Healthy Living

8 keys to building your strength

Resistance mostly gets a bad rap (“What we resist persists” is one annoying adage). But it snags a thumbs up when it comes to strength training.

Put simply: Resistance — the physical kind — builds muscle. It comes in many forms: dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, weight machines, even furniture or heavy boxes. Your own body also can be a tool, as in push-ups, pull-ups or isometric holds.

This is the 12th installment in a new WorkLife series, Healthy Living Basics for Everyone. The sanely paced plan helps you with nutrition, exercise and lifestyle and includes a mental component that helps clarify goals and identify what might hold you back.

“Over time, by participating in a consistent resistance-training regimen one may improve muscle strength and reduce body fat,” says Mark Powell, a certified personal trainer and fitness center manager for Colonial Life. “Flexibility, balance and posture may also improve. Regular resistance training can also promote increased bone density and a reduced risk of osteoporosis.”

To keep things simple, we’ll talk about general strength training (more complex versions achieve other goals, like certain types of endurance or packing on lots of muscle mass, for example). We’ll also stick to free weights (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, weight bars and such) and weight machines.

Here’s a guide to get you going. When it comes to deciding on your specific exercises, though, it helps to start with a qualified trainer so you can see exactly how to execute movements.

1. Ease into it.
“Start with some type of warm-up that prepares the body for movement and promotes blood circulation,” Powell advises. Try light cardio or lifting light weights. Shoot for 5 to 10 minutes of it.

2. Mind your posture.
Pay attention to proper form when lifting and lowering free weights. You can easily hurt your back and knees, in particular, if you aren’t diligent. The key is squatting with a comfortable stance, toes pointed ahead, and maintaining the natural curve of your spine (not rounding it). With a level gaze, chest facing forward, keep weights close to your legs as you rise or lower. Machines give you more stable footing and help you keep better form, but you should still check your alignment. Maintain good spinal posture as you perform exercises, as well.

3. Breathe.
Don’t hold your breath. Exhale while doing hard stuff — during exertion — and inhale during easy stuff, when lowering a weight, for example.

4. Don’t be lazy …
Don’t cheat. You might be tempted to use momentum, swinging your arms during biceps curls, for example. You won’t reap the benefit of the exercise when you compensate in ways like that. You also can get hurt. Stay in control throughout movements.

5. … But do move slowly.

Eventually you’ll shoot for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions, or “reps” of an exercise, resting for a couple minutes between sets. Each rep should be challenging, especially at the end of a set, but not hurt or feel impossible. As a guideline for pacing, 8 reps should take 30-45 seconds. If you’re just starting to strength train, you might only be able to do a few reps. Build up slowly from there, both in reps and sets.

6. Know your max — then dial it back.
Ideally, you’ll execute movements at 70% to 85% of your max, your max being what you could manage in a single rep. But be less ambitious at first. As you get stronger you’ll be able to work with heavier weights, so check in with yourself periodically. How and when you step things up will depend on your fitness level and workout frequency.

7. Spread it out.
Work all your muscle groups, but not the same ones on consecutive days. Shoot for doing each group on its own day (though sometimes muscles that often work together can be paired, like back and biceps or chest and triceps) and feel free to take off a day in between. Start with one exercise per muscle group then, over time, add another. You’ll likely be sore the next day or two afterward, a (good) sign you’ve appropriately stressed muscle fibers. You shouldn’t feel crippled, though.

8. Cool down.
Don’t flat-out stop at the end of your workout. Walk around for 5-10 minutes. Gentle stretches help too.

Journalist Mitra Malek did lots of strength training with free weights during her college and post-college days, but now rocks climbs, practices yoga and pushes around a heavy manual-powered lawnmower instead. She regularly creates content for wellness-focused outlets, including Yoga Journal, where she was an editor. Learn more at www.mitramalek.com.

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