Keeping Fit

Keeping In Shape Using Free-standing Weights

If you know you’re in reasonably good health and have no significant back or joint problems, maybe you should think about training with weights for general fitness.

Free-standing weights have some appealing advantages. Many are uncomfortable with the concept of jogging—or whatever it’s fashionably called these days. Our joints may not thank us for the concentrated pounding. Walking briskly, well away from heavy traffic, may be more prudent. In fact, a brisk walk uses as much energy as running the same distance.

Cycling and swimming are also excellent ways to enhance overall fitness levels. However, some road cyclists may need to think seriously about the effects of pollution on their lungs. They argue that pollution levels can be worse in a car. Maybe so, but the main point some seem to be missing is that without a mask the effort of cycling forces pollution deep into the lungs.

Without being a fitness fanatic, I train comfortably at home with free-standing weights only twice a week. Every third day is ideal. I never work my legs partly because I currently don’t use squat racks (a safe support for the barbell). Besides, I find that the other exercises mentioned below work together to usefully toughen up my leg muscularity. I can also use an exercise bike.

Quite frankly, some people talk a lot of flannel about “body-building” and it puts many off training responsibly with weights. When done properly it’s a discipline that avoids damaging extremes. In the past I have worked carefully and consistently with weights to ease muscular problems associated with my lower back.

Even when a painful tilt in my pelvis—blamed, of course, on years of occupational “wear and tear”—threatened to drastically reduce my overall mobility, I discovered that crunches* helped to strengthen the area of weakness to the point I rarely feel a twinge today 15 years on.

If you’re just starting out with free-standing weights there are a few basics that will keep you safe. Never use jerky movements or a heavy weight that your muscles haven’t grown into. Start light and work up. Machines are fine but a free-standing weights kit (barbell, dumbbells, discs and a fit-for-purpose sturdy bench) is the better option as it allows your limbs full freedom of movement.

Dumbbells can be particularly effective: “…dumbbells require extreme control, utilization of many stabilizing muscles, coordination between muscle groups and total concentration. They have a lower range of motion than barbells or machines, and bombard deep-lying muscle fibers from many different angles” (McKean/Karhan, Hardgainer).

The typical fundamental exercises are most useful: the Barbell Bench Press, Squats (if you can do this exercise safely with racks), Dumbbell Curls, Dumbbell Rowing and Dumbbell Overhead Press. Each needs to be done safely within limits without resorting to the faster rocking movements that are so popular in High Street gyms and can lead to injury at some stage.

Do two sets for each exercise using repetitions that require effort without risking damage to your muscles or joints. Be sure to rest for at least a minute or so between sets and exercises.

While doing the Bench Press, don’t tuck your thumbs back with your fingers—the heavy bar and discs could slide off your palms crushing your chest or throat. It happens. Never bounce the bar off your chest. Use controlled steady movements for all exercises. Don’t rush.

Never perform the Dumbbell Row without supporting yourself with one hand on a bench. It’s asking for trouble performing any significant weight rowing exercise by stooping forward without support. I recently saw a well-meaning ‘expert’ doing this very thing on TV.

If you’re interested in training with weights to improve your general fitness levels take a look at the publications of Stuart McRobert. He’s a true expert. Get his book The Insider’s Tell-all Handbook on Weight-training Technique. His whole approach is geared towards training hard and safely for maximum muscle gains and strength. With care you can tailor his guidance to fit your specific needs. For example, you may not need to train so hard. If you’ve a Kindle do a search for Bodybuilding Gold Mine.

Too many in the body-building arena are unavoidably influenced by what they read in mainstream magazines and websites. They become preoccupied with looks and a showy physique. But those who dig a little deeper find that increased strength and enhanced fitness levels are worthwhile and achievable goals.

In a year or so, with dedication, an average person can significantly increase his or her overall strength and fitness—even those who are past 60! It can make the daily grind a little easier. And if you’re a fan of the great outdoors, you’ll appreciate the benefits during long hikes and strenuous climbs.

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*Don’t rely on any form of exercise to ease back pain without first getting professional advice on your condition. Crunches are similar to sit-ups but safer. The body’s movement is slow and deliberate and targets stomach muscle groups that help to support the lower back. You might just see a six-pack too—depends on the fat...