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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

So You Want to Start… Strength Training

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Of all the habits that I help people learn, the one that might be the dearest to my heart is weight training. I have been teaching people how to pick up heavy things since 2008 and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Kettlebell instructor since 2010. I have taught hundreds of people the basics, but my favorite clients have always been the very new and the very skeptical. Most of them have been female, between the ages of 45-80 years old, and never been to “that side” of the gym before. So here are my tips for making a habit out of picking up heavy things.

Why Strength Training? 

The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends strength training 2-3 times a week for all adults and the same benefits have been shown in studies with people as old as their mid-90s. And while there are lots of qualities that people can train themselves to be better at in the gym such as flexibility, stability, power, speed, posture, and hypertrophy, strength is the one quality that allows all the other physical qualities to flourish. Brett Jones, a Master Coach in the Strong First Group says, “Strength is the glass. Everything else, all the other physical qualities, is the liquid inside the glass.” The bigger the glass, the more of “everything else” you can do.

The caveat of this metaphor is that most people new to the gym associate “stronger” with “bigger.” The majority of my clientele are women between 45 and 80 years old who have never trained for strength and the first time I say “stronger” they think Arnold. So it’s important to note that I am talking about the quality of strength, the ability for your body to safely and efficiently deliver or resist force, not the very different quality of having big, oily muscles (called “hypertrophy”). Strength is the answer to the question, “Can you pick up that heavy thing, move it, and carry it around?” Who doesn’t want to be better at that?

How to Start

Step 1: Ask your doctor, and I’m not just saying that for liability. If you have pain in your hip and want to start strength training to make it feel better, the least you can do is ask your doctor if it’s safe. An email could end up saving you a lot of time, energy, pain, and grief.

Step 2. Learn the basics in the most fun way possible. This is as easy as hiring a personal trainer for a session or even asking a keen friend, but in order to make it more fun, I suggest getting together with a few friends and doing it as a group. Invite a coach to come to your backyard and learn how to do push ups over lemonade and cookies. Learning with friends means you’ll be less nervous than showing up alone to a strange place in spandex. It’ll also be significantly cheaper and it will help you remember that this isn’t work; it’s learning how to use your body in a new way.

Step 3: Keep Showing Up. My motto in strength training is an old Woody Allen joke: “80% of life is showing up.” However you decide to strength train for the next year (yes, year), you’re going to get stronger as long as you listen to your body and do it consistently. So instead of worrying about “muscle groups” this and “sets and reps” that, put 100% of your focus, dedication, and creativity into figuring out how to show up and get a little better at picking up heavy things. Start small. Even a single push up every day will make you stronger.

Here are some suggestions you might not have thought of for ways to make strength training a habit:

  • Get a group and learn together. Whether in person or online, nothing works better than a community of people who are working toward the same thing.
  • Make it as convenient as possible. Gay, Saunders, and Dowda (2011) found that no matter how motivated people were to start an exercise program, the mitigating factor to their success was always convenience. So think outside the gym, and challenge a coworker to do squats together every day in the parking lot at lunch. Or squat your baby and put it on Instagram!
  • Have a Loaded Carry Party. If you want to get stronger in the most convenient and fun way possible, invite a bunch of friends over to a park on a Sunday and ask them to bring something heavy. Anything heavy. Books, bricks, dogfood. Anything that you can get your arms around, stuff into a canvas duffel bag, or dump into a cheap, plastic sled. Now carry them! Carry them on your back, wrapped in your arms, or drag them on the sled. Make a it a contest out and celebrate at the end with a beer! Just make sure you all agree to meet the next week and try it again.
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