Strength Training for Health

bodybuilder that is strength trainingIf you want to know how to be a healthy person, then knowing something about strength training is important.  These are exercises that build muscle tone, strength, and size.  They are important because they keep your body functioning well as far as movement goes.  If you can lift heavy weights, you will undoubtedly have no problem moving yourself around as you age.  Strength workouts are also beneficial because they really increase your metabolism, and don’t worry, you won’t look like ‘anold’ unless you that is really your goal.

Cardio certainly does this too, but your body burns most of its calories during the actual exercise.  Strength training workouts however build muscle that requires more energy just to exist, so you burn more calories even when you are sleeping.

As I write this section, I realize that many of you out there are a little hesitant about strength training for various reasons.  Let me dispel some of the misnomers and misconceptions concerning it.

Getting bulky for women

Don’t fear getting bulky.  First of all women are not made to “get big.”  The “gross-looking” women in muscle contests are a result of a lot of work and very specific programs (and usually drugs).  Most women couldn’t look like that if they tried.  Unless, your goal is to be like them, just lifting weights is not going to do it.  Just think of all the men that struggle to build size and remember; it’s much harder for women to do so.

Getting big for men

Unless you are eating just the right food at the right time, taking the right supplements at the right time, sleeping just the right amount, and a slew of other things, you may get pretty cut, but you won’t look like Mr. Universe.  As I mentioned, huge muscles are usually a product of great genetics and massive commitment (and sometimes drugs).  Most of us couldn’t hope to be terribly huge (without chemical assistance), and those who can probably don’t have enough time or resources to do it if they wanted to.  If you really do want to get huge and are willing to put in the time and effort, my other book on bodybuilding will show you how.

I’m not losing weight

If you are not obese, there is a good chance that beginning a strength training regimen will only land you more weight.  The reason: muscle weighs more (per volume) than fat.  Beware because weight gain does not always equal bad results.  As you work out over time, you will lose fat and gain muscle.  A gallon of muscle is heavier than a gallon of fat, so you very well could gain weight and still lose inches.  Remember, it’s not how much you weigh, but what your body composition is.

I’m not gaining weight

If you’re like me, you don’t feel a tremendous need to look like some hard-body on steroids, but you’d like to be pretty cut and have people take notice that you are muscular.  If you are also like me, you aren’t naturally muscular.  Weight lifting does not always amount to big muscles and/or weight gain.  I lift 3 times a week and rarely gain an ounce.  Remember I said that a lot of “getting big” is genetic.  It’s true.

On the bright side, I only weigh 160, but I can bench press 270 lbs. (since the original writing of this sentence I have gained 20 pounds of mostly muscle, but only after using a legal supplement that acts somewhat like anabolic steroids).  So don’t be too discouraged if you don’t pack on the muscle, at least you will increase your health and certainly your strength.  (you can actually increase your strength some without any muscle gain at all).

“Buffed” guys can’t move as well

A common excuse for being lazy made by, well…lazy people.  Some people seem to have the notion that having big muscles somehow equates to a neanderthal looking guy who can’t move his arms.  Not true.  In fact, muscular people tend to have a greater range of motion because their muscles are so efficient and strong.

The fact is that muscular people are healthier, faster, stronger, and quite frankly more attractive than people who aren’t.  So read on to learn how to improve your health through this avenue as well as improve the way you look!

Reps, Sets, Duration, and Intensity

When you lift, your lifts should be relatively intense.  Don’t just do 8 reps because it’s a nice number.  Do 8 reps because you can’t do 9.  If you are relatively intense, a warm-up set followed by 4-5 normal sets is usually about right.  Some guys think doing 10 sets is twice as good as 5, but more can be less when it comes to building muscle size and strength.  Too many sets can over-train your body and result in less muscle growth.

Your workouts in total should last no more than 45 minutes.  If they do, you may be over-training.  If you are serious and don’t waste time, you may find 30 minutes is even do-able.

Lastly, only wait 1-2 minutes between sets.  More than that may cause your muscles to relax some and get a lower quality workout on the next set.  Besides, it’s a waste of time.

How to do Strength Training

Muscles are organized throughout your body.  When I say muscles I mean skeletal muscles, or the muscles you have conscious control over.  By simply decreasing the angle between 2 bones connected by a joint, you work a muscle.  That may sound confusing, so perhaps some examples will clear it up.  For instance, you can work your biceps brachii muscle by standing or sitting with a weight in your hand and lifting it by decreasing the angle between your upper arm and forearm as illustrated below:

man showing proper biceps curl for strenth training

The same can be done for any muscle.  But beware to concentrate on the muscle of interest as opposed to making the exercise easier.  For example, rocking your body while doing curls will make it easier, but your biceps will not get as good of a workout. But a little body movement is necessary if the weight is sufficiently heavy.  Concentrate on the major muscle groups to get the biggest bang for your buck:

  • Shoulders
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Upper back
  • Lower back
  • Cuads
  • Calves
  • Abs

Pull, not push

It is important to remember when strength training that muscles only pull, not push.  That means that curls do not adequately work your triceps unless you change your movement such that your triceps do the actual lifting (compare the two above).  These are the main lifts you should be doing.  Of course you want to change things up from time to time, but these are the main themes of how to work each muscle group.  I also left out your butt and hamstrings (back of the legs) because they will be worked quite well if you are doing squats at least some of the time.

Also, if you attend a gym, it would be worth your while to spend at least one session with a personal trainer.  They will be able to help you tailor a routine to your goals or at least show you the ropes and let you loose.

How to Lift

Strength training does not have to result in huge muscles.  It is very difficult to do that, and takes a lot of know-how and a lot of discipline.  For health purposes it is not necessary to lift like the pros.  There is more to lifting than just building big muscles, so don’t feel like you have to lift the most productive way possible. You can still build plenty of strength and flexibility without the veins on your forehead protruding.

Go heavy or go home

The most effective strength training is heavy and intense.  That means your repetitions, or the number of times you lift a weight in a row, should be about 3-12.  When I say do 3-12 reps, I mean that’s all you CAN do.  You should progressively decrease in reps and increase in weight between sets (1 set= 1 round of reps).  So, let’s say you are doing bench press.  You start with 135 lbs. and do 10 easy reps for a warm-up.  This is your 1st set.  Then you increase to 210 lbs. and get 7 reps.  This is your 2nd set.  Next you increase to 225 lbs. and do 4 reps.  This is your 3rd set.  Next, you go up to 250 lbs. and get 3 reps.  This is your 4th set.  You use 250 lbs. again and manage to pull off 3 again.  This is your 5th set.

Example lift

This is a great example of how your lifts should go.  It’s still acceptable to do lighter weight sometimes, or even heavier, but if you want the best results, this is about what your workout should look like most of the time.  Now this doesn’t mean you’re wasting your time if you don’t do it like this.  Remember this is the “most effective” way, meaning this is the way that will build the most muscle.  Your goal may be strength or just flexibility in which case lifting as illustrated, although the best for building muscle size and burning calories may not be necessary for your purposes.

The same workout for someone concerned less with muscle mass and more with the health benefits may be a little less intense such as the following:

  • Original workout (maximum ability)                              less intense
  • (warm-up)      10 reps                      135lbs. (warm-up)     10reps
  •                          7reps                          165lbs.                         10reps
  •                          4reps                          185lbs.                         8reps
  •                          3reps                          205lbs.                         6reps
  •                          3reps                          215lbs.                         5reps

Both of these workouts are effective.  Granted the original workout will be more prone to develop larger muscles, but bigger muscles are not necessary to produce the health benefits associated with strength training.  Part of how to be a healthy person must necessarily include strength training, but if going a little lighter is fine as long as you don’t sacrifice intensity.

Frequency

You should not lift with the same muscles more than every other day.  In other words, your muscles need at least a full day to recover fully, usually more.  You should also give your muscles a 2 day rest every week.  For example, a great routine would be to lift every monday, wednesday, and friday.  You could work your upper body on monday and friday, and your lower body on wednesday.  Preferably, you would be doing cardio on tuesday, thursday, and saturday.  This would be an ideal situation if you want to be the healthiest possible in regard to exercise.

As important as rest is for muscles, if you don’t lift for more than about 7 days, you will begin to lose a little muscle mass.  I say begin, but really even after a few weeks you probably won’t lose much muscle, but you will lose a little.  Your body is sometimes too efficient, so it will eliminate the “extra” muscle if you don’t have a “need” for it.  When you lift frequently, your body sees the extra muscle as a necessity, but after a while, it is seen as unnecessary.

Duration  

As mentioned in the last section, strength training should last no more than 45 minutes (assuming your are doing it as described with intensity, rest periods, etc.).  Longer could prove counterproductive, and less than 30 minutes may not be enough to really achieve much benefit.  Typically when I lift, I do 5 exercises for 8 minutes each.  So I may start out with curls and do sets as outlined already for about 8 minutes.  Then I do the same thing for bench press, tricep extensions, etc.  When I’m done, I have been working out for about 45 minutes.  I follow this immediately with a whey protein shake (more on this in the next section).

Changing Up Your Strength Training Routine

The human body is amazingly adaptable, so it will adjust to your regimen after a while.  By changing your routine (not necessarily the muscles you work) you can get a more effective workout.  For example, sometimes you should use heavy weight (and consequently fewer reps) and sometimes lighter weight (and more reps).

You should also change the actual lifts you do about every 6 weeks.  For instance, when you work your shoulders you could lift a single bar with both hands, use barbells, or do handstand push-ups.  All of these exercises work your shoulder, but in slightly different ways.

You can vary the type of lift you do for any particular muscle as often as between workouts, but you should do it at least every 6 weeks.  If not, your muscles will adjust to the particular exercise so it will be difficult to get any stronger unless you force change by altering your routine.

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