Resistance and weight training
Strength or resistance training has many reported benefits, but just picking up any old set of dumbbells or barbells could do you harm. Inappropriate weight, poor postures while exercising and dodgy techniques can all mean possible injury. Throwing your body around, grunting and thrashing about in front of the gym mirrors is not the way it's done!
Weight training uses resistance to build the strength and endurance of muscle. Doing weights repeatedly and consistently, your muscles become stronger. Some of this is due initially to a phenomenon called 'neural adaptation'. This is felt as an initial noticeable gain in strength, and is attributed to the nerves firing more messages to the strengthening muscles, making it contract harder and stronger. After this initial adaptation, there is a plateau we feel in our strength gains. Keeping the muscles guessing with a broad range of exercises and movements will get you that extra strength. This is when the muscle fibres actually start to thicken or 'bulk up'.
To put this into perspective, a muscle fibre within any of your muscles are as thin as a human hair. The cells of these fibres are what thicken in response to resistance training. It is also thought that we are born with a finite number of muscle fibres, so weight training cannot stimulate your muscles to grow more. It is only this thickening (or hypertrophy) of the muscle fibre cells that make us look bulkier in our muscles.
The basic principles of weight training
There is so much out there in the literature to read about training programs. However, here are a few of the basics for the novice when it comes to weight training. All principles below must be considered for a safe and effective program.
- The weight. How heavy a weight should I use? Should I use free weights, fixed weights, my body weight, resistance bands, or kettle bells?
- The exercise or movement. Do I move my body in a small movement? Large movement? In what position should I exercise? How do I incorporate the effects of gravity?
- The repetitions. Do I attempt sets of 3-5 repetitions, or 10-15?
How fast or slow do I move?
- The sets. So do I just attempt one set, or 3? Do I do them all at once, or in between other exercises?
- The rest and recovery. How soon can I go back to the gym and attempt these same exercises again? Can I exercise when I still feel sore and tired form my last workout?
- The variety. How do I fend off boredom at the gym with my weights sessions? Or get that muscle bulking up and keep it guessing?
- The progressive overload principal. So how do I safely progress my weights without injuring myself? These weights seem easy, so by how much can I step up the resistance?
How heavy should I make my weights?
In resistance training, the term Repetitive Maximum (RM) is used to work out the right weight for an individual. RM is the maximum number of repetitions that can be completed with a given resistance or weight before the muscle fatigues. To gain strength, the muscle needs to reach fatigue for the changes to take place in the nerves and the muscle fibres.
It is the RM range that determines what type of improvements the muscles will make. The optimal range for improving muscle strength is 8–12 RM for a beginner and 2–6 RM for the more advanced. So using the beginners RM of 8 as an example for a biceps curl, this is the weight that this individual can curl the given weight 8 times, but feels that the last few reps are really getting difficult. Not impossible, but with a little strain, effort, quiver or 'burn'. Strive for 3 sets with a rest in between. Stretch or move to another muscle group for your 'rest'.
It is often a good idea to seek help with this weight prescription. If you can imagine the numbers of muscle groups to set the right weight for, there is quite a bit involved to get it right. Too heavy and you risk injury. Too light and you will not get the training benefits.
As you become stronger, you will notice that the 8RM weight starts to feel too easy. It is time to work out how to progress. You can either increase the reps to 12-15 with that same weight, or add an extra set. Or find your new 8RM, which will be a slightly heavier weight to feel that fatigue in your last repetitions once again.
How should I move with the weighted exercise?
Here are a few tips with respect to movement.
- Move through the greatest range or arc of movement you can. The muscle will improve its contraction strength at all angles this way.
- Move slowly in each direction. Try counting to 3 as you flex and also as you extend. Your muscle will gain strength as it shortens (concentric contraction) and lengthens (eccentric or braking contraction). You need strength in both types of contraction in everyday life. For example, walking down steps, your thigh muscles eccentrically slow you down and this is hard work! As you walk up steps they concentrically contact to pull you up the stairs. Again, hard but different work.
- Think of your movement as a team effort. There are many muscles working to stabilise the region, hold your posture. There are even more than just the one muscle working to flex and extend the arm or leg.
- Be very aware of your trunk and pelvic postures. Remember safety first! Protect your neck and lower back as you exercise. 'Melt your shoulders from your ears' and into your 'shoulder blade pockets', be aware of your 'pelvic bowl of water', and 'lengthen gently through the back of your neck' to the base of your skull. Again, advice from your exercise physiotherapist can give postural awareness cues right for you and your posture as you weight train.
- Breathe. Don't forget to continue with breathing and avoid holding your breath under the effort, or when distracted. Your diaphragm not only breathes the best for you, but is also an important part of your trunk stability and support (or 'core muscle'). Breathing 'deep and wide' as you move with your weights will therefore deliver the oxygen you need, help support your posture, makes sure the pressures on your abdomen and pelvic floor muscles is more controlled, and prevents you looking like a beetroot!
My wrists and elbows hurt
The way in which you hold the dumbbells or barbells can increase your risk of injury around your lower arm and hands. Tendonitis of the forearm or wrist muscles can occur with too much loading or stress through the region. Big heavy upper body weights are probably OK for your shoulders and upper back, but these weights would be too much for your lower arms to bear. Keep safe here and not put yourself out of weight training due to a pesky tendonitis injury. They are often hard to settle and will only bring about frustration.
- Grip your weights lightly. Hold your weights enough to feel secure, but don't squeeze the life out of them. This only overloads the forearm muscles.
- Once you have your light grip around the weight, imagine you have a brace or splint immobilising your wrists. Lock them into place and prevent the hands and wrists from deviating side to side throughout your larger movements. As a guide, the position of your wrist and hands when typing or playing the piano is the safest posture in this area. Can you keep your hands in this position while holding the weight?
- In some instances, it is actually wise to wear a small wrist brace or splint. You have probably seen some at the gym wearing supports for the wrist and hands. This would be particularly helpful with higher weights in advanced weight users.
How can I keep my muscles guessing?
So you've got the bug and can start to see and feel you are stronger. Perhaps you are passed that now and for your efforts, you can't feel as much gain. Don't feel disheartened; just mix it up a bit. Still staying safe with all of the tips above, why not consider:
- Moving from fixed "Nautilus' weights to free weights? You will work harder here on your team of muscles involved.
- Moving from weights to body weighted exercise?
- Change your apparatus – move from weights to bands or to ropes?
- Change the postures in which you do your exercises? Try sitting, lying or even kneeling on a swissball. Move from sitting to standing, or sitting to lying
- Varying your exercise? Add a cross training activity such as swimming with hand paddles for upper body conditioning, yoga for that amazing strengthening effects from flowing from one posture to the next as seen with Ashtanga styles or 'power yoga'.
This variation will keep your body and muscles guessing, move you in different ways and prevent that boredom of repetitive unidirectional movements.
There is so much to weight training, but this will give you a great start. Feel free to ask your Fix Program physios about the right sort of weights use for you. And if you're at all worried about your postures when at the gym, wrists hurting or how to employ good technique, ask us!
Perhaps you could spread the word when you see those fast moving, breath holding, poor postured, red faced gym goers at your local gym!