As a recreational triathlete I spend a good amount of time swimming, biking and running. In fact that is all I did for the first 4 years. And although I became faster and better at each sport, eventually my progress slowed down. I also kept getting recurrent small nagging injuries like calf pain, knee pain and low back pain. And I was only in my 30s, so I couldn't really blame old age.
Was I just a sloppy athlete?
Well, it turns out I was exercising the old fashion way: do only your sport without any strength or core training. I mean, why would doing squats, planks and push ups make me any better in biking if instead you can spend that time pedaling. I hope most of you exercise and can relate to this, but even if you don't exercise, I am sure at some point you have had to lift heavy objects, do strenuous work around the house or play games with your kids. During any physical activity core and muscle strength is very important in providing you with a strong foundation and posture to avoid injury to your joints. Your core and limb muscles are essential in supporting your bones, joins, organs, body posture and stability. Strength training also improves the neuromuscular connection: the connection between your brain, nerves and muscles, allowing better recruitment and fine control of each muscle, leading to more efficient power generation per unit of muscle.
Core and muscle strength training reduces your risk of falls, injuries, osteoporosis (old age brittle bones), chronic joint and back pains and if you are an athlete it significantly improves your muscle power and efficiency.
But despite all its benefits, most people do not spend anytime strength training. I have started asking all of my patients, and the most common reasons for not doing any strength training are 1) it takes too much time, 2) I don't have the place, equipment or a gym membership and 3) I thought strength training is only for athletes or if you want to get big.
I got news for you. 1) strength training can take as little as 15 minutes twice a week, 2) you do not need a gym or fancy equipment 3) strength training will significantly improve your health and lowers risk of injuries and future joint pains without necessarily making you look like a Hulk. If that is not enough, strength training is a great way to lose weight by converting fat into muscle. This becomes even more important as you age since aging is associated with loss of muscle mass. So, regardless of your athletic (or none-athletic) level, strength training should be a part of your weekly routine.
There is strong research that suggest strength training lowers your risk of injury, strengthens your bones, joints, muscles, improves your posture and helps makes your body more lean.
And although there is nothing wrong with going to the gym and spending hours strength training, but if like me you are short on time, you can get all the benefits of strength training in 15 minutes, 2-3 times a week. Now, let's be honest, most of us spend more time than that scrolling up and down some meaningless app on our cell phones. So, you have the time. No excuses.
If you can set aside 2 sessions of 15 minutes in your week, then great. Use that time to get a good workout done. Here is some tips on how to get started:
1) a very short warm up:
You can either do your strength and core training at the end of your other exercises or any activity (a run, playing sports with your kids, mowing the lawn) or if starting from rest you can do a 5 minute warm up. A good example is 20 seconds butterflies, 10 seconds rest, 20 seconds of air squats, 10 seconds rest, 20 seconds of high knees, 10 seconds of rest and repeat 2 times. No need to stretch.
2) a specific workout plan with a timer.
You should always have your exercise routine planned out. Since short in time, you have to use it wisely, so going into a workout without a plan will just waste your time. Planning also allows you to get more from your time by doing successive exercises targeting different body parts, this way one muscle group is resting while another is working. Contrast this with doing one exercise and then standing around for a minute to rest. By planning you minimize your rest time. Here is a good example of one simple routine:
You can do this exercise with time (as written) or you can do it with specific number of sets.
With time, you simply do as many reps as you can in the designated time (30 seconds in example above). If you are new and can not do many, it's perfectly ok, do as many as you can in the allotted time. If you are more experienced and you don't feel like 30 seconds is enough, then keep the time the same, but add some weight. So, start with air squats (squats with only body weight), once you get stronger you can add a little weight, start with 10 pounds and gradually increase.
With repetition (no time), do 10-15 reps of each exercise, first with body weight and then gradually add weight as you get stronger. If you can not do 10 to begin with (I barely could do one pull up when I fist started) then just do as many as you can.
You can also make this workout into a HIT (high intensity) exercise by going as fast as you can in the 30 seconds, or focus more on your form, going slower but more mindfully of your movements. I focus more on form and quality since I get most of my aerobic exercise from my triathlon training, but if you want to make this into a good aerobic and fat burning work out, then feel free to make it into a HIT (you can even change it to 45 seconds on, 15 seconds rest for a more challenging HIT exercise). You can replace these exercises with anything else you want, just make sure you involve your upper and lower limbs in addition to your core muscles.
A good, short strength training should include all muscle groups and the core muscles. The most effective way to do this is to do whole body exercise. These include squats, lunges, deadlifts, box jumps, push ups, pull ups, burpees, various forms of planks, medicine ball throws and many other variations. These exercises focus on one body part (legs in squats and chest in push ups) but they also depend on core muscles to balance and stabilize the body during the movement. Contrast this with machine exercises like bicep curls or leg presses. Because the machine is attached to a lever, you do not need to balance your body, you simply move one body part in a fixed motion, so your core is not engaged. Machine exercises may be appropriate for those who are focused on body building, but if you are reading this blog you are most likely interested in a short, effective regiment. So, stay away from machines. Dumbbells and kettle balls are great alternatives for added weight.
Here is another common question I get: Do you have to do 3 sets? Well, up until recently the assumption was that you need at least three sets to reap the benefits of strength training. But new research suggests that doing 1 set may be as effective as 3 sets for the novice athlete, with the caveat that if you are doing one set you have to do as many reps as you humanly can, you simply can not do another one, you are burning and hurting. Whereas if you are doing 3-4 sets, the rule is that you stop when you feel like you can go another 2-3 reps, so you feel a burn, but you still have a little gas left. In short, with one set, you go to point of complete muscle exhaustion, in three sets, you depend on accumulation of fatigue over three sets. It is completely up to you as to which one you want to do. But if you are doing the one set routine, take at least a minute before each exercise (it is harder than it sounds). The nice thing about the one set regiment is that it will take less time, or you can add more exercises within that 15 minutes. The one set rule only applies to those who are just starting. For the more seasoned athlete the 3-5 set rule seems to be more effective.
What if you are are really short in time and even 15 minutes is too much to spare? I feel your pain on a weekly basis. But you still can make it happen. I sometimes get my strength training while doing other chores: Waiting for that water to boil or oven to warm up, don't stare at the pot, instead do some push ups or squats right there in the kitchen. I have a home pull up bar in our laundry room, every other day I do some pull ups between doing laundry, fixing beds or cleaning up the kids room (and yes they are very safe, our house is from 1930s, I am 168 pounds, and the door frame has yet to crumble down).
If you are parent of young children, I have news for you: kids love to join you and they make great weights! Before my boys became too heavy for my feeble muscles, I used to have them jump on my back while I did squats. Emmett, my little lazy one, loves to lay on my back while I do push ups (that is before he was 45 pounds at the age of 4). At your kids soccer game, do some push ups and squats while you are waiting. Hold a plank for a minute or do some mountain climbers. And although you may think other parents will think you are a crazy one, but in contrary (trust me on this one), they will actually be impressed and want to join you. The point is that strength training does not mean you have to be at the gym, staring at the mirror watching your muscles grow, strength training can be done any where and in very little time. One of my patients does 10 push ups and 10 squats 3 times a day at work. Strength training also does not mean that you will get bigger muscles. In fact for most of us, the 2 sessions a week will not lead to much bulking, rather it leads to toning: losing the fat and replacing it with muscle. So, you will look more fit and lean, but not necessarily big (I certainly don't look muscular).
Now that I have hopefully convinced you that strength and core training can be done anywhere and in short time, let's talk about equipment. You can obviously spend a lot of money and build yourself a nice well equipped home gym with weight racks, squat rack and all sorts of other toys, but for the minimalist, there are two kinds of equipment you need:
Weights: if you are a newbie, chances are you will not be needing weights initially. But if you do need weights then you have a few options. If money is not an issue and you have space at home, then by all means go ahead and buy a dumbbell or kettle ball set from lightest to the heaviest weight. If money is limited like me, then you can gradually build your arsenal. Between me and my wife, we use a 5, 10, 15, 20, 40 pounds and a 70 pound kettle ball. As we get stronger we invest in heavier weights, but that only happens a couple times a year. We have accumulated our weights over a few years and always on sale. If money is very limited or you just want to be more home grown and creative, well, then dig in that closet and take an old back pack, then head to your bookshelf and dust off those heavy books you have been hoarding. Before buying weights I used the Monet catalogue, Lifetime book of the 90s, and a giant Internal Medicine book as weights in my backpack.
2) None essentials:
Resistant bands: Resistant bands work like weights, but they are more functional and used for range of motion exercises. A set is anywhere from 20-60 dollars. I use resistant bands to work on my hip strength and range of motion. There are many great videos on how to use resistant bands.
Balance ball : is a fantastic tool for core strength training and costs less than 20 dollars. I personally do most of my core training with balance balls.
Jump rope: if you know how to do it, jump rope is a great way to get some aerobic exercise, best used for a warm up. I have tried and failed to do more than 10 at a time, so I do not have one.
Home pull up bar: you can either invest in a squat rack with a pull up bar (expensive and large), or like myself you can buy a standard doorway pull up bar that attaches to any doorframe (and yes it is very safe, I have yet to pull down the house). Pull ups are one of the best exercises you can do for upper body strength and core training.
In terms of space, if you have an extra room you can make it into a small gym, otherwise you can do your training in the living room, bedroom or even kids playroom. All you need is a tiny space to be able to lay flat and take one long step to each side. I am sure most of you can find this space at home. We have a small room in our basement, but sometimes I do my training after my run in the kids playroom, that way the kids are involved and get a kick out of it as well.
I hope I have convinced you that strength and core training can be done with little cost, space or time. And yet the benefits are tremendous whether you are a serious athlete, a recreational athlete or a couch potato.
Let me finish by emphasizing the importance of proper form. If you are new or have never really analyzed your form, I highly recommend that you either ask a friend/trainer to watch you or you can watch some youtube videos while you do the exercise in front of a mirror. Start slow with little or no weight. Any joint pain means you are doing something wrong, some muscle soreness the day after is normal and should subside as you get better and stronger. Here I have included some youtube videos on common home exercises.
For a much more in depth discussion on exercising and how to get started be sure to visit HealthierlifeMD.
1) Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012 Jul-Aug;11(4):209-16. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8. PMID: 22777332.
2) Hsu SL, Oda H, Shirahata S, Watanabe M, Sasaki M. Effects of core strength training on core stability. J Phys Ther Sci. 2018 Aug;30(8):1014-1018. doi: 10.1589/jpts.30.1014. Epub 2018 Jul 24. PMID: 30154592; PMCID: PMC6110226.
3) Ho SS, Dhaliwal SS, Hills AP, Pal S. The effect of 12 weeks of aerobic, resistance or combination exercise training on cardiovascular risk factors in the overweight and obese in a randomized trial. BMC Public Health. 2012 Aug 28;12:704. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-12-704. PMID: 23006411; PMCID: PMC3487794.
4) Nelson ME, Fiatarone MA, Morganti CM, Trice I, Greenberg RA, Evans WJ. Effects of High-Intensity Strength Training on Multiple Risk Factors for Osteoporotic Fractures: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 1994;272(24):1909–1914. doi:10.1001/jama.1994.03520240037038