The weightlifting section of the gym can be intimidating for anyone who isn’t a solid mass of muscle.
Case in point: last year, two University of Winchester researchers found female gym users were put off using the weights sections because of an “intimidatory atmosphere” and male-oriented equipment. One female said how, at 5ft 1in, it was impossible for her to reach the collars on the barbell rack. A 20-year-old also felt “uncomfortable” because a group of young men stared at her, making comments and laughing.
And then there’s the issue of being new to the weights game – you might not even know where to begin. How do you lift them safely, what weights should you try, and how do you use the machinery? You could fork out on a PT session, but not everyone has the money to do so. It seems like a lose-lose situation.
The gym is a good, and often preferable, starting point for strength training, but it’s not the only way. “You can build similar levels of strength using body weight resistance or equipment around the home,” explains Dr James Steele, principal investigator for ukactive’s research institute and associate professor of sport and exercise science at Solent University.
There are also things you can do in your daily life that help maintain strength, which is particularly important as we age.
Why focus on becoming stronger?
It’s not just so you can open a jam jar. There are many benefits to strength training, but arguably the most important is that “stronger individuals tend to be at lower risk of [early] death and a number of diseases”, says Dr Steele.
Strength is associated with a better quality of life, improved performance in carrying out day-to-day functional tasks and – in the most basic sense – it keeps muscles, bones and joints strong, enabling you to move around better and reduce the risk of osteoporosis (a condition that weakens bones). The latter is particularly important for women entering the menopause.
Everyone should focus on strength, regardless of age. “As you get older, it’s extremely important to add in resistance training [to your exercise routine] to maintain flexibility, balance and posture, which normally becomes harder to keep as you age,” says Dave Mercer, a PT at Nuffield Health.
For younger adults, resistance training will help keep a healthy muscle/fat ratio, he explains, as well as protect against chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and depression.
How to build strength in daily life
The UK chief medical officers’ physical activity guidelines suggest people should focus on building strength at least twice a week. So where do you start? Here are five ways to get going.
1. Focus on where you want to improve strength
Beginners should think about what movements they find hard. Is it getting up from sitting down, walking up steep stairs, or carrying something heavy? Identifying what you want to improve is a good starting point. If you run regularly, for example, you might want to focus on strengthening your arms.
To do this, seek advice on how to make that part of your body stronger, advises Matt Smith, personal trainer and yoga instructor at Fire and Steel Fitness. This might be through trusted fitness sites, NHS Choices advice, or a PT.
2. Build it into your day without noticing
A strength exercise is any activity that makes your muscles work harder than usual – it increases your muscles’ strength, size, power and endurance. Some examples of these can be be easily built into your daily life.
Heavy gardening, such as digging and shovelling, counts as a muscle-strengthening activity, states the NHS. Do you usually avoid it, or get someone else to help out? Take on the challenge. Other weekend activities like hill walking and cycling also build strength.
Climbing stairs counts, too. Do you stand on the right side of an escalator? Walk up the left – your thighs will be burning at the top, but it’ll be worth it for the health benefits.
Other examples, says Smith, include getting off the bus early and walking, or carrying heavy groceries. “Don’t take the lazy option,” he says. “The body behaves so much better when being used more, rather than just being expected to get up and go.”
3. Experiment with different workouts
There’s emerging evidence that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) can be particularly beneficial for strength, according to Dr Steele. A study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise revealed HIIT can lead to just as much strength gain as a more traditional, time-intensive weightlifting programme – in some cases, it was even more effective.
You can find HIIT workouts on YouTube – these are usually short as they’re high intensity. Or, head to a local gym that may offer the first class for free as a “try before you buy”.
Yoga and Pilates – both of which can be done in the gym or at home – are also beneficial for strength. Find out how you can work yoga into your daily routine.
4. Try out weights and resistance bands
This could be done at home, using online advice and tutorials, or in a gym. “For an activity to be muscle strengthening, it needs to work your muscles to the point where you may need a short rest before continuing,” states the NHS. “For example, if you’re lifting weights, you’d have to put the weight down after doing a number of lifts before carrying on.
It’s important to make sure your form is correct and you’re not doing something that risks injury if you’re alone. Dr Steele recommends seeking out a PT to get some guidance on how to do it properly – some PTs offer a free initial consultation, so you can choose if you want to use that newfound knowledge at home or in the gym.
5. Use your body as a weight
If you decide to focus on body weight exercises at home, there are four key areas to do in a routine: an upper body pushing movement (push ups), an upper body pulling movement (pull-ups, chin-ups or rowing), an exercise for the torso (plank), and a lower body exercise (squat or lunge).
You should do these to a high-intensity, and repeat as many times as you can, to achieve an overall strengthening effect. Always do exercise in a careful and controlled manner to avoid injury and, says Smith, utilise a full range of motion. “Do press ups to the floor and squats to a minimum of 90° or even to a chair.”
Are there any downsides to building strength? “I’ve never heard anyone complain about being too strong,” says Smith. “There are no negative side effects if done correctly.”
And remember, variety is the spice of life – including when it comes to your training routine. “No one method of training has been shown to provide everything that we require, the body likes variety as much as the mind,” adds Smith. “Find things that you can enjoy and endure in equal parts, remembering that the challenge is what creates the change.”