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Making Strength Training Work for You

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Making Strength Training Work for You

Jul 21, 2023

Strength training has many health benefits, though it can often seem intimidating or difficult for most people. But it doesn't have to be. Physical therapist Aaron Lory shares his expertise on how to tailor a program that suits your needs, capabilities, and even tastes—regardless of your current fitness level.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: So when it comes to information on strength training, it seems like all there is, that you can find, just applies to people who are training to enhance their physique or maybe enhance athletic performance. But what about us regular people? You know, we've heard that exercising with weights or doing resistance training can reduce muscle loss due to aging, reduce the risk of injuries, improve your bone health, your mental health, your sleep, and even increase energy levels. What kind of exercises for us and how should we be going about it?

Aaron Lowry has a doctorate degree in physical therapy and works at the University of Utah Health Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital. And he's going to help us understand how regular people can benefit from exercising with weights, and how that might differ from athletes or bodybuilders.

Strength Training Benefits and Approach

So the very first question, Aaron, is if somebody's done strength training, you know, they've likely heard you've got to lift heavy weights, do multiple sets per body part, go to near muscular failure. How does strength training for regular people differ from the approaches used by athletes or those focused on body sculpting?

Aaron: Yeah, really, it's a hopeful message in that regard, because, for us regular folks that have less specific goals, there's less specificity, less intensity, and less volume required to see the results that we want, those being, generally being stronger and in better health.

Interviewer: All right. So a moderate approach to strength training could still yield benefits for regular individuals. You don't have to do that high-intensity stuff is what I'm hearing.

Aaron: Absolutely. Really any exercise is better than none, provided you aren't hurting yourself around the process. Right?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Aaron: So more is better than less to a point. But again, any exercise at all, even if you're doing it not in the most optimal way, is going to be good for you.

Interviewer: Okay.

Aaron: So don't feel like you have to do it perfectly to get benefits. That isn't the case at all.

Beyond Weights: Effective Ways to Strength Train

Interviewer: And in terms of when we talk about resistance training or strength training, a lot of times we think of weights, right? Is that primarily the way you do it, or are there other effective ways you could strength train or resistance train?

Aaron: There are lots of ways that you can do it. I think weights are great if you have access to those things, if you have a gym membership or have things in your home that you can use. But even if you don't, using your body weight, like your own body's weight against gravity is a great way to start. And if you're someone who's not particularly conditioned already, you don't need a lot of weight to have the effects that you want to have happen in your body, as in getting stronger, feeling better, looking better, etc.

Interviewer: You know, I trained with weights for a long time, and then it came to a point where like I couldn't control my own body weight doing, like, just body weight squats full-depth or one-legged kind of deadlifts. And I'm just like, what's the point of all this weight that I'm trying to move around when I can't even control my body in space? So that really resonates with me like, right? Even doing bodyweight exercises can be really challenging.

Aaron: It can. I mean, try to do like 10 legit full-depth body weight squats or 10 pull-ups, or even 10 push-ups. For a lot of us, those things by themselves are a challenge. So start there. Get to the weights later when you're conditioned and getting stronger.

Simple Exercises with Significant Impact: Designing Your Strength Training Program

Interviewer: All right. And one of the things you talked about that is a little bit of a difference between those that are doing it for, you know, their appearance or for athleticism is the types of exercises that you'll do. Again, when you think of strength training, you think of very specific exercises focused on very specific muscles. What are the kinds of exercises that we regular people should be doing if we want to start doing some resistance training?

Aaron: The methods are many that you can do, right? And again, there's not really a wrong answer usually. Part of the key is to find exercises I think initially that you don't hate.

Interviewer: Okay.

Aaron: A big key to making these things work for you long term is to do them long term. And most of us are really bad at doing things that we hate over the course of a long-term time frame, right? We just lack the motivation and drive and discipline to keep doing really hard things over and over again.


Interviewer: Yeah. And that consistency, how key is that? I think that's super key. Would you agree?

Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. Without consistency, nothing else really matters. So finding a thing that you can and actually will do over the course of the long term will give you a huge benefit. For me, to give you an anecdote, I started my real strength training journey, to be regular about it, several years ago, and the first thing that I did was 10 push-ups a day. That was it.

Interviewer: Wow. Really?

Aaron: While the shower is heating up in the morning, I'm going to do 10 push-ups and I'm going to do it every day. And it's so small of a volume, I really can't say no to it. There's no excuse in my mind to not do 10 push-ups, right?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Aaron: And for me, that was a pretty easy thing, but I wanted to do it regularly and start a habit. So I started there, and I did it every day and I built from that.

Interviewer: Great. That's a great idea. Just pick something small. I think some people might feel silly though, like just saying, "Oh, I'm only going to do 10 squats a day." But you shouldn't.

Aaron: Yeah. And that kind of does feel silly, but the point now is not to like get super strong today. The point is to build a habit, right, and start doing something every day at the same time, that I can, again, build a habit from and then build from. You know, the body is really good at being adaptable, right? It can adapt and become stronger and faster and less injury-prone, and all these positive things, but it takes a long time for it to happen, right? So we have to find a program and a methodology to build that program, that allows us to, over the long term, be consistent and doing it . . . starting slow is a great way to start.

Keep it Simple

Interviewer: Another thing I'm hearing right now, and tell me if I'm hearing this correctly, that I really like, is I think another intimidating factor for somebody who just is a regular person and they want to just get a little bit stronger and get some of the benefits of that resistance training, whether it's kettlebell or weights or bands or body weight, or any of those types of things, is designing that program, right? You can Google "design a strength train program" and billions of results will come up with all these exercises and all these things to do. But what I'm hearing is kind of keep it simple. Just start to do some things.

Can you talk about like maybe what body parts to concentrate on? Like you said, you were going to do some push-ups. But what are some of the major body parts that people might want to figure out? Like I think in terms of maybe five or six exercises, right, is all you really need and you can get a full body workout?

Aaron: Mm-hmm. And there are some exercises you can do that will work multiple, essentially your whole body with the same exercise, right? If say, for example, you're a person who has little time to devote to this and you want to, like, do it all really fast, you can do things like a deadlift, right, where you're pulling something up, lifting with your legs, and it's working a lot of muscles all at the same time. Again, if time is a restriction for you and your schedule.

Interviewer: Right. And I have kettlebells, and I can do deadlifts. And I only have two or three kettlebells here. You can do it with like a gallon of milk if you want to, right?

Aaron: Yeah.

Interviewer: Put a couple of water jugs in each arm. What are some other kinds of creative ways that you can get that resistance that you've seen people do?

Aaron: Yeah. There are, again, a lot of different ways. A really common exercise people use for a full body, like I want to get strong and do a lot all at once, it's called the farmer carry. You get a heavy thing and you carry it around your yard or across the street or whatever it is. So pick up a bag of fertilizer or whatever it is that you have that's heavy and just carry it around. But whatever your ability is, find something that's that heavy where it's challenging and walking around your house, like it's hard to do and that's a good place to start for sure. But in general, people recommend that you want to have a balanced approach to how you build your body, right? There's a saying in the gym that says, "Never skip leg day," right?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Aaron: And that's the real thing. Like, definitely working out your legs by doing squats or body weight lunges, or calf raises, any number of exercises to not neglect your legs definitely is super important. And then the upper body can be divided into two other groups basically, pushing muscles, like a push-up or a bench press, that kind of a thing, and then pulling muscles, like a pull-up or rowing, that sort of thing. So you are dividing your exercise into that kind of a split, where you do push one day, pulling exercises the next day, and then legs the following day, and rotating in that manner is a really common way to hit everything.

Functional Fitness for Everyday Well-Being

Interviewer: In terms of functional fitness for overall health, does strength training for regular people prioritize enhancing everyday movements and well-being rather than solely focusing on aesthetics or performance goals, would you say?

Aaron: Yeah, definitely. Like we all want to be able to go do stuff and not be limited by our bodies, right? Whether it's like I want to go and ski really hard one weekend when I haven't skied in a long time, right? Or I want to be able to work in my yard one Saturday and not feel super sore the whole following week due to lack of conditioning, right? Strength training will enable us to do all things like that and everything else, again, with feeling good, feeling strong, and not being super sore afterward.

Long-Term Success: Staying Motivated and Committed to Your Program

Interviewer: And when designing a program, what factors would you say are the most important to take into consideration?

Aaron: I think the time that you have to devote to it. I think your current fitness level is important. That's going to really determine how intense and how heavy your weights are going to be in the initial phases. What's your current fitness level and where do you want to get to? What are your goals? Is it going to be strength or hypertrophy, or being able to just move and not have pain, right? Are you trying to build endurance? All of those things and those variables will kind of change how you do what you do to optimize for those specific things.

Interviewer: You talked earlier that, you know, consistency is the key, right? So what are some strategies or approaches that you use, when you work with people that you work with, to help individuals stay motivated to be committed to that program? You mentioned one great one was it's got to be some exercises you like. Are there other ideas that you have to keep people motivated?

Aaron: Yeah. Motivation is like an internal thing that is hard to say the same thing, the same recipe for everyone. But one thing that helps me to be motivated is, one, kind of like this podcast is doing to really learn about all the benefits exercise provides you. I didn't realize until I was a PT, and even after I became a PT and learning, continuing to learn post-school, how much strength training particularly can really help your life. Physical health, mental health, longevity, and healthspan, like almost every area of your health, are affected positively by lifting and being strong.

Interviewer: Find what works for you, I guess. Do you enjoy the challenge? Do you just enjoy knowing that you're doing something really good for your body that's going to pay off in the long term, you're going to be more mobile when you're older, and you're going to be healthier when you're older? Do you have a grandchild that's coming along that you want to be sure you can keep up with them? Like, these are all great.

Aaron: Sure.

Interviewer: Find that motivation that works for you it sounds like.

Aaron: Or do you want to look better? I mean, like, there's so much, you know, a little vanity.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Aaron: None of us want to admit that we're vain, but we all kind of are, right?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Aaron: So there's all kind of . . . Pick the thing for you that, like, is your goal and motivates you and use that to your advantage, for sure.

Overcoming Challenges in Starting and Maintaining Strength Training

Interviewer: So are there common challenges or obstacles that you see people face when they're starting or maintaining that strength training program?

Aaron: I think many people start too hard, their intensity and volume, because at the moment, while they're exercising they feel like they can do it, right, and they probably can. But then the next day and especially the following day after that, their body is like, "What are you doing to me?" And it's really sore, so sore that they think they can't continue because the soreness is so intense, right?

Interviewer: Sure.

Aaron: And that's just simply a product of over-training too soon. If your body isn't conditioned and isn't used to the activity, it's going to feel really sore because you went too hard too fast. So the prescription then is to start slower, you know, start doing only a few reps of lightweights, and the next time increase the demand by 5%, right? Lift 5% heavier weights or do one extra rep per set, right, and slowly build your program to give your body a chance to catch up and to feel good as it goes. Then the lack of soreness and pain will be much reduced, and that makes continuing much easier.

Interviewer: Yeah. But what about no pain, no gain, man? You know, you hear that, right?

Aaron: Yeah. And that's kind of sort of true, but not really. Really, if you take, like, your typical, like, muscle soreness following an exercise, if you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10, you really should be at about a 3. If you're more than a three, then you're probably going too hard too fast, and you're not going to get more benefit by going harder than that, if that makes sense.

Interviewer: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Aaron: So a little bit of soreness, yeah, that's true, right?

Interviewer: Okay.

Aaron: But for your average person that's not injured and doesn't have, like, a thing they're trying to rehabilitate from, they just want to get stronger in general, you don't need to get super sore to have the results that we're talking about here. Just a little bit.

Misconceptions: Strength Training and Muscle Growth

I'll talk about one other concern that people sometimes have that I want to just address real quick, that I think is worthwhile. Some people, especially female listeners, want to not strength train because they're afraid of looking bigger, and they want to stay petite, given that's the aesthetic they want, right? And so they don't strength train, because they want to keep their petiteness, right? And that's often a barrier or a reason not to do it. And I think it's worth mentioning that that's really not something to worry about. A lot of folks go to the gym every day obsessively trying to get bigger, right?

Interviewer: Right.

Aaron: Doing everything just right for hypertrophy is the goal, and they still can't do it. You know what I mean?

Interviewer: Or it takes a long time. Yeah.

Aaron: It's actually really hard to appreciably make yourself grow. You know what I mean?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Aaron: You have to really combine the right exercise and diet, and do it a lot, way more than we're talking about here. You know? And they still often have a hard time getting, like, really, really big. So don't let that be a detriment or something that is a barrier for you in starting to strength train.

Interviewer: And I think, off of that too, that the perception is, hey, I'm strength training, I should be getting bigger. But you might not, but you're still getting the great health benefits of it. You are getting stronger. It's just you might not notice that you're . . .

Aaron: Absolutely.

Interviewer: . . . getting more muscular, right?

Design a Strength Training Program Based on Your Goals

Aaron: You can get way stronger without getting bigger at all. Or you can get bigger conversely without getting very much stronger, depending on how you exercise, right? It all depends on how you do it and getting the knowledge to understand those things. Then making a program based on your goals is key.

Interviewer: Yeah. And I think be sure to tell them what your goals are so they don't put you on one of those programs that you're doing multiple sets to failure and that sort of thing.

Aaron: Absolutely.

Interviewer: Yeah. I think they have to understand that, because sometimes I think you can head down that path if you don't bring that up.

Aaron: And, too, failure doesn't necessarily mean muscular failure, like I couldn't do another rep, for example. Failure really happens when your form breaks down, right?

Interviewer: Oh.

Aaron: So if I'm trying to do a squat or a lunge and I start getting shaky, and my hips start moving side to side, that's a failure, right?

Interviewer: Right.

Aaron: You want to go until the exercise you're trying to do you can't do it perfectly anymore, and that's considered a failure.

Interviewer: Somebody is listening to this podcast as we're getting ready to wrap it up, what would kind of your final thing that you'd want them to take away from this be?

Aaron: Again, you don't need to do a lot to have an effect that's positive for what you want to do, right? So I think that continuing to gain knowledge and learning and then finding a thing that you can do consistently and do it consistently.