In this special column, in our series, we interview two world experts in strength and conditioning: Jason Gootman, MS, CSCS, and Will Kirousis, BS, CSCS, coach endurance athletes of all levels at Tri-Hard Sports Conditioning Systems. They are USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Certified Coaches and can be reached at Tri-Hard.com.
Q: Now that the weather is warmer and the days longer many people want to start exercising and get in shape. What’s the role of strength training?
A: If you are considering having strength training as part of your exercise routine, give yourself a pat on the back for your wisdom. Being strong helps us to handle our daily tasks in life and enhances our enjoyment of and safety in leisure sports activities. Whether to enhance health or performance, a good strength training program will help you feel truly alive!
Q: But how? There are so many “new approaches” to strength training. How do I know what will really help me?
A: The principles of developing strength for both improved health and better performance are simple. But always check with your primary care physician before you begin. And do these exercises only if you’re not in pain.
First, use standing exercises. We live much of our lives on our feet, so we should exercise on our feet. Strength training exercises that provide artificial support through the use of benches, chairs, or similar devices take away from your ability to develop usable strength.
Your entire nervous system, which operates to create motion in your life, “turns off” when you are not standing, and the muscles that are used to create motion cannot be called into action. So they remain weak and poor functioning. For that reason, you should primarily choose standing exercises requiring you to use your entire body in an integrated fashion and to balance and support itself. The transfer of strength to real-life activities is much greater from standing strength training exercises, although a few non-standing exercises can be very effective as well.
Also, change levels, push, or pull. Forget the notion of training individual muscles. Instead train motions. Most of the motions we perform in life either change levels (walking up or down stairs, squatting down to pick up around the house), push (pushing open a door, shoving a shovel into a pile of snow, putting the flour back in the cabinet over the stove), or pull (starting a lawnmower, picking your baby up out of the crib). Construct your strength training program from exercises that require you to perform these motions.
Here are some sample exercises:
Dumbbell Bertha: Stand in a comfortable stance. Place a dumbbell on the floor to the left of and slightly behind your left foot. Reach down and pick up the dumbbell with both hands. Proceed to pick it up and then “place it” on an imaginary shelf over and just behind your right shoulder. Pause for a moment. Then lower the dumbbell to the floor where you started from, this time imagining you are moving an object from a high shelf to the floor. Repeat this motion 6-10 times. Rest, and then repeat the motion starting from the right side of your body.
Feet Elevated Push-Up: Put yourself in the push-up position with your feet elevated on a small bench from 6 inches to 2 feet high. Bend your arms and lower yourself to the floor. Then forcefully push yourself away from the floor and return to the starting position. Repeat this motion 6-10 times.
Cable Staggered Stance Pull: Stand facing a cable apparatus found in most gyms. Assume a comfortable staggered stance with your left leg in front of your right leg. Reach forward (and possibly down depending on the cable apparatus set-up at your gym) to grasp the cable handle with your right hand. Pull the handle toward you and rotate your body, pulling the cable as far as you can. This will feel like starting a lawnmower. Repeat this motion 6-10 times. Rest, then repeat the motion, reversing your staggered stance and pulling with your left arm.
Dumbbell Back Squat & Press: Stand in a comfortable stance with your feet at about shoulder width. Hold a dumbbell in each arm at your shoulders. Squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. Then stand up, returning to your starting position. Without pausing, just prior to reaching your starting position, press, or push the dumbbells overhead. Lower the dumbbells to your shoulders and repeat 6-10 times.
Basics for Superior Workouts:
Use 10 repetitions or fewer: Perform each exercise for 10 repetitions or fewer. This allows for optimal strength development. If you can perform more than 10 repetitions, you aren’t using enough resistance to challenge yourself to grow stronger.
Workout for 45 minutes or less: Strength training sessions need not be marathon length. The most effective strength training sessions are short and purposeful.
For best results, rest and recover between workouts: A tendency to zealousness in new exercisers often leads people to jump into a strength training program without allowing for adequate rest and recovery. At most, strength train three days a week. For many folks, two days is plenty. This allows for days of rest in between while your body recovers from the previous day’s exercise. It is during this time, not during your workouts, when you actually grow stronger.
Sample Workout Structure: Warm-up for 5-10 minutes by doing a variety of callisthenic type exercises. Perform 3-6 total body integrated exercises as described above. For each exercise perform 1-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions. If you are just starting out, we suggest starting with one set. Cool down for 5-10 minutes by doing light callisthenic-type exercises or alternatively long flowing easy motions such as those characteristic of Tai Chi or yoga.
Create an unstable environment: One great way to challenge yourself in a strength training workout is to decrease the stability of the surface you are standing or positioned on. There are a variety of simple tools at many gyms to help you to do this. One example is the large air-filled physioballs. Using our example of the Feet Elevated Push-Up from above, create an unstable environment by placing your feet on a physioball instead of on a firm bench. This requires your body to do the work of stabilizing since the ball will have a tendency to roll.
Create an asymmetric load: Another excellent way to challenge yourself is with out-of-balance resistance loads. Ever carry your groceries in the house and have a five-pound bundle in your left arm and a 10-pound bundle in your right arm? Or carry your young child in one arm? The activities create unequal and unbalanced loads through our spines, torsos, hips, and legs. This is a perfectly healthy aspect of normal motion. We can help ourselves handle these demands by strength training with asymmetric, or unbalanced loads. Try the above Dumbbell Back Squat & Press exercise with one dumbbell weighing five pounds more than the other and then experiment with different unbalanced load combinations.
Get explosive: You can really challenge yourself by not only learning to get stronger (apply more force), but by getting more “explosive” or powerful (apply forces more rapidly). Want to hit a home run over the fence at your next softball game, improve your drive distance in golf, or hit a firmer backhand in tennis? Explosive exercises will help. As one example, try Squat Jumps. Put your hands behind your head. Squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the floor, then explosively jump upward as high as you can. Land and immediately repeat for 2-6 jumps.
Most of all have fun and enjoy your health!