What does weight training mean to you? Lunkish men with Popeye muscles trying to out-macho each other in the gym? Protein shakes and white vests? Dumbbells and kettle-bells or barbells balanced with 130kg weights?
Well, you’d be wrong. It is a common misconception that weight training is only for the bodybuilding community. It isn’t. We can all benefit from finding time in our weekly routines for a modest regime with weights.
The average gym-goer is understandably put off by talk of steroid use, big muscles, bigger egos, and the aggressive, grunting atmosphere of weight rooms; not to mention the physiques of the bodybuilders themselves. But weight training with a structured plan for gradually building up strength offers massive benefits to health and physical development. It can also do wonders for confidence and mental resilience.
As a personal trainer I have seen at first hand the positive results — and also the wariness around it. Put off by fears that the weight room is all gurning and grunting, many people who want to work out, particularly women, gravitate instead towards cardio work-outs: running machines, spin classes, aerobics. Or they abandon the gym altogether. I’d like to see that change.
Cardio is popular for a reason: it’s a very easy–access form of exercise and whether it’s low-intensity, long–duration (such as marathon training, swimming 40 lengths) or the increasingly popular high-intensity interval training (short, fast-paced bursts of demanding exercises), it seems easy to understand and gives measurable results. Keeping track of distances covered and calories burnt is easy with cool little activity trackers and fitness apps. But cardio and weight training are not either/or. They can be done in tandem to create a virtuous circle: developing your physique, strength and health through weight resistance exercises will help you progress with your cardio; in turn, improved cardio resistance will reinforce weight training by improving your ability to recover.
How many people do you see take up running, even marathon training, only to fall by the wayside through injury or issues with pain management? That is simply because while their heart may be pumping, they do not have the physical strength to cope with the demands of running, hiking, rock-climbing, cycling and so on.
Like any sort of exercise, weight training carries risks as well as benefits and it must be done correctly. While you get started I recommend hiring an experienced coach, or at least picking up a book on the subject.
Though women are less likely than men to take up weight training, they stand to gain a great deal. They generally have much lower muscle mass than men, and this is linked to lower metabolic rates and problems with bone density, which can lead to osteopenia, osteoporosis and greater propensity to injury. Gradually building up strength with dumbbells, kettlebells or simple body-weight exercises can hugely improve the body’s resilience. This becomes even more important as we age.
Problems with joint pain — particularly in the shoulders, back, knees and ankles — are all too common, and for both men and women, well-structured weight-resistance training can help to alleviate that pain.
Again, we can create a virtuous circle. Building strength through careful weight training reduces pain and a pain-free lifestyle encourages you to move more. Moving more improves your health and decreases your weight, which in turn keeps you from aches and pains.
So don’t feel intimidated by barbells loaded with heavy weights. Banish from your mind the strongman raising a ton of iron above his head with bulging biceps. The weight-training exercises that can really help are the ones that mimic everyday movements. Think squatting, pressing, pulling and twisting. Add progressively incremental weights to slowly improve your strength. A couple of tins of baked beans will do as a start. Lugging the shopping home, lifting boxes from the floor and carrying the children rather than pushing them in a buggy all spring to mind as easy ways to build weight-work into your day.
What if your main goal is weight loss? Many of my clients had taken up cardio because they thought it was the surest way to shed pounds. They tended to combine cardio workouts with diets. But I believe the fitness industry is putting out the wrong message. We are told to cut out food groups, exchange three meals a day for a juice diet or to embrace the latest fad. But people already lack energy from poor diets and not enough sleep, and they lack strength due to sedentary lifestyles. Depriving your body of fuel only adds further stress. This is another reason to be wary of overloading yourself with cardio exercises, especially the long-duration variety.
It’s better to build up strength through a balanced diet, a sensible amount of cardio and progressive daily weight training. Ultimately, this will help you achieve your weight-loss goals as your levels of all-round activity rise.
So don’t be put off by the unhelpful stereotype of the gym muscle man. Weight training should be part of all our lives, giving us the strength to walk, run and play with our children, to wake up full of energy, to sleep better, suffer less joint pain, to lose those last few stubborn pounds and to keep ourselves nimble and resilient as we age.
All you need to get started is a plan of action, a structured program and someone to show you the way. A child who wants a piggyback — or those two baked bean tins — could be all it takes to get your started.