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Adding Resistance to Your Workouts
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
Someone once asked me if I could design a program for a person who only had training space “the size of a jail cell” and virtually no equipment. I chuckled, yes, without hesitating. There are plenty of strength exercises that you can do requiring only bodyweight as resistance. However, for some exercises, bodyweight can be too much (in pull-ups, for example) or not nearly enough (in squats, for example). If you want to add resistance training to your weekly workout routine, read on about the pro’s and con’s of some of the resistance options below to make an educated decision about what will work best for you.
Home Training Options
You can build strength using just about anything that can supply you with an adequate amount of resistance. Lifting your dog into the bathtub or wrestling with it as it plays with a tug toy can provide a good load to the biceps, lats and (if your dog is large enough) legs and core. Hours of raking, loading wood, digging dirt to plan trees, or shoveling snow will target the obliques, lower back and shoulders. Carrying groceries home from the store in a backpack will develop the strength and endurance in all the muscles needed in backpacking. Filling a large duffel bag with sand and hoisting or wrestling with it for increasing time intervals each time you try it (a form of “dinosaur training”) requires no traditional gym equipment but provides a large amount of full body benefit. The more active you can be at working against gravity bearing some sort of load (including lifting and carrying a child, whether in front or in back of you) the stronger you will become.
Free Weights Training without Free Weights
“Free weight” training can be done at home, at a commercial gym, at a climbing gym, or outside, using objects you might commonly use for gardening or household chores, or standard dumbbells and barbells. You can get a dynamite workout at home without a lot of equipment, with a little imagination and some creativity. Consider loading a backpack for resistance for upper and lower body strength training. Load books in a sturdy container for deadlifts. Use gallon jugs of water for any arm exercises requiring up to seven pounds of weight, or load jugs with gravel or sand for more resistance. Use dictionaries as low steps or to train pinch grip strength. Use stair steps or sturdy crates instead of a store-bought tiered step. Build your own step using cement or concrete blocks under a thick sturdy board to work the legs. Use the edge of a heavy chair or even a bathtub for triceps dips. Hang a pull up bar in your doorway and do a few hangs or chin-ups every time you walk underneath it. Use a wheelbarrow filled with dirt, sand, or other materials for grip and arm strength. Do as many household chores and yard work as you can, even wearing a weight vest if you like. Physical activity requiring carrying, bending, lifting and moving objects are especially useful for developing the kind of strength you can use when digging a snow cave, carrying a heavy backpack, or helping to pull someone out of a crevasse. This sort of training can be very cost-effective but does require a little more thought and creativity initially, and might be more challenging to determine the weight you are using unless you have a good scale handy.
Another option for increasing strength is using band resistance. Surgical tubing, bungie cords, resistance bands, elastics, or even some bicycle inner tubes of all sizes, shapes, resistances, and colors can be used for modest strength gains. They are wonderfully lightweight and compact for easy storage and transport. However, bands differ significantly from free weights in that the resistance supplied is greatest at the fully contracted portion of the exercise and may be nearly zero at the starting position. Weights such as dumbbells or barbells, on the other hand, will feel the same at the bottom as they do at the top, as their mass does not change throughout the movement. Bands offer benefits for post-rehabilitation candidates who may need to work through a partial range of motion; and for the new trainee, the resistance of even the lightest band may be sufficient for a few weeks on a new exercise program.
Machine strength training has a somewhat minimal role in helping the outdoor athlete build functional strength, but can be of some benefit in certain situations. However, in order to use machines for strength, most people need to have access to an equipped gym, as machines are generally quite expensive for the average trainee and also take up more room than the space an average household has allotted for a training area.
Whenever possible, we recommend that you train with free weights in order to integrate the working muscles as a whole, rather than in isolation, and to prepare the body properly for the three-dimensional challenges of your particular sport. When you work with free weights, you must balance the weight in all three planes; such training loads the spine just as you would on a trail, playing field, slope, or rock ledge, rather than moving an attached object while you are supported sitting, leaning, or lying down. Someone completely new to exercise may feel that machines are easier to use and do not require as much thought. If the machines do not fit your body, they can actually do you more harm than good. Lateral Raises and Leg Extension machines are perhaps the most notorious for deltoid (shoulder) and quadriceps strains, respectively.
Machines may be somewhat helpful in a properly designed program to help with injury recovery. For example, if you have suffered from an overuse injury through gripping, you might find that you can maintain upper body strength by performing a bench press with open palms and a neutral position to the hand on a machine, or include the pec deck flye to limit bending of the elbows.
Special Consideration: Ankle Weights
One question we hear often is: should I use ankle weights to add resistance to my hikes (or walks or other cardio in preparation for hiking). Best bet here is to use the boots you will be using on your outings, rather than risking altering your gait with ankle weights added to your lower extremities. However, there is nothing wrong with adding ankle weights to your backpack as additional weight, or occasionally strapping them to your wrists to work biceps, shoulders or triceps as you walk. If you feel you must add resistance to prepare for snowshoeing, for example, do not go any heavier than the weight you would need with boot and snowshoe attached to your foot (i.e. 2-3 pounds). Ankle weights are another great option for elbow rehabilitation, as you can strap them to your wrists without having to grip them.
Consider working with a wide variety of resistances to see what works best for you, and remember that pushups, pullups, triceps dips, lunges, squats, dips, handstands, almost all yoga poses, a large variety of abdominal work, and variations on each exercise just listed are all possible to do using your own bodyweight as resistance, then increasing the intensity by using a weight vest or backpack. Happy Training!