising at home? Or once you’re home, are you panicked about all the things that need to be done and that take priority over your strength regimen? Sometimes designating a small area in your home as your sacred space—really, the size of an exercise mat is about all you need—can help the situation. It can be in your bedroom, your basement, a corner of your living room. When you are in it, nothing and no one may be permitted to distract you for 15 minutes. If this doesn’t work at all, then you need to take it off campus. Do you prefer to follow your own exercise regimen, or are you more of a class person? Classes are fun, and there are many great classes to keep it fun and interesting. Classes may also push you a little harder than you push yourself, if that is an issue for you.
I do think that if you are a class person, you also need to do a little independent strengthening as classes may not address all of your strength deficits. Or you may solve the issue by mixing it up with a few different classes, and I could make some recommendations. If you are planning on doing strengthening on your own, as I said it would help to consult a personal trainer or a PT to help you develop a program. If you are itching to get started and have not made an appointment with a professional yet, I trust you to perform a few exercises safely and not drop the weights on your head, if you promise to stop if anything hurts (and I’m not talking about muscle soreness from starting a program). So there are a couple of ways to structure a program. Some people like to rotate areas of the body, for example with an “arms” day, a “legs” day, an “abs” day, and so on, When I design a program, I like to include a little of everything in each workout but change the focus for each day—so something like a weights day, a core day, and a challenge, a.k.a. “exercises that suck” day. So for someone just getting started with 15 minutes or so of strength training several days per week, the following workouts could be rotated and performed at home, outside, or in a gym. And you could easily YouTube all of these exercises if you are not sure what they are:
Workout 1: Strength Day (you will need some hand held weights and an optional exercise mat)
- 3-5 minute warm up: slow jog in place, sidestepping, walking lunges
- Biceps curls
- Supine chest press with hand held weights
- Flys with hand held weights
- Forward and lateral arm raises
Workout 2: Core Day
- Start with short warm up above
- Side plank (each side)
- V-sit, with or without “Russian twists”
- Prone I’s, T’s and Y’s
Workout 3: “Challenge” Day
- Start with short warm up above
- Push ups
- Stepping or jumping on/off a step
- Plank with rows
- One-legged squats
- Sidestepping, holding a squat position
If you would feel better having a program that you can actually follow along, some other resources include the “7-Minute Workout” which you can YouTube; the Nike Training Club app for the iPhone, from which you can choose a variety of workouts ranging from beginner to advanced, 15 to 60 minutes long, with different areas of focus; or DVDs, and many of my clients have had good results with the Beachbody DVDs. Like the Nike Training Club, Beachbody offers a range of different levels and types of workouts from which you can choose.
I understand that it’s hard to get started, I understand the pain and the lack of enthusiasm. But with all the options available, you really have to work very hard to not make it fun, or at least gain some appreciation for the process when the compliments on how strong and fabulous you look start pouring in. Give it a try! Enjoy!
–Kathleen Doehla, M.S. P.T.