Telegraph feature: The balanced argument for weights

Resistance training is a hot topic at the moment, particularly for women.  Whilst most of us will probably agree that some form of resistance training is beneficial, perhaps even essential in older females, there is still a hugely divided opinion about what type, how often and at what intensity is best.  Some people will tell you that women should not lift heavy weights, as it will build an unsightly muscular physique, others will tell us that this is nonsense and that the opposite is true, whilst others still will assert that you can get all of the challenge your body needs through various forms of primarily bodyweight training methods such as Pilates and Yoga. So who are we to believe, and what is the best approach for a balanced physique?

In truth, all approaches have their merits, and regardless of the differing opinions, the overall shift towards women and resistance training is a hugely positive one, with benefits such as improved posture, increased strength, fat loss and increased muscle tone being widely talked about. How much and what type of resistance training you should do will depend on where you are at currently and your particular goals.  If you need more strength, you will benefit from lifting some heavier weights for example; but for most of us with general fitness goals, a combination of all three is probably optimal for the right balance of muscle tone, strength and flexibility.

Although most of what we read about resistance training refers predominantly to the aesthetic benefits, perhaps as, if not more important, are the postural and structural benefits it brings. The adage that you are only as strong as your weakest link is true in physical terms and the foundation of any good programme should be to develop structural balance throughout the body.  We will always have a degree of imbalance, it is how the body works, but over time many of us rely too heavily on the over active muscles at the front of our body, whilst the hugely important muscles at the back of the body become lethargic and often under developed. The biggest player in this might be prolonged periods of sitting, where the hips tighten and the back slouches and rounds, weakening the back of the body.

Increased muscle tone in the muscles at the back of the body, which are collectively referred to as the posterior chain, is essential if your goal is to look good, but also to move well and to live pain free. What this means for most of us is that we need to do exercises that open up the hips and keep us mobile, whilst simultaneously strengthening and developing the muscles to the rear of the body. Corrective exercise or pre-habilitation (injury prevention) exercise focusing on the posterior chain, particularly the glutes (backside) and lower back, are commonly referred to as hip dominant exercises and should be the cornerstone of any good resistance training programme.

Hip dominant exercises include various mat-based Pilates exercises, hip bridges, reverse and walking lunge variations, back extensions and deadllifts. Initially it is important to focus on activation exercises, those that help us ‘feel’ the muscles being worked, before moving onto exercises that are more dynamic or are performed with additional load (weight training). Once we have the basics with bodyweight movements, we can then use weight training to make things more challenging, coercing the muscles to develop, which in turn, will make the body systemically stronger. Beyond this, sprinting and jumping will also do wonders for both aesthetics and function.

In terms of when and how much resistance training we should do, if your goal is to develop your backside muscles, build strength and improve your overall posture, look to include two or three sessions each week, including a mixture of repetition ranges. Lower repetitions in exercises such as deadlifts will build strength, whilst higher repetitions in exercises such as lunges and back extensions will provide muscular endurance, improve posture and will help build some lean muscle.

An example of a very simple but effective programme that will do wonders for both strength of your hips and shape of your backside would look like the example below. You will probably also find that, done correctly, this will also significantly elevate your heart rate and provide you with a decent cardiovascular workout at the same time. The key is to pick weights that are challenging for each exercise, ensuring that good form is used throughout.

A1. Deadlift x 6, rest 15secs                                     Watch the video here

A2. Walking Lunge x 12ea, rest 15secs                  Watch the video here

A3. Back Extension x 25                                           Watch the video here

Rest 2mins, repeat x 3

Perform the given reps for each exercise, move between exercises completing all three in turn. Rest for two minutes and repeat the sequence. If your time is limited and you want to do some additional cardio on the same day as your resistance training, do it after you have finished these, this way you will get the most out of both, especially if the focus is general fitness and fat loss.

Read the article in the Telegraph