by Anna Renderer
“That which is used develops, and that which is not used wastes away.” -Hippocrates
Today, the fitness industry is continually making advancements and gaining popularity due to long term research studies, medical breakthroughs, competitiveness in professional sports, longevity of the average life, etc.
The practice of strength training has been around since the beginning of time, dating back to at least the 6th century BC, when legend has it that wrestler Milo of Croton trained by carrying a newborn calf on his back every day until the calf was fully grown. In the 1980s, movies like Pumping Iron and celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger gained the public’s interest even more. Today, the focus of strength training has moved towards improving function and performance versus just getting bigger and stronger. Instead of focusing on the chest and bicep muscles, the emphasis is now on strengthening the back and abdominals, frequently referred to as “the core.” This shift in focus has increasingly gained popularity, especially among yoga and piliates enthusiasts.
Strength training is frequently mistaken as heavy lifting, dangerous, and unappealing to beginners. Often times it is associated with bodybuilding, weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman fitness. However, these are sports rather than forms of exercise. Strength training is a large part of the training regimen for these sports, but not its entirety; it is appropriate for all fitness levels and is a valuable part of every fitness program.
Strength training is a general term described as “resistance placed upon the muscles to build the strength, anaerobic endurance and size of skeletal muscles”. There are many different methods of strength training, the most common being the use of gravity or elastic/hydraulic forces to oppose muscle contraction. That would mean using body weight, sport cords, free weights, or weight machines for resistance. Note that the terms “strength training” and “resistance training” are often used interchangeably. Weight training is one type of strength training and the most common. Although strength training is primarily an anaerobic activity, some techniques used in the fitness industry provide the benefits of aerobic exercise through circuit training.
When performed properly, strength training can provide significant functional benefits and improvement in overall health and well-being including increased bone density, muscle, tendon and ligament strength and toughness, improved joint function, injury prevention, improved heart function and decreasing risk factors for disease.
What is “The Core”?
I’m certain that you’ve heard of core strength training before. If you haven’t then it’s time to listen up!!! When talking about strength training, the core muscles are the most important to human function and performance, mainly because all movement stems from the core. Anatomically speaking, the core is the area around your trunk and pelvis. The muscle you feel contracting deep in your abdomen when you cough is the transverse abdominals. Other major abdominal muscles include the oblique and the rectus abdominals. Major back muscles include the multifidus and the erector spinae. In addition to the major muscle groups that make up the core, there are many other small stabilizing muscles that support the trunk. Core stability allows your low back, pelvis, hips, and abdomen to work in harmony. Strong core muscles make it easier to do most physical activities, from swinging a golf club to getting a glass off a top shelf or bending down to tie your shoes. Weak core muscles leave you susceptible to poor posture, lower back pain and muscle injuries.
The best part about strengthening the core is that it doesn’t take specialized equipment or fancy exercises. Any exercise that uses the trunk of your body without additional support will strengthen the core muscles. Squats, push-ups and abdominal crunches are examples of some of these exercises.
An efficient way to strengthen core muscles is to involve them in each and every strength training exercise you perform. It is essential to practice exercises that focus specifically on the core muscle groups, but almost equally important to involve the core muscles during all other exercises. If your parents had you practice tying your shoes only once or twice a week, how quickly would you learn how to tie your shoes? The best and most efficient way to gain core strength is to incorporate the core in as many exercises as possible.
Exercise the Core
Strength training using body weight as the primary resistance is an effective way to incorporate core strengthening. When performed correctly, it also strengthens the small muscle groups around the joints. For example, push-ups, lunges, squats, body planks, and crunches all require us to stabilize our trunk in position without support.
Too frequently people are straining their low back due to weaknesses in the core. Even experienced heavyweight lifters incorporate body weight exercises in their workouts to add variety. An example would be performing a set of push-ups versus bench press because it utilizes the core muscles to stabilize the trunk in a plank position versus being supported on a bench.
Using equipment such as a Swiss ball (aka Fitness ball, Physio ball, Stability ball) is a perfect way to enhance core strengthening even more. It requires the use of balance and core stabilization to keep your center of gravity in place. Performing pushups or planks with the Swiss ball will challenge the core muscles more because it’s an unstable surface. Simply sitting on a Swiss ball and gently bouncing works your abdominals, back and thigh muscles. Although some exercises performed with a ball are advanced, most of them are perfect for beginners. It is important to begin at a level appropriate for your strength but be sure to allow yourself to progress when needed.
Anna Renderer, one of Fitness Quest 10’s very own trainers, is holds an MS in Exercise Physiology and is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer. She recently released her first training DVD, “Lighten Up”, which showcases some of the best ways for you to strengthen your core!