It’s 6.30am, and I’m at the gym. There’s the waft of sanitiser and sweat in the air. I’m wearing Lycra, grunting, and questioning all the decisions that led me to this point 😣.
OK, I’m being overly dramatic. But after almost four years away from the gym, I’m a little flustered and overwhelmed. I’m also at a gym with complicated-looking machines that have QR codes to show you how to use them properly! What was I thinking?!?
Oh, that’s right. It’s time to get serious about strength training again. Walking and LOTS of podcasts have gotten me through the worst of the pandemic and saved my physical and mental health. But I now need to step it up and add strength training back into my routine.
Because we all need to be doing some strength training every week. The Australian physical activity guidelines say adults should do at least two sessions of strength training every week. So, on with the active gear and off to the gym 😐.
So what exactly is strength training?
Strength training is any exercise that uses resistance or weights to strengthen your muscles by working them a little harder than you do in everyday life. It’s also called resistance or weight training.
Strength training uses equipment like free weights (e.g. dumbbells, leg cuffs), gym machines and elastic resistance bands or your body weight (e.g. push-ups, squats).
When you exercise, you’ll do reps, sets and rests.
A rep, or repetition, is the completion of one exercise. For example, one bicep curl or one lunge.
A set is a specific number of reps performed in a row. This is generally between 8 and 15 reps depending on the person and the exercise. So, a set may be 10 bicep curls or 12 lunges.
Rests are – you guessed it – rests from the weights or resistance. You give your muscles a short break to recover. Then you do your next set. So you may do 3 sets of 10 bicep curls or 2 sets of 12 lunges.
Breaking it up into reps, sets and rests allows your strength training program to be tailored to your specific needs and abilities. It also makes it easy to track how much you’re exercising and when you need to progress and add more weight, resistance, reps or sets.
Why should we be doing strength training?
No matter your age or fitness level, regular exercise is essential for good physical and mental health and wellbeing. A good exercise program should incorporate activities that help maintain or improve your flexibility, balance, overall fitness and endurance, and of course, your strength.
- Strengthens the muscles that support your joints. This is particularly important if you have arthritis or joint problems.
- Helps you maintain a healthy weight or lose weight when combined with a weight-loss diet.
- Helps improve your balance and flexibility.
- Increases your stamina, meaning you won’t get tired so quickly.
- Increases your bone density, essential for reducing your risk of osteoporosis.
- Improves sleep quality.
- Makes you feel good. Exercise releases chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine into your bloodstream. These chemicals can boost your mood, improve your sense of wellbeing and relieve pain.
Who should be doing strength training?
EVERYONE! Wow, that was shouty 😁. The serotonin must still be buzzing around my body 😂.
But everyone should be able to do some strength training each week.
If you haven’t exercised in a while or you’re new to strength training, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor and get advice from a physiotherapist, exercise physiologist, or a qualified exercise professional before you start. That’s because the amount you do and the weights involved will differ for each person. There’s no ‘one size fits all’.
But won’t it aggravate my condition?
No, not if you get the right advice before you begin and follow some simple precautions.
- Warm up first. Before you grab the weights or start lunging, you need to warm your muscles and get your blood pumping. So take some time to walk briskly, climb stairs, or ride a stationary bike.
- Focus on your form. Ideally, when you’re starting out you’ll be under the supervision of a professional who can ensure your form is correct and safe.If you’re doing it on your own take it slowly and position yourself in front of a mirror so you can watch your form. Or work out with a friend and help each other.
To avoid injury, make sure your movements are smooth and even, not jerky. Pay attention to how your muscles control the movements; don’t let the weights control you. If they are, they may be too heavy for you. Try not to hunch your shoulders or hold tension in your neck.
- If you have hot, swollen joints, avoid exercising those joints. Instead, concentrate on areas that aren’t actively inflamed. For example, exercise your arms and shoulders if your knees are inflamed.
- Strength training exercises shouldn’t cause pain if you’re doing the exercises correctly and using the appropriate weight or resistance. If your joints start to hurt more than usual, stop that exercise. Get advice to ensure you’re doing everything properly. And talk with your doctor or exercise professional about what pain is normal to feel when exercising and what isn’t.
- To get the most out of your strength training program, you need to do it two to three times per week. Your program should also increase in intensity over time to continue strengthening your muscles. Generally, a strength training program will take between 45 and 60 minutes to complete. This includes warming up and cooling down.
- Listen to your body. If you’re experiencing a flare, or you’re really not up for a strength training session, take a break. You know your body better than anyone else. But exercise is an important management strategy and something we need to do most days. So, instead of strength training, try some gentle exercises in water or range of motion exercises at home. This will help reduce pain and stiffness.
- Exercise when you’re feeling the most flexible. If you’re really stiff first thing in the morning, it’s probably not the best time to do your strength training. Wait until your body has loosened up, and then do your exercises. Taking a warm shower may also help.
- Don’t overdo it. Start with weights that challenge you a bit, but not too much. Again, support from a professional will help you find the right weights and exercises for you.
- But also remember to challenge yourself. When your program becomes easy to complete and is no longer challenging, it’s time to increase the intensity. This may involve increasing the number of sets, repetitions, weight or resistance. Or it may be time to add new exercises that work your body differently.
- Give your muscles a break between strength training sessions. Don’t do strength training sessions on consecutive days unless you work different muscle groups in each session. For example, arms on Monday; legs on Tuesday.
- Dress the part. No, you don’t need to buy a whole new wardrobe for strength training 😏. But you do need comfortable, stretchy clothes that allow you to move easily without getting caught on equipment. And you’ll need good shoes that provide support and comfort while providing a good grip on the floor or equipment.
- Remember to breathe. When you’re concentrating on form and technique, it’s easy to forget to breathe. But that can raise your blood pressure and make you feel faint. So make sure you breathe.
- Stay hydrated. Exercise is thirsty work, so keep your water bottle close by and keep your fluids up.
- Don’t rush your cool down. It’s important to take time to wind down physically and mentally after your exercise session. This gives your body a chance to cool down and your heart rate to return to normal. It’s as easy as taking a walk around the gym or your house or doing some stretches. Talk with your doctor, or exercise professional for some guidance.
Argh! But I don’t want to go to a gym!
That’s fair enough. They can be intimidating and costly. But there are other options.
- Work out at home. You can follow online videos or have an exercise program created for you by a physio or exercise physiologist. You may need to purchase some weights or resistance bands and use your body weight for exercises. Another option is to rent or buy a home gym.
- Go to the park. Lots of them have strength training stations you can use for free.
- Get a personal trainer. They can bring all the necessary gear to your home or a local park. You can join a small group or hire them on your own, though it’s generally cheaper to be part of a small group.
- Go swimming. Although it’s generally considered a cardio exercise because it raises your heart rate and works your heart and lungs, swimming can also increase muscle strength. When you move through the water, you’re pushing against its resistance. You won’t see the same results as using weights or other equipment, but it’s a good option.
“Good things come to those who sweat.”
Contact our free national Help Line
Call our nurses if you have questions about managing your pain, musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, telehealth, or accessing services. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via Messenger.
More to explore
- Effects of physical exercise and body weight on disease-specific outcomes of people with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs): systematic reviews and meta-analyses informing the 2021 EULAR recommendations for lifestyle improvements in people with RMDs
RMD Open, 2022; 8(1).
- I was scared of strength training because of my rheumatoid arthritis – here’s how I got over it
- Strength training for beginners
- Strength training for inflammatory conditions
- Weight lifting with arthritis: Is it good or bad for you?
- Weight training 101
- Weight training: Do’s and don’ts of proper technique