Are Your Favorite Exercises Helping or Hurting You? (part 3: Strength Training)

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When it comes to getting healthy, sometimes, it’s as simple as getting up and moving. Other times, we optimize our exercise regimens to work towards specific goals (like weight loss, for example).

As discussed in the first article of this series, there are tons of workouts capable of inching you toward your ideal bod — but do you know which ones they are?  If you want to reduce body fat, increase lean muscle mass and burn calories more efficiently, then strength training is for you! Below, we’ve outlined the benefits of strength  training, determined whether or not cardio is helpful or harmful to gains, and listed few of the best and worst workouts you can incorporate into your own personal strength training program.

The Wonders of Strength Training

Most of us know that strength training (with free weights, weight machines, or resistance bands) can help build and maintain muscle mass and strength. What many of us don’t know is that strong muscles lead to strong bones. And strong bones can help minimize the risk of fracture due to osteoporosis.

People throw around a number of different words they think are “synonyms” when it comes to strength training: weight lifting, resistance training… the list goes on. But really the term “strength training” incorporates body weight exercises, bands, machines, weighted equipment, and essentially anything that isn’t running, swimming, jump roping, or flexibility training (like stretching).

So it’s not synonomous with weight lifting—it’s an umbrella term that includes it. And while weight lifting is great, there are tons of other strength-training moves that don’t include actual weights that can help you sculpt a strong, muscular upper body.

And strength training, in particular, has bone benefits beyond those offered by aerobic weight-bearing exercise. It targets bones of the hips, spine, and wrists, which are the sites most likely to fracture. What’s more, resistance workouts — particularly those that include moves emphasizing power and balance — enhance strength and stability. That can boost confidence, encourage you to stay active, and reduce fractures another way — by cutting down on falls.

Is Cardio Hurting Your Gains?

“Cardio kills gains” has long been a mantra within the lifting community. Some bodybuilders cling to this notion so tenaciously that they think climbing two flights of stairs can shrink a 270-pound man into a 120-pound weakling.

It’s true that muscle adaptations differ greatly in response to aerobic training versus resistance exercise. The more you train for one, the harder it will be to reach the same level in the other. Compare a marathon runner to Kai Greene for proof.

But that doesn’t mean aerobic and resistance training are completely incompatible. When programmed correctly, cardio can help improve your results, your body composition, and your overall health.

Decades ago, it was shown that 10 weeks of cardio plus resistance training interfered with muscle growth relative to resistance training alone. However, if you take a closer look at the training volume used in that study—six days a week of cardio plus five days a week of strength training—you can see it was quite high. Few of us today are going to be doing 30-40 minutes of cardio six days week.

More recent research suggests that moderate amounts of cardio can actually boost the effects of strength training. Studies have shown that resistance training coupled with 2-3 days of cardio can lead to greater gains than strength training alone.

The takeaway here is that there seems to be a “Goldilocks” blend of cardio and resistance training. Too much cardio can interfere with muscle growth—but so can too little. Performing cardio 2-3 days a week seems to be the sweet spot for complementing your training gains without putting your muscle at risk.

Order Is Important

Muscular adaptations to both aerobic and resistance training can compete and potentially interfere with each other, so it’s critical you allow enough time between sessions to minimize interference and optimize performance and subsequent adaptations.

Strength impairments following high-intensity or endurance exercise can last up to 6 hours, so it makes the most sense to separate sessions by at least that long. Conversely, if you wait too long, you may start experiencing some of the soreness from your earlier workout. That’s because muscle soreness has a delayed onset. Try and find the sweet spot: long enough after a session to minimize interference, but soon enough that this delayed-onset muscle soreness (particularly from a lower-body workout) won’t affect the quality of your training.

In terms of order, the difference between the two may not be hugely important.

A few studies examining adaptation from resistance training before aerobic training or vice versa found that improvements in muscle strength and size weren’t affected by exercise order.

From a practical perspective, it’s likely that fatigue from a strength-training session will affect your subsequent cardio session less than the reverse. Taken one step further, would you rather be tired doing a 3-rep max on a squat or on a 3-mile run? I’ll take the latter, please.

Everyone’s different, though. Experiment with workout order and timing to find out what fits your schedule and benefits your performance.

Mode Matters

Compared to other forms of cardio, running causes a lot of muscle damage—most likely due to the large amount of eccentric muscle contractions involved in the movement. Cycling, however, places more emphasis on concentric muscle action. This may cause less overall damage, ultimately limiting the amount of interference with recovery and muscle growth.

Running for hours probably isn’t the best idea, but lower-impact activities like cycling may improve your results in the weight room. Several studies have shown that strength training plus cycling improved muscle size more than strength training plus treadmill walking, or strength training alone.

The Bottom Line

Cardiovascular exercise offers some major health benefits, including improved aerobic capacity. But the benefits extend to your lifting as well. Cardio can give you a higher work capacity during your gym session, allow for quicker recovery between both sets and sessions, improve your body composition, and essentially keep you from collapsing going up a few flights of stairs.

The timing and overall volume of cardio and strength training seem to be the biggest factors in designing a successful concurrent training program.

Must-Try Strength Training Exercises

Goblet Squat

64534504 – athletic woman performing a functional exercise with kettlebell.

This is a squat done while holding a weight in front of you (like a goblet), which adds more of a workout for your core and legs.

How to: Hold a dumbbell or kettle bell with both hands underneath the ‘bell’ at chest level, and set your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outwards. Push your butt back like you’re sitting in a chair and descend until your elbows reach the inside of your knees.

Keeping your heels flat, pressing onto the floor, pause at the bottom of the squat, and return to a full standing position. If your heels rise push your hips further back and work on partial ranges of motion until mobility and form improve. Repeat for four sets of 8-10 reps.

Pallof Press

This “anti-rotation” movement is challenging because you must resist rotation, working your obliques, abs, lower back, glutes, and more.

How to: Stand perpendicular to a cable column with the column’s arm set around shoulder height. Grab the handle with both hands and pull it in to the chest, maintaining tension on the cable. Feet should be shoulder-width apart, and the feet, knees, hips and shoulders all remain square and facing straight ahead throughout movement.

Holding the chest high, squeeze through the stomach and press the handle away from the body, extending the arms straight while resisting any twisting or rotation. It’s at this point the resistance will be highest. Continue to engage your core, and ensure you remain square and straight and resist the rotational force. Bring arms back in to the chest and repeat for three sets of 10 reps per side.

Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row helps to develop a strong back, arms and core. Plus, because it works your lats, traps, and rhomboids, it supports proper posture by pulling your shoulders back and helping to stabilize your spine.

How to: Grab a dumbbell (20 pounds is plenty for most to start) and find a bench. Start with your left hand on the bench with left arm extended, while your right arm holds the dumbbell and right foot is on the ground. Retract your shoulders, brace your abs, and pull the weight up on the side of your body until the elbow passes the side of the body. Lower under control and repeat for three sets of 6-8 reps on each side.

Push-Up

Push-ups are a deceptively simple functional movement that works your upper-body muscles while engaging your core and allowing you to use the full range of motion in your shoulder blades.

How to: Start on your knees facing the floor with your hands at shoulder-width, planted directly under the shoulders. Assume a plank position by straightening your legs, supporting your weight with hands and feet. Squeeze your backside to keep your trunk engaged and lower your body slowly to the ground. The elbows should be slightly tucked — like arrows, rather than flared like the letter ‘T’. Descend until your chest is just above the ground and return to the starting position by fully extending your arms, and repeat.

Note: If you can’t do five push-ups with good form, elevate your hands on a bench or chair to begin building up your strength. If push-ups are easy, try elevating your feet on a chair on adding a weight vest. Make sure you’re able to perform three sets of 12 push-ups with your bodyweight before adding a vest or elevating your feet.

Hip Extension (Glute Bridges/Hip Thrusts)

This exercise helps to train your glutes, which are often underutilized if you sit for long periods each day.

How to: Position the back of your shoulders across a stable bench, feet planted firmly on the ground, about six inches away from your butt (a). Squeezing the glutes, push through your heels to rise up into a bridge position with the hips fully extended. The shoulders down to the knees should be in line, with the knees bent at 90 degrees. Hold the position at the top, glutes, core and hamstrings engaged (b). Lower the hips down and repeat for three sets of eight reps (c). Beginners can continue with just bodyweight, whereas more advanced lifters can progress to rolling a barbell over the top of the hips for added difficulty.


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