DEAR DOCTOR K: I exercise regularly, running or playing tennis several times a week. I’d like to add strength training to my routine. Anything I should know before I start?
DEAR READER: Strength training should be part of everyone’s exercise routine. I ignored it for years and just did aerobic exercise. Despite substantial aerobic exercise every day, and my resulting cardiovascular fitness, I noticed my muscle bulk slowly shrinking.
Strength training increases muscle mass, tones muscles and strengthens bones. It helps you maintain the strength you need for everyday activities — lifting groceries, climbing stairs or rising from a chair. What’s more, it helps prevent or treat a variety of conditions, including osteoporosis, back pain, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Strength-training exercises build muscle by making them strain against an opposing force. Examples include pushing against a wall, lifting a dumbbell or pulling on a resistance band.
Try to do strengthening exercises for all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and arms) at least twice a week. Start with one set — usually 8 to 12 repetitions of the same movement — per session. Over time, work your way up to two to three sets per session.
Here are some more tips to keep your strength training safe and effective:
(1) Warm up and cool down for five to 10 minutes. Walking is a fine way to warm up; stretching is an excellent way to cool down.
(2) Focus on form, not weight. Align your body correctly and move smoothly through each exercise. Poor form can prompt injuries and slow gains.
(3) The first weight you start to lift should be a weight that you can lift eight times in succession. If you can’t do that, you’ve started with too much weight.
(4) Keep challenging your muscles. When it feels too easy, add weight.
(5) Concentrate on slow, smooth lifts and equally controlled descents. Take three seconds to lift a weight. Hold it for one second. Then take four seconds to slowly drop the weight. Controlling the downward movement of the weight is as important to building muscle strength as lifting up the weight.
(6) Don’t be concerned if you have a little muscle soreness after you start strength training. That’s normal, and it should go away.
(7) On the other hand, if the training causes sudden sharp pain anywhere, don’t try to “push through the pain.” Talk to a physical therapist or trainer; something is wrong, and you could make it worse by pushing too hard.
(8) Pay attention to your breathing. Exhale as you work against resistance by lifting, pushing or pulling; inhale as you release.
(9) Give your muscles at least 48 hours to recover between strength-training sessions.
You can do a lot to protect your health with regular strength training — done right.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.