A low-pressure guide to make strength training a habit

Making strength training a habit can lower the risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer, experts say. (Photos: NYTimes)
I still remember the torturous feeling of hanging from the pull-up bars in elementary school gym class, struggling with all my meager might to lift myself up. While other kids seemed naturally gifted with physical power, I came to believe my arms were best used for answering a question in class.اضافة اعلان

And yet, I have tasted physical strength since then. I took a weightlifting course in college and loved how the boost in muscle made me feel. Before my wedding, I got hooked on barre workouts, and discovered the satisfaction of being able to carry groceries for more than two minutes without resting.

Beyond the visceral joys 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 aerobics with one to two weekly strength sessions not only lengthens life span but improves people’s quality of life and well-being. Numerous studies have found that resistance training is good for mental health: It has been shown to positively influence cognition and to decrease depression and anxiety. Evidence also suggests it allows us to simply feel better in our bodies.

But every time I have done enough strength training to see progress, my commitment has ultimately petered out, mostly because of the demands of daily life. Consumed by cycles of work, childcare, and utter exhaustion, I have pursued 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 lasting strength-training routine. Here is what I learned.

Start small
For those of us who have not done much strength training — or if it has been a while — experts suggest starting with short but consistent strength sessions. “Set some small goals for yourself,” said Mary Winfrey-Kovell, a lecturer in exercise science at Ball State University. “Some movement is better than no movement.”

How small? Depending on one’s schedule, needs and desires, exercise scientists suggest devoting 20 minutes twice a week to strength training, or perhaps 10 to 15 minutes three times a week.

This is backed up by another recent study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, which found that just 30 to 60 minutes a week of strength training can bring significant long-term rewards, including a 10 percent to 20 percent reduction in one’s risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. (Notably, the benefits plateaued after an hour and decreased after two hours per week.)

Start simple
Fitness marketing often tries to convince us that any routine worth doing must involve fancy devices or specialized gear, but in fact you need very little. “Strength training does not have to mean barbells and super heavy weights and lots of equipment,” said Anne Brady, a professor of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Muscle-building exercises that rely on your own body weight — think pushups, planks, and sit-to-stands (sometimes called chair rises) — can be incredibly effective when done correctly and consistently, she said. You can always incorporate equipment as you progress in strength and knowledge.

Embrace being a novice
Kicking off a strength-training routine when you have little or no experience can feel daunting — particularly if you work out in a gym or public space, in view of more experienced exercisers.

Many of us “hold ourselves to a standard that we need to look like we already know what we’re doing,” said Casey Johnston, author of the popular lifting newsletter “She’s a Beast” and the book “Liftoff: Couch to Barbell.” “It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to ask questions.”

More than anything, learning proper form — and which movements are safest for your body — can help to avoid injury and promote a lasting routine. If you are able to afford it, consider hiring a certified personal trainer for a few sessions, either virtual or in person, who will create a training plan and guide you through the exercises. And if you work out in a gym, do not be afraid to ask staff for guidance.

One upside to starting from scratch? Your strength will improve exponentially at first. “I think most people would be surprised by how quickly they can get a lot stronger than they are,” said Johnston. After a few sessions, she said, “you really will feel the difference in functionality in your body.”

Try “temptation bundling”
Need an extra push? Kelley Strohacker, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who researches health behavior change, suggests a behavioral economics hack called “temptation bundling.”

It works like this: By “bundling” something we love and look forward to — for example, a favorite podcast or TV show, gripping audiobook or playlist — with an activity we find challenging, we can boost our chances of doing the latter. “Simply pairing those together can help ease a little bit of that initial, ‘I don’t really want to do it, but I know I should,’” said Strohacker. The key, however, is to only allow yourself to indulge in that particular pleasure while doing the workout.

Remember that the goal is forward progress

If you find that you need to miss sessions, show self-compassion, said Strohacker. Strength-training, like all exercise, is a long game, and the ultimate goal is to simply keep at it throughout our lives, despite setbacks along the way.

“Our culture really pushes this narrative of ‘you can do it if you really want to,’” she said. “This is very oversimplifying.” Life happens. Research suggests the true path to longevity and consistency in any activity are “enjoying it and feeling accomplished,” she added. This becomes easier when we celebrate our progress, no matter how incremental, and find our way back when we stray off course.

Consider a couch workout!
If the desire to spend time on your couch feels overpowering, make your couch work for you: Use it as a piece of equipment to facilitate your workout.

With a couch, you can do sit-to-stand exercises, said Brady. You can turn around and do pushups or planks.

And if you want to watch TV during your couch work, choose programs with commercials and try the “commercial challenge,” Winfrey-Kovell suggests. During these breaks, do leg marches or leg lifts, or keep hand weights next to you and lift until the program returns. Just make sure you can maintain good posture and form.

“We don’t want to exercise with our back in a shrimp position,” she said. But “if the hips are in the proper position, the spine is in alignment, the shoulders are back, and your feet can touch the ground,” there’s a lot you can do on a couch.

Try this 20-minute starter routine

Ready to get started? Brady recommends beginning with this basic strength-building routine. The only equipment you will need is your own body and a set of resistance bands, which you can purchase for under $20 online.

Complete each exercise, in order, 10 to 15 times, then go back and do it again for a second set. The exercises alternate muscle groups, and should be performed with a moderate level of intensity — whatever that feels like for you.

1. Pushups (or modified pushups)
2. Squats
3. Seated rows with resistance band
4. Glute bridges
5. Overhead presses with resistance band
6. Bird dogs
7. Pulldowns with resistance band

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