Often when we think of strength training, we think of bodybuilders in the gym, lifting heavy weights, people with big muscles, but strength training is not all that, and that’s actually only a small part of strength training. Strength training is hugely beneficial to preventing sarcopenia (the loss of muscle mass associated with ageing), improving strength (well obviously) and enhancing your quality of life simply because you’re able to do more. Being stronger and feeling stronger can quite literally make you feel better about yourself!
What Is Strength Training?
Strength training is where you improve muscular strength while doing exercises which provide resistance. One could argue that this would mean that jogging is a form of strength training because gravity provides the resistance against the muscles. That’s true and jogging will improve muscular strength in your legs, but here I’m going to address typical methods of strength training. Due to the prolonged nature of the activity, walking, jogging and running are all considered to be forms of cardio rather than strength training. Strength training activities are primarily anaerobic.
General Benefits Of Strength Training
Over time, strength training will improve muscular strength and muscular endurance, but how much strength training improves each of these fitness components depends on how you adapt your strength training e.g. lift heavy with fewer reps or perform exercises with a moderate resistance with more repetitions.
It could also lead to muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) which will increase your lean muscle mass. As a result, you will burn more calories at rest which means your body will require more food for energy (for most people who like to eat, this is great)!
You will likely feel stronger and more positive about your physique, especially if you start to see improvements which may further motivate you to persevere with strength training and other forms of exercise to improve your health and fitness.
And that’s not all, strength training doesn’t just increase muscle strength, it will also increase bone, tendon and ligament strength and toughness, making you more injury resistant and improving joint function. Since weight-bearing exercises can improve bone density, strength training (and running) can help to reduce the risk of osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) which may occur as you age.
Furthermore, by using your muscles, you are signalling to your body that they are important. As you get older, you become more prone to losing muscle mass with age. Strength training regularly can delay or negate this loss of muscle mass at an older age and even allow you to continue to pack on muscle and get stronger!
Different Methods Of Strength Training
Using resistance bands may seem like an ‘easy’ form of strength training. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It depends on the exercise you perform and the resistance of the band you’re using. It’s also worth mentioning resistance bands are also known as Thera-bands.
Resistance band exercises are very good for isolating weaker muscles and can make simple bodyweight exercises harder. Some of my favourite resistance band exercises include:
- Crab walks (where you put a band around your ankles and slowly shuffle left and right – this works the glutes)
- Lateral abductor raises (lying down on your side with the band above your ankles, raise your leg on top as high as possible)
- Banded squat with lateral leg lift (with a band around your knees, do a squat and then lift one leg laterally as high as possible)
I like these exercises in particular because as a runner, I perform lots of forwards and backwards movements. This can lead to underdeveloped abductor muscles (which move the leg away from the body’s midline) which may increase my risk of injury, so doing these exercises can help to prevent injury for runners.
The most simple method of strength training and I’d say it’s all one needs to get fit. Lots of martial artists get fit through callisthenics combined with kicking and punching.
One of the great things about callisthenics is they can be done anywhere as long as you have enough space. Simple exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, planks, squats, tricep dips and various other exercises can be used to improve your strength. If you find them too easy, you can modify them such as by performing clap push-ups instead of normal push-ups.
These can be incorporated into a bodyweight circuit as a form of interval training so that you are continuously working different muscle groups for a set period of time e.g. 30 seconds before switching exercises and working a different muscle group.
Free weights are very effective for developing pure strength and power by using primarily dumbbells, kettlebells and an Olympic lifting bar to improve strength.
Use of dumbbells allows for a great range of motion so you can perform a variety of exercises that targets the muscle group you want to work on, however, because of this if the weight is too heavy they can be slightly dangerous if the weight pulls a joint slightly out of its normal range of motion so make sure you can safely handle the weight you are using.
Using an Olympic lifting bar with weights on it is probably the best way to develop strength and power. There are various types of compound lifts you can perform such as the clean, snatch, deadlift and back squat. The advantage of these exercises is they work multiple muscle groups at once so they really act as a whole body exercise. When performing Olympic lifts, you want to make sure your technique is very good as this is important to prevent injury and ideally you want to have someone there to spot you in case something goes wrong.
Gym machines are very popular for lots of people because they restrict you to one movement, have a safety feature built in and are simple to use. They aren’t my go-to choice for strength training, but I would certainly recommend them as a start for anyone who’s looking to get into Olympic lifts to develop strength.
They are good for developing strength in one movement which is why I don’t tend to use gym machines as much. Without the added instability of free weights, you’re missing out on training the smaller muscle groups which help with stability, and I think this is important. Also if you haven’t adjusted the height and angle of the seat then you may actually be putting yourself a risk of injury since your body may be in an unnatural position.
Plyometrics consist of explosive jumping exercises that work on the eccentric contraction, amortisation phase (time between contractions) and concentric contraction to bring about movement. These exercises are important for athletes who need to run fast whether you’re playing basketball, American football, hockey or just sprinting.
Since the jumping exercises are quite explosive they can be quite stressful on the leg muscles in the body. Some make it harder by doing ‘loaded’ plyometrics where they will hold free weights whilst doing an exercise like jump squats. If you’re looking to develop some serious strength in the legs which can be directly applied to running or your sport then consider plyometrics. However, I would refrain from doing them too often since they are quite taxing on the body.
Some plyometrics I do occasionally are:
- Bounds (over 3 x 30m)
- Single leg hops (over 3 x 30m)
- Sprinting! (yes this is a form of plyometrics)
I find the single leg plyometrics are more applicable to most sports since you are typically taking off one leg and moving onto the other which is why I prefer them.
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