Real Strength You Can Use

Thinking of buying one of those exercise machines you see advertised? They make great towel racks but few people stick with them. The movements they force you into are often unnatural and do little to train your muscles for real strength.

I call it functional strength.

It means you have ability to get yourself up a flight of stairs. It means you can lift your groceries and load stuff into your car. Functional strength is the power to live your daily life. But as you age, that power starts to fade.

My older patients ask me about this all the time. When you’re young, you never think about it. But when you get older, it hits you: Losing the ability to lift, pull or stand up means you lose your independence.

When my patients ask me for advice on building functional strength, I tell them to work the “big muscles.” Legs, hips, buttocks and lower back. About 85% of your muscle mass is below your waist, and this is where your functional strength comes from.

The simple act of getting yourself out of a chair is a good example.

In fact, try a little experiment for me.

Sit on the edge of your chair. Put your hands in your lap. Lean forward, push up with your legs and stand up without using your arms.

Was that difficult? If it was, you may be losing muscle mass in your legs. And that’s a problem. That functional strength your legs have keeps you agile, balanced and mobile.

The good news is building those muscles doesn’t require a lot of work or sacrifice. And the payoff is huge. You can use body weight exercises and never have to step foot in a gym – or even leave your home.

So what’s the best way to train your body for this kind of functional strength you can really use?

Well, remember that in real life, you muscles have to handle your own body weight.

So you want to use movements that mimic what you would do in real life. Bending down, standing back up… real movements that build strength and balance.

Do these in short bursts of only two or three minutes at a time, and use muscle groups in the patterns of movement they were designed for with simple maneuvers.

Here are a few of my favorite body weight movements… they seem simple, but will give you a real strength-building workout:

  • Push-ups: Start face down on floor, palms against floor under shoulders, toes curled up against floor. Push up with arms keeping a straight line from head through toes. Lower to within a few inches of floor and repeat. This exercise is great for your entire upper body.
  • Squats: Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Squat as far as possible bringing your arms forward parallel to the floor. Return to standing position. Repeat. Lean a bit forward to work your buttox and straighten up to work your
  • Knee bends: These are great for balance. Start with your feet almost together and arms at your side, head straight and level. Lower your body by bending your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor, rising up on your toes, while simultaneously swinging your arms forward until they are parallel to the floor in front of you, fingers together and palms facing down, and back remaining perpendicular to the floor. Without stopping, reverse this motion and return to your original starting position. Repeat.
  • Jump squats: Start with your body crouched, feet together, arms at your sides, head straight and level. From this position, quickly straighten your legs and jump upward as high as you can into the air, simultaneously extending your arms and reaching upwards overhead. Once you have landed, quickly return to your original starting position, taking care not to lose your balance throughout the exercise. Repeat.

It will take you a few sessions to build up your stamina. Start slowly. Take plenty of time to build up your strength, endurance and balance gradually. Rest and recover between sets. At first you’ll have to take longer breaks, but they’ll get shorter as you rebuild your natural strength.