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Strength training - what can we focus on

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I said this in my previous blog, but wanted to expand on it more: "I do strength training for strong muscles and healthy joints, ligaments, and tendons."

I rarely do things for just one reason. I love when I can live the cliche “two birds with one stone” and get a single action to have multiple benefits. Strength training, particularly in the form of weight training, gives me the ability to do that. emoticon

A few months ago, I read a article that was about common lifting terms. In the way they defined the term “bodybuilding”, one thing stood out to me:

“... anyone who exercises with an emphasis on aesthetics ...”

emoticon Aesthetics -- the look, the appearance, having to do with being visually appealing.

The goal isn’t to lift the most weight. The goal isn’t to be the most physically fit and capable. The goal is to be able to pose, showing off a body that has more or less defined muscle. The different categories (bikini, figure, physique) are often differentiated by the amount of body fat

That is certainly not my emphasis. I actually find the look of competitive bodybuilders rather unappealing, especially at the physique level. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, for sure.

A little side jaunt related to the physique look in bodybuilding -- the most musculature focused appearance in the various competitions. We often hear that women don’t have to worry (normally) about getting bulging muscles. We also hear the occasional “she must use steroids” comments, which I don’t think are fair in many cases. There’s one other factor that prevents us from getting that look without very deliberate intent (male or female, in fact).

No matter how predisposed to developing muscles easily we are, that particular look requires an extreme loss of body fat. When we see a chest where the grooves (striations) in the pectoral muscles are visible, we’re likely looking at a man with less than 5% body fat and a woman with less than 10%. No amount of weight training alone gets that result.

Something I really hadn’t understood before, but those competitors don’t look like that all the time. It would be immensely damaging to their health to stay at such low extremes consistently, so it is usually done in a way that is timed for the show(s). Most go through a cycle of bulking (eating more while heavily working the muscles) and cutting (very strict diets to eliminate body fat and a lot more cardio). There are then techniques to eliminate as much water as possible right before a show to maximize the visibility as well as the use of tanning/bronzing products, body hair removal, an entire process involved in getting “the look” that has very little to do with lifting weight.

This is why I can talk about how much I love seeing my bicep or tricep or calf without having the slightest bit of concern about my genetic predisposition for muscle development leading me to look unnaturally bulked up.

Back to strength training. That definition of bodybuilding, the “emphasis on aesthetics” made me think about the other reasons for strength training such as raw strength.

emoticon A different sport that focuses on strength training is weightlifting, specifically the Olympic sport, and the closely related powerlifting. The emphasis is not on appearance; it is on the physical conditioning to perform a particular set of lifts with proper form while maximizing the amount lifted through development of raw strength.

Closer, but again not my emphasis. I don’t honestly care if I never out-lift others. I’m not trying to eventually bench press 400 pounds or barbell squat 900 pounds. I can find numbers like that (or even half that) impressive, but it’s too much like watching the circus strongman. I don’t have any personal desire to be that strong. I would add that when watching others at the gym, I’m far more impressed by someone with superior form and grace than someone who lifts the heaviest possible weights -- and that rubs off on me as being what I want.

emoticon Another aspect / focus of weight training is fitness. This comes up in fitness tests, such as crunches or pullups or pushups or squats either to exhaustion or as many as possible in a minute. There are bodybuilding competitions that have a fitness focus in addition to the level (bikini, figure, physique). Some activities like Cross-fit or runs that include an obstacle element might fall into this category as well.

This is definitely a part of my reasons for doing strength training, though it doesn’t seem to be my emphasis. I find I use fitness tests more as a general guideline for my progress rather than as an ultimate goal I’m striving for. I’ve made goals in the past that were things like doing a full military pushup, but didn’t immediately turn around and make the next goal to do some standard number that would put me in an average fitness range.

emoticon Yet another aspect are the benefits when losing weight. It can tone body areas, improve the metabolism, and slow the burning of muscle tissue that can happen on a calorie deficit.

None of these has a sport involved with them as a focus. Instead, they are more the motivation we often find in articles here and on other sites talking about weight loss and encouraging people to do strength training in addition to their cardio and reduced calorie intake.

I personally tend to look on all of these as beneficial side-effects (going back to the “two birds with one stone” concept - it is very cool to know I’m getting this result too, but I don’t do strength training hoping for this result.

emoticon Next are the “anti-aging” effects. The weight stresses help improve bone density, which can prevent or delay or slow diseases like osteoporosis and arthritis or reduce the severity of the symptoms. Full range motion moves lead to more limber joints, less stiffness, and encourages our body to keep our tendons and ligaments in good repair. Much of physical therapy after injuries is made up of variations on strength training because of its ability to target weaker points to help them become stronger. Healthy knees depend on strong quads, hamstrings, and calves that work with each other.

This is definitely important and comes closest to matching my own stated emphasis. I am 44, after all. I may be in good condition, but I won’t stay that way if I don’t put effort into it. (I compare it to a car. As a car starts getting older, how well it continues to run often has a lot to do with the level of maintenance done earlier. Skimping on fuel and spark plugs and oil changes and other work when it is newer may not show ill effects until years later, when it is too late to do more than try to keep up with the needed repairs.

So, really, there’s quite a number of different things we can make our focus or emphasis when we turn to strength training or weight trainin. (For the record, strength training tends to include all the variations that can provide resistance - body weight, elastic bands, pilates rings, water resistance, etc. Weight training is a sub-category of strength training that uses weighted objects such as dumbbells, barbells, stones, jugs of water, and more.)

We each individually pick which of these appeal to us and nothing says our focus or emphasis can’t change later.

emoticon Defining my own at the current moment:

1) The health of my musculoskeletal system.
2) Symmetry / balance of muscular strength.
3) Avoiding and preventing injury.

But guess what? I like the toning, I like the fitness, I like getting stronger, I do like the basic look of the muscles, I like having more muscle rather than less, I like my metabolism being normal to fast. I'm killing a dozen birds with one stone.


What my chosen emphases lead to is a different approach to weight lifting routines than someone else. For me, proper form and ability to do a lift without causing pain or injury trumps lifting heavier weight and/or doing the “best” exercise according to some random Top 10 list. If I don’t yet have the strength to do a free weight lift with proper form, or I’m going to overcompensate with my one arm or leg over the other, then I'll do an allegedly less effective lift at a lower weight emoticon and build up gradually.

My way won’t work for others because my results aren’t what they are working for. At the same time, my way isn’t wrong because it doesn’t offer the bigger, better, faster results. It is the right way for me.


When you do strength training or weight lifting, what is your emphasis or emphases (fun with plurals)?

Do you have an emphasis or focus I didn't mention? (Like ... earning points for a BLC challenge known as TnT? emoticon )
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Great blog, Blue! I especially like your car analogy.
    Miss you 'round the campfire - drop in any old time!
    1883 days ago
    ST can be so much fun, but I agree sometimes I get a bit lost on what to do. I have no fear of looking like a body builder, but I would like to tone and define some areas. Maybe wake up some muscles that didn't know they were sleeping. Great blog.
    1891 days ago
    I do push-ups to failure every morning and plank every evening for 5 minutes. Also do a few other evening exercises that takes about 10 minutes. (side planks, crunches, tri-cep dips, donkey kicks) I can't believe what a difference it has made in my overall fitness level. It doesn't take a lot of time if you do it consistently.

    You are doing great and doing it for all the right reasons!!!

    1892 days ago
    I love ST....sometimes I just get lost on what TO do..actually...all the time....unless it's in a DVD then I am thanking the trainer. LOL
    1892 days ago
    Great blog. I can find my motivation for cardio but am hard pressed for any true ST.
    1892 days ago
    Great Blog!
    1892 days ago
    emoticon emoticon blog .
    1892 days ago
    Great blog!
    1892 days ago
    Great blog! Again, great blog!

    You've got exactly the right sight picture. I'm an adult onset weight lifter (Started in 2010) and have thoroughly enjoyed it these past few years.

    One of the advantages of being 53 in the gym is that I really have nothing to prove to anyone else....all of my progress I measure only against myself.

    That being said, i have a few ground rules that I base my objectives on;

    - First, do no harm - I lift with a trainer 3x/ week...his 1st job is to make sure I don't get injured

    - Focus on form - his second job is to make sure I do each exercise EXACTLY right. I provide the will power, he provides the critique

    - Focus on effort - One of the most important conclusions I've formed is that pushing past my perceived limits is what leads to progress...doing a PR on a particular move is not as important as making sure I work the right muscles to failure

    - Focus on the mental - I've learned my body is capable of so much more than my mind thinks it can take...working through that is a learned skill

    - Focus on the functional - Man I love being able to carry heavy things without feeling tired. I love easily squatting down to tie my shoes, when in the past, I'd be sore bending over. I love being fit to where I can bound up stairs, pickup little kids and toss them in the air! It's not about the's the function!

    Good job...keep at it...stay strong!
    1892 days ago

    Comment edited on: 4/16/2013 8:29:59 PM
    My focus is losing weight but the toned body and anti aging have been a plus. My focus has altered since I began this journey, and I also have to be very aware of WHY I eat things or get depressed or focus on the bad days and so I also feel I am growing UP in the process and I like it.
    1892 days ago
    emoticon My Number One Focus from Day One has been to maintain my ability to Walk and perform Daily Activitys like Housework, Laundry, and Shopping. The more I learn, the more CONVINCED I have become that Lifting Weights (Strength Training) is the Key.
    emoticon I have to admit that I have not quite wrapped my head around the Weight Gain that happened when I switched from Mostly Cardio to Mostly Strength Training 4 months ago. But I am working on it! I like the Smaller Numbers on the Scale, but I LOVE the Ability to carry in ALL of my Mother's Weekly Grocerys in One Trip without Difficulty!
    1893 days ago
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