One of my New Year’s resolutions was to come up with monthly “resolutions” for myself and for anyone who follows this blog. Cooking Light magazine (which is one of my favorite sources of recipes and ideas for healthy living) had the same idea, so I am shamelessly borrowing their healthy habits!
It’s a lot easier to commit to 30 days of a new habit than a full year. So this month’s goal is to get stronger. How to get stronger is something that is taught in medical school. Whether it’s strengthening cardiac muscle to improve cardiac function or building striated muscle to improve strength it’s the same concept – Getting stronger requires a progressive and repetitive load on the muscle that forces it to adapt.
Why it’s important to lift weights
- Weight control. If you are interested in losing weight or controlling your weight, you probably have been told to do more cardio. Although cardio is important, adding weight training will greatly improve your odds of losing or maintaining weight. The math is simple. Fat doesn’t burn very many calories but muscle does. If you build muscle, you increase your lean mass and, therefore, you burn more calories just sitting around (and a lot more if you are working). In addition, strength training has an “after burn” that helps; your basal metabolic rate stays elevated for about 1-2 hours after the workout (for an additional ~100 calories worth of calories burned)
- Injury prevention. There are good data that show joints are protected when you build muscle mass. Most occupational injuries for doctors are related to the joint injury – usually spine, hips or knees. Strengthening your muscles will increase your stamina and decrease your risk of injury.
- Bone health. Critical for women, but important for men, too. You can prevent osteoporosis with strength training.
- You’ll look great. Women worry about looking “big” – but don’t. You’ll get strong and lean without building bulk.
- You’ll feel better. Working out, in general, improves your mood. But, there is something (literally) empowering about getting strong.
Beginner or experienced gym rat – here’s what you need to know
- Warm up first! Get on the bike, walk fast, just do something to increase your heart rate and warm up your muscles. 5-10 minutes is usually enough…. but don’t skip this important step!
- Target specific muscle groups. The goal is to get strong in a balanced way. Don’t neglect one muscle group in favor of another. In general, strength workouts are divided into back, chest, shoulders, legs (quads and hamstrings) and abs, but you can get even more specific if you want. Here is a great list of exercises for each muscle group (and a good anatomy review!): Exercise Directory from ExRx.net
- Pick the right weight. It doesn’t matter if you use machines or free weights. What is important is to pick weights that are heavy enough. The goal is to be able to move the weight 10-12 times – but struggle with the last rep or two. If it’s not hard to finish the set, increase the weight. You’ll also have to increase the weights as you get stronger.
- Maintain your form. If you lift weights that are too heavy, you will “lose form”. This is classically the guy (sorry, it’s usually a guy) who is trying to bench press too much and ends up arching his back to be able to lift the weight. The problem is that “losing form” means using accessory muscles to lift the weight instead of just the ones you are trying to train. This is how injuries happen. Don’t do it!
- Do sets of repetitions (reps). Lift the weight 10-12 times (one “set”), rest, then repeat the set. Three sets of 10-12 reps should be your goal. There is a good physiologic reason that this works , especially for beginners. Once your muscles get used to it, though, you may want to change to different patterns.
- Lift weights every week. Getting every major muscle group once a week is important. Twice a week is better. More than twice a week can lead to injury, unless you are getting enough rest days between workouts. The ideal goal is to work out every muscle group twice a week. If you want to split your workouts to do more days (but less time per day) that’s fine.
- Rest between workouts. Don’t work out the same muscle group two days in a row.
How to get started
If you’ve never lifted weights before, or have limited experience it can be intimidating. This is particularly true for women, who often feel that it’s just easier to hit the cardio machines than deal with the “foreign language” of the weight room. But – it’s really important to do this, and – I promise – it’s not rocket science. Here’s how to start:
- Buy a book or go on line. Learn one or two exercises at a time from these sources then go to the gym. Start with light weights on purpose so you can concentrate on correct form. As you learn, add more variety.
- Pay for a trainer. If you can afford a weekly trainer, that’s fantastic – you just hired a combination of teacher and motivation! For most students and residents, it’s more realistic to pay for just one or two sessions to set up a training program and teach you good form. Most gyms have trainers, which is probably the easiest way to go, but you can find independent trainers in your area who will meet you at a gym or your house to do the same thing. You can also ask a friend or colleague who is a seasoned veteran to help you.
- Buy weights for your home. A set of weights is actually pretty cheap. Add a balance ball or a bench and you can do a lot of this training at home.
Alternatives to weights
- Resistance bands. Resistance bands are probably best used to supplement weight training with machines or free weights, but they can be used as your primary training tool. These are great for when you are on call (assuming you have 15 minutes at some point for a quick workout) or when you are travelling. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. When you buy a set, the exercise program is usually included or you can find examples on line.
- Your body. The Marine Corps (and a lot of trainers) know that you can use your own body weight to build muscle mass. Some great examples are pull ups and push ups, among others.