Monday Medical: Strength training for the new year

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January is here - typically a time to set New Year's resolutions. Many people consider losing weight and exercising. Are you thinking about starting a strength training program? If so, here are some factors to consider before you begin.

If you are joining a health club, you will notice a variety of exercise equipment, chrome weight machines, pulleys and plates of steel, as well as benches, racks of dumbbells and bar bells, ranging in size from petite to monstrous. Where do you start?

Strength training, also known as resistance training, involves the use of weights or resistance to build stronger muscles. This can be done by using a variety of machines, free weights or simply the resistance of your own body, as with pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups and various balance exercises.

The first step to starting any exercise program is to consult your healthcare provider. Next, determine your goals. A personal trainer can be an invaluable resource to get you on the right path.

No matter what tools you use, you should include exercise that uses all of your major muscle groups, making sure you are giving equal attention to balancing sets of muscles, using proper form with smooth, controlled movements, and allowing your muscles to rest by avoiding workouts on successive days.

"In order to enhance your activities of daily living or your athletic, sport skills, you should strive to develop not only strong muscles, but strong links between muscle groups," said Mark Jones, owner of Optimum Fitness, a personal training business in Steamboat Springs.

"Having strong calf muscles is one thing," Jones said. "But to develop power links right up your leg, going from the calf muscles to the hamstring muscles to the gluteal muscles and then to the lumbar spine muscles - that's ideal."

If you're just getting started and don't have a personal trainer, a multi-station weight machine can be your first stop. Many facilities require that you have an orientation before you use equipment. A staff member explains the operation of each machine and shows you how to adjust the seat and weights.

The multi-stations are set up to work large muscles first - the leg and core body muscles - and then shoulders, chest and arms. As you follow the circuit, you work out all the major muscle groups.

In most cases, however, the same muscle groups can be worked just as effectively, or better, with free weights. In fact, one benefit of using free weights is, they force you to concentrate on proper form and to bring into play smaller, stabilizer muscles.

"You need to be able to contract every muscle fully at multiple angles in your limb placement and in wide ranges of motion," Jones explained. "You cannot achieve this kind of strength of movement by weight training with machines that isolate your muscles."

Dumbbells and bar bells allow movement in three dimensions, developing balance as well as strength. Using free weights with a balance ball can develop strength and balance in core body muscles.

If you're working out at home, free weights may be the most economical choice, as they are affordable and easy to store. However, you should consult a personal trainer about proper form and new routines.

Whatever combination of machines and free weights you use, it's important to change your routine every four to six weeks. By doing this, you can avoid hitting a plateau or overworking one muscle group.

Strength training benefits are significant. At any age, strong and flexible muscles promote good core stability, balance and health. Here's to a healthy new year!

Lisa Bankard coordinates the Wellness and Community Education programs at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at lisa.bankard@yvmc.org.

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