Eric Heiden, M.D.
When I was speed skating, we cross-trained year-round by lifting weights a couple of times a week. I found weight lifting so satisfying that even today, no matter how busy my schedule gets, not a week goes by that you won't find me out in the garage lifting weights, often with the kids and the dog out there, too.
Beyond the fun and satisfaction, however, building muscle does more than allow you to pick up heavy objects, emerging research shows.
Besides the bone-building benefits of weight-bearing activities, studies have also linked lifting weight to losing weight (Cell Metabolism, February 2008). My colleague Max Testa, M.D., notes that activities that are a good combination of aerobic and weight lifting (using light weight and high repetitions) offer the greatest pay-off in terms of burning fat, especially sub-abdominal fat - which is the most dangerous because it's linked to heart disease.
When most people think about weight lifting they picture doing bench presses at a gym with a bunch of muscle heads. The truth is, weight-bearing exercise encompasses a wide variety of other activities, including:
- Pilates and yoga;
- Walking and running;
- Chin-ups, crunches, and push-ups;
- Resistance workouts using exercise bands;
- Isometric exercises;
- Machine weights;
- Impact activities such as jumping rope, dance, trampoline;
- Even housework and yard work.
Public health guidelines recommend we make time in our schedules to do three days a week of muscle-strengthening activities. Here are some tips for making the most of that time:
- To avoid muscle strain, progress slowly with the amount of weight and number of repetitions you do.
- When you finish, you should feel as if you could do more--but don't. You won't feel the effects of the muscle work until 24 to 48 hours later.
- Couple any weight-bearing activity with other abdominal and core exercise such as Pilates, yoga or crunches.
- Using belts for lifting helps with mechanics by keeping your back rigid, but most people would benefit more from using them less. They're essentially a crutch that eventually weakens your core muscles, the muscles you need to strengthen to avoid back and abdominal strains.
- Keep a notebook to monitor your feelings relative to the workout. I do. If you're doing traditional or free weights, track how much weight you're lifting and how you're feeling. No matter the activity, ask yourself: How long does it take or after how many reps do I start to feel the burn? How long does it take to recover and do it again?
- To get an aerobic workout while doing weight-bearing exercise, concentrate on very low weight and a lot of repetitions.
- Wear shoes that provide good support and stability. The last thing you want is a narrow shoe with too much cushion in the heel, which makes it hard to maintain your balance.
Of course, traditional weight lifting works, too. Having a weight set you can use at home makes muscle-strengthening exercise less of a chore.
If you invest in one weight set, especially dumbbells, beware of buying a set that requires you to physically add weight to a barbell (or remove it) as you do your different lifts. Why? Because it's human nature to become lazy and not change them. There is great variation in the amount of weight you should be using for each type of lift.
To make changing weight easy, get a rack of dumbbells ranging in weight from one to sixty-five pounds in five-pound increments. Nautilus also makes weight sets that allow you to dial in the weight you want; these have the added advantage of taking up less space as well.
When using free weights or weight machines, remember:
- Good lifting mechanics are essential. Have someone with experience show you proper lifting form.
- Keep your back straight and the weight over your center of gravity.
- To avoid lower-back issues, do squats holding the weight lower and closer to your lumbar spine (lower back) rather than at shoulder level.
But a fondness for barbells is NOT a requirement. As I've pointed out, a number of different activities can grant you the benefits of greater muscular strength, including increased lean body mass and higher metabolism - both of which are especially good if you have a high BMI (body mass index) and want to lose weight. It can also build your bones and prevent those pesky muscle aches and joint injuries.
I promise, you won't turn into a power lifter, and your improved muscular strength will benefit you in ways that go far beyond bulging biceps - or thighs.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic Gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, MD, and DeAnne Musolf. www.heidenothopaedics.com)