A Treatise on Strength Training

Renegade Row with dumbbellsAre You Strong?

Of all the things I educate people on, strength training is the most misunderstood aspect of fitness. While I think most people understand that strength is important for all of us, there is still much confusion about what improves strength, what does not, what exercises count as strength training, what do not. I’d like to clarify this and give some specific advice about getting strong.

First- let’s just review what strength training does for you. Decades of great research and practical application demonstrates that:

  • Strength is essential for the aging adult.
  • Strength training improves leanness and physical appearance, more effectively than cardio.
  • Strength training combats osteoporosis and improves posture.
  • Strength training improves performance for all sports- running, golf, field sports and more.
  • Strength is a necessary quality of everyday living. We have all experienced the benefits (or not!) of strength just over the last few weeks of this challenging winter. Strength is a fundamental part of shoveling snow without injury or having the energy to wade through 4 foot snow drifts.
  • Good strength reduces injuries and chronic pain. Weakness increases both.

Obviously, these are really great outcomes! We all want to have these outcomes, right? Consistent strength training is the way to achieve them. And yet, so many people, women in particular, avoid strength work. I think it comes from a lack of education about how to strength train, as well as a fear of getting big muscles.

Let me clear that one up now- Ladies: You will never get big muscles unless you really want them and try extremely hard to get them. So let go of that. Women just don’t have the genetics to achieve muscle bulk (most women, anyway) and for women, strength= muscle definition= higher metabolism= looking good. OK? Don’t be afraid to strength train! It may be the secret to getting the body you want! So, let’s get specific now. What exercises build strength and how do we get strong?

Generally, exercises can be qualified as strength based, endurance based, or mobility/flexibility based. To be considered as an exercise that builds strength, the exercise must produce muscle fatigue/failure with less than 15 repetitions of the activity, or in less than 90 seconds. After 15 repetitions or 90 seconds (sometimes up to 2 minutes), the activity can be classified as more endurance than strength, and endurance activities and exercises do not build strength and do not change the shape of the muscle itself. Thus, strength building activities are short in duration and consist of exercises that overload the muscles quickly. Overload is a very big piece of getting stronger. Muscles only improve their strength when overloaded (carefully) over an extended period of time. Muscles stop getting stronger when you perform the same level of exercise intensity without increasing the challenge. If you lift the same amount of weight and never increase it, your strength increases will stop.

So- given these parameters, what qualifies as strength training? Lifting weights, using elastic tubing, strength training machines, body weight training such as push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, planks and more, all count as strength training, as long as the exercise is challenging enough to produce fatigue before 15 reps and in less than 90 seconds, and, as long as you progress the difficulty of the activity over time. If you are doing 15 reps or more of any strength exercise, or are using light weight that produces no muscle fatigue, you are not building strength, thus not changing the muscle fibers. Sometimes, Yoga and Pilates can build strength, as long as the class consists of strength based poses. Crossfit- yes. Group Power classes- yes…..as long as reps are low and fatigue sets in early. “Bootcamps” MAY build strength if designed correctly, but many of these kind of classes do a lot of endurance based activities or use weights that are too light, and thus don’t get people as strong as they should.

What about using light weights in a fitness class? Is that strength training? In those types of classes, reps are very very high and the workout is not always well balanced, often overemphasizing arms and abs, and not working legs or back in true strength based work. So, no, these classes are often more endurance than strength.

This NOT Strength Training. I don't really know what this is.
This is NOT Strength Training. I don’t really know what this is, but this is a photo that came up when I searched for women and strength training! Ridiculous!

Other exercise formats like jogging, walking, biking, swimming, aerobics classes of any kind, all build endurance only. Kickboxing, martial arts- sometimes. Kind of like a yoga class- it all depends on your baseline fitness and the specific exercise. Again- high reps, long duration means no strength built. High intensity interval training can help maintain strength, as these activities use the same metabolic pathway as strength training, but they typically are very intense and require a good baseline of strength to begin with. I would not use these techniques to build additional strength.

Some people think that if they see more muscle definition from an activity like running or spinning, that this means they have built strength. It doesn’t. It just means you are leaner and thus have less fat over the muscle. Visual muscle fiber tissue does not necessarily equate with strength, just leanness. Leanness is great- when combined with strength. Leanness combined with weakness- not so great.

Let’s talk about leanness a bit. I see many people who perform excess cardio in an effort to get lean. This can become a big mistake later in life, the longer you ignore strength work. This is because, as we age, we naturally lose muscle tissue in a process called sarcopenia. Without strength training, muscles get smaller (atrophy) and weaker and less active, thus burning less calories on a daily basis. In other words, losing muscle tissue with age lowers metabolism, eventually resulting in fat gain. And, resulting weakness causes poor posture, injuries, and an inability to perform normal daily activities like walking stairs, shoveling or doing housework. So, for a lean, healthy, active body, strength training is a must!

If strength is important to you, you must consistently train for it. Whether it is at the gym, or at home, strength can not be stored for long. Women lose strength quickly, in as little as 1 week, as we don’t have the natural genetics like men do to maintain it. I recommend that my clients do at least 2 days a week of whole body strength training, 3 times a week is better. If you want to split up the training, upper body/lower body splits are all I recommend. I don’t recommend any other body part splits (the old fashioned bodybuilders method), as they just don’t produce the kind of whole body overload necessary to produce great active muscle tissue and a lean body. 3 sets of each exercise, 8-12 reps per exercise to fatigue, adds strength and nice dense muscle tissue. Your whole body routine may have anywhere from 8-12 exercises, and the program should take about an hour with warm-up. I also recommend circuiting paired up exercises to save time and keep metabolism elevated. Remember that you can not spot reduce any body part, so adding excessive exercises for a particular part like your abs or thighs is a waste of your time. Working the whole body= elevated metabolism= leanness.