Good morning, League of Wildness!
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the majority of fitness-related articles that I see are focused on cardio. There is a lot of advice about what to do, how many minutes per week to do it, and what intensity to do it at. With so much of the focus on cardio, it seems like strength training is viewed as something only gym rats do. But the truth is that strength training is vital for everyone. Our bodies require it just as much as cardio. It isn’t about obtaining a certain aesthetic, but rather building muscle to support your body, stabilize your joints, and protect bone density as you age. Having healthy muscle mass also supports a wider array of natural movements so we can move through our day in a functional manner.
A recent study reported that 80% of adults in the US do not meet the minimum recommendation of two days of strength training per week. Of those that do hit that recommendation, they still often miss targeting the most important large muscle groups - glutes and back. Folks often focus too much on the biceps and shoulders and miss the benefits of working the larger muscles.
Ensuring that our glutes are properly strong protects our lower back and ensures a healthy walking gait. We so often think of walking as a leg exercise but the motion is primarily managed by the glutes and hips. When those areas become weak from too much sitting, it can impact how we walk. Over time, it can lead to lower back, hip, knee, and even foot pain. It’s not often you’ll visit the doctor for foot pain and be told your glutes are weak, so we have to take matters in our own hands.
The same is true for our backs. Having appropriate strength over the entire length of the back offers support to the spine and improves our posture. Years ago I spent a weekend at a meditation retreat and was shocked that over hours of sitting upright without back support, my back muscles ached for days. We allow furniture to support our bodies too frequently, leading to our muscles weakening. As a result, they are no longer up to the task of supporting and holiding our body structures, which is a major part of their job.
Strength training addresses all of these problems. You want your routine to be balanced so you are hitting all parts of your body: arms, shoulders, the entire back, core, butt, hips, and upper and lower legs. I’ve found that if I have a solid routine, my core actually gets worked naturally. Front squats, for example (where you hold the weight on the front of your body versus the back), will give your core a good workout at the same time.
Weird myths about strength training
As a woman, I’m worried I’ll get too bulky by strength training.
This definitely isn’t true! It takes an immense amount of work to build muscle in a way that appears “bulky.” It takes a specific focus on nutrition along with many hours of heavy weight lifting. It does not happen by accident. If you are afraid of ending up with muscles that are too big, have no fear. What you will find is that having a higher muscle mass will help you recomposition your body (more muscle, less fat) and reduce your risk of a variety of issues, including joint pain, low bone density, and heart disease.
Strength training requires too many supplements
If you start reading articles online, you’ll notice that this comes up a lot. You really don’t have to take any supplements for a successful strength program. Focus on whole, healthy food with ample protein. Different strategies work for different people but generally, I aim for something like Greek yogurt with a handful of berries or oatmeal with almond butter and banana at least an hour before strength training. Post-workout, I always go for eggs with avocado and some veggies.
Strength training isn’t good for our joints
I am not sure where this one came from, but strength training, when done properly, is very beneficial to our joints! Strong muscles ensure that our joints can enjoy a full range of motion. Having adequate muscle mass also protects joints from injury. When we move our joints with inadequate strength to support them, it results in a faster breakdown of cartilage which can lead to arthritis later in life. Building strength also contributes to better balance which reduces the risk of injury from falls, and increases bone density so if we do fall, nothing breaks.
Do I have to join an expensive gym?
No! I haven’t been to a gym since I was in college, which was sometime in the Paleolithic age according to my kids. Here at Wild Gym, we are the anti-gym after all! Your body combined with nature is a great tool for strength training. One of my favorite workouts is to put weight in a backpack and go on a hike. AKA rucking. Stepping up onto rocks and over logs with weight on your back will give you a good strength and cardio workout at the same time. In the winter, I have a small home gym setup including my Wild Gym gear (soon to add Neon Buffalo!), heavy resistance bands, and a set of adjustable dumbbells. I still spend plenty of time outdoors in the winter but I do find I have to change things up and add in more weight training. It also keeps my mood up when it’s -30. Perhaps this is the winter I try rucking in snowshoes.
How do I start?
Start wherever you are! If you are comfortable doing air squats (no weight) and can do a lot of reps, try finding a way to add weight. A ruck pack (which is nothing more than a backpack with weight in it) is a great hands-free option.You can obviously use weights if you have them, or even things around the house. Through some full water bottles or cans from the pantry into a backpack and get some squats in while your coffee brews. If you can’t do a standard pushup, modify! Do pushups on your knees, or even start with an elevated surface such as a countertop. The important thing is to add resistance training to your routine for at least 2-3 days a week.
What exercises are the most valuable?
Work those big muscles: butt and back. Squats, lunges (bonus points for Bulgarian Split Squats!), step-ups (step up and down off of an elevated surface), rows of any type, presses, pushups, and planks. For me, including those things several days a week has shown the most benefit. Starting out with bodyweight-only is a great way to learn form, work on flexibility to perform some of the moves, and get comfortable challenging your body. If you can’t keep your heels on the ground when you squat, add something behind them, like a yoga block, a rolled-up rug or towel. Over time, work to make that wedge shorter. When you're feeling confident or doing a lot of reps, add some weight! As your reps increase with the weight, then continue adding more weight. That’s really all there is to it. There are other ways to make things more challenging, such as changing the angle you are using. For example, going from doing counter pushups to knee pushups on the floor to standard pushups. You can also vary the tempo or speed at which you complete a repetition, Try doing a 10-second slow Squat - it will burn!
I love strength training and would love to see more people getting into it. It’s not just something for gym rats, athletes, or young guys. It’s for everyone: men and women from ages 2 to 100+. It is a vital activity for our bodies as humans. Now for my morning Squoffee – squats with coffee in hand.
Some good and reliable info on the benefits of strength training and some other ideas to get started:
A study on the benefits of strength training for overall health:
This article helps to dispel some of the myths around women and strength training:
Happy New Years, League! Wishing you all an adventurous 2023. May it be your wildest year yet. We’re stoked for everything coming this year and are grateful to have you along the journey with us.