Strength training. You may have heard that phrase thrown around here and there but do you know what it really means? Strength training is exercise using resistance in order to build strength, anaerobic endurance and size of muscles (more on this later).
This simplest form of strength training is using dumbbells. Dumbbells are usually used in slow, methodical movements that focus on one muscle group at a time. It’s generally pretty difficult to hurt yourself using dumbbells (unless you drop it on your foot, which is bad), and you have to really focus on form, so your muscles learn to adapt and stabilize as you complete each movement. Dumbbells are inexpensive on a piece by piece basis, but you’ll need a relatively large set to work the entire body.
Barbells are the grown up version of dumbbells. Using barbells as a form of exercise is generally referred to as “lifting heavy”. This is because a standard bar, without plates, starts out at about 45 lbs. The main exercises in lifting heavy for the average heavy lifter are deadlifts, squats, chest presses and snatches. My personal favorite is the Romanian deadlift. This is the easiest for a beginner to learn, as you start from a standing position holding the bar against your thighs with your arms extended, then push your butt out, keeping your back straight, and bending at the knees until you lower the barbell as low as you can without breaking form. It can be pretty easy to hurt yourself when learning to lift heavy, so I recommend having someone who knows what they’re doing show you the proper form. I had a friend show me how to do a proper Romanian deadlift, although there are really good YouTube videos out there if you really don’t know anyone. Practice the form with just an empty bar in front of the mirror so you can check your form before you add any weight to the bar. And definitely, before you add weights at ALL, check to see how the barbell clamps work. You want to clamp the plates on properly so they don’t slide and throw you off balance when you’re lifting. If you’re a woman, the BEST way to get introduced to lifting heavy is to take a Body Pump class. In Body Pump you’ll learn the proper form for Romanian deadlifts, barbell squats, dead rows, clean and presses and chest presses. Then once you have that basic knowledge you can move on to the squat rack!
Weight machines are another form of strength training if you have access to them at a gym. However, weight machines vary from dumbbells in that many of them inhibit the body’s natural movement. This can actually cause injury more frequently than dumbbells. Personally I find most weight machines useless, although some (such as the lat machine or the assisted pull-up machine) can actually help build muscle that’s harder to build with free weights.
Kettlebells are a really dynamic form of strength training. You swing an iron ball with a handle on it and brace your body against the resistance as the weight of the kettlebell pulls it away from you. There are a plethora of different moves you can do with a kettlebell, and the speed of the movements creates a faster moving form of strength training. Many kettlebell moves are also full body exercises, so you’re working on more than one muscle group at a time. Kettlebells are how I got started in strength training. They’re cheap (you can get them for about $1/lb), especially if you buy them on eBay or Amazon, and you only really need 3 of varying sizes to have a full arsenal.
Resistance bands are a less obvious option for strength training. Like giant rubber bands, the stretch that resistance bands provide add tension for your body to work against. You can slide one over your thighs and side step to make your legs work harder against the band, or you can anchor it and use it to assist you in pull ups. The possibilities are vast! Plus, they’re cheap and easy to pack when you travel.
You can even do strength training without any equipment at all, although it might be less obvious. Pushups, wall sits, squats, lunges and ab exercises are all great strength training exercises that just use your body weight. There are even some classes that are strength training without weights, such as barre and pilates. Even some yoga poses challenge the body to increase strength.
Now remember I mentioned muscle size? This does NOT mean women will bulk up. It is VERY difficult for women to get bulky, and they often need to, *ahem*, supplement in order to get that size. In fact, when I hit my goal weight I was 160 lbs. I started doing kettlebells 3x a week and guess what? Six months later I had gained 10 lbs. Yup. I GAINED weight. But I dropped 2 pants sizes. So strength training made me LEANER, NOT bulkier. Also, if you’re in the process of losing weight and eating at a deficit, it’s very hard to ADD muscle. In order to build muscle you have to eat at a surplus. Strength training while losing weight is more about keeping as much muscle as you can while you lose fat.
A note on reps: The amount of reps you do when you strength train has a lot to do with what your end goal is. If you want to gain strength, you’ll want to do reps with the heaviest weights you can lift with proper form, up to 6 reps before you can’t keep your form anymore. Each time you train, you’ll attempt to lift even heavier at a low rep count. If you want to get bigger muscles, you’ll want to use a weight that allows you to do between 8 and 12 reps before you can’t maintain your form. Training for endurance means being able to use proper form for 15 to 20, or even more, reps. My favorite class at the gym, Body Pump, is mostly an endurance class, since we do high reps of moderate weights. You don’t need to stick with one rep style in your workout either: your body responds better when you change things up.
Lastly, strength training shouldn’t be done two days in a row if you’re doing the same muscle groups. Alternate your strength training with cardio if you absolutely must work out every day. This allows your muscles to heal and recover. That soreness you feel the day or two after a good workout? When you work out, you create microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, which strengthen as they heal, and that’s what helps your body get stronger. Drink plenty of water and keep moving if you’re sore, but don’t re-work that muscle group if you’re too sore, or you’re just working against yourself.
I love strength training because it’s dynamic and it makes me feel strong and powerful. When I’m done with Body Pump or a session of kettlebells I feel like I can take on the world.
What’s your favorite form of strength training? Let me know in the comments!