A low-pressure guide to make strength training a habit
By Danielle Friedman
I still remember the torturous feeling of hanging from the pull-up bars in elementary school gym class, struggling with all my meager might to lift myself up. While other kids seemed naturally gifted with physical power, I came to believe my arms were best used for answering a question in class.
And yet, I have tasted physical strength since then. I took a weightlifting course in college and loved how the boost in muscle made me feel. Before my wedding, I got hooked on barre workouts, and discovered the satisfaction of being able to carry groceries for more than two minutes without resting.
Beyond the visceral joys of feeling strong, I am also aware of the health benefits of building muscle. A recent study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine found that combining aerobics with one to two weekly strength sessions not only lengthens life span but improves people’s quality of life and well-being. Numerous studies have found that resistance training is good for mental health: It has been shown to positively influence cognition and to decrease depression and anxiety. Evidence also suggests it allows us to simply feel better in our bodies.
But every time I’ve done enough strength training to see progress, my commitment has ultimately petered out, mostly because of the demands of daily life. Consumed by cycles of work, child care and utter exhaustion, I’ve pursued the path of least resistance — literally and figuratively. The majority of Americans struggle to carve out time for strength training, too. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults do two muscle-building workouts a week, only 31% of us hit this benchmark.
So I asked exercise psychologists, scientists, trainers and muscle evangelists for their best advice on launching a lasting strength-training routine. Here’s what I learned.
For those of us who haven’t done much strength training — or if it’s been a while — experts suggest starting with short but consistent strength sessions. “Set some small goals for yourself,” said Mary Winfrey-Kovell, a lecturer in exercise science at Ball State University. “Some movement is better than no movement.”
How small? Depending on one’s schedule, needs and desires, exercise scientists suggest devoting 20 minutes twice a week to strength training, or perhaps 10 to 15 minutes three times a week.
This is backed up by another recent study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, which found that just 30 to 60 minutes a week of strength training can bring significant long-term rewards, including a 10% to 20% reduction in one’s risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer. (Notably, the benefits plateaued after an hour and decreased after two hours per week.)
Fitness marketing often tries to convince us that any routine worth doing must involve fancy devices or specialized gear, but in fact you need very little. “Strength training does not have to mean barbells and super heavy weights and lots of equipment,” said Anne Brady, a professor of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
Muscle-building exercises that rely on your own body weight — think pushups, planks and sit-to-stands (sometimes called chair rises) — can be incredibly effective when done correctly and consistently, she said. You can always incorporate equipment as you progress in strength and knowledge.
Embrace being a novice.
Kicking off a strength-training routine when you have little or no experience can feel daunting — particularly if you work out in a gym or public space, in view of more experienced exercisers.
Many of us “hold ourselves to a standard that we need to look like we already know what we’re doing,” said Casey Johnston, author of the popular lifting newsletter “She’s a Beast” and the book “Liftoff: Couch to Barbell.” “It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to ask questions.”
More than anything, learning proper form — and which movements are safest for your body — can help to avoid injury and promote a lasting routine. If you’re able to afford it, consider hiring a certified personal trainer for a few sessions, either virtual or in person, who will create a training plan and guide you through the exercises. And if you work out in a gym, don’t be afraid to ask staff for guidance.
One upside to starting from scratch? Your strength will improve exponentially at first. “I think most people would be surprised by how quickly they can get a lot stronger than they are,” said Johnston. After a few sessions, she said, “you really will feel the difference in functionality in your body.”
Try “temptation bundling.”
Need an extra push? Kelley Strohacker, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who researches health behavior change, suggests a behavioral economics hack called “temptation bundling.”
It works like this: By “bundling” something we love and look forward to — for example, a favorite podcast or TV show, gripping audiobook or playlist — with an activity we find challenging, we can boost our chances of doing the latter. “Simply pairing those together can help ease a little bit of that initial, ‘I don’t really want to do it, but I know I should,’” said Strohacker. The key, however, is to only allow yourself to indulge in that particular pleasure while doing the workout.
Remember that the goal is forward progress.
If you find that you need to miss sessions, show self-compassion, said Strohacker. Strength-training, like all exercise, is a long game, and the ultimate goal is to simply keep at it throughout our lives, despite setbacks along the way.
“Our culture really pushes this narrative of ‘you can do it if you really want to,’” she said. “This is very oversimplifying.” Life happens. Research suggests the true path to longevity and consistency in any activity are “enjoying it and feeling accomplished,” she added. This becomes easier when we celebrate our progress, no matter how incremental, and find our way back when we stray off course.