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How to get a balanced strength training workout

Our fitness expert Tom Berry shares his advice on how to train your upper and lower body and your core.

Tom Berry. Picture: Keith Heppell
Tom Berry. Picture: Keith Heppell

Strength is one of the most important components of fitness.

For high-performance athletes and sportspeople, it is advantageous to have muscles capable of producing (and resisting) large amounts of force.

Strength also creates physical resilience, which reduces the likelihood of injury. The same applies to the general public.

Strength helps you to lift luggage at the airport, push the lawnmower and flip your mattress safely. Strength training also creates a sense of achievement, releases ‘feel good’ hormones and develops more athletics and muscular bodies.

In this article, I will explain how to choose resistance exercises to ensure that your strength training is efficient and balanced.

There are two general approaches to selecting exercises for resistance training. The first approach breaks down the body into muscle groups and then systematically strengthens those muscles.

The second approach is concerned with functional movement patterns (ie the basic movements your body has evolved to perform).

Both methods have advantages, but in this article, I will explain how you can structure your strength training with a basic knowledge of functional movement patterns.

Tom Berry. Picture: Keith Heppell
Tom Berry. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Upper Body

Upper body strength exercises are easily split into pushing and pulling movement patterns. For example, a chest press is a horizontal push, and seated rows are horizontal pulls. Likewise, a shoulder press is a vertical push, and a pull up is a vertical pull.

For a balanced upper body workout, perform pushes and pulls in equal measure (although there is an argument for more pulls than pushes).

The Lower Body

Lower body exercises can be split into three movement patterns: hip-hinging movements, squat variations and unilateral leg exercises.

Deadlifts are the most well-known hip-hinging exercise. To perform a deadlift, you lift a weight off the ground with the minimal bend at the knee and plenty of hinging at the hips whilst maintaining a neutral spine.

The deadlift is one of the most technically difficult movements I teach because clients naturally want to bend at the back and not hinge at the hips. Bending at the back is fine to pick up something light, like a dropped toothbrush, but when you lift something heavy, you should keep your spine neutral.

A squat is when you sink your body down by bending at the knees and hinging at the hips. Try to prevent your knees from going too far over your toes, and keep them loosely aligned with your feet (so don’t become bow-legged or knock-kneed).

Unilateral leg exercises are great because they require balance. Lunges and step ups are great examples, and deadlifts and squats can also be performed on one leg.

The Core

Tom Berry. Picture: Keith Heppell
Tom Berry. Picture: Keith Heppell

Core movements can be split into spinal flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation.

Generally, people (and celebrity trainers) perform many spinal flexion exercises like sit-ups and crunches. Balance these movements with spinal extension exercises like dorsal raises (where you lie on your front and raise your body with your lower back and bum muscles).

Lateral flexion is where your spine bends to the sides. You can train this movement by bending sideways whilst holding a dumbbell. Finally, your torso can twist, so performing some rotational movements is a good idea.

There is one more important consideration: it is arguably more important that the core is trained to resist, and not perform, spinal flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation. In layman’s terms, try to perform core exercises where your core is working hard but not moving. For example, planks, side planks or loaded carrying exercises (where you walk short distances carrying heavy weights in various ways).

10 exercises for a balanced strength training workout

With this in mind, here is a good selection of exercises for a balanced strength training workout (discussion around sets, reps and speed is for another article!).

  1. Deadlift (hip-hinging movement)
  2. Chest press (upper body horizontal push)
  3. Seated row (upper body horizontal pull)
  4. Squat (squat movement pattern)
  5. Shoulder press (upper body vertical push)
  6. Pull up (upper body vertical pull)
  7. Lunge (unilateral lower body)
  8. Plank (core exercise resisting flexion and extension)
  9. Side plank (core exercise resisting lateral flexion)
  10. Medicine ball side taps (rotational core exercise)

Now read: Understanding the 10 components of fitness

Tom Berry is the Cambridge-based personal fitness trainer behind To Be Personal Training - tobept.com.

You can read more from Tom every month in the Cambridge Independent.

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