Take Your Workouts Out of the Gym: Simple and Safe “Natural” Strength Training for Bones and Muscles
Clearly, activities such as chopping wood, building stone walls or lifting weights, can improve muscle strength, but it must be done in a healthy way. But muscle size is not necessarily related to strength. However, when a muscle is regularly used to lift heavier weight, the nervous system responds by stimulating more fibers, with the result of more strength. Eventually, the muscle itself increases in size, particularly in men. However, both men and women have similar responses to strength training—the percentage of increase in muscle mass is similar between the genders. But women don’t have nearly the same increase in muscle size. This is due in great part to higher testosterone levels in men which also provided them with more muscle mass to start with, making it easier to further increase it during training.
Overall, there are two general categories of exercise training—strength and endurance.
- Strength training is associated with shorter-duration, more intense workouts usually associated with increased power from both neurological affects that incorporate more muscle fibers, and ultimately larger muscles.
- Endurance workouts are longer with lower intensity resulting in more fat burning capability, and little increases in muscles.
- Improper training of any type can contribute to injuries and ill health, and impair endurance.
Like endurance, there are many different philosophies and styles of strength training. But generally, there are two forms—natural and artificial. Natural strength development includes physically working outdoors, for example, as I discussed in Part One. In the process of building full body strength, these activities are comprised of two important movements: picking up something heavy, and carrying it. Raising an object like a small log above your waist or onto your shoulder relies on muscle contractions throughout the body.
Strength workouts in the gym, whether using free weights or the many available machines, are examples of artificial workouts. Each apparatus, for example, trains a particular muscle or muscle group—such as the pecs, quads, hamstrings or abdominals. In nature, you would not regularly isolate a muscle or muscle group for any length of time. But one could incorporate a natural style program in a gym or home program.
A key factor that differentiates natural from artificial is fatigue. When performing most weight programs, muscles are isolated and worked to the point of fatigue. This is usually not the case with natural outdoor activity, although many people find ways to over-stress their bodies.
The Fatigue Factor
Fatigue is often glorified because it’s part of the “no pain no gain” image so prevalent in the exercise world. But it defies what most people are attempting to accomplish in a strength training program. This includes better health, stronger muscles and bones, and not impairing endurance and fat-burning.
Fatigue diminishes muscle strength by reducing the number of muscle fibers used in an action. It also adversely affects the nervous system, and results in slowing down the action of the muscle—fast actions are less possible, which reduces power. Fatigue also makes one much more vulnerable to injury. Consider these other important factors:
- Fatigue can increase stress hormones and interfere with the fat-burning aerobic system. Natural strength training, where you avoid fatigue, does not create this problem.
- Fatigue can cause muscle weakness. A muscle that’s fatigued won’t contract as many fibers. You want to train your nervous system to contract larger numbers of muscle fibers to develop higher levels of strength.
- A fatigued muscle will require significantly more recovery time. Traditional weight lifting programs suggest 48 hours of recovery before working out again. But natural strength training can be done safely everyday (although this is not always necessary).
- Because lifting to fatigue is part of the process whereby muscles get much larger (hypertrophy), the potential for muscle imbalance is high. This is caused by overtraining certain muscles with the result of too much bulk in one particular area (such as the biceps) and not enough in another (such as the triceps). This risk is reduced or eliminated with natural strength training.
- Even when performing what I call truly aerobic exercise—that which is associated with increasingly higher levels of fat burning—fatigue should not be a factor. If done correctly, most workouts should end with a feeling that you have sufficient energy to perform the same workout again. This applies to beginners and professional endurance athletes alike.
- Muscle fatigue can result in poor posture and gait irregularity for many hours following a workout. This is often the first stage of injury—ask a fatigued muscle to continue working and the risk for neuromuscular imbalance, or damage to a related joint, ligament or tendon increases.
- By not training to fatigue, you’ll still achieve results!
This is not to say your muscles won’t get a bit tired and fatigued when working out naturally—but it’s important to avoid significant fatigue. This results in pain and soreness by the next day. Even when moving large stones, chopping wood and other outdoor activities that build full body muscle strength, the same general rule applies.
Many patients used to come to my clinic with problems and complaints about sore, fatigued muscles. Typically, it was a runner with low muscle mass who pushed through every hard run with the result of a stress fracture in the foot or shin, or a triathlete who overtrained with the addition of weightlifting to an already busy schedule. In other cases, it was an inactive person who sustained an overuse injury. John was one of these former patients. With a desk job and no exercise during the past 12 years, John’s activity was restricted to walking from home to car, car to office, then back again at the end of the day. One Saturday morning he decided to clean out the garage, which was full of heavy items from power tools, lawn mowers and inactive exercise equipment, to an old washing machine and cement blocks. After a couple of hours he felt fatigue and muscle aches, and by early afternoon, he was experiencing shoulder and low back pain. By the end of the day, John’s 45-year old body was hurting all over. Sunday morning he could hardly get out of bed and remained on the couch all day. Monday afternoon his wife and older son helped him into my office.
While John recovered with a couple of treatments using biofeedback to correct muscle imbalance, his story is common in both inactive people and athletes in training. Whether it’s too much too soon, or the addition of more training into an already full schedule, fatigue is often an indication that you have gone past the point of safety. John’s lesson is one even highly trained endurance athletes, and those lifting weights, can follow: avoid working to fatigue. You’ll build more strength, get less bulky, recover quicker, and the risk of injury and overtraining will be greatly reduced. This also translates to increased competitive performance.
Two other factors associated with fatigue are important to note here:
- Rest. Even when your workout is just right, rest is key for recovery, and an essential part of the process. My training equation is an important consideration for everyone:
Training = workout + rest.
Nighttime sleeping provides the best rest. All adults need seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, adolescents needs more.
- Pacing. This is associated with resting between lifting stones or barbells. When performing natural outdoor work, pacing is usually natural too. You drag a log or stone to where you drop it on the ground, think about the size of the next one or analyze where the stone will fit. This recovery is important to maintain and enable you to work for one, two or more hours. In weight lifting, especially if you’re in a gym, faster pacing is often encouraged by personnel trainers, which can reduce recovery from the previous activity and increase fatigue. After working out on one machine, you usually jump right into another. But resting between each set is essential for the ability of the muscles to recover and fully contract next time. This period of time should be about three minutes or more.
This is not to say that all athletic training is easy, although most of the workouts feel that way. And they should be fun. Dedication, discipline and getting in touch with your body’s needs are prime factors for success, and are often more difficult than the training schedule itself. The typical image of training to exhaustion, which is, in fact, a common training routine, is a myth.
Another factor that helps avoid fatigue is speed. The muscle’s fast-twitch fibers are the ones that provide the most power. Natural strength training involves fast movements. When lifting large stones or dragging logs, you accomplish these tasks more successfully with quick movements. If you’ve ever tried lifting something heavy with a slow pace, you know it’s more difficult. It can also be dangerous as the slow-moving muscle fibers are not as effective and you can hurt yourself due to lack of strength. It’s the nervous system that helps regulate the speed of action.
The importance of the nervous system can be seen in a strength program. The most rapid increases in power occur in the early weeks, before the muscles have a chance to get larger. It’s the nervous system that’s responsible for the increase in strength in part by its fast actions and recruitment of more fast-twitch muscle fibers. For example, in a 10-week program of weight lifting, individuals can significantly increase their strength. But during this period, the increased size of the muscle is not significant. Long-term gains in strength, those that occur after a few months, are due to the addition of increased muscle size that also stimulates more muscle fibers.
How-To: Strong Muscles and Bones
Despite the hype in many magazine articles, web sites and elsewhere, strength training does not guarantee improvements in bone strength. In fact, it can sometimes reduce it. Not to mention the potential for fatigue, overtraining and injury, all of which are too common. So the first thing to do is keep it simple, safe and natural.
Instead of images of bodybuilder’s bulky muscles, let’s take a lesson from Olympic weightlifters. They want the most strength from their bodies without too much muscle weight gain, which can put them into a higher weight category where competition may be more difficult. Apart from the heavyweight and super heavyweight categories, these athletes generally are not bulky, but have very strong muscles and bones—more so than bodybuilders.
Lifting heavier weight with fewer repetitions increases muscle strength and bone density better than lifting lighter weights with higher repetitions. This does not mean more weight is better. To avoid fatigue, overtraining or causing an acute injury, the amount of weight that might be appropriate is about 80 percent of your one-repetition maximum weight. This is also the weight you can lift about six times before fatigue develops—you don’t want to fatigue your muscles at each workout, so build up slowly to learn your limits.
A heavier weight with less repetition and few activities means a shorter workout. In fact, you may be spending more time resting between reps than lifting! Even more significant is that in the time it takes the average person to travel to a gym and back, he or she could have completed the same workout at home.
For those who are not willing or able to perform regular natural workouts by lifting stones, dragging logs and chopping wood, consider the alternative of getting some basic equipment for a home workout that will do the same. The plan is to keep it simple and safe. You really only need to perform a couple of routines to build muscle and bone strength, and without interfering with your aerobic system. The two easiest and most effective ones include the dead lift and squat (front, overhead and or back). Here are some examples:
- Reps: 1-6 reps in each set.
- Sets: 4 (more if time and energy permit).
- Lifting should be done relatively fast not slow.
- Recovery between sets should be three minutes (timed), more if desired.
- All movements should be smooth and natural.
- As you get stronger, slowly increase the amount of weight rather than repetitions.
- Three times per week, more if time permits.
Here is a sample workout:
- Warm up: 15 minutes (walk, easy run or other easy aerobic activity)
- Dead lift: 5 reps
- Recovery: 3 minutes
- Squat: 5 reps
- Recovery: 3 minutes
- Repeat above lifts three more times
- Cool down (same as warm up)
The most important requirement for performing these workouts is that you are relatively fit and healthy. If you’re injured, have frequent colds, flu, asthma and allergies, or other indications of diminished health wait until you’ve resolved these issues. In addition, if you don’t have a good aerobic system, developing this is the priority—perform easy aerobic training for three months or more before implementing a strength program.
When starting a strength program, even if you’re familiar with it, begin with less weight and less reps—be very conservative. Take several weeks to build up. There’s no rush. In many cases, use a barbell without added weight so you get used to the movements, then slowly add small amounts of weight every couple of weeks.
If you’re new to lifting weights, I recommend getting some one-on-one guidance with a trained professional who can help you with technique. In the meantime, start on some yard work.
So say goodbye to isolation exercises—those that attempt six-pack abs and bulging biceps. The bottom line is this: get stronger muscles and bones throughout your entire body. A simple, safe and short routine will accomplish this task. The best way to do it is go natural. Make the outdoors your new gym for a more holistic, natural workout. It’s what our ancestors did for eons.