Rules for Strength Training to Create an Effective Workout and Avoid Injury- Part I

With such lax regulations regarding personal training it is no wonder to me why so many people become injured at the gym or simply give up on their routines.  Unfortunately, it takes a mere weekend certification to become "certified" as a fitness instructor or personal trainer.  A person can have no background in health, fitness, exercise science, human anatomy and physiology or any college education at all and can still become a certified personal trainer. 

In recent years, the National Fitness Board Association has been created in an attempt to raise the bar on qualifications for personal trainers, but I don't see it making much of a difference.  There are still many fitness clubs who employ trainers with no qualifications and warehouse-style/no services-offered gyms like Planet Fitness are taking over the fitness market. But I will save that topic for a separate blog article.

The point is that most people who start strength training do not have any idea what they are doing.  They get ideas from fitness magazines, television or people at the gym.  But none of these sources can replace the sound information you will receive from a qualified personal trainer who understands not only body mechanics and the proper ways to train, but also gets to know you, personally, understanding your goals, your health status, your limitations and your individual body mechanics.

In an attempt to help educate the public on proper ways to train, I am compiling a list of what I consider to be important information that you need to know before delving into a strength training program.

First and foremost, you MUST warm-up.  NEVER start lifting weights or doing strength training without warming up the body for at least 5 minutes.  A good warm-up will include marching in place (or walking), arm circles, squats, light aerobics, and light stretching.  A warm-up is important because it prepares the body for the activities you are about to do.  It increases heart rate slowly (important for preparing the body for the increase in heart rate that occurs while exercising), increases the speed at which oxygen flows to the muscles (oxygen is needed by the muscles in order to feed and move the muscle), increases synovial fluid around the joints (needed to lubricant the joint and thus avoid injury), and simply warms-up the muscles for what you are about to do to them; which is tear them up to shreds, literally.

Which brings me to point number 2, don't work the same muscle group on consecutive days.  When you strength train, you actually create small, microscopic tears in your muscle fibers (your muscles are made up of fibers, not the kind you eat from plants, however).  When you tear these fibers, they need 48 hours to repair themselves.  This repairing process is what causes your muscles to become stronger and grow larger.  So if, for example, you do abdominal exercises every day, you are in essence doing the exact opposite of what you want to do which is build stronger abdominal muscles.  You must allow the muscles the time period they need to repair themselves in order for them to get stronger.  Now of course we use our muscles every day, which is fine.  When we talk about the 48-hour rule we are talking about strength training only.  In other words, working your muscles to the point of muscle fatigue for the sole purpose of gaining either muscular strength, endurance or both.

There are three main types of muscle conditioning programs; programs focused on building strength, endurance or both.  If your goal is primarily to build strength, you want to use heavier weights, but do less repetitions (like around 6 to 8 repetitions per set, with around 3 to 6 sets per exercise).  However, if your goal is primarily muscular endurance (which is recommended for most of the population) you should focus on using lighter weights but more repetitions and less sets.  For example you may do anywhere from 12-15 repetitions for 2 to 3 sets each exercise.  If you would like to do a combination of both, then combine both ideas using heavier weights, but not too heavy, in order to effectively perform around 10 to 12 repetitions and maybe 3 sets each exercise.

Choosing what weight is right for you.  The rule of thumb is to choose a weight that you can easily do in good form for at least 8 repetitions, but becomes difficult by the time you reach 15 repetitions.  In other words, if you can't do 8 repetitions in good form, the weight is too heavy and if you can easily do 15 without muscle fatigue, the weight is too light.

You must reach muscle fatigue.  Muscle fatigue is the feeling that your muscle is going to "give-out" on you and you can no longer perform the exercise without resting.  You should feel muscle fatigue at the completion of each set.

You must balance your routine by focusing on all major muscle groups ensuring you are properly balancing the body.  Many people have back problems (90% of the population has suffered back problems at least once in their lives) and many of these problems are due to muscle imbalances.  For example, we typically move forward in our lives, literally speaking.  We walk forwards, not backwards.  We lift things in front of us and not behind us.  This causes an overuse of the muscles in front of our bodies (such as our hip flexors and chest muscles) and in the muscles involved in moving forward (such as our hamstrings and bicep muscles).  But we underuse our back, rear shoulders and gluteal muscles.  This can cause pain and discomfort as we have opposing muscle groups that are not in balance with one another.  Therefore it is important to equally strength train both the front and back of your body as well as opposing muscle groups.  This does NOT mean that the amount of weight you use will be the same for opposing muscle groups.  It just means you need to work all of them to their individual potential. 

And on this note you must stretch all of your major muscle groups.  When you overuse muscles, you tighten them thus causing more muscle imbalance.  Stretch at the end of your workouts and hold each stretch for 20- 30 seconds, without bouncing. 

About Kimberly Dawson, M.S.

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