In the last 24 years of practice as a physiotherapist, the main reason people struggle with starting a new hobby or achieving a new physical goal is because they just aren’t strong enough. I often hear, “I’ve decided to take up running, so I started to just go for a run”. Although this sounds like a reasonable beginning, the most common limiting factor and cause of injury is a lack of strength.
A lack of strength means that the load on the joints and muscles is more than it should be and the task is just harder than it needs to be.
The beginning is strengthening the major postural muscle groups, especially around the back, hips and pelvis. These are the muscles such as:
- The gluteal muscle groups around the hips
- The small muscles around the lower back (multifidus muscle groups)
- The quadriceps muscle groups around the knees.
These muscles keep you up straight and are the also the muscles responsible for propulsion (moving you forward). Finally, these muscle groups protect the joints, by creating stability (control) around the joints and absorbing the shock of activity and reducing the direct load on the joints.
Why is running not enough to achieve this protection? Because, running is a low load, repetitive activity which means that you produce a slight increase in strength initially, but this plateaus very quickly. You need to strengthen these muscles to slightly more than they are comfortable doing to produce enough stimulus to grow and adapt.
What are the other health benefits of Strength exercise training?
More specifically, strength training has the following straightforward benefits (Thomson, 2020):
Protection against heart attack and stroke – Several studies have shown that, independent of aerobic training, strength training of 1 hour once a week (or ½ hour, 2 times a week) reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke by 70%.
Management of diabetes and glucose tolerance – Improving your muscle mass not only increases the number of receptors that pick up glucose and pull it away from the blood stream due to more muscle fibres, but the number and efficiency of these receptors improve, enhancing your glucose tolerance and helping manage diabetes.
Better overall cancer management – It has long been shown that people who are stronger and do regular strength training survive better if diagnosed with cancer. Strength training improves the survival rate, the recovery from any surgery, management during chemotherapy or radiotherapy and overall recurrence. This is particularly so for breast, colon and prostate cancers.
Better memory and brain function – People with higher grip strength (a proxy for overall body strength) performed higher in memory tests and reaction time. In a study, those who lifted weights at least once a week showed significant improvements in cognitive function such as attention. It seems to be because strength training releases Osteocalcin from the bones. This improves the size and connectivity of the hippocampus, which has a major role in memory and learning.
In addition, strength training is linked with higher self-esteem and a feeling of being more capable in all stages of life. Our brain has an unconscious sense of health and state of our muscles and bones system, that makes us feel we “can or can’t do something”. As a result, strength training is a powerful tool against anxiety and depression. Sadly though, because of a more sedentary lifestyle, adults today are weaker than adults of the 1980’s, with further weakness in the up-coming generation.
What are the specific strength recommendations for best results?
Since at least 2009, the American College of Sports Medicine have strongly recommended that adults undertake strength training 2-3 times a week, involving most major muscle groups.
This is not a random volume. The muscles need to be “loaded” at least twice a week (ideally 3 times a week) to provide enough stimulus to change and adapt.
Once a week is just enough to maintain strength (but not enough for growth) and four times a week is too much. The growth and adaptation in the muscles happened when you rest, not when you exercise. Strength training more than 3 times a week doesn’t give the muscles enough time to recover and adapt. This can also lead to injury.
So, if you were wondering if strength training is for you, the answer is it is. To get started, ask a trusted fitness or health professional such as a Physiotherapist or Strength and Conditioning coach to get you on the right track.
Chodzko-Zajko, W. J., Proctor, D. N., Fiatarone Singh, M. A., Minson, C. T.,
Nigg, C. R., Salem, G. J., & Skinner, J. S. (2009). Exercise and Physical Activity
for Older Adults. Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 1510–1530.
Thomson, H. (2020). Discover your Inner Strength. New Scientist, 34-38.
Williams, C (2021) Mind-altering Moves. New Scientist, 22nd May 2021, No. 3335. P34-38.