The term “resistance exercise” and “resistance training,” or RT for short, are used regularly in this column. It doesn’t refer to trying to get your kids or grandkids to eat their broccoli, or finding a way to prevent your trusty friend Max or Molly from jumping up on visitors.
RT is a specialized form of exercise or physical workout, and although it may sound formidable and perhaps intimidating, it’s actually a great way for beginners to establish a super-beneficial exercise routine. RT needn’t involve cardio strain or high levels of exertion to start. Most RT exercises are simple to follow, making them easy to do at home, and they provide positive, noticeable results in a relatively short time. Best of all, they can be done inexpensively with no or very little equipment or apparatus.
What is RT, what are its proven benefits, what specific exercises are involved, and how can I do it at home without a lot of cost?
Just before we answer the above questions, we should discuss distractions. I simply could not do any exercise program three or four times a week without my BBC mysteries for distraction. Whether it’s podcasts, TV sports, or social media for you, planning access to your distraction while exercising is critical to staying motivated. Conversely, if you’re a beginner, RT in front of floor to ceiling mirrors might be too much distraction.
What is resistance training
RT is any exercise which causes your muscles to contract, or “resist” against an object or force through pushing or pulling. Resistance exercises are designed to make your muscles work at a level beyond their normal day-to-day activities, with the goal of building strength, increasing skeletal muscle mass, and improving muscular endurance. There can be an element of strength or weight training involved, but the goal of resistance training is not to develop huge amounts of muscle tissue or body bulk.
Resistance training is a versatile workout that can be done in a gym or group class if moral support and coaching are important to you, or in the privacy of your home with your choice of distraction.
Resistance training can be limited to individual muscles or muscle groups if you have specific goals, such as rehabbing an injury or reducing back pain. In most situations however, full-body RT workouts generate increased overall benefits.
Resistance training needn’t involve expensive equipment. Squats, lunges, and push-up or plank type exercises offer excellent resistance elements, and need no equipment other than your body’s own weight to perform.
Free weights work well. A free weight might be a dumbbell or barbell, but initially might also be a large can of chickpeas, a hamper of laundry, or a bottle of fine Niagara wine strategically gripped to increase the weight of your extended arm.
Working your muscles against resistance bands or tubes is a simple and inexpensive way to build strength at home. If you prefer equipment and gizmos, a cable machine (Bowflex-like), a single-exercise machine (elliptical trainer), or multi-gym system will also work.
Benefits of resistance training
Our muscles are integral to both our physical and mental health.
RT helps reverse the loss of muscle mass that comes with aging. Beginning at around age 30, we lose three to five percent of our muscle mass every decade, and by age 70 we’re losing on average 15 percent per decade. We can generate muscle tissue at any age, making this trend reversible with RT.
I might personally recommend that the target here is 84-year-old Jane Fonda’s all-round fitness and muscle retention, rather than 75-year-old Sylvester Stallone’s creepy muscle bulk, but either is better than atrophy.
RT provides protection against a significant number of chronic conditions and diseases. It builds bone density and improves balance, both important to fighting osteoporosis. Regular moderate RT can reduce the pain and stiffness of arthritis while increasing flexibility. Metabolism is increased for up to 72 hours after vigorous RT, burning additional calories and helping long-term weight control. RT aids glycemic control and improves our lipid profile, reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Regular core muscle RT combined with stretching reduces stress on the spine, relieving back pain.
Resistance training and exercise in general causes our brain to release feel-good endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine, all critical to reducing stress and anxiety and maintaining a positive mood each day. Contracting muscles release hormones and myokines into our circulatory system which further enhance our mental health.
Beginners to RT, like any exercise regime, need to start gently. If you’re at all concerned about your baseline strength and flexibility levels, speak with your doctor or fitness professional first. If you’re comfortable that you can self-assess safely, count how many regular or modified push-ups you can achieve without excessive strain, and establish how far forward you can stretch when you’re seated with your legs in front of you. Push-up capability will provide a sense of your strength; five to 12 is average for women, six to 16 for men. The most basic measure of reasonable flexibility is being able to touch your toes while sitting and standing.
Dedicate an area of your home with sufficient space for your RT, and plan so you can watch videos, TV, a laptop or listen to music as desired. Find a strong, stable chair that allows you to sit with your knees at a 90 degree angle and your feet flat on the floor.
Proper shoes and clothing are a must for RT. Athletic shoes with medium-thick soles will provide support while reducing the hazard of tripping as you move around. Loose-ish clothes that don’t constrict but also aren’t so baggy that they’ll snag a dumbbell or resistance strap are best. Fabrics are a personal choice. Pure cotton feels great and will give you that erotic, sweat-drenched glow that’s a movie love scene standard. Wicking synthetics breathe and will keep you cooler. Alternating is an option.
Body weight resistance exercises are a great, equipment-free way to develop your first routine.
Wall push-ups are easier than standard push-ups and if your flexibility is marginal or you’re suffering from back issues, you needn’t get down on the floor to do them. They’ll strengthen arms, shoulders and chest.
Squats are a simple exercise that quickly strengthens thigh, hip and glute (butt) muscles. Extend your arms straight out parallel to the floor and squat. If you’re unsure of your strength or balance, stand in front of a chair and only squat halfway, or gently support yourself by having a wall close by if you lose balance. Want more resistance? Raise your heels and maintain balance on the balls of your feet while squatting, or throw in a few burpees and ski jumps when you’re ready.
Step-ups—repeated forward-facing up and downs on stairs or a small stool—will also strengthen these same muscles.
Toe stands will improve calf and ankle strength. Finger marching—taxing your muscles to extend your wiggling fingers as high upward, forward or backward as possible while seated or standing—will strengthen your upper body and grip.
Even carpeted floors can feel hard and de-motivating. An inexpensive fitness or yoga mat will help for on-floor pelvic tilts and back arches, or forward and side planks—the one in which holding a bottle of wine increases resistance. All are great RT body weight exercises that will strengthen lower back and abdominal muscles to ease back pain.
Choosing free weights, elastic resistance bands or stretchy RT tubes to get started is also an option. Resistance bands and tubes are the most storage-space friendly and least expensive, as long as you have a solid place to anchor them such as around a sofa leg or your own foot. Other resistance band exercises include upward leg presses, hip extensions and arm pull-aparts.
Free weights offer additional diversity for RT options like overhead triceps extensions and others where a band might interfere with body motion.
Both options provide the ability to do the standard exercises we most often associate with resistance training: arm curls, lifts and pulls while in the lunge position, overhead lifts or rows, shoulder presses, triceps kickbacks, and more.
Beyond the examples of body weight and minimal equipment RT exercises mentioned above, the next step would be a gym membership of some sort, or expensive equipment purchases for your home. When you’re ready for this progression, you’ll want more expertise than can be provided through this column. I’d strongly suggest doing your internet research on equipment and joining a training facility to get the assistance you need. By joining a gym you’ll be using and getting familiar with similar equipment to what you might consider purchasing later.
If you already have an exercise routine that doesn’t include resistance training, consider it as a beneficial way to spice up your workouts and keep them interesting. If you’re considering a dedicated exercise routine, resistance training is an easy and very inexpensive way to get started at home.
If you need any advice on which of our library’s BBC mystery DVDs will offer the best distraction while you’re discovering the joy of RT, contact me through the Voice.