Strength without steel

Medicine balls, resistance bands and old-fashioned body weight can provide quality strength training

You know you need to do strength training, but you're not interested in hitting up the gym or pounding steel. But that's OK.

You can unchain yourself from the weight machine and still build muscle. Simple exercises using just your body weight or inexpensive, easy-to-use equipment can save both your body and sanity — making it easier to achieve the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation to strength train at least two days per week.

The key is to pick the right exercise for each muscle group and perform them correctly, says Brian Biagioli, director of the University of Miami Strength and Conditioning Graduate Program and executive director of the National Council on Strength and Fitness Board for Certification.

"Start with a small group of exercises to allow yourself time to gain physical knowledge, and then add a couple more to your repertoire as you progress," he says.

Good form ensures workout efficiency and reduces the likelihood of injury. Although this isn't news to anyone, Biagioli says people are always surprised at how difficult it is to achieve and maintain it.

"People assume they can just start right away and get it, but exercising is a learned motor pattern, just like learning to hit a softball," he says. "It's a lot more complicated than people think."

Even his graduate students in kinesiology struggle to correctly perform simple moves like a squat. He estimates that 60 to 80 percent cannot maintain proper form, leaving little hope that the average person is doing it right on the first try.

So how do you avoid this? First, make friends with your mirror. Your body naturally inclines to incorrect biomechanics, explains Biagioli, and you won't always be able to recognize poor form without seeing it. Then check to ensure your spine stays in what experts deem the "neutral" position, which allows your back to maintain its natural curvature without a forward hunch or exaggerated arch.

After you have a neutral starting point, give yourself time to learn the correct way to perform an exercise. The requirements depend on the move, but it almost always involves keeping your joints aligned.

"Think of your body like a building," says Biagioli. "When we build skyscrapers, we don't build them at an angle."

Take a lunge, for example. When you bend your front knee, it should not move over your toe; you should be moving downward as much as forward. The alignment rule applies to arms as well, such as when you perform a bicep curl. Many will move their elbow forward as they pull the weight up. Instead, you should keep your elbow aligned with your shoulder.

Remember, too, that exercise should be difficult and your body naturally inclines to bad form to compensate for this strain. As soon as you feel fatigue (which may be quickly if you're just learning a new exercise), stop the exercise and rest for 30 seconds to one minute.

Most people working out at home are already crunched for time, so they'll want to work the whole body rather than focusing on one specifically. If this is the case, start with the largest muscle groups first. This means beginning at the legs and working your way up, suggests Derek Grabert, certified strength and conditioning specialist and education assistant for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Moving from the bottom up also helps maintain balance.

"Men especially always want to start with the arms first, but it's best to save that for the end of the routine," Grabert says.

Despite what gym proponents say, you can get a good workout using just your body weight, according to Biagioli and Grabert. But inexpensive equipment like medicine balls and resistance bands can give your workout a boost while also helping you maintain proper form. Bands offer additional flexibility because you can create more tension depending on where you grip it. They're available in different thicknesses for resistance variations and color-coded for easy identification. Grabert says it's important to keep your core engaged during any band exercise by pulling your belly button in and up toward your ribs (while not forgetting to breathe).

If you're looking for a full-body workout, Biagioli recommends these simple moves with a resistance band: forward reach (hamstrings), lunges with band curls (quadriceps and biceps), band squats (hips), seated or standing row (back), forward press (chest), overhead press or side raise (shoulders) and tricep kickback (triceps). Grabert also considers the Yoga-derived plank as an excellent workout for your main muscle groups, strengthening your arms, shoulders, legs and most importantly, your core.

Technology is your best asset while learning these moves. Many fitness organizations have their own YouTube channels or website feeds with how-to videos on each of the exercises. Just be sure to check that the organization sponsoring the video is reputable, such as the NCSF or Mayo Clinic.

Strength training doesn't require a pricey gym membership or fancy equipment. You just need your body, perhaps an inexpensive prop like a medicine ball or resistance band and the patience to learn the exercises correctly.



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