Strength Training For Non-Athletes
I've spent the last year investigating various ways to improve my overall level of strength and general fitness.
By way of context: I'm an entrepreneur / researcher / author, not an athlete. I'm not training for competition, don't have a ton of time to spend at the gym, and I don't want to look like a bodybuilder.
That said, there's an enormous amount of research that strength training is one of the best things you can do for overall health, general fitness, and longevity.
The goal was to find a form of strength training that would:
- Produce the best possible results in the minimum possible amount of time.
- Minimize the risk of injury.
- Fit into my daily routine in a way that doesn't detract from other priorities.
Here's what I learned…
I started by lifting freeweights, which I haven't done since competing in high school Track & Field. 1 Weightlifting has never been my favorite form of physical exertion, mostly because delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is one of my least favorite sensations in the world.
That said, there's a ton of evidence that freeweights make your entire body stronger in ways that matter a great deal to overall health and longevity: your muscles get stronger, but the increased load on your bones and connective tissues encourages them to get stronger as well. 2
After three months of lifting freeweights, I noticed five significant problems:
- I was still experiencing significant daily muscle soreness, which was an active detriment to training.
- The movements are complex, and it's easy to injure yourself if your form is not solid. I had low overall confidence that I'd be able to continue training long-term without sustaining injury, either via an acute strain/sprain/tear or repetitive stress.
- Mentally anchoring on the weight you're lifting is easy and very common, which makes it tempting to "lift heavy" even when it's not advisable. I'm not doing this to compete with myself or anyone else: I want to increase my general level of strength and fitness in a healthy, sustainable way, not obsess about setting a new personal record every time I exercise.
- Training sessions took about an hour and a half, budgeting an hour for the workout and 30 minutes total transit time to the gym: long enough to be a significant part of the day that requires planning.
- You can't train every day: rest days are just as important as lifting days, since the extreme level of exertion on lifting days requires dedicated recovery to let muscles repair and rebuild. As a result, I found it difficult to make lifting a consistent habit - it was way to easy to justify skipping a lifting day in favor of "more recovery."
After a while, it was clear that I needed another approach. That's not to say it doesn't work: I have many friends like James Clear, Tim Grahl, and Ramit Sethi who train with freeweights and swear by them. It's just not an ideal approach for me.
Kettlebells For Make Great Glorious Victory
James Todd, a former client turned close friend, encouraged me to investigate training with kettlebells. If you've never seen one, imagine a weight that looks like a cannonball with a handle attached, which you lift and swing in various ways.
One of the many interesting things about kettlebells is that they're ballistic: the load placed on your bones and muscles is much higher than the listed static weight if you swing it. That means you can do serious training with much smaller weights.
I started with the simplest and most well-known beginner kettlebell training protocol: Pavel Tsatsouline's "Simple and Sinister" program. It's an impressive act of synthesis: a short daily routine that manages to pack a full body workout into two primary exercises, which are backed by decades of research and practical experience, and delivered with a generous side of wry Russian humor.
Here's Pavel's "S&S" program in its entirety:
- A short warmup with a few basic movements and stretches.
- 100 total kettlebell swings (either 10 sets of 10 two-arm swings, or 10 sets of 5 one-arm swings for each arm – you switch hands at the end of the fifth swing, for a total of 10 swings per set).
- 5 sets of "Turkish Get Ups" (TGUs), where a set equals one TGU on each side.
- Repeat daily; move up in weight when it starts to feel easy and you can complete the entire protocol in less than 20 minutes.
There's slightly more to the program—you have to learn proper form 3 for the movements—but that's the gist of it.
Kettlebells have a lot going for them:
- I found the movements much easier to learn than freeweights, and they feel more comfortable and safer to execute.
- The movements train all major muscle groups and encourage the entire body to move in coordination, working accessory muscles and avoiding isolation of any one muscle at a time.
- The protocol is time efficient: the entire workout can be completed in 20-30 minutes.
- The load on your body is intense, but not so much that you experience significant muscle soreness, and you can safely train every day, making it much easier to build the training into a daily routine.
- Swings and TGUs also produce significant cardiovascular load, with average heart rates comparable to running, so you get cardio benefits at the same time as strength training.
- Kettlebells are inexpensive, relatively small, easy to store, and require no maintenance. I could've easily kept a set of kettlebells in my tiny NYC studio apartment. (A rack of freeweights, not so much.) 4
I started training with a 12kg (~26lbs) kettlebell. After a few months of training, I'm now completing the full S&S protocol with a 20kg (44lbs) kettlebell without difficulty, and I'm in the best shape of my adult life.
I usually train with a heart rate monitor 5, which I've found very useful: after a set of swings, I rest until my heart rate slows to 120-130 beats per minute, at which point it's time to do another set. Beyond that, I'm keeping a simple log of workouts to keep track of progress, and that's it.
I'm thrilled with my progress so far, and, in contrast to freeweights, can see myself continuing to use kettlebells to stay strong well into old age.
If you're not doing any sort of strength training, I highly recommend looking into kettlebells: you can get huge benefits from investing 20-30 minutes a day, even if you start with very low weights.
Note that freeweights are ideal - it's best to avoid the weight machines common in gyms and fitness centers, since isolating muscle groups and restricting range of motion does not adequately develop the accessory muscles used in non-restricted movement. For more on this, see Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. ↩
I purchased a set of Metrixx Elite Precision E-Coat Kettlebells, which are excellent. A basic set will be 1-2 bells for weights that you're actively training, probably starting in the 12kg range. I ended up getting a broader set: 8kg, 12kg, 16kg, 20kg, 24kg, and 32kg, which will last me quite a while. ↩
At present, I'm using a Polar H7 Bluetooth heart rate monitor alongside Polar's iPhone application, which I like a lot. Polar also has heart rate monitors like the FT7 that display data via a dedicated watch, which work well if you want to keep things simple. ↩