Why We All Need More Strength

Guest Post by Kathryn Bruni Young

Strength is something we all know we need, but finding ways to really work with it can feel complicated if it’s unfamiliar. What do you think of when you think of strength training? I’ve made it my job to show people that strength training shouldn’t be exclusive to sports, but rather it can be used as a healing practice to help maintain our tissues, confidence, control and overall physical health.

Osteoporosis Canada states that one in three women and one in five men will suffer from an osteoporotic fracture in their lifetime. They also note that osteoporosis works as a “silent thief” slowly deteriorating the bones and stability system as we know it. On top of that, 28% of women and 37% of men who suffer from a hip fracture will die within one year.

A recent article from the cbc.ca states that although osteoarthritis has doubled since the mid 20th century, researchers are realizing that the disease has more to do with activity than it has to do with aging. 

All of this to say that, as a human race, we are becoming less active, especially as we age. We are seeing major decreases in physical strength to the point where our bones can hardly hold us up. It’s not just yogis who are getting injured. We have to look at why this is happening at large and how we can use strengthening practices as medicine, not just as a fitness regime.

The first thing I want to address is the type of strength practice I’m really talking about, which is resistance training with weights. Bodyweight movement is a great place to start because our body is a big weight that we are carrying around all day. The problem with only using our body weight as resistance is that we adapt to it very quickly, and in order to give our systems the stimulus they need to keep us strong, we need to be moving more than our own weight. The other limit that bodyweight training puts on us is that the weight of the body is too much for some joints to lift, but not quite enough weight to challenge others. For example, our legs are used to carrying around the weight of the body all day long, so for them bodyweight is not a big enough demand. On the flip side, the shoulders might not be used to carrying that much weight on a regular basis, which can make push-ups, and pull-ups feel impossible. 

The best part about resistance training with weights is that the practice is so adaptable, and people can start wherever they are. If you walk into a gym and someone puts a 300 lb bar in front of you, you could try to lift it. If you can’t lift it you can always take the weight off and start small. In bodyweight training (think push-ups, pull-ups, different types of squats) it’s hard to take the weight off, so if we run into a movement that feels like its too much we often times just shy away. Bodyweight training has its place, and it can really help us gain mobility and mindfulness of where we are in space. When we augment it with a resistance practice, we will see some great adaptation and increased healthy movement over time. 

As we get older, the usual inclination is to slow down, which to some extent is normal and healthy. As we continue to practice yoga and exercise, however, it’s important to make sure we aren’t slowing down too much, leaving our bodies more susceptible to not only osteoporosis and arthritis, but loss of efficacy, independence, and mobility. It is essential to strength train and use resistance as we age, and if we start in our thirties, forties, and fifties, life will only be easier in our sixties, seventies, and eighties. This approach is not only geared towards making yoga feel better, it is about making life as we know it feel better.

There have been many studies done on strength training and older adults to the point where we know beyond any doubt that increased strength means increased confidence, psychological state, mobility and function. One study in particular looked at 42 adults living in a community dwelling, all who were healthy but sedentary. In only 12 weeks (twice weekly sessions) of training (basics like bench press, leg curl etc…) participants in the study saw strength gains of nearly 40%. This means it’s never too late to start—we can always develop more strength, and the earlier we begin, the more we will continue moving as we age.

Once we understand how essential strength training is, the next question is how do I do it? Gyms seem scary to many people; some of us feel comfortable in a fitness environment while others might prefer a yoga studio. I believe if we actually knew what we were doing in the gym it would help to calm our choppy internal waters. I also believe that if we had a few kettlebells in our living room we could accomplish a lot on our own. 

Lifting weights and manipulating our bodyweight as a means to increase overall strength is simple, yet it requires some thinking outside the box. To understand strength, we have to understand how we move, how our tissues adapt, how our nervous system responds, how we breathe and everything in between. We have to understand that our bodies only maintain what they absolutely have to, and if we aren’t applying stimulus and load to our tissues, over time they will atrophy. But how do we load certain parts of our bodies that are more prone to injury and pain? How do we safely load the spine, neck, pelvis, wrists, and ribs? We have to learn how progressive loading can bring us away from pain and tension, and into a more balanced state.

It is time to begin the journey to strength, to learn how to use real resistance and strength training not only as a fitness endeavour, but as a healing practice. When we combine the science of strength with mindfulness and restoration we discover a practice that has the capacity to heal and regulate our entire physiology.

Kathryn will be leading her "Mindful Strength Immersion Weekend" January 20-21 in Toronto. For more information on the workshop, click here. To learn more about Kathryn Bruni-Young please visit kathrynbruniyoung.com.