Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, talks about establishing a strength training routine that is designed for your fitness level so you don’t hurt yourself in the process of trying to get healthy.
In previous articles, we discussed that blind weight loss is not a great gauge of fitness progress. Instead, focusing your attention on body re-composition is the key to long-term progress and real fitness success. Gaining muscle and losing fat is the name of the game, and not random weight loss. One of the most effective methods of gaining muscle, and thereby boosting metabolic rate, is with some form of muscular strength training.
To reiterate from last week’s article, there are several types of strength training an individual can consider. They include bodyweight-only exercises, free weight training (barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells), resistance bands, TRX suspension or gymnastics rings, or the use of machines in your average, commercial gym. There are a couple key factors that will determine which type of strength training an individual should choose.
First and foremost, safety is always first. If you jump into a strength training program without knowing how to lift or whether the exercise is even right for you to do based on the abilities of your body, you are highly increasing your chance of injury. An injured body cannot strength train. Therefore, every individual should see their doctor and have a thorough physical examination before starting any exercise program. When the doctor has determined you are ready for exercise, then it is time to move to the next step.
The next step is having your body assessed by a personal trainer or movement specialist. If you belong to a normal, commercial gym, I highly recommend requesting a certified personal trainer to assess your body. If you are just joining a gym, I encourage you to take advantage of any free assessment offers. Almost every trainer in any gym would love to do this free assessment. I know this can be intimidating and you may feel the trainer is trying to sell you, but any good trainer out there should be able to run you through a proper mobility and movement-based screening using only your body to determine what type of strength training is right for you. The trainer should then share their observations with you. Also, just a quick side-note, if this trainer has you doing machine after machine in your initial assessment without any prior knowledge as to what kind of whole body mobility you have, do not hire that trainer. For every great trainer there is out there, there is probably twice as many mediocre trainers, so be careful.
The ability for you to move your body through space without joint restriction is the single greatest factor in determining what type of strength training is appropriate for your body. I have trained hundreds of people of all ages, and I would estimate that when most individuals reach the age of 30, they have experienced some type of joint restriction or regression of posture that will limit the use of strength training equipment, particularly barbells and machines, as these tend to place you in a fixed movement pattern during the exercise. There is no point in lifting barbells, dumbbells, or working hard on machines if they cause you pain or increase your chance of severe injury due to lack of mobility in your body. This point is so important, let me rephrase it – most people do not and should not lift barbells or use machines until they have adequate joint mobility in their entire body to allow full, pain-free range of motion during the performance of the exercise. If any exercise causes pain, do not do it!
After you have seen a doctor and had a good mobility assessment with a fitness professional, you can consider planning out your strength training program. From the beginners’ standpoint, I highly recommend bodyweight strength training to be the bulk of a strength routine for the first few months of training (and in some cases, permanently). Bands, TRX, and gymnastics rings are also great equipment choices for beginners, as they allow relatively free movement with low amounts of inherent risk. For the novice strength trainee, this is the best place to start. I would go so far as to say that no matter how advanced an individual becomes in fitness, a good amount of strength-based training should be done with either bodyweight only exercise or the use of some bands or suspension system. Your body is the perfect machine, and when you learn to do it properly, bodyweight only training is one of the safest and most effective means of improving strength.
The Takeaway: There are other factors to consider when designing a strength training program. Age, joint mobility, injury concerns, time availability, frequency, enthusiasm, will power and level of motivation all play a factor in a strength training program. As for the beginner, I highly recommend a doctor’s examination, followed by a movement assessment with a fitness professional, followed by a mostly bodyweight-based strength program carried out two or three days per week (full-body each time). I have found this to be the safest, most-productive route to take for building a solid baseline level of strength.
Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com.