Despite its popularity, strength training still has a remarkably poor reputation. Many females still believe that lifting weights will “bulk” you up. Many non strength athletes believe that lifting weights will make you “stiff” and “non flexible” As a life long strength athlete I can tell you two things:
- Lifting weights does not bulk you up, unless you try to bulk up. Even if you do try, it really doesn’t. How do I know this? Because I’ve been training since I was 12, much of this time trying to become a mass monster, and I’m still not “bulky.” If I, being a man with testosterone, cannot get bulky while trying, you will not get bulky by accident.
- Lifting weights, when done properly, will not decrease your flexibility. This I know because I’ve been to many a yoga class, and I’ve always kept up. The key work here is “properly.” If you are working with improper form, you definitely risk injuries that can impede your flexibility.
The fact is that, no matter what you do in this life, increased strength will benefit you. This is true if you are a powerlifter, triathlete, marathon runner, fighter, business executive, or stay at home mom or dad. It can help with stronger bones, increased health and vitality, better sex drive, and decreased risk of disease and injury. The problem is that culture has imposed a stigma on the weights. If you lift weights, you are expected to look a certain way and to lift a certain way . . . and if you enjoy strength training as a hobby, you probably work to fit these stereotypes: the ripped fitness model, the big powerlifter, or the super intense crossfitter. What you really need to do to get the most out of strength training is to adapt it for what YOU want. Here are some factors to consider when deciding on a strength program:
Why are you training?
This question is answered by carefully formulating your goals. I separate goal formulation into three different categories. I do this because it creates a greater degree of personalization, so that you are able to form your own goals without having pop culture expectations (ripped abs, huge arms) imposed on us:
Usefulness: How useful are you? If a disaster were to happen, would people want you in their group, or would they avoid you because you would need help to survive? Do you have the strength and stamina to carry your loved ones out of a burning building? Will you still be walking when you’re 65? You may not think this is important, but the fact is that you never know what will happen or when it will happen. Usefulness, should be at least part of your goal, and it is more important than aesthetics because even as your looks fade with age, you will still need to be useful. Key training goals you might want here: being able to run or ambulate as fast as possible, being able to pick yourself up off of the ground quickly (burpees), being able to carry a loved one for distance. The key here is to make a commitment to yourself to being the person you want to be, and ask yourself the questions above.
Social: These are goals that increase your standing in a group or that allow you to interact with other people to enhance your life. They are important because they give you a reference for how well you are doing. For instance, my girlfriend is a runner. I hate running, but I want to be able to spend more time with my girlfriend. So I run, and I work at running to be able to keep up with my girlfriend. I also love competition and the community that forms around competition. This is why I love powerlifting. Powerlifting meets are great places to meet like minded friends, as are races and crossfit competitions. (Note: I’ve never felt this same way about bodybuilding shows and I’ve always found them a bit unfriendly. Might just be me, but I’ve never really liked being at shows – even shows I’ve won.) Great goals here might be: to compete in a powerlifting meet, to do a spartan race with some friends, to do a 5k, or to compete in a local crossfit meet. The key here is to associate yourself with people who you want to be around. I didn’t like what I saw in bodybuilding, so I don’t compete in bodybuilding anymore. Your peer group is entirely up to you.
Life optimization: This is associated with your long term goals. What big things do you want to do in this life? Do you want to be a champion in a specific sport? Do you want to climb Mount Everest or hike Patagonia? Do you want to be a successful business person? Do you want a long and happy life with your family? The key here is understanding fitness as a means to enhance your life and to allow you to live life to its fullest. Think about what you want out of this life and allow yourself believe it can happen. If you believe it can happen, then its worth working for.
Now, considering this perspective on goal setting, we can go back to understanding how strength training can help us to achieve better health, achieve what we want, and live our best lives. Here are some questions to consider when putting your strength program together:
Why are you doing the exercises that you are doing?:
Are they important for your goals? – A lot of us neglect the principles of specificity. Each exercise in your regimen should bring you closer to YOUR goals. You should never choose an exercise out of ego or due to social pressure. You should have a clear line of reasoning as to why you are doing what you are doing.
Is your program actually preparing you for what you want to do?:
Be honest with yourself here. Is what you are doing actually preparing yourself for what you want out of this life? You really need to do some soul searching here.
The point here is not to create extra rules for you to follow, but rather to give you a compass for keeping you in the direction you really want to be going. Too often we let pop culture create our goals for us, and adopt goals that do not satisfy us. Let your vision for your life be your guide, and you will be able to use your strength training and fitness regimens to enhance your life. When this is done, you will have a better reason to keep fitness in your life for the rest of your life.