Physio Blog #4 - Strengthening Exercises

This month our Physio Susie takes a look at strengthening exercises and gives you some examples that you can try at home

Worried? You shouldn’t be, strengthening exercises are just another exercise that is designed to get your body working, and it definitely isn’t all about how much you can lift. Going back to my first blog, it is recommended that you include some muscle strengthening activities into your weekly exercise routine. Why? Your muscles are an integral part of how the body moves, without sufficient strength your muscles cannot work to move and support the body/joints efficiently, which could ultimately cause damage. In basic terms muscles work in pairs, these pairs of muscles work together (with others) to provide you with a full range of movement. However, your muscles are important for helping to support joints during movement as well as actually moving them. Without sufficient support these joints and their surrounding tissues are put under strain, and too much strain leads to damage. Consequently, there are muscles specifically designed to help support the joint through movement, like the rotator cuff muscle in the shoulder – this is actually made up of four different muscles which surround the shoulder joint and support it through movement. It is therefore essential that you include different types of muscle strengthening exercises into your program, ones for strengthening the agonists/antagonists (the muscles that move the joints) and ones to strengthen the synergists/fixators (the muscles that stabilise the joints).

Firstly, as with aerobic exercise, you should complete a warm up before attempting muscle strengthening exercises (quick tip, do them on the back of your aerobic exercise and viola, instant warm up!). When a muscle is cold the fibres are less pliable and more likely to stretch/break when put under pressure. A warm up also increases circulation to the muscles supplying them with the energy they require for exercise meaning they fatigue less quickly. As above you need to choose a wide variety of exercises, the easiest way is to split it into large groups for example legs, arms, back etc. Don’t be tempted to concentrate on one area (for example wanting to tone your stomach) as this not only fatigues this area more, potentially causing damage, but could create problems with weakness in other areas later in life – sorry ladies! (and gents).

There are two main exercise types usually used, open and closed kinetic chain exercises. An open exercise is where your arm or leg is free to move, usually with a weight on the end. A closed exercise is one where your limb is weight bearing through something and cannot move. Broadly speaking open chain exercises are better at strengthening specific muscles whereas closed chain strengthens stabilisers as well. You can complete both but closed chain exercises are usually easier as they strengthen both muscles that stabilise and muscles that aid movement at the same time.

So, here are some exercises to try at home:

  • Squats: A fantastic exercise that (when done properly) strengthens most of the lower limb. Keep your weight in your heels, feet should be shoulder width apart and your knees shouldn’t go in front of your toes (when looking down). One of the biggest mistakes is thinking you have to go all the way down to the floor however this is not true, only go as far as you feel comfortable; remember you have to be able to stand up again!
  • 4-point kneeling: There’s probably different ways of describing this exercise (especially if you do pilates) however this is what I call it when you kneel on all fours (like a cat!). This is great for the shoulder and hip stabilisers. You can also straighten your arm or leg out infront or behind you to increase the difficulty. If feeling particularly well balanced then you can alternate arm and leg at the same time (make sure you do this with diagonal pairs i.e. left arm right leg). Try to keep your back level throughout to reduce the stress on your spine.
  • Bridging: Another pilates favourite of mine, low impact but great for strengthening.  Lay on your back with your knees bent. Then slowly keeping your arms on the floor lift your bottom up until only your neck/shoulders, arms and feet are supporting you. Hold for up to 5secs then relax and repeat. Safety wise, make sure you do this slowly and controlled, do not attempt this exercise if you have neck issues.
  • Wall push ups: These are great for strengthening arms. If able, you could do floor push ups but it is better to do an easier exercise well than attempt a harder one and push yourself too much. Stand an arms width away from the wall, hands on the wall at shoulder height and shoulder width apart. You should feel your weight come through your arms whilst leaning into the wall.
  • For open exercises think about what areas of your body get tired quickly and then find some strengthening exercises based on this. If you don’t have weights at home then a tin of soup or beans or a bottle filled with water will do the job nicely! Examples include bicep curls, shoulder press, lateral raise etc.

Top Tips:

  1. Start at a lower weight/intensity than you think you can do and build your way up. Doing too much too quickly will cause you damage.
  2. Listen to your body, if your muscles are shaking and starting to hurt then you’ve done enough.
  3. Include these exercises into your aerobic work to reduce the amount of time you have to spend exercising.
  4. Give your body a day or two to recover following muscle strengthening exercises.

Next month: Exercises to do at your desk (or around your desk) to help those of you with desk jobs with ideas of how to keep active through the day.

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