Don’t fear weights — make it your best friend.
Cardio is all well and good, but chances are you’re running yourself to the ground if your aim is to blast fat, get in shape, and emerge stronger. Weight training — and more broadly, strength training — has been thrusted back into the limelight for its ability to do all that and more. The form of exercise builds and preserves lean body mass — which is crucial for overall health — as well as promotes stability and strength. If you’re a numbers sort of person, weight training can help transform your body composition, whether it’s to reduce body fat or gain muscle.
For all its benefits (which we’ll get to below), the activity has, unfortunately, also garnered a reputation amongst many — especially women — who think that it’s either too hardcore a sport to pick up, or that it’d build bulging, unattractive muscles. Fortunately, they couldn’t be more wrong.
Here, we change your mind by bringing you through all the moving parts of weight training, and why you should walk to the barbells or squat rack instead of the treadmill during your next gym session.
Torches more body fat
Yes, even more than by jogging endlessly. The science is simple: Training with weights increases lean body mass, which also revs up your metabolism (or energy expenditure) because muscle burns more calories than fat. The result: You’ll burn more calories on a daily basis — even on rest days — making it easier to lose body fat.
Weight training is more intense and demands more energy, so your body requires more oxygen to recover even hours after your workout, which in turn contributes to a calorie after-burn that can last for more than 24 hours after.
Along with a healthy diet, this metabolic boost can help you stay lean with a better muscle-vs-fat ratio.
More defined muscles
Defined muscles aren’t all that elusive if you give weight training a chance.
To build visible muscle, using moderate to heavy weights for eight to 12 reps per set can tone and promote lean muscle growth. This type of strength training gives you the most visible results by promoting larger muscles, otherwise known as hypertrophy. Low reps with heavy weight tends to increase muscle mass, while high reps with light weight increase muscle endurance. If you’re gunning for the latter, make sure they are done to the point of exercise-induced fatigue (i.e. the last two to three reps should be hard).
Regardless of your gender, you’re not going to get a “bulked-up” bodybuilder look without a serious fitness and diet program designed just for that purpose.
Besides, because women only produce about five to 10 percent the amount of testosterone as men, it’s not possible to reach the same muscle-building potential. You’d need to eat, breathe, and live in the weight room to gain considerable size, so this will not make you bulky. Instead, you’ll finally get the definition you’ve always wanted.
Your muscles aren’t the only things doing the heavy lifting here. By stressing your bones, strength training can increase bone density when the cells within those bones react by creating new ones. This significantly reduces risks of osteoporosis in the long run.
If you’re tired of constantly achy hips and creaky knees from running, squatting low could be your solution. Strength training strengthens the muscles around these joints and holds them in position, providing support that not only results in better form, but also prevents injuries during other activities.
Ignore that stereotype of a ripped guy fumbling to get into a stretch for a second. When weak, muscles often feel tighter because they’re primed to protect you against injuries. Research has shown that heavy lifting can increase muscle flexibility with greater and longer-lasting results than static stretches, so work on them and your range of mobility will naturally improve.
1. Warm-up is crucial
Just like how you wouldn’t start a 10km jog with cold, sleepy muscles, you shouldn’t embark on any type of strength training without a good warm-up. Focus on activating the muscles you are going to use in the workout by foam rolling or using muscle percussion tools to increase blood flow and prime them for your workout.
2. Always maintain proper form
Always remember: Form > weight. Focusing on the perfect form is far more efficient — not to mention safer — than obsessing about how heavy your weights are.
Always stand tall with your chest lifted and your arms naturally at your side, without hunching over in the shoulders or holding tension in your neck. Brace your core, ensure your back is not arched, and keep your knees soft. Move through the full range of motion in your joints. Having a strong core will help you tremendously at weight training, so take some extra time to build on that if you’re new to this regime.
If you’re unable to maintain good form, decrease the weight or the number of repetitions.
3. Choose the right weight
Whether you’re new to the racks or have dabbled in weight training before, leave your ego in the locker room and start with a weight you can do 10 to 12 reps for three sets with. If you can’t do so, go a little lighter and work your way up. Conversely, if you can do up to 15 repetitions with good form, you can increase the weight in 2.5lb increments for upper body movements, and 5lb increments for lower body movements.
4. Wear the right shoes
When you’re weight training, you’ll want to be as stable as possible. A rigid sole is best for this so that the heels can drive into the floor during exercises such as squats, deadlifts and any other free compound lift. This allows you to activate more muscle and recruit more fibres both during and after the workout.
The minimal structure of such shoes also allows the foot to stabilize itself and get stronger. Cross-training shoes are good for hybrid-style training if you still want to do a little cardio on the side. These have little to no heel lift, but still retain a slight cushion for support. The Reebok Nano 8 Flexweave and Nike Metcon 4 are recommended options here.
However, if you’re going to be lifting exclusively and are training only for muscular strength, shoes such as the Nike Romaleos, Adidas Adipower, and Reebok Legacy Lifter are popular choices. Still unsure of your commitment? That pair of Converse All-Stars in your closet will work just fine too.
5. Don’t use momentum
You want to always be in control of the weight, not the other way round. If you’re swinging the weights up and down, they’re probably too heavy or your muscles are maxed out. Jerking the weight can also lead to strain and injuries in other muscles too. This doesn’t apply to movements such as the kettlebell swing and push press.
6. Avoid neck tension
Your neck is like the best friend you never had, always there to hold any tension when no one else would. Some people keep the chin forward and shoulders slouched, instead of pulling the chin down for a neutral posture. This creates tension in the neck, jaw and surrounding muscles, and might lead to a pinched nerve or injury. Avoid shrugging your shoulders and keep them away from your ears, and don’t forget to breathe (exhale when the muscle contracts and inhale as it lengthens).
7. Incorporate variety
Plateaus happen, so instead of doing the same exercises that you’ve nailed every time, switch it up by changing the number of reps, weights, grip, or speed. You can also add resistance bands, isometric holds or combine two exercises to keep things fresh for your mind and body.
8. Let your body recover
Your muscle fibres are dealing with micro tears during the pump, so taking time for them to rebuild and adapt is a big part of the process. Spread out your workouts, work on different muscle groups (if you’re at the gym two days in a row) and choose the right supplements to speed up the recovery process more efficiently.
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.