By Chris Freytag
If you are doing any form of exercise regularly, you are ahead of the pack, making a huge investment in your health guaranteed to produce sizable returns. A recent Gallup Poll indicated that only 14 percent of Americans exercise regularly.
So if you are among the 14 percent who do, you should applaud yourself for regularly investing in your health and fitness. Of those who do exercise, many do have a form of cardio they love—whether that’s hiking, jogging, walking, cycling or something else. But cardiovascular training alone is not enough.
Have you ever considered that you might be stuck in a cardio rut, ignoring your muscle strengthening needs? Cardio exercise is essential to keep your heart healthy and to maintain a healthy weight; but in order to be truly fit, you need also to incorporate a form of strength training.
Cardio is excellent for geting your heart fit, but if you also want to tone your body and improve your body composition—particularly, your ratio of fat to muscle—you need to work your muscles.
The surest way to build more muscle mass and retain muscle mass as you age is through strength training. Here’s why you shouldn’t overlook strength training and how you can start adding to your weekly exercise regimen.
When you increase the amount of muscle you have, not only do you boost your resting metabolic rate, you also strengthen and tone your body, protect your bones and joints as you age, and your body will be more effective and efficient at various everyday activities as well.
Your muscles obey the “use it or lose it” principle, and they have a profound impact in how many calories your body burns, how efficient you are at exercise, and how well your body will be protected as you age. Muscle can burn three to five times more calories at rest than fat does. So the more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn—even when you're staying perfectly still.
You can burn calories when you're sitting at your desk, relaxing at home, or even sleeping. It's called your resting metabolic rate (RMR), and you can increase it. You don't need to invest much time, working with weights for as little as 20 minutes, two to three days a week, can be enough to crank up your resting metabolic rate over time.
Here are some easy ways to add strength training into your life without feeling like you have to go to the gym and hoist the type of big barbells that professional weight lifters do.
Use Hand Weights at Home.
Jump up off the couch during commercials (even if you’ve DVR’d the show!) and use that time to do your strength training routine with hand weights or resistance bands. You will be surprised how much of your hour-long program is actually commercial ads, and the number of exercises and combinations you can do is almost endless! In a one-hour TV show, you’ll probably get time to work each muscle group. Try a few shoulder presses, bicep curls, tricep presses, squats and lunges.
Swing a Kettlebell.
Shake up your strength training routine a bit, and work out with a kettlebell. A kettlebell is a cast iron weight that looks like a cannonball with a handle. The kettlebell allows for ballistic movements and swinging motions you can’t do with traditional weights. Kettlebells can help you develop power in the hips, legs and glutes, the power generator for all athletics—when you jump, kick, throw or swing. You can ALSO work on strength, flexibility and stability for your back and your shoulders. The kettlebell also helps develop your wrist and forearm strength. Plus, your heart rate goes up. It’s a trend worth trying, and if you do, it will likely produce a huge return on your investment.
Use Your Own Body Weight.
Get outside or even go to the playground. Do pull-ups or use those monkey bars like you did when you were a child. You also can do squats and lunges anywhere, and there are many variations of both exercises. Try holding your body into the position of a chair, with your legs forming a 90-degree angle while your back is against the wall and hold a wall sit for a minute. Your legs will be burning. Try some calf raises in place, or walking lunges across the room.
Push-ups are also a powerful muscle-building exercise. Depending on your current strength level, start with five, and increase your personal number of reps each time. Go to failure, meaning continue to perform as many push-ups as you can until your muscles are exhausted. Start on your knees if needed and work up to doing them on your toes. Pushups will work the shoulders, chest, arms and even abs (remember to keep them contracted with a long spine.)
The plank is positively one of my favorite core body exercises. A BODY Plank works your abdominals and back muscles, improves your balance and requires no equipment, just your own body weight. With a strong core, you can improve your posture and sit and stand straighter, walk taller, and flatten your abs. A strong core is also necessary for power and stability in almost every sport or exercise, and can help reduce lower back pain.
Start in the standard push-up position: face down, hands shoulder-width apart directly below the shoulders, and balancing on your toes with your abs contracted. (To modify, you can start on your forearms instead of your hands and/or drop your knees to the mat.) The most important thing is to keep your body straight from head to heels (or knees if modifying). Maintain the position for 15-30 seconds by engaging the abdominal muscles and holding the position, being mindful not to let your chest or low back sag. (This is where a mirror comes in handy to check your form.) The more your core muscles improve, the longer you will be able to hold this position. Gradually increase your time up to a minute or so. To increase the difficulty, try lifting one leg, creating a balance challenge.
Plyometrics are explosive movements that develop muscular power. Plyometrics involve jumping exercises and it’s an efficient way to train your body because it encourages muscle development while it burns calories and raises your heart rate. Plyometrics also can significantly increase your endurance and speed with its explosive movement. Some plyometric exercises you can do include jumping rope, skipping, high knees, squat jumps, split lunge jumps and box jumps.
Try the Machines at the Gym.
The various machines at gyms each feature a different muscle group and easily explain with diagrams how to use the equipment. Since a machine takes your muscles in a fixed path of movement, it’s often a safe place for beginners to start and help them get familiar with muscle’s range of motion. You also can ask people who work at your gym to show you how to properly use a piece of equipment. Don’t be discouraged by the unfamiliar. With a little sense of adventure and a desire for a strong body, you can be going from machine to machine in no time—working all of your muscle groups.
Try a Strength Class at the Gym or a DVD.
Most gyms have a variety of strength training classes, such as sculpting or conditioning classes; circuit classes; and boot camp workouts. In these classes you may use free weights, body bars, hand weights, medicine balls, resistance bands or other equipment. I will attest to the fact that this is how I do my strength training. I am addicted to teaching group fitness!
As you strength train you will naturally get stronger and will find you are progressively increasing the weight you lift. You also will be amazed at how regular strength training can make you more conditioned and prepared for your cardio workouts. Your body will NOW crank out a few extra calories even when you are sitting at your desk!
About the Author
Chris Freytag is a health and fitness expert, blogger, author and motivational speaker. She has been teaching fitness classes and personal training for over 20 years. She is a contributing editor for Prevention Magazine; the fitness contributor for the NBC affiliate in Minneapolis; and sits on the Board of Directors for the American Council on Exercise.
Chris has authored 5 books; has created dozens of fitness DVDs; is a top trainer for Exercise TV; and sells her signature line of healthy kitchen and fitness products on QVC. Visit Chris' website, www.chrisfreytag.com, and Facebook page for more information.