From Carrying Textbooks to Avoiding Back Pain—Why It’s Important to Strength Train

Joy Song

100 lb dumbbells. Machines. Weight lifting. Gyms. PRs. If you heard these words being used in a sentence, you’re probably thinking about The Rock and Arnold Schwarzenagger. Or maybe, strength training. For many people, strength training is correlated with looking bulky, intimidating equipment, and using heavy weights. While none of that is wrong, there’s more to it. Strength training is defined as activities that make muscles stronger. To be more specific, think of it as resistance training: exercising a muscle or a muscle group against external resistance. There is a wide spectrum of the resistance you can add, from powerlifting-aiming to lift at max strength in fewer repetitions-to using your bodyweight while doing lunges, pushups, and tricep dips. Whether your goal is to get stronger for a sport, or to carry all the grocery bags in one trip, strength training is important for its physical and mental health benefits. 

Simple dumbbells such as these can unlock an entire world of strength training. (Alora Griffiths/Unsplash)

Why is it important to strength train? Well, if you’ve taken chemistry or biology, you’ve likely heard of entropy. Jared De Candia, certified personal trainer (CTP), explains that every single thing in the universe is moving from “having order towards a state of chaos and disorganization,” and our bodies abide by this law of thermodynamics as well. For our orthopedic health (the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles), our body has no system to regulate them, so we “have to put in the work to make sure that they don’t become disorganized,” Candia says. Otherwise, on a microscopic level, our body becomes weaker each day, and this process speeds up when we reach our 30’s and beyond, which is where we’ll spend the majority of our life. To prevent entropy, strength training helps make our bones and muscles stronger.

If you want to start working out, or incorporate more strength training into your cardio routine, Candia suggests focusing on the five fundamental “joint actions” that make sure “your program is balanced.” Instead of working specific muscle groups, you focus on joint actions, because it guarantees that “you’ll hit all the muscle groups,” says Candia. For the upper body, there are push and pull movements, which should be split into two nonconsecutive days. Think of push movements as when you work to push a weight away from you, either vertically or horizontally. These movements will work the chest, shoulders, and triceps, and involve exercises like a dumbbell shoulder press and dumbbell lateral shoulder raises, where you hold the dumbbells at your sides. Keep your elbows slightly bent while raising your arms until your elbows are at shoulder height, before slowly lowering the elbows back down. Examples of pull movements are like a bicep curl, where you work to pull the weight towards you. They work muscles in the back, the forearms, and the biceps. Examples of pull exercises include bicep curls and dumbbell bent over rows, where your feet are shoulder width apart, you’re hinging your hips back, and have a slight bend in your knees. Pick up your dumbbells with your arms fully extended, palms facing each other, and back straight. When you row, retract your shoulders, pull in with your elbows, and bring your dumbbells as close to you as possible. Then lower your arms until they are fully extended again.

For the lower body, hip dominant movements (hinging your hips) work your glutes and hamstrings. Examples of hip dominant exercises include glute bridges and deadlifts, where your feet are shoulder width apart and your knees are slightly bent. Hinge at the hips (to activate the hamstrings) and keep your back straight. Fully extend your arms in front of you, and hold your dumbbells with an overhand grip. Then lift the dumbbells by driving your hip forward, and then lower your dumbbells while hinging your hips back; your dumbbells should be grazing your legs up to your middle thigh area. Knee dominant movements involve bending the knee, and they work the glutes and quads. Examples include squats, lunges, and step ups. 

In order to build core muscles, you have to do dynamic exercises—a.k.a., move! Planks and boat holds may put tension on your core, and you’ll struggle holding those moves after a certain amount of time, but they won’t build muscle. Dynamic moves that build core muscles are sit-ups, weighted side crunches, and reverse crunches (a personal favorite). 

You may see this workout split based on joint actions reorganized into workouts targeting specific muscle groups, like back and biceps, or a shoulder and tricep workout. Utilize the workout split that best suits your needs, and also switch between them to keep your workouts exciting. In addition, you can implement anywhere between two to five strength training workouts into your existing routine. Recognize what areas you would like to build more strength in, as well as any sport practices you already have. 

When deciding on the weights to use, it depends on your goals. Particularly for hypertrophy training, which refers to increasing your muscle through exercise, you want to aim to do one exercise 8-12 times, or reps. By the last 1-2 reps, it should be difficult to perform, but you should still be able to maintain proper form. If you use overly heavy weights at the loss of proper form, you put yourself at risk of injury, you are wasting energy, and you won’t get the results as quickly. When you do something right, you will get better results. I stuck to one pair of dumbbells for over a year! It was partly because of the pandemic, but I found that using lighter weights helped me nail down my form and focus on using the right muscles for every exercise. 

If you’re interested in strength training, but are afraid of looking “bulky”, have no fear—gaining that much muscle requires effort and a specialized diet. (Matthew Sichkaruk/Unsplash)

As you progress in your journey, you want to slowly implement progressive overload. Essentially, as you build muscle, doing exercises with bodyweight will only become easier. Thus, you have to overload your muscle so that it continues to work harder than normal, stimulating further strength increases. It is common to start doing lower body exercises with bodyweight only, but much harder for upper body exercises like push ups or pull ups. Consider investing in a pair of dumbbells, which “are probably the most user-friendly weight option for beginners,” says Sivan Fagan, CTP. It is also ideal to get a personal trainer who can help teach you basic movement patterns and help you prevent injury. If you don’t have the ability to, then start by looking at online tutorials (videos, swipe-through posts) that can help you learn what proper form looks like. Working out in front of a mirror can help you adjust your form as needed. 

 

In regards to the common fear of looking “bulky,” (which I had fallen for, too) here’s why you won’t look like The Rock after lifting weights: if you were to ask people who do look big how they arrived at that place, they’ll tell you that they specifically train to look a certain way. Moreover, it requires a dedication to a diet outside the gym and years of hard work to get to that point. The misconception comes from the assumption that it’s easy to look “big” and not knowing that they train to look bulky. To summarize, “for the average person to start lifting weights, you won’t look like that, if you don’t want to look like that,” says Candia, CTP.

The benefits that strength training has on one’s mental health will vary for each person, but anyone who works out can testify to how big of a component exercising is in our mental health. For Candia, strength training has been beneficial for him to “fight stress” and “mild depression,” and he recognizes how he often feels stressed when he hasn’t worked out in a while. Furthermore, Candia explains how strength training releases “chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that actually make you happy,” and thus can boost your mood. 

The mental health benefits that come with doing strength training versus cardio also varies. Candia says how cardio is like a form of meditation for him, and he often gets his “best ideas when I’m out on a run or when I’m on my bike.” 

Personally, strength training has become a way for me to release stress and increase my self confidence, because each time I do a workout, I look for ways to challenge myself. You increase your mental and physical strength every time you do one more rep; by rejecting the limiting thoughts in your head, you’re pushing your limits, and recognizing that you can do hard things. On the other hand, riding my bike and going on walks give me the clarity to solve dilemmas that I previously could not, because those workouts involve more repetitive movements that require less thinking from me.

Cardiovascular exercise strengthens our heart-which is also a muscle-but it doesn’t cover the muscles in our arms, back, core, or hips, in the way that resistance training would. There are different components to fitness such as cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility. We need to take care of each aspect in order to help our body stay healthy and functional, so we can’t solely focus on workouts that we may prefer or be better at. Take the information you need from this article, whether it’s implementing two upper body strength training days, or simply one lower body day focusing on knee dominant movements that work the glutes and quads. Find how strength training can be incorporated into your lifestyle in a sustainable way, and you will reap both the mental and physical health benefits that it sows.