There has been growing awareness in the recent years of the health benefits of strength training, especially for women and seniors. But when it comes to the training itself, despite tons of programs, numerous training equipment that is out there, how many of you still feel lost and don’t where to start? I was one of you.
It took me years to realize what exercises work and what equipment is necessary. Today, to skip the long process of downsizing and researching, I will share with you the final findings. In the rest of this article, I will guide you step-by-step from understanding what strength training is to pick out equipment and exercises. Spoiler alert: you will be shocked at the budget for equipment.
What’s strength training? How does it work?
Strength training, or more broadly, resistance training, are any exercises to increase muscle strength and endurance by causing the muscles to contract against an external resistance force. The external resistance can be weights, machines, rubber exercise bands/tubes (referred to as “resistance bands”), own body weight and whatever your imagination can make of.
The way it works is very simple: tear, repair and grow. The external resistance causes micro-damages and tears to muscles; the body quickly responds and regenerates muscle tissues to repair the damaged ones. As a result, the damaged part grows stronger. Sounds like self-torturing? Well, no pain no gain.
What’s your baseline?
Before moving forward with anything, it’s always good to know where you are at. So we won’t get discouraged by not be able to reach an unrealistic fitness goal. This, however, is only of the secondary importance. When involving external resistance, the top priority is to make sure we don’t get real damaged (injury). While micro-damage is the key to get stronger, injuries are not. In most of the cases, even after recovery, we won’t reach the pre-injury strength let alone be stronger.
I recommend a personal consultation with a fitness coach. It is the best and safest way to identify your baseline. The problem with doing it ourselves is that we naturally underestimate ourselves due to self-precautions (unless you are risk-prone, then you will be overestimating yourself). As a result, we block the progress by wasting times on working under our limit, as the tear-and-repair happens mostly when you reach close to the limit, usually 80% to 90% of the full capacity.
What equipment then? Filter down.
Let’s assume you’ve already figured out your baseline, now it’s time to pick your “poison”. Although the title says strength training “at home”, it can apply basically to everywhere. The reason I started with home is that there are many restrictions and limitations to workout at home, i.e., space, the concern of neighbors. If you can manage a full-body resistance workout at home, you will do even better outdoor or at a gym.
I have to make a disclaimer here. This guide focuses on resistance training, therefore I exclude discussions about any cardio exercises and associated equipment. So don’t be surprised if I didn’t mention anything about jumping jacks, treadmill or cycling bike.
Back to equipment. Before showing you what you need, let’s first filter down what you don’t need, and some even better to stay away from.
You absolutely don’t need them. They are space-consuming and very expensive, usually thousands of dollars apiece. Some may argue that strength training machines are very good at isolating body parts so that you can be more focused. Yes, I agree conditional on that one is training for competition and he/she keeps close track and make sure of each and every related muscle group also gets worked on. Otherwise, if you are training for wellness and fitness purpose, machines make the least sense to me. And here is why.
Take running for an example. In real life, we can never run with just leg muscles, not denying the fact they are the primary muscle groups. Hip muscles are just as important but often neglected by lower-body strength machines, i.e., Leg Press. Hip flexors and extenders help facilitate the leg movements of back and forth, while the hip rotator stabilizes the joint to ensure a good running form. And even within the leg muscles, running involves quads, hamstrings, inner and outer calf all working together. In short, everything is connected. In fact, forcefully breaking this connection and isolate body parts can increase the risk of injury.
Sadly, I had personally suffered from it.
As I was preparing for the Mermaid camp, I was focusing too much working on my arm strength using the machines while ignored exercises for the shoulders, despite being advised numerous times. I ended up tearing my left- shoulder because my arms are too strong for my shoulders to keep up.
If you are interested in more details of these overrated strength training machines, here is a well-written article called “The 7 Most Overrated Strength Machines at the Gym” by K. Aleisha Fetters. Next time when passing by them in the gym, I am sure you will have a different feeling.
#2 Free Weights
Free-weights, any type of weight that does not limit the range of motion. Most common forms are barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. But it can be just as creative as your imagination, a water bottle, or your pet (if they stay still). Below are the some of the main advantages of free weights against strength machines.
First, space saving and full body coverage. With a set of weights, you can complete a full body workout which otherwise would require many different pieces of strength machines. If you still concern about the storage space, there are so-called selectorized dumbbells, a step-up from adjustable dumbbells, to solve your problems. Bowflex and Powerblocks are the two main players in the market. Based on personal experience, I like Powerblocks better because of the advantages of smaller size and evenly distributed weight.
If you want to know more about Bowflex vs. Powerblock, below is a video by DoubleDFitness on Youtube called “Bowflex vs PowerBlocks Dumbbells Ultimate Review!”. It did a nice job on summarizing all the pros and cons of the two.
Second, free weights engage more muscle groups. Because of zero limitation on the range of motion, one has to control for the weight and the movement. This not only works on the target muscle group but also brings into the equation of other muscle groups in supporting and stabilizing the weight, which is completely the opposite idea of strength machines.
Although a much better choice than strength machines, free-weights are not without limitations.
First, they are not beginner friendly. Free weights take a great deal of practice to master the correct form. Simply moving the weight doesn’t mean you are working on the target muscle group correctly. Any exercises with poor form and bad technique are generally more harmful than helpful. And when further involving weights, one is exposed to serious risk of injury if without proper supervision.
Second, it still takes a bite of your wallet. A rack with a range of fixed weights can easily climb up from hundreds to over a thousand dollars. The selectorized dumbells still cost anywhere from $300 to $800 depending on the weights you need.
In addition, if you live in an apartment building, you have to be careful and place softly the weights if you don’t want to annoy your neighbors, which can be tricky when you are tired.
Now it’s time to reveal the winners.
What you truly need: Body-weight and resistance bands.
Do not underestimate the role of body-weight in resistance training. It has a minimal risk of injury, zero cost on equipment, and super beginner friendly. Not all of us can do a 60 lb bench press the first time we picked up weights. We have to start somewhere.
Moreover, the natural progress of resistance training begins with body-weight compound exercises, exercises such as squats, lunges that stimulate multiple muscle groups, before moving onto single-joint exercise that has a particular muscle group focus and possibly involves weights, i.e., bicep curl, leg extensions. Body-weight exercises at the beginning serve as a wake-up call and prepare the body to get ready to handle the later heavy-lifting part.
Do not mistake that body-weight exercises are easy! How many of you can do a decline push-up, single-leg squat, or a pull-up? When I started, I couldn’t even do one incline push-up, let alone any of those. But these resistance exercises are all body-weight driven.
The point is, body-weight is very powerful and plays an important role in all stages of resistance training, whether a fresh fitness newbie or an experienced weight-lifter.
What about resistance band?
Once you have a solid form with the body-weight exercises, it’s time to level-up the game. In a world that emphasizes larger is better, pricier is better, it’s very easy to be distracted by the ones with beautiful appearance and fancy tags while ignoring the basic yet most effective but fall off your radar because of its simplicity. Resistance bands are one of the most undervalued strength training equipment.
The advantage of resistance bands?
Minimum storage space. Everything can fit in a small bag that you can carry it everywhere.
Super wallet-friendly. A standard set of 5 bands cost less than $50, which fits the resistance level for the majority of the population.
Diverse functionality. You can use it for almost every body-weight exercise to increase the challenge. In this case, resistance bands serve the same purpose as weights but with more flexibility. In addition, resistance band has functionalities that free-weights don’t have. Not only can it increases the resistance, but also help reduce resistance and provide assistance, i.e., pull-up assistance. Last but not least, after the workout, resistance bands are great assistance tools for stretching and mobility.
Continuous adjustment. Unlike strength machines and free weights, which can adjust the resistance level at a fixed incremental amount, you can conveniently micro-adjust the resistance by holding further/closer along the band, or by standing further/closer if the band is anchored.
Noise free. Never have to worry about accidentally dropping the weights and startle your neighbor, resistances band make strength training quite like doing yoga.
It’s actually hard for me to think of an disadvantage for resistance bands, other than the fact they are not fancy.
Which resistance bands to choose?
When you type resistance bands into Amazon search console, you’d be surprised the number of brands that are out there. They are essentially the same with minor differences and price variations. I recommend two types of resistance bands:
This type of bands works better for upper body movements like push-pull. They are longer and thicker. Choosing which brand is a matter of personal preference. I personally prefer GarageFit (choose the bundle that includes #0 to #4),
Another type that works better for the lower body, usually known as resistance loop bands. They are much shorter and thinner than the one above and are commonly used by looping around ankles or thighs to increase resistance. When purchasing, choose the one that has dots printed on the bands to indicate resistance level, like the one below. This makes it easy to remember and keep track of your progress, especially when stacking the bands together to further increase resistance.
The last one is only accessory but not necessary. It can sometimes be uncomfortable holding the bands when doing the pull movement. These handles give you a nice grip and ease on the tension on your hand during the exercise. I am using the brand below.
Someone might wonder, what about those resistance bands recommended by physical therapists? Like I mentioned before, it’s mostly a matter of personal preference. There is nothing wrong about those bands, I just found the ones above easier to use and more durable.
The total budget for equipment? $42.99+$10.85+$6.77 = $60.61!
Exercises - right form is everything
Have everything ready? Let’s get to the real business. Kellie Davis nicely put together a comprehensive list of exercises with the application of resistance bands, “33 Resistance Band Exercises You Can Do Literally Anywhere”. If you are a beginner, I would recommend removing the bands to start until you have a solid form for those exercises.
There is one thing I cannot stress enough the importance, Form, Form, Form. Poor forms will not only waster your time, but can be quite harmful in the long run. Knowing the correct form in your mind is very different from actually doing it correctly. This is also one of the biggest disadvantages faced by most fitness beginners, lack of mind and body connection. Even checking yourself in front of a mirror won’t help much, because you can’t see what you don’t know.
Here comes the vital importance of a fitness coach. He/She will spot the mistakes and help you correct to the right forms. Below is another failure of mine.
Before coach Michael started training me, I had tried to train myself for years. Read many articles, watched tons of tutorials. I can probably recite the correct forms better than a certified personal trainer. Yet, my knees started to hurt when I did squats, and I still couldn't do a single push-up. It wasn’t until the first time he corrected my forms did I realize how many things I “thought” I did right but far from right. Now, squat pain-free even with heavy weights; and 21 push-ups in one set (6 more than 3 months ago)!
I hope you find this long article helpful and gain some insights. It will make me really happy knowing that some of your confusions got clarified, and even better, that you decide to start your own fitness journey! Leave a comment below if you have any questions or suggestions.
Do you want a body transformation? The time is now!