Building Muscles with Resistance Training

Written by Leila Dale/Brannavy Jeyasundaram

3 min read

I have thick curly hair and while it can be glamorous, it takes some serious muscle to detangle it. The other day, when I was running a comb through my locks I had to take a 5-minute pause because of the burn in my upper-arm. It was then that it dawned on me, I was in the middle of resistance training and boy, did I need it. 

Resistance training (also known as strength training or weight training) works your muscles against something, like your own body weight, dumbbells or free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, or even water.  And it comes with a number of health benefits, namely; improved muscle strength, better posture and balance, stronger bones, lower blood sugar and more energy! Plus, all of these health benefits accumulate to ensure healthy ageing and fall prevention, so you can live longer and stay independent in your grey years. 

How? Working your muscles against resistance creates tiny tears, making your muscles stronger as they heal. Stronger muscles can help make doing things in your daily life easier, such as yard work or household tasks, like carrying groceries, laundry, or detangling your hair (haha). By strength-training regularly, your muscle strength can improve quickly, which also gives you a sense of accomplishment.  

Good news: anyone can strength train, regardless of age or ability. But, it can easily be intimidating as many people don’t know where to start. Here’s a quick How-To Guide for Resistance Training:

How often?

According to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, you should allocate at least 2 days a week for resistance training. Strength training twice a week will help you maintain strength, but if you want to become stronger, you need to do more. So, aim for 2 days a week, minimum.

Where?

A gym membership can help, but it’s not always accessible especially during a pandemic.  There are many different ways to strength train, such as using your own body weight (like push-ups, planks, or squats). Everyday heavy lifting activities, either at home or at work, count too.

Activities can include gardening/yard work (e.g. pulling weeds, pushing a lawnmower), or household chores, (e.g. hanging laundry, carrying groceries). 

Other inexpensive strength training tools are dumbbells/free weights or resistance bands. Resistance bands are inexpensive (can be bought online or from most physiotherapists) and are great for travelling – just roll up into your suitcase for a portable strength training session. Tai Chi and yoga are also wonderful examples of activities that improve balance and build muscle strength. 

How much to lift?

When starting a resistance training program, beginners should start with a weight that can be lifted for the entire number of repetitions. There should be some fatigue after a set, but not exhaustion. About 2 to 3 sets are usually recommended per resistance training exercise, with a couple of minutes to rest in between sets. For example, for each exercise, you may start with 8 repetitions for 2 sets. This means lifting the weight 8 times (1st set), resting a minute or two, then lifting the same weight, the same way, another 8 times (2nd set).

If you’re new to resistance training, a qualified exercise professional can help you start. They can look for and correct any muscle imbalances you may have, develop your personal strength training program, and help with personal motivation. They’ll also teach you how to perform resistance exercises correctly so that you reduce your risk of injury.

What order?

If you’re simply looking to be physically active, it doesn’t matter if you do aerobic/cardiovascular exercise before or after strength training.  If you have performance goals, like becoming stronger or running 5km, your goal should dictate what you focus on. For example, if your main goal is to build strength, start with your resistance exercises before you do cardio. But ALWAYS start with an aerobic full-body warm-up (5-10 min) before weight training. For more on how to properly warm-up for exercise, see here.

Do I need a rest day?

You don’t need to have a rest day between resistance training sessions, but you do need to rest the muscles you exercised for a day – this allows the muscles to rebuild and become stronger. You can work DIFFERENT muscle groups on 2 consecutive days, such as working your legs/arms one day and your chest/core another. Don’t forget that your core includes the muscles of your hips, back, spine AND abs. A strong core is needed to maintain good posture and support the movement of your limbs. Think: Healthy ageing.

Other tips?

Check out the Introductory Resistance Exercises on the Diabetes Canada website, complete with photos and a plan of how many repetitions/sets to do to help you progress over 6 months. It’s a great place to start! They also include a resistance band training program, if you’d prefer to work with a band over free weights/body weight.

Finally, remember to:

  • Only do the exercises you can (there should be some fatigue, but not exhaustion!)
  • Maintain proper form and posture
  • Keep movements slow and controlled
  • Breathe with each repetition
  • Work slowly and keep to a comfortable range of motion
  • Vary your program to keep things interesting and reduce the risk of injury

Let’s face it, resistance is good for us (and in my case, my hair).

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