By Steven Edwards
Why Train for Strength
Strength training involves challenging the muscles against resistance, which may include body weight, dumbbells and other “free weights”, various forms of weight lifting equipment, stretch bands, rocks, or whatever you happen to be lifting. Strength exercise holds a wealth of benefits, many of which are not widely known.
A primary benefit of strength or resistance exercise is that it enhances the resilience of various tissues of your body. Ligaments, which connect bones to bones, and tendons, the extension of the muscle that attaches to bones adapt to strength exercise by increasing in their ability to withstand loads placed on them. Bones respond with an increase in density, which helps prevent osteoporosis. The movement of muscle strengthening exercise pushes synovial fluid out of bursa sacs around joints, lubricating them so that free, fluid joint movement is possible.
Muscle is highly metabolic. The more muscle you have the higher your metabolism. Even by adding a little muscle to your body’s framework, you can build a much higher caloric expenditure all the time, just by having that muscle. This makes your body a much more efficient fat-burning machine, as muscle material in your body aids in the burning of fat.
By just adding a pound of muscle, you may increase your metabolism by 50-70 calories at rest. If you added 5 pounds of muscle to your body, at 60 calories more burned per pound, you would increase your metabolism by 300 calories. That adds up to 2,100 additional calories you burn per week, just sitting on the couch! A pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, so in two-week’s time, you’ve eliminated over a pound of fat! The benefit of strength exercise is invaluable in any fat loss program.
Many weight training novices begin a strength program without the knowledge that will enable them to build a body that is structurally balanced. They over-do exercises that they believe will help them improve what they see in the mirror, and under-do exercises that would resolve postural imbalances in the body, and prevent spine and joint pain and overuse injury that is so common.
Muscle imbalances are often the result of sedentary lifestyle and sit-down employment, which negatively effects joint alignment. When undertaking the design of a strength training program it is important to keep in mind the relationship each muscle in your body has to other muscles. Proper muscle and joint functionality requires the right length and strength of each muscle around joints (“length-tension” relationships).
Length-tension muscle imbalances can inhibit appropriate neuro-muscular functionality, the ability of your muscles to contract properly. This is referred to as “reciprocal inhibition.” Such muscle imbalances contribute to low-back pain, neck and shoulder discomfort, knee and hip dysfunction, and other joint pain.
A properly balanced strength exercise program helps you maintain healthy joints by enabling muscles activate properly to fulfill their normal supportive role for joints, align the body structure and improve movement patterns.
Designing a Balanced Strength Training Program
To design a strength exercise program that gets you results and promotes muscle balance here a few important things to keep in mind:
- Train functionally – train movements, not muscle groups: designing a workout based on simply how a muscle moves is pointless. This means jumping on an exercise machine that restricts muscles involved in the movement and works in just one “plane”, like using a machine that isolates the use of the chest. Our exercises should be in alignment with the demands of life, or one’s sport activities. Exercises that involve the movement of multiple joints and muscles, and encourages the strengthening of the relationships between muscle groups should be the primary focus. Squats and pressing exercises for example are real world activities.
- Train by using body weight before adding external resistance: if you cannot handle your own body weight in movement, there is generally little point in adding external resistance. Being able to control, stabilize and move your own body weight efficiently can help prevent injury and improve movement patterns.
- Train destabilized (use free weights rather than exercise machines): Once training movements and bodyweight exercises have been mastered, the use of three-dimensional, multi-plane movements are far superior to exercise machines. Machines operating on a single joint and fixed axis have always been outdated, yet they are the primary strength exercise equipment showcase in most fitness facilities.
- Train in multiple planes and train unilaterally: Unilateral exercise movements are performed on one side of the body. Squatting on one leg, pulling a cable with one arm, or performing a chest press with a single dumbbell on one side of the body are all examples of unilateral movements. Such movements encourage the engagement of stabilizing muscles like abdominal and core muscles to preserve the integrity of the movement. This can be a very constructive thing. Life activity takes place in multiple planes. Compare doing a leg extension on a machine with a single pivot point or axis to doing a squat. There’s a vast difference in the number of muscles (both the main muscle involved in performing the movement as well as stabilizing muscles) used to perform the squat compared to the leg extension. There are three “planes” used to describe the way the body moves: a sagittal plan separating the right and left sides of the body, a frontal plane separating the front and back of the body, and a horizontal or transverse plane that crosses through the body horizontally. Muscles in the body will function primarily in one plane, but it is important to consider the functional relationships between single muscles and other muscles and muscle groups that function in other planes. “Functional” exercises that involve multiple muscle groups being used within multiple planes are far more effective in preventing injury, enhancing performance, strengthening muscle-to-muscle relationships in the body, and improving movement patterns.
- Train for balance: balance movement patterns (like pushing and pulling movements), and balance the scheme of sets and reps, total time muscles are under tension, and the volume of total work performed (reps, sets, time under tension and volume will be discussed later in this article). Many people have muscle imbalances. Chest muscles are a common area where many people are tight, and slouched shoulders and forward head often accompany chest tension. Performing a lot of chest exercise may compound such an imbalance. Exercises that strengthen the upper back should be used to complement and balance the chest work. With a tight chest imbalance, one might deliberately create imbalance by stressing upper back strengthening exercises more than chest exercises with the intent to correct the chest imbalance. Another rule of thumb is to address points of weakness (areas that are causing imbalance), and focus on them first in your workout so that you can devote a greater focus and intensity to completing that part of your workout. This is an important concept and one where there is great benefit to consult with a professional who understands how to create balance in the body where there is imbalance.
- Use a time-outcome approach – determine ahead of time the total amount of time you will spend with each workout: If you planned a 60 minute workout, determine the amount of time you will spend warming up, performing self-myofascial release stretching with the foam roller, perform strength workout, and cool down. Such a workout might have 10 minutes of warm-up, 10 minutes of stretching, 35 minutes of strength work, and a 5 minute cool-down. In planning for time, consider your goals, the amount of time you have available to exercise, and be efficient in how to structure strength work sets to complete your workout within that time-frame. A fitness professional that understands proper workout structuring can assist you with your plan.
- Plan the right selection of reps, sets, tempo, and rest periods: consider your goal when selecting the appropriate number of repetitions, the speed of each repetition, the number of total sets per muscle group, and how long you will rest between sets. Are you seeking control, joint stability, rehabilitation of an injury, increasing muscle endurance or size? If you are an athlete requiring explosive power, using a one second or less time-frame to lift the weight (the concentric part of the lifting movement). Each goal will dictate a different training method.
- Periodize your training: periodize means to plan and appropriately stagger your training schedule. An example of how to do this is to have a rotating exercise schedule in which 12-15 repetitions are performed for each exercise during week one, 4-6 reps during week 2, and 8-12 repetitions in week 3. Periodization can enhance the speed of strength improvement and helps prevent over-training. Consult with a knowledgeable fitness professional on how to properly plan your training schedule.
Strength training has many great benefits. When embarking on a strength training program, ensure you are properly assessed by a professional who can help you design a program that will not only get you results you want, but who will help keep you injury-free.