Saturday, February 14, 2009

Starting Resistance Exercise, Part 1

“I can't work out—I don't have any equipment, and I can't afford a gym membership.”

A common excuse. Here's another: “I don't want to work out at a gym—I'd be too self-conscious.”

Of course, that's all they are, excuses. Sometime I'll write a blog on excuses, rationalization, procrastination and other faults that most of us are victims of. But for now, just recognize the above as excuses, and let's talk about what you CAN do to exercise.

If you do have barbells and dumb bells and related equipment, there's a lot you can do with them. If you can afford a gym membership, and aren't too shy to exercise in public, there are a lot of advantages to that, too. But for many of you, you just need to get started, and doing exercise at home with a minimum of equipment will allow you to do just that. Later I'll write about beginners exercises with free weights, but for now it's low-equipment, low-budget.

First, one detail—the medical disclaimer. You are responsible, not me, for finding out if you are able to exercise safely, so figure it out with your own doctor before you start. You don't have a doctor? Well, get one. Hopefully you've had a general health check in the last year or so. If you have a particular health problem, you need to discuss the implications of exercise on your condition. Most of the time your doctor will be delighted to know that you are at least thinking about exercise.

Now, some basic principles.

Reps and Sets:
You will do each exercise a number of times. Each time you do one exercise, we call that a repetition, or “rep” for short. You will do the reps in groups, called “sets.” So you may decide to do 3 sets of 5 reps. That means that you will do the exercise 5 times, rest for a little while, do it 5 more times, rest and then do it 5 more times. For shorthand, we refer to this as “3x5.”

There are several types of failure. “Absolute failure” means that you have done the exercise so many times that you can't possibly do it again. You shouldn't do that very often. "Technical failure"* or “Form failure” means that you have done it so many times that the only way you can do it again is with incorrect form, by throwing your body around, kicking, twisting or otherwise cheating. You shouldn't do this either. Most of the exercises I recommend should be done to just short of failure.

This is essential to progress. When you exercise, your muscles tire, and your whole system (particularly your central nervous system, or CNS) tires. Strength increases while you are recovering from the exercise, not while you are doing it. So having adequate rest between workouts is important. The harder you work a particular muscle, the longer it takes it to recover. Most muscles can recover fully within about 48 hours. The more total muscle mass you exercise, the longer it takes your CNS to recover. For most of us, doing ordinary workouts, the CNS can recover adequately within 48 hours as well. If you start going at it heavily, that may not always be true. Sleep and nutrition contribute to recovery as well. If you are not getting adequate sleep, recovery will take longer.

I'm not going to suggest any exercises that are particularly dangerous. These are all exercises that you can do alone. If you do them as suggested they are not likely to result in severe injury. However, any exercise can lead to over use, to strains and sprains or muscle tears. If an exercise hurts, stop doing it. If you get over the pain quickly, it's OK to try the exercise again a few days later, being more cautious, using lighter weight or fewer reps than before. If the pain persists, get it checked out by your doctor.

The Exercises:
In each case I'll describe how you will eventually do the exercise, followed by some modified forms if the exercise that make it easier for beginners. If you can do the regular form now, great! Go for it. But if you can't, then use the modified forms until you can. I'll also add some ways to make it harder for later.

This has been called “The King of Exercises” and it's a great one. It works many muscles at once.

Basic form:
Stand with your feet at about shoulder width or slightly wider, and your toes angled out comfortably. Hold your head and your chest high, your shoulders back, and your low back curved in slightly. You can hang your hands at your side, or cross your arms with each hand on the opposite shoulder. Take a deep breath, then tighten your abdominal and low back muscles. Push your hips back, then start squatting down. Your hips should move back before your knees bend. Squat down, keeping your weight on your heels. Keep going down until your hips are at least a little lower than your knees, then push back up to the starting position. You can let your breath out slowly as you go up, but keep your abdominal muscles and low back tight. Sounds a bit complicated, right? Well, it will quickly become second nature with a little practice.

At first try for 3 sets of 3 to 5 reps. If you can do that without undue fatigue, gradually increase to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps.

The most important points are:
*Low back slightly curved in—it's much less likely to hurt your back if you keep it in a natural position.
*Tight “core”, or abdominal and low back muscles--this is what protects your back from injury.
*Weight over heels—don't go up on your toes!
*Hips lower than knees—if you don't go this low, you won't get all the benefits from this exercise that you can and should get.
*Breathing—the deep breath at the start of the motion helps you keep your core tight and protects your back. This is controversial for people who lift heavy weight while doing squats, but for body-weight squats, it's safe. If you let your breath out on the up phase of this exercise, be careful not to let your abdominal muscles and low back to go slack.

Other points to consider as you get better at this:
*Knees pointing same direction as toes—there's a tendency to let them come in, but try to keep them directly in line with your toes.
*“Sitting back”--think of reaching back with your hips, like sitting down on a chair. If you do this adequately, your knees will go no further forward than your toes.

Modifications for beginners:

Chair squats. Use a sturdy, solid chair with no arm rests. Sit down somewhat forward on the chair. Put your feet on the floor about shoulder width or slightly wider, and your toes pointing out at a comfortable angle. Your feet should be under your knees. Hold your chest up, and your low back curved in slightly. Cross your arms over your chest so that each hand rests on the opposite shoulder. Lean forward slightly so that you feel that your weight is balanced over your heels. Take a deep breath and tighten your abdominal and low back muscles. Stand up, keeping your weight on your heels. When you are fully erect, push your hips back before starting to bend your knees, and sit back down.

If when sitting on the chair, your hips are higher than your knees, it's OK at first, but you should try to find gradually lower chairs, until you are doing this from one that has your hips at least slightly lower than your knees.

Advanced Variations:

Added Weight. Find something around the house that weighs 3 to 5 pounds (a big book, a small box with heavy stuff in it, a large can of vegetables, a milk carton with a half-gallon of water in it, etc.) and hold it to your chest while doing the squats. When you can do your target sets and reps (5x8-12) find something heavier. If you have real weight-lifting equipment around the house (you bought it for your son in 1987, and now he's left home and it's gathering dust in the basement) weight plates from that set are handy things to use. Some sets have weights up to 45 pounds. You can use combinations of plates to get gradual increases, but if you use more than one plate at a time, run a piece of string through the holes and tie it around the edge.

As you advance you can use the short dumb bell handles from a weight set, and hold one in each hand while you squat. You can also use fixed dumb bells, but it gets harder and more expensive to increase the load.

Well, I think that's enough for this week. If you just learn the squat this week, that will be a great step forward.

If you have read this, please leave a comment and let me know!

See you on the road!


*"Technical failure", as my friend Peter pointed out, is the more commonly-used term.


Peter said...

Doc, the most common term I've seen for "form failure" is "technical failure." You might want to list both, it'll help people understand other sources when they read them.

Andy and Judy said...

Thanks, Peter.