Exercise is REQUIRED for human beings to thrive. Period.
You are physiologically a different person when you regularly exercise vs. when you don’t. There’s mucho science backing that up. We are designed to move, so naturally, training for functional movement and developing strong motor patterns that align with that design should be top priority. That said, there’s a lot of noise on the internet about what physical training should look like, how it should be done, what’s the most effective way to train, etc. We also live in a culture of goldfish-like attention spans, instant gratification and an attitude of “how can I get the most bang for my buck” because everyone’s schedule is totally MAXED out. Enter strength training.
Why should this be your #1 Focus?
What I’m going to lay out in this article is a case for why strength and/or resistance training should be your #1 focus for fitness with the limited amount time that most have to invest (and ONLY in conjunction with a lifestyle focused on consistent, high quality food choices, adequate sleep, mitigated stress levels and thriving relationships that bring you joy).
Fitness apart from these prerequisites will still yield positive results, don’t get me wrong. But why waste your hard work in the gym on a lifestyle that will lead invariably to chronic injury down the road? Too often fitness, nutrition and healthy lifestyle are compartmentalized when indeed only as a unit do we see the ultimate efficacy of each one fully manifest.
Why not HIIT or CrossFit? Why Strength Training specifically?
I’m not saying there’s anything inherently bad or wrong with HIIT or CrossFit per se. What I’d like to point out is that American lifestyles for the most part are extremely sedentary compared to even 50 years ago. Going from sedentary to ANYTHING involving high intensity compound movements at high volume without first developing the proper mobility and functional movement motor patterns is just not a good idea especially for folks who have been inactive for an extended period of time. And what’s more, outside of just doing CrossFit 3-5 times a week, there’s still no other physical activity happening outside of that. So for the most part, even a lot of “CrossFitters” spend the majority of their lives sedentary.
A few reasons why strength training specifically should be your focus:
- Probably most practical reason for strength/resistance training is that larger muscles use more energy and use up more stored glycogen. When you spend the majority of your time in front of a computer for example, having these larger muscle groups are going to play a lot more to your benefit than spending an hour on the elliptical or running a couple miles a few times a week. Since most people don’t have (or probably more accurate, don’t make) enough time for physical activity, why not build lean muscle mass to do a lot of the “heavy lifting” for you! (see what I did there?)
- There’s significant Central Nervous System adaptation gained from strength training and not just using heavy weights. That’s the point. At first there needs to be adaptation just for body weight movements, but for those just starting out, that will reap TREMENDOUS neuromuscular strength gains. What does that mean? It means you get stronger without actually building muscle. And it means you get stronger EVERYWHERE on your body, not just the specific area you’re training. It’s quite remarkable.
- You will significantly increase bone density as well as tendon and ligament strength. Muscle isn’t everything and having strong bones, tendons and ligaments will lead to a more robust constitution overall, less injury and increased health markers. Tensile tension on the bone, at any load, will increase density and over time will cause them to actually grow larger.
- The hormone boosting and balancing effects strength training provides. For men it provides an increase Human Growth Hormone and Testosterone and for women it balances Estrogen and Progesterone. Guys, if you missed it, couple this with intermittent fasting for best results.
Proper movement & mobility is king.
- It will also increase mobility which overall makes for better movement patterns. The less restricted we are in our movement, the more aligned we will be with how we’re designed to move. For example, maybe you’re shoulders are hunched forward from sitting at a computer day in and day out. For years on end. You will not immediately be able to get into the proper overhead position with a barbell shoulder press, clean and jerk or snatch. All things that you should be doing as part of your functional movement strength training.
Side Note For Ladies:
In case you were wondering, no, ladies, you will not get big bulky muscles from strength training. It doesn’t work like that. Once again, it’s a hormone thing. Too much to explain here. And yes, I know that female competitive CrossFit athletes have bulkly muscles – they are the top 1% of athletes worldwide and do it for a living. My wife has consistently done CrossFit 4x a week going on 4 years now and looks like she’s in great shape and still has amazing lady curves.
Don’t believe the hype, marketing is not our friend.
I think it’s important to address how marketing negatively influences our decisions regarding our health & fitness pursuits. The problem with marketing is that marketing is always promoting the end result. We need to convey the importance of learning to enjoy the process. It may sound pious and disingenuous because I’m the one writing on a health and fitness blog. But I genuinely love my time in the gym training. I will say this was not always so. It took time, investment, sacrifice, accountability and, for me at least, a TON of unbridled will power to train my brain AND my body to truly enjoy being on the strength training journey and took a willingness to put in the time until it became part of my lifestyle. IT IS NOT EASY. And any marketing campaign that claims they have found a NEW way to make it easy is deceptive at best.
The beauty of strength training is that you can start out with 2 days a week and see exceptional gains in health and fitness markers for quite a while before you need to increase the volume; and by then, you’ll have developed enough positive momentum both mentally and physiologically that it’ll come as a natural byproduct of the hard work you’ve put in. It will no longer be the hellish grind and internal willpower battle it started out as.
Getting started or getting back into it.
The most important aspect of beginning any training protocol is to work with a trained professional to establish a baseline of fitness before starting anything. The goal here isn’t necessarily to get you to join another gym, in fact, I’d recommend you get some great coaching to get yourself started and from there build up a home based gym in your garage to cut out the extra time it takes to drive to and from the gym and the seeming necessity to look a certain way because you’re in public.
I don’t know about you but I’d prefer to just roll out of bed, not brush my teeth, in my un-showered glory and hit the weights for 45 minutes of solid training than turn it in to a 2 1/2 hour long ordeal. What’s most important here is that you work with a professional who can teach you the basics of proper human functional movement – these people should be able to:
- Help you to understand where you’re at in terms of mobility (taking in to account previous injury, previous athletic experience, etc.)
- Show you how to develop some favorable recruitment patterns for compound movement (like squats, hip hinge (like kettlebell swings), deadlifts, etc.)
- Help you develop a stable shoulder girdle for proper overhead position with presses, push presses, jerks, snatch, etc. (what’s known as “scapular retraction”)
- Teach you how to identify and execute whatever necessary correctional exercises you need to do to prepare you for strength training
- Be willing and able to work with you for a minimum of 30 and up to 90 days to properly prepare you for strength training
What about cardio? Don’t I need some HIIT or CrossFit to “get in shape”?
So what about cardio? I’m not sure where or when cardio became the end all in terms of fitness. Instead, focus on developing strength and proper functional movement recruitment patterns. Yes, there is definitely a place for metabolic conditioning in a healthy and balanced fitness regimen, absolutely. I am most definitely not a “CrossFit Hater” but let’s clarify a few things first.
Too much training is trap that too many in the HIIT and CrossFit camps fall into. It goes something like this: “Wow, I just totally wrecked myself hardcore in that WOD. I can’t wait to come back and do that for the next 4 days in a row so I can make sure to get in my 5 days a week because the more intense exercise I do, the more weight I’ll lose, stronger I’ll get and healthier I’ll be even though I still eat pizza and burgers and cookies on a regular basis and only sleep 5 hours a night, lol!” I say that kind of tongue in cheek but mostly not.
An adaptation analogy.
First of all, exercise sends signals to your body to adapt. What we need to do is make sure to regulate intensity. We need to create the proper stimulus our body needs for beneficial adaptation. Make sure to take into account things like sleep and nutrition or did I workout yesterday? What is my genetic ability to recover (like a 20 year old vs. a 40 year old)? Too much intensity will lead to you to a place where all your body thinks about is recovery. At this point you’ve abandoned your body’s ability for beneficial adaptation.
Here’s an analogy. My skin is super white. Almost blue some would say! I live in Washington State and I’m a redhead. If I wanted to get a tan, would it be a good idea for me to spend several hours a day in direct sunlight with my shirt off for 5 days in a row? Or would I start out with a half hour a couple days a week? Shouldn’t I give my skin ample time to adapt? Why is physical training treated differently? Getting you sore and getting you to sweat is what sells. There’s instant gratification in leaving it all out there for a WOD. (WOD is a CrossFit term that stands for Workout Of The Day). The endorphin rush from that ends up being the focus. It’s highly addictive. Trust me, I know. It doesn’t mean that’s healthy. We have to look at the bigger picture.
Some Final Thoughts on Strength Training and Fitness Overall
We’ve covered a lot but it’s hard to omit anything without doing a disservice to you the reader. To bring it home, back to my original point. If you don’t have tons of time to invest, I’m hoping I’ve made a strong case for strength training. In all things, fitness being no exception, our aim should be balance.
With physical training there’s so many aspects to cover that I can’t do them all justice in one article. This is a framework for fitness and health that needs to be combined with a healthy lifestyle AND other physical activity like standing, walking, hiking and other low intensity exercise. I’ll cover metabolic conditioning at a later date. There is tremendous value in specifically training within our bodies’ three different energy systems (ATP, Glycolytic, Aerobic).
For some resources for getting started, I’ve included a downloadable PDF of this article & an Execution Plan that will give you everything you need. It’ll show you how to create a thriving strength training routine without injury. Or endless hours every week grinding it out in the gym. I’ve included ways to create your own home based “garage” gym. There’s also a list of reputable strength and conditioning coaches to help you assess a proper baseline to start from. You can only progress from there! So again, if you want to get started, be sure to download the pdf & Execution Plan. Most importantly, TAKE ACTION! Make that phone call. Send that e-mail. Order that piece of equipment. Make an appointment with an experienced fitness professional to get you going!!