A neighbor recently came to me in distress. She’d picked up her two-year-old, a task she’d performed countless times over the years, yet this particular encounter left her feeling tired, weary and weak. “I’m not strong, I don’t feel strong, and now when I pick up my son I feel like I’m going to hurt myself. He still needs a parent who is physically capable of taking care of him so I need to improve my strength. How do I go about getting stronger?”
You may have experienced an ‘a-ha’ moment similar to my neighbor’s, when an obstacle or challenge presents itself to emphasize the realization that you’re more physically weak than strong. Ugh, not something easily admitted, but that moment of clarity may be viewed as the perfect opportunity to grab a hanky, have a good cry, and then get to the business of establishing a strength-training routine. Here’s the information you’ll need to take your first steps toward gaining the brawn you need to get it all done.
Before I break it down for you, however, a caveat: if you seek a prescription for attaining the physique of the type you see in the latest issue of ‘Muscle and Fitness,’ know that you’re going to have to give it some time. Right now I’m talking about building your muscular foundation starting at the cellular level, where messages from your brain and body interact. The good news is that by the time you finish reading these words of guidance, you will feel stronger, more energized and capable of achieving success.
Step 1: Change your mind
Your ‘a-ha’ moment came and left you with a sense of loss but also with the flicker of hope that change is still possible. Nurture that small voice inside you that says, ‘Maybe,’ and consider the health benefits you’ll experience from improving muscular strength. At this level of the strength-training process, the mental work of preparing yourself for the upcoming physical demands involves sending positive messages from your brain to your muscles with the intention of coaxing them out of their submissive state. This may be as simple as repeating an uplifting phrase to yourself every time doubt threatens to derail your progress. Guided imagery, meditation, and progressive relaxation techniques may also assist in decreasing anxiety and improving your ability to stay focused on your goal.
Step 2: Breathe and improve posture
To the best of your ability, remember to breathe. This may seem like a silly reminder but in times of stress, both mental and physical, the instinct to hold the breath serves to create pressure in the trunk, thus protecting the spinal cord, but also to shut you off from whatever emotion or action that causes the stress. Oddly enough, allowing breath also stimulates the diaphragm and other muscles of the trunk to support you as you move, but conversely calms the body's stress response so that you are better able to face the sources of stress. Breathing and posture go hand-in-hand to ensure that you move well and enable you to be an active participant in the ups and downs of life. To attain good posture, stand against a wall with heels touching the wall and feet shoulder-width apart. Bring your chin back so that the back of your head touches the wall, pull your shoulder blades back and down, tuck your navel into your spine, and soften your knee joints. Look straight ahead and rotate your thumbs out with your palms facing forward to activate your rotator cuff muscles. Inhale through your nose and exhale out your mouth. Practice standing in this position and breathing consistently in your nose and out your mouth until it becomes comfortable.
Step 3: Find a gym
If you are the type of person who prefers to work on your own with limited interference, you may already have the equipment to start your own home gym stashed in a bedroom corner. Regardless of your personality type, financial situation, emotional needs or social preferences, there are convenient gym options available to you. Make a call to the gym down the street, look around your house for those 10-lb dumbbells, or talk a fitness-savvy friend into scoring a day or week guest pass for you at a gym with multiple locations in Oregon and SW Washington, such as 24-Hour fitness, LAFitness, Anytime Fitness, or Snap Fitness. Most personal trainers at these gyms are happy to answer questions and provide basic guidance, but if you’re in need of comprehensive assistance consider purchasing 2-3 training sessions and make sure to communicate your goals with your trainer.
Step 4: Stick to the basics
Pick up any strength-training book or type in ‘strength training’ into a search engine and you will come up with a basic list of exercises to address all the major body parts. While Bosu, TRX, and kettle bells certainly have their place in a quality strength-training routine, starting with the basics and building on a solid foundation is your best bet for success. You may have previous experience with strength-training and thus will quickly progress from squats and lunges to unilateral hip extensions on the cable machine, but giving yourself the permission to start at the beginning frees your mind from trying to remember complicated moves. With a clear mind, focus on sound breathing and posture techniques to increase your odds of preventing injury and to aid consistent progress.
Step 5: Remember that you can go back to steps 1-4, as needed
During the first few weeks of your strength-training program, you will feel stronger, more energized and optimistic. At this point the neuromuscular system, or the connection between your brain and the muscle tissue that facilitates skeletal movement, has started to adapt to the initial mental and physical work you’ve put in thus far. When that warm fuzzy feeling of doing something novel wears off, revisit steps 1-4 to identify areas of weakness and to possibly add some variety into your routine. You may not see the fruits of your labor in this early stage, but trust that something spectacular is occurring at the cellular level that will ultimately lead to gains in strength and vitality.
By challenging old ways of thinking you make way for learning new skills and thus promote continued growth and prosperity throughout your lifetime, but it can be tough to get started. Building your muscular foundation may take several attempts before you feel as if it deserves a place in your fitness regimen; however, with perseverance, a sense of humor, and possibly some new workout ideas to accommodate your flourishing strength skills, you may just lift your way to better health.