By Jane Lucas
Strength training used to be seen as a niche activity for “muscle men”, generally weightlifters and bodybuilders. Over recent years, however, it’s gained recognition as being a fundamental part of any health, wellness, and/or fitness program. What’s more, the options for strength training are improving all the time. Here’s a quick guide to what you need to know.
Strength matters because it’s required for every action the body makes. The more strength you have, the more tasks you can perform just using your own muscles. Arguably more importantly, having the right balance of strength and flexibility gives you the maximum level of protection from injury.
Most strength comes from your core body. Often, however, you will need your limbs to share a part of the work. You may also need your hands for grip. It’s therefore important to ensure that you also train them effectively.
Possibly one of the reasons why strength training remains so niche for so long is that it doesn’t have an obvious connection with weight control. Cardio exercise, literally by definition, works your heart (and lungs). You can feel the sweat pouring off you and imagine the calories being burned.
Flexibility and balance training are both very obvious partners for cardio. In fact, most warm-ups and cool-downs are effectively some form of fitness and/or balance training. They are also obvious choices for active rest days.
Strength training, on the other hand, is not an obvious way to promote weight control. In fact, if your aim is to lose weight, strength training can even seem counterproductive. You generally want to slim down, not bulk up. The truth, however, is more nuanced.
Losing excess fat will help you to slim down but it will not help you to get in shape. For that, you need to tone your muscles and the only way to tone your muscles is through some form of strength training. Building your muscles may increase your headline weight but it won’t bulk you up (unless you train for that purpose). It will, however, give you a sculpted physique.
Before the pandemic, bodyweight exercises were often looked on as the “poor relation” to using weights. It’s true that using weights is generally necessary if you really want to build muscle mass. If, however, you simply want to undertake strength training as part of a general fitness routine, no-equipment bodyweight exercises can be ample on their own.
The key point is to use the right sort of bodyweight exercises in the right way. If you’re new to bodyweight training it can be helpful to join a (remote) class or access a fitness program. At a minimum, you should check out a reputable source for information and inspiration. For example, read up on the best bodyweight exercises from Openfit.
Even if you are training for muscle mass, it can be helpful to mix up strength training with weights and strength training using your own bodyweight. Firstly, this gives you a bit more variety. Secondly, it can help you to avoid overworking your muscles. This is usually a direct route to injury and, hence, downtime from training.
If you want even more variety, one or two basic pieces of equipment can really expand the range of bodyweight exercises you can do. Your main options are pull-up bars, suspension trainers, and battle ropes.
Pull-up bars used to be strictly for gyms or, at best, people with the space for decent home gyms. Now, however, you can get renter-friendly options. In fact, you can even get pull-up bars you can use when traveling. What’s more, they’re very reasonably priced. Pull-up bars are great for toning the core of your upper body, your shoulders, and your arms.
Suspension trainers look like resistance bands. In fact, they work along very similar lines. Unlike resistance bands, however, suspension trainers only use your own bodyweight. Essentially, the idea behind suspension trainers is that they create instability. This forces you to work harder and hence develops your strength.
Battle ropes are often thought of as being for cardio but they are also excellent for strength training. The ropes themselves typically work the upper body muscles plus the glutes. You can, however, incorporate other bodyweight exercises to work your legs. Squats, lunges, and jumps are all excellent options.
If you want to up the game with strength training without using weights, then resistance bands are a great investment. They are a bit more limited than weights, mainly because you can only use them with an anchor point. They are, however, very affordable and easy to store and carry.
Unlike suspension trainers, resistance bands are direct strength training. They do what their name suggests, create resistance. This is equivalent to undertaking an exercise with a weight. In fact, many resistance bands are sold with a weight rating. Their quality usually determines how accurate that rating is.
Resistance bands really started to be taken seriously when COVID19 hit. When gyms were forced to close, many people found themselves without access to either weight machines or free weights. They turned to resistance bands as a way to fill the gap. Then they started to discover just how much resistance bands can do if you learn to get the most out of them.
Bodyweight exercises and resistance bands are effective and economical ways to undertake strength training for general fitness. If, however, you really want to take strength training seriously, then you’re going to need to make time for training with weights. The good news is that there are lots of options for all budgets, goals, and spaces.
If a gym caters to people who just want to get reasonably fit, it’ll have weight machines. If a gym caters to people who take weights seriously, it’ll have free weights. Some gyms have a combination of both, often in different areas.
Weight machines are a straightforward way to undertake weight training. Using a machine effectively forces you to perform an exercise in the correct (i.e. safe) way. The nature of weight machines, however, means that you’re limited to the exercises they offer in the place they offer it.
Free weights, by contrast, give you much more flexibility. The fact that you have a greater range of movement means you can perform a greater range of exercises. In fact, you can even perform exercises while on the move. Free weights are also much more practical for exercising in a small space. In fact, weight machines would be totally impractical in most homes.
Free weights are called free weights because they aren’t attached to anything. Most free weights can be carried in one or both hands. The exception is barbells. For safety reasons, these need to be used with a power rack or a spotting partner. This limits their usefulness for home fitness.
If you’re training strength at home, your main options are grip strengtheners, dumbbells, kettlebells, and medicine balls. These are all small enough to be used at home. Dumbbells and kettlebells are now available in adjustable versions. This means you can vary the weight without eating up your storage space. Here’s a quick look at what they do.
Grip strengtheners only do one job. They help you to improve your grip. Usually, single-use equipment is best avoided in small spaces. Grip strengtheners, however, are the exception to this unwritten rule. They’re small, affordable, and very effective.
Dumbbells are relatively small weights designed to be held in one hand. They are used for very precise training. You can literally target single muscles. You can also buy “kettlebell handles” for dumbbells. As the name suggests, these allow you to use your dumbbells as kettlebells.
Realistically, dumbbells with kettlebell handles do not deliver the same experience as proper kettlebells. They can, however, offer a reasonable alternative if space and/or money is tight. In particular, you could use dumbbells with kettlebell handles for one-handed kettlebell exercises. Then use a proper kettlebell for two-handed exercises.
Kettlebells are round weights with a handle. Small kettlebells can be held in one hand. Larger kettlebells need to be used with two hands. Kettlebells are designed to swing. They can also be thrown and caught. This means that they can effectively target large muscle groups. As a bonus, they also deliver a decent cardio workout to go along with the strength training.
Medicine balls are essentially weighted balls. Unlike kettlebells, they can roll along the ground. They are also easier to throw because they are more aerodynamic. They don’t swing like kettlebells but they are easy to hold in your hands while you do bodyweight exercises.
Objectively, medicine balls provide less resistance than kettlebells and hence are less effective for strength training. Subjectively, medicine balls can be a whole lot of fun to use. Making workouts and strength training fun encourages you to stick with a routine. They can therefore be a great option for people who need a bit of help with motivation.
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