Weight training: the best way to approach it
Reckless approach to resistance training is ‘endemic’ in sports, says Queen’s coach
“One of the best ways of managing osteoporosis is to do weight-bearing exercises – to either walk or to do resistance training in the gym is very good for your bone health.”
Christian Dalzell (27) started doing weight training in his mid-teens. He was playing a lot of sports, including rugby at his school, Wesley College in Dublin. There he felt there was a push amongst his peers to get bigger and stronger.
His parents, however, were apprehensive. They didn’t know if the weightlifting would hamper his growth. They were concerned about protein supplements, including creatine, which went hand-in-hand with the gym regime he was getting into.
He didn’t have a professional trainer. There was nothing to go on beyond studying a few posters on the gym wall. The ethos was, he says, “bench-pressing is all you need”.
His parents lined up some formal resistance training for him with Cathy Soraghan, one of Ireland’s most experienced personal trainers. She devised a plan, guiding him towards more age-appropriate training, using an exercise ball, for example. It paid dividends.
“What I noticed was that I might not have been putting on huge muscle mass like some of the other lads but you’d notice signs of over-training in some of them,” he says. “You’d see their shoulders becoming hunched over because they were doing too much bench-pressing; they didn’t have a good foundation in their back muscles, for example,” he says.
Dalzell notices other side effects of misguided over-training like the “guerrilla pose” when a person overdoes dead lifts. Dead lifts are a weight training exercise in which a loaded barbell is lifted off the ground to the hips, then lowered back down.
He categorises this as giving them the appearance of not having a neck because the muscles between their shoulders and neck become over sized.
“Proper resistance training gave me an understanding and a good core strength to begin with,” he says.
“Later on, when I was moving onto the ‘big boy’ weights, I was improving a lot faster than some of the other people who didn’t have that base ... even (compared to) the strong guys who had been doing weights for years, but hadn’t been doing them properly.
“I remember at the time it was difficult not doing the bench-pressing and competing with everyone and seeing how heavy you could lift.
“Instead I was doing what were considered weaker, ‘girlier’ exercises, but in fact they were building a strong muscle foundation and flexibility. I’m sure that had an effect on avoiding injury as well.”
Mike McGurn is one of Ireland’s most experienced strength and conditioning coaches, having worked with English Premier League teams, the IRFU and former world boxing champion Bernard Dunne. He works these days with elite athletes at Queen’s University Belfast. He’s alarmed at the risk of serious injury caused by ill-advised weights training.
“I had a 19-year-old kid come into the gym at Queen’s in December. He plays on one of the senior [Gaelic football inter-county] squads in Ulster. He warmed up and went to do his very first lift with me and he said, ‘I have a wild bad headache’. When I asked him what had happened he told me during team testing, he did five dead lifts at 100kg. Then five more at at 120kg. Normally when you’re testing you go up in increments of 2.5 or 5kg, but they jumped 20kg.
The student told McGurn that he then did another four at 140kg but had a serious pain in his neck.
“He went to the doctor who told him he’d pulled a muscle on the occipital bone, which is a very, very serious muscle if it’s not balanced. I phoned his mother. The kid was given a lumbar puncture to see that there was no damage to the brain and put off training for six weeks.”
McGurn says a reckless approach to heavy weights training is “endemic” around Ireland in the fields of sport he encounters. He stresses the need to learn proper weight-lifting techniques first before entering a gym.
With this learning on board, the benefits of appropriate resistance training – using dumb bells or resistance bands, for example – are invaluable, especially for people in an older age category.
“Many people will exercise to keep their weight at bay and to keep themselves fit,” says Dr Éanna Falvey, team doctor for Ireland’s Olympic boxing team and director of sports medicine at Dublin’s Sports Surgery Clinic.
“When you do cardiovascular exercise like cycling or swimming or running, you burn calories while you’re active whereas when you perform resistance training you raise your basal metabolic rate, which is the rate at which you burn energy, to such an extent that you burn calories for 24 hours afterwards.
“I would say to patients it’s a bit like having a slow burner there. You’re getting value for your exercise right throughout the course of the next day. Whereas when you do cardiovascular exercise, you’re really just burning while you’re at it.
“The second reason is that when you run, for example, you primarily use the muscles of your legs and your buttocks. When you do a whole body resistance exercise, you use a far greater number of muscles.”
This increases the flow of blood around the body so it’s an excellent way of maintaining good blood pressure, which is one of the reasons resistance training – besides the endorphins it releases, which leads to a lift in mood and wellbeing – is recommended for older people.
“A lot of people over 50, particularly women will suffer from osteoporosis,” says ” says Falvey. “One of the best ways of managing osteoporosis is to do weight-bearing exercises – to either walk or to do resistance training in the gym is very good for your bone health.”
When it comes to adolescent boys doing weights, he says there is a small risk of it interfering with their natural growth.
“The big risk is that our bones – for want of a better word – are dynamic so if you compress a bone, it responds to the compression; if you stretch a bone, it responds to the stretching. If you do weights too early, there is potential that it can in a very small way shorten your height.”
Falvey also explains that women – given that they are stronger pound-for-pound than men – are well suited to doing resistance training.
Soraghan, who has been a personal trainer for 25 years, applauds the recent craze for “strong not skinny” body types amongst female celebrity role models. It feeds into the growth in popularity for resistance training with women.
“There is an obsession with people and their clothes size rather than healthy weight loss.
“But the ‘strong not skinny’ trend has been instigated by Beyonce and celebrities like that who are saying, ‘We’re in great shape. We do our resistance training and we eat a really good diet. We’re not advocating that thin, gaunt look’.”
One of the important elements of an effective resistance-training programme is the need to build in adequate rest periods. “When you train in the gym,” says McGurn, “you’re not developing – you’re breaking the body down.
“It’s when you leave the gym and sleep, eat and drink fluids, that’s when you develop physically.”
He says ideally for doing weights, you should leave 48 hours in between each sessions that target the same muscle groups. He recommends refuelling with protein, such as a can of tuna, a chicken breast, nuts or a half-litre of milk.
Falvey also advises against reaching for a sports drink, which is laced with sugar, after finishing their gym session.
Stick to water he says.