Want to look good, feel better and live a longer and healthier life? Work on your strength and flexibility and you won’t go wrong. Strength and flexibility training makes it easier for the body to do the things you do on a daily basis. It protects your bone and muscle mass, keeps your weight off for good, decreases the risk of injuries, boosts energy levels and improves your mood. With enhanced strength and flexibility, you will enjoy better coordination, balance and posture, reduce joint pain, minimize your risk of falling, and stave off conditions such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and type 2 diabetes.
How can you add strength and flexibility to your routine?
To add strength and flexibility training to your routine you have several options. You definitely don’t need expensive weight machines or gym membership to start. In fact, just by squatting on a chair at home, doing planks, push-ups, stretching, climbing stairs or other movements that require you to move your joints and use your own body weight as resistance, you can easily be on course to achieving your desired level of flexibility and strength.
No need to limit your strength and flexibility building to workouts. You can begin by taking advantage of your daily activities to challenge your muscles and joints. For instance, you can choose to lift that carton of milk a few times before putting it back in the refrigerator to build the muscles of your arm. You also can use the stairs whenever possible to strengthen the muscles of your buttocks, abdomen, hips and legs.
In every activity you select, it is quite simple — follow the overload principle. That is, to increase strength and flexibility, your muscles and joints need to be stressed and stretched with a load greater than normal. The muscles and joints would be stimulated to adapt to the increased load. When you stretch a muscle, the muscle fibers or tendons attaching it to bone become longer. And the longer these fibers get, the more you can increase the size of the muscle during strength and flexibility training.
What is the difference between strength training and flexibility training?
Strength exercises are any activities that compel the muscles to work harder than usual. They involve the use of body weight or working against resistance and usually increase the strength, power, size and endurance of muscles. For best results you need to engage in at least two sessions of muscle strengthening exercises every week. But when doing an activity, you should work the muscles until they reach a point where a short rest is inevitable before continuing. For example, if you are weight lifting, the threshold should be the point at which you have to put the weight down after a number of lifts before you can carry on.
Strength exercises should be challenging, but they should not be stressful. You should lift a weight you can comfortably manage in several repetitions. Examples of strength exercises include lifting weights, hill walking, climbing stairs, working with resistance bands, yoga, dance, push-ups, sit-ups and squats, cycling, and heavy gardening, such as shoveling and digging
Flexibility exercises are any activities that improve the ability of your joints to maintain the movement necessary for undertaking daily tasks and physical activity. Flexibility is the range of motion in a joint or group of joints or the ability to move joints effectively through a full range of motion. Flexibility training includes exercises that stretch muscles to lengthen them. Examples of commonly used flexibility exercises are Pilates, Tai Chi, Yoga and Stretching.
You can begin your flexibility training with a slight stretch, then repeat three to five times. As your flexibility improves, you will find yourself stretching farther with every session. Ideally, you should engage in stretching exercises only when your muscles are warm, typically after weightlifting or aerobic sessions.
How long does it take to acquire strength and flexibility?
Strength and flexibility are not acquired overnight. As a rule, anything gained quickly is not going to last and only a slow, steady and consistent regimen will deliver your desired strength and flexibility. It takes at least six weeks of training to see a significant change in a muscle, whether in terms of length or strength. During the weeks of training, the muscles learn to stretch and retain their shape under a load. So make sure to avoid a haphazard approach to your strength and flexibility training and to do exercises purposely and regularly, such as three to five days a week for at least 5 minutes.
Some of the guidelines to follow to achieve strength and flexibility include:
- Keep it simple and build over time
You should keep your selection of exercises for strength and flexibility very simple, utilizing classic compound exercises for maximum muscle recruitment. For instance, you can start with about 10 minutes of stretching a day, focusing on the major muscle groups — upper body (neck, shoulders, arms and back) and lower body (ankles, thighs and calves). Then depending on how you normally spend your time, you can focus on specific stretches for problem-prone areas. That is, if you’re always seated at your desk from nine to five, you can give extra attention to your shoulders and lower back. But if you are always on the move, then extra attention should go to your arms and hamstrings.
Building strength and flexibility gradually over time is the best and safest way to prevent injuries. Many injuries incurred during exercise and fitness routines stem from advancing too quickly, which causes overuse of certain muscles, joints or muscle groups. To prevent injury and achieve the best results long-term, you should use a program that runs over several weeks or months.
Variation is important in maximizing the gains in strength and flexibility over time. So include exercises of varying intensity (weight lifted and amount of rest) and volume (sets, sessions and repetitions), which will provide greater stimulus for strength and flexibility gains than simply following a set program and progressively increasing the amount of stretching or weight lifted. Weight training three times per week with at least one day between sessions is generally adequate — rest days between sessions are critical for recovery and adaptation to take place.
- Use appropriate exercises
Too much or too little weight or stretching won’t help much. The ideal should allow you to go for 8-12 repetitions, with your muscle or muscle group feeling fatigued at the end of the session. You are not using the right weight if you can take 20-30 repetitions per session. And if you have to swing your body to gain momentum for completing your repetitions, then the weight is too much. When advancing to the next weight, you should not do it by more than 5 percent at a time.
Include upper body exercises targeting multiple muscle groups and joints such as arm muscles (like biceps and triceps), shoulder and chest muscles (like deltoids and pectoralis), and back muscles (erector spinae, trapezius or rhomboids). Such exercises include:
- Bicep curl machine
- Pec fly
- Chest press
- Shoulder press machine
- Tricep extension machine
- Lat pull down machine
You also should include lower body strength and stretching exercises in your sessions to help strengthen and stretch muscle groups such as the hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps and calf muscles. Examples of lower body exercises are:
- Leg extension machine
- Leg press machine
- Seated leg curl machine
Since your core muscles help to stabilize your body as you progress in your exercise routine, you should include exercises that work the abdominal muscles and obliques in your training. Such exercises include:
- Bicycle crunches
You should ensure that whole body exercises are also part of your sessions in order to work out multiple muscle groups in the shortest time. Examples of whole body exercises are:
If you can, try dumbbells, weight machines and resistance bands to help you build muscle. With bands, you will be exposed to resistance in a variety of positions as opposed to the limited amount of movements you execute using weight machines or free weights. Weights and bands provide resistance to the muscles, which will ignite physical change in the tissues that allows your muscles to generate more force.
3. Keep track of what you are doing
Strength and flexibility training relies on utilizing a progressive load. That is, every time you meet your desired rep range, you move up in weight to continue to make progress. So make sure to keep track of every lift you make in order to stay on top of your progress.
- Take a break when injured
Muscles sometimes may stretch or get into a range of motion that they are not ready for, particularly when overloaded. As a result, you may have a muscle strain injury. And if you apply more stress on the strained muscle repeatedly, the injury may become much worse, resulting in swelling, muscle aches and pains. Ability to rest will determine your extent of progress.
During workouts, you should rest for 3-4 minutes between sets to allow your body to recover enough to move safely and perform the next set. Remember that the goal of workouts is to successfully meet your rep range. Rest between sessions enables your body to recover and grow.
When you strengthen or stretch your muscles, they need 48 hours to re-knit — making it necessary to avoid exercises on the same muscles on consecutive days. But sleep is another essential to muscle recovery, which enables proper healing of stressed tissue. You need 7-8 hours of sleep to give your body time to repair muscle tissue and replenish muscle energy stores. Without enough sleep, muscles continue to break down without rebuilding.
- Watch your diet
You are going to be working hard on your muscles, so you need to fuel yourself adequately. Proper diet gives your muscles the building blocks they need to become stronger and more flexible. That is why you need a combination of protein sources, grain-based carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables to achieve your strength and flexibility goals. A typical range includes 130 grams of carbohydrates per day, 46-56 grams of protein per day and 9 servings of fruits and vegetables. But you can work with a dietitian to come up with a baseline of what you need to keep up energy, build muscle and remain flexible.
- Work with a professional
A certified physical therapist can create a personalized program that meets your needs and abilities. Such a program will help you to achieve results without risking ligament tears and muscle strains. You can ask your doctor to recommend physical therapy if you are struggling with a chronic health problem or recovering from injury. But if you are in good health, you can seek out a supervised program for yourself.
At FYZICAL, we offer strength and flexibility training programs designed to strengthen bones, control blood sugar, boost cholesterol levels, maintain a healthy weight, reduce joint pain, and prevent injuries, particularly falls. Our physical therapy and orthopedic rehabilitation experts are skilled in evaluating the needs of our patients and crafting exercise programs that yield positive results. For more information on strength and flexibility exercises, visit the FYZICAL website.