I wasn’t much of an athlete growing up. I thought of sports and exercise as hobbies for those who were more physically gifted—faster, stronger, more flexible—than I. That’s changed as I’ve become an adult, and I continue to learn more about the overall health benefits of staying fit. Strength training, in particular, has made a significant positive difference in both how my body feels and how I feel about it.
Strength training, synonymous with “resistance training,” does not mean pumping iron à laHans and Franz—or at least, it doesn’t have to. For proof of this claim, I asked chiropractic orthopedist and sports physicianDr. Donald DeFabio for his advice on why strength training should be part of every lifestyle and how to approach it.
Why You Should Strength Train
In the short-term, Dr. DeFabio says that strength training, that is, exercises that incorporate your own body weight or something as simple as a resistance band, “maintains your body shape and your endurance to do your everyday tasks, even sitting at your computer.” It can improve and maintain your posture, and when you have good posture,you use less energy (and thus don’t feel fatigued at 3 o’clock and find yourself reaching for yet another cup ofcoffee).
If you’re looking to change the shape of your body, Dr. DeFabio says strength training is really the only way to do that, but it’s not going to happen overnight. With the right approach—consistently building up the areas you want to emphasize and not working the areas you don’t—you can achieve toned muscles. You’ll also build bone mass, he says, which canhelp prevent osteoporosis.
Some women fear that they will bulk up, but Dr. DeFabio says not to worry. “To end up with muscle mass takes a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of weight.” Professional athletes work out four to seven hours a day, he says, and may be taking steroids as well. That’s not the case for most of us! The good news is that Dr. DeFabio says you can reap the benefits of strength training by simple movements, two to three times a week, “in your office, on the road, or in between chores at home.”
A Balanced Approach
There are three types of workouts from which Dr. DeFabio says everyone can benefit: cardio (especially considering cardiovascular disease is still thenumber one killer in America), flexibility, and strength training. The proportion of these varieties of exercise depends on your needs, he says. If you’re already very flexible, then focus on cardio or strength training. Or, if you already have considerable endurance, consider adding flexibility and strength training to your workouts.
Dr. DeFabio warns against focusing too much on body fat percentages when assessing your physiology. A woman in her childbearing years, he says, needs some fat to keep her estrogen and progesterone levels in a healthy place. Even if you’re not having children right now, know that an extreme exercise regimen can also cause irregular cycles and other related issues.
Let’s Get Started
According to Dr. DeFabio, the best way to get started with strength training is to just start moving. Whether it’s with classes at a gym or a local YMCA, or even a DVD with instructions on calisthenics and bodyweight exercises, becoming familiar with simple movements and finding ways toincorporate them into your day is key. Apersonal trainer can be helpful, he says, but if you can’t afford to use one regularly, you may also be able to check in with someone now and then, to make sure you’re on the right track. If your doctor has sports training, he or she may be able to help with the do’s and don’ts of light weights and stretch bands as well.
When you’re ready to get moving, try these exercises Dr. DeFabio recommends for beginners. Start with three sets of ten repetitions of each move, and you’ve got yourself a quick, effective circuit!
01. Body Weight Squats
Stand with your feet parallel, shoulder width apart. Keeping your back straight, lower yourself, pushing your bottom out behind you, as if you were going to sit in a chair. Try to pull your belly button toward your back to engage your core muscles. Focus your weight in your heels, without breaking your form, and be careful not to let your knees extend beyond your toes. Stand back up, continuing to keep your back straight.
02. Wall Angels
Inspired by a child’s snow angel, this movement can be done standing against a wall or sitting in a chair. Start with your arms out to the side, palms facing forward, elbows bent. Raise your arms above your head, keeping the elbows bent, then lower them to starting position. You should feel the work in your shoulders and upper back.
03. Bird Dogs (AKA Quadrupeds)
This one requires some balance, which will ultimately work a bunch of muscles at once. Starting on your hands and knees, legs hip-distance apart, raise one arm out in front of you and extend the opposite leg straight out behind you. Find your balance and hold for a few seconds. Lower, and then repeat with the opposite combination. Try to keep the rest of your body still as you move. It’s harder than it sounds!
With all these exercises, you can begin with your just body weight and gravity. When done properly, that can be enough of a workout. Over time, add weight (soup cans work well), stretch bands, or an unstable surface (like aSwiss ball or aBOSU ball) for a more challenging workout.
A fit body doesn’t have to mean hours at the gym or tons of money spent on equipment. All it takes is good intentions, a positive attitude, and a commitment to consistency.