I can still remember the tormented feeling of hanging off my pull-up bars in my school gym class, struggling with all my little strength to lift myself. While the other kids seemed naturally gifted with physical strength, I came to believe my arms were best for answering a question in class.
However, I have tasted physical strength since then. I took a weightlifting course in college and loved how muscle strengthening made me feel. Before my wedding, I was hooked on workouts, finding the satisfaction of being able to carry groceries for more than two minutes without rest.
Besides the deep joy of feeling strong, I am also aware of the health benefits of building muscle. A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that combining aerobic exercise with one to two sessions per week of strength not only extends life, but improves people’s quality of life and well-being. Several studies have found resistance training to be beneficial for mental health: it has been shown to positively affect cognition and reduce depression and anxiety. Evidence also suggests that it simply allows us to feel better about our bodies.
But every time I did enough strength exercises to see progress, my commitment eventually wore off, mostly due to the demands of daily life. Exhausted by cycles of work, childcare, and utter exhaustion, I took the path of least resistance—literally and figuratively.
So I asked exercise psychologists, scientists, trainers, and muscle evangelists for their best advice on launching a permanent strength-training routine. This is what I learned.
1. Start small
For those of us who haven’t done a lot of strength training — or if it’s been a while — experts suggest starting with short but consistent strength sessions. “Set yourself some small goals,” said Mary Winfrey Covel, a lecturer in exercise science at Ball State University in the US. “Some movement is better than no movement.”
How small? Depending on a person’s schedule, needs, and desires, exercise scientists suggest setting aside 20 minutes twice a week for strength training, or perhaps 10-15 minutes three times a week.
This is supported by another recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which found that just 30-60 minutes per week of strength training can bring significant long-term rewards, including a 10-20 percent reduction in the risk of death. Cardiovascular disease and cancer. (Notably, the benefits stabilized after an hour and declined after two hours per week.)
2. Start simple
Fitness marketing often tries to convince us that any routine worth doing should include fancy equipment or specialized equipment, but you really need very little. “Strength training doesn’t have to mean heavier weights, very heavy weights, and a lot of equipment,” said Ann Brady, professor of kinesiology.
She said muscle-building exercises that rely on your own body weight — think push-ups, planks, and sit-ups (sometimes called chair height) — can be incredibly effective when done correctly and consistently. You can always incorporate equipment as you advance in strength and knowledge.
3. Embrace being a beginner
Starting a strength-training routine when you have little or no experience can be intimidating—especially if you’re working out in a gym or in a public place, given more experienced exercisers.
“Many of us ‘stick to a standard that we need to look like we already know what we’re doing,’” said Casey Johnston, author of the popular newsletter, It’s a Beast, and the book, Liftoff: Couch to Barbell. It’s okay to ask questions.”
More than anything else, learning proper form — and the safest movements for your body — can help avoid injury and promote a permanent routine. If you can afford it, consider hiring a certified personal trainer for a few sessions, whether virtual or in-person, who will create a training plan and guide you through the workouts. And if you work out at the gym, don’t be afraid to ask the staff for guidance.
One positive aspect of starting from scratch? Your strength will improve dramatically at first. “I think most people would be surprised at how quickly they can get so much stronger than they are,” Johnston said. After a few sessions, she said, “You will really feel the difference in functionality in your body.”
4. Do it early in the day
If you are like me and plan a lot For strength training at night but find that, at 5 p.m. or later, you feel unable to push your weary self off the couch, experts advise setting aside a time early in the morning.
There is a reason for that. Research indicates that the more restraint we exert throughout the day, the less we give at night. “So if you’re spreading self-control for different things, and your plan is to exercise in the evening,” it’s not surprising if you’re giving in to the urge to get outside in front of the phone or the TV instead of breaking a sweat, said Elizabeth Hathaway, professor of exercise psychology. “Self-control is not an infinite resource.”
5. Try ‘gathering temptations’
Do you need an extra payment? Kelly Strohacker, a professor of physiology who researches healthy behavior change, suggests a behavioral economics hack called “temptation pooling.”
It works like this: By “grouping” something we love and look forward to—for example, a favorite podcast or TV show, an audiobook or a playlist—with an activity we find challenging, we can boost our chances of doing the latter. Combining those together can help loosen up a bit from that beginning, Professor Strohacker said, ‘I don’t really want to do that, but I know I have to.’ However, the key is to just allow yourself to indulge in that special pleasure. while doing the exercise.
6. Wear (pretty much) what you want
If the thought of changing to a certain “workout wear” is a barrier to strength training, don’t worry!
“Wear anything you feel comfortable wearing,” Professor Brady said. “The most important thing is to be able to move freely through different ranges of motion.” You might also benefit if your clothes “breathe” so you don’t overheat, but there’s no need to buy special moisture-wicking gym equipment if you feel more comfortable moving around in your pajamas.
7. Remember that the goal is to move forward
Professor Strohacker said, if you find you need to miss sessions, show self-compassion. Strength training, like all exercise, is a long game, and the ultimate goal is to continue it throughout our lives, despite setbacks along the way.
“Our culture really pushes this narrative that ‘You can do it if you really want to,'” she said. “That’s an oversimplification.” Life happens. She added that research suggests that the real path to longevity and consistency in any activity is “enjoyment.” doing it and feeling accomplished.” This becomes easier when we celebrate our progress, no matter how far we have come, and find our way back when we veer off course.
8. Consider a couch workout
If the urge to spend time on your couch feels overwhelming, make your couch work for you: Use it as a piece of equipment to make your workout easier.
Professor Brady said that using the sofa, you can do both sitting and standing exercises. You can turn and do push-ups or planks.
And if you like watching TV while you’re working on the couch, choose shows that have ad breaks and try the “ad challenge,” Winfrey-Covelle suggests. During these rest periods, do leg walks or leg raises, or keep hand weights by your side and raise them until the program returns. Just make sure you can maintain good posture and form.
“We don’t want to exercise our backs in the shrimp pose,” she said. But “if your hips are in the right position, your spine is aligned, your shoulders are back, and your feet can touch the floor,” there’s a lot you can do on the couch.
9. Try this 20-minute starting routine
Ready to get started? Professor Brady recommends starting with this basic strength-building routine. The only equipment you will need is your body and a set of resistance bands.
Complete each exercise, in order, 10-15 times, then go back and repeat it again for a second set. The exercises alternate between muscle groups and should be done at a moderate level of intensity – whatever feels good to you.
- Push-ups (or modified push-ups)
- Seated rows with resistance band
- brigade bridges
- Resistance band top presses
- bird dogs
- Pull-ups with a resistance band
– This article originally appeared in The New York Times
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