What is Strength Training?
Strength training includes all exercises that use resistance: from the added weight of lifting a dumbbell to the use of your own body weight against gravity. Exercises like wall pushups, climbing stairs, pilates, yoga, using resistance bands and lifting weights all fall into this category, along with many other exercises. With so many options, there’s a strength training program for everyone, regardless of age or ability!
It is generally recommended to strength train at least once per week in order to simply maintain strength. In order to increase strength, 2-3 strength training workouts per week is recommended. Want more details about the frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise to do? Read more about strength training guidelines here.
Why is strength training important?
Strength affects every aspect of our lives. Strength training exercises can help increase strength and reduce pain. They can improve balance and cardiovascular health, prevent injury and assist with injury recovery. Strength training exercises also help us age well. From daily tasks to activities and hobbies, our lives can be improved by effective and consistent strength training.
Consider the tasks you do that require strength.
- Taking out a heavy trash bag
- Climbing the stairs with a full basket of laundry
- Carrying multiple bags of groceries into the house while opening doors
- Picking up kids or grandkids or getting down on the floor to play
- Using a shovel to dig up plants and garden
Effective strength training can make each of these daily tasks easier. Wouldn’t it be nice if ALL of the things you do were made easier because you spent just an hour or two every week strengthening your body?!
Daily life takes strength. Being physically strong is a way to ensure you can enjoy your favorite activities and breeze through physical tasks like chores. However, becoming stronger doesn’t just improve your ability to lift heavy things or do manual labor.
Strength training helps to improve balance, promote coordination and prevent falls. Consider the act of walking. Without sufficient strength in each leg and the core body, the support that it requires to stand on one leg while the other leg cycles through, could easily become risky and lead to injury. Read more about balance and how you can improve yours.
In addition to helping improve balance, strength training delays the natural degeneration of abilities that occurs as we age. This helps you continue to do the activities that you love for longer. Having the physical abilities needed to travel, garden and play rounds of golf with friends are just a few examples of how strength training can benefit the quality of your life later on. Learn more about aging proactively.
Strength training also aids in better cardiovascular function. Similar to aerobic, or cardio, exercise, strength training increases blood flow, lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of heart disease, and improves sleep quality. If you’re also engaging in cardio exercise, effective strength training can promote more efficient movement and muscle balance, both of which help to ward off injuries and pain while doing your cardio training. Therefore, strength training not only improves your cardiovascular function itself, it also can improve your cardio exercise by making you strong enough to move faster or easier and without pain or restriction.
Finally, strength training, when done correctly, can help prevent injury. Many of us naturally have a strong or dominant side. Over time, these tendencies can create imbalances in our bodies that find their way into our most physically demanding tasks as well. Our stronger muscles are easier to engage while our weaker muscles are more in need of strengthening and often don’t get worked equally. This can ultimately lead to injury or pain. However, in order to truly prevent injury, the strength training has to be done with good form, or what we like to call “effective strength training.”
Strength training can unfortunately be done without good form. If you’ve ever tried to move a piece of furniture and tweaked your back or your shoulder, chances are you have first hand experience with using strength with poor form. But even if we never feel pain or an acute injury like this while strength training, that doesn’t mean that we’re building strength that promotes balance: emphasizing weaker, overlooked or underutilized parts of our body or muscle groups. Failing to emphasize quality exercise over quantity and letting already strong muscles continually take over movements increases your likelihood of experiencing some form of pain or injury. Effective strength training is also essential for helping clients get the most out of every repetition they do.
Don’t Just Strength Train. Strength Train Effectively!
If you want your efforts in strength training to be effective, you must strength train effectively. The following help make strength training more effective:
- Promoting balanced use of big and small muscles
- Promoting balanced use of right and left sides of the body
- Promoting balanced use of the front and back sides of the body
- Awareness of good alignment and posture
- Recognition of weaker or disengaged muscles and their tendencies not to work
- Recognition of stronger or habitually engaged muscles and their tendencies to overwork
Effective strength training isn’t easy to do on your own. Even though we use our bodies daily, most of us don’t recognize that imbalances or misalignments may exist within ourselves. We often only take note of discomfort or pain that can come as a result of these things; it is rare that we know what the cause is. Our goal is to help correct the subsequent effects. It takes knowledgeable teachers or trainers to help us figure out what we need to do and think about during our exercises, as well as which exercises are best for us to get the most out of our time. Our clients benefit from the education that comes from understanding their current movement patterns and learning about tools to help themselves get into better alignment and strength promoting positions. Over time, we help clients create changes in their muscle engagement for a more balanced and optimized exercise experience. Armed with this knowledge, clients can apply these principles to any movement or exercise to ensure its effectiveness.
Below are a few detailed examples of recognizing misalignments and movement pattern correction that can reduce pain and increase strength training effectiveness as well as how we would coach this out to clients:
Example 1: Muscle Imbalance in the upper body (Neck, Shoulders, Chest)
What the Clients Can Feel: During shoulder exercises, all they feel is pain or engagement in their neck. They don’t feel any significant muscle work in the shoulders. Clients also feel tight in the neck and shoulders generally.
What the Trainer Notices: Shoulders are rounded forward and their natural head position is now in front of the body rather than stacked over the rest of the spine.
Initial Corrective Exercise Steps: Have the client fix shoulder alignment by setting shoulders back to open the chest. The upper back stays equally wide; sternum stays down; and scapulas draw down the back and open off of the spine. Then press the base of the skull back to align the cervical vertebrae over the top of the rest of spine while keeping the chin parallel or level to the floor. These cues encourage movement of the arm without moving the shoulder or engaging the neck muscles.
Suggested Exercises: Head pull backs to better align the cervical spine and Hug a tree scapula stability exercise for greater scapula placement recognition. Upper Trap, Neck and Chest stretches to elongate tight muscles that pull the shoulders forward and overhead shoulder stretch to open the shoulders up and back. Keeping in mind the above corrections while doing these exercises helps keep these movements out of the neck and builds shoulder blade stability.
Example 2: Muscle imbalances due to hips being twisted (Glutes, Abs, Inner and Outer Thighs)
What the Clients Can Feel: Pain in low back, particularly on one side as well as occasional hip pain. When doing butterfly stretch, one knee consistently stays higher than the other. Client feels as though one leg and ankle is stronger than the other.
What the Trainer Notices: Knees don’t face forward and client stands with feet offset. One ankle is rolled in while the other is rolled out. Difference in glute strength and ab strength between right and left side. Hips and/or ribs are twisted to one side.
Initial Corrective Exercise Steps: The above observations indicate a twist, either to the right or left. For this example, pictured, the client is twisted in the hips to the right. Trainer would coach greater activation of the weaker Right glute and greater activation and spreading of the abs out to the Left, opposite of the twist. Relaxation of the stronger Right inner thigh and stronger Left outer thigh and hip. Engagement of the weaker Left inner thigh pulling inward toward pelvis. Lengthening across the back of both hips but particularly on the side the client is twisted toward, in this case Right. These cues encourage more balanced alignment by engaging underutilized and weaker muscles and relaxing ones that are overused and tend to do all of the work.
Suggested exercises: Right clam shells or glute lifts. Left inner thigh lifts, or an easier left inner thigh exercise depending on strength ability. Low ab exercises like finger tip abs, ab pulses with little ball, marching and curved side planks (an exercise meant to target one side of the abs). We would also include stretches for the overly tight muscles. While doing these exercises, and other strength training exercises, the above corrections (focus on the left abs, release the right inner thigh) help the client start to target the weaker muscles even when doing something on both sides. However, for some with large degrees of inequalities between sides, we will often have them do some exercises on one side and not the other, like the glute and inner thigh exercises.
Of the people we see, many more of them experience twists to the right, however, if a client is twisted to left, the above suggestions would generally be the same but reverse. In most cases we cannot determine the cause of the twist, some of which are developed by subtle tendencies over a lifetime. Our job is to help point out opportunities to change behavior so as not to contribute toward the twist further and to help them strengthen weaker muscles to promote more balanced strength.
As detailed above, HOW a client does these exercises makes all the difference. The body can almost always come up with a way to get something done; however, that doesn’t mean the body uses the muscles we want it to use in the way we want them to be used. What muscles we use, and don’t use, to create the movement make a big difference in how strength is built.
Working with a knowledgeable trainer can promote good form and optimal effectiveness of each exercise to help prevent injury. It can also lead to optimal effectiveness of each exercise. They can help correct strength imbalances rather than feeding into movement and strength patterns that have already been set.
It’s our job to improve our clients’ effectiveness with their exercises and our pleasure to teach these principles for them to use in countless other scenarios. The way we teach exercise is what sets us apart from other personal training programs you may encounter. Don’t fall into the trap of just training hard, train SMART.
How Effective Strength Training Applies to Broader Client Goals
Cardio exercise programming and nutrition coaching are also pieces of a client’s overall physical wellness plan, but strength training is often a much larger piece. We spend the majority of our training hours introducing strength-based exercises because good form and mechanics are essential to preventing injuries and pain. Clients come to us with goals of becoming stronger, creating more or better muscle tone, improving balance, reducing pain and discomfort, and getting ahead of natural strength deterioration that can occur with age. However, just as important as what they want to achieve is what they’re looking to avoid. Clients don’t want to get injured; they don’t want to waste their time with ineffective exercises; and they don’t want to do exercises that hurt or feel unsafe.
The above list of goals and anti-goals aligns with our mission of providing safe and effective exercise coaching. With a watchful eye, we can also help clients recognize and correct movement and strength patterns that developed previously that may be detrimental to a client’s’ mobility or balanced muscle development. I tell every new client, “We will do everything in our power to keep you safe and injury free.” We encourage constant communication from clients about what they like, what they don’t like, what they feel during an exercise, how they feel days after a workout as well as any long-term observations they may make. Client input is crucial to crafting workouts that feel challenging while still safe and encourage our clients to continue to exercise, even when working out on their own. We strive to assign exercises that our clients will enjoy but, more importantly, we assign exercises that our clients need.
In a nutshell, we help our clients emphasize QUALITY over quantity. Exercising SMARTER is always better than faster or harder in our opinion. To promote smarter exercising, education is one of our cornerstones: we don’t just train, we TEACH.
Would you like help ensuring you are strength training in a safe way that promotes balance, mobility and increased strength? Schedule a free consultation or call 651-895-0774.
Addie Kelzer is a certified personal trainer and nutrition consultant. She believes that by making fitness and good food practical, her clients will hold the power to positively change their health and the health of those closest to them.