Weight training versus strength training: what are the benefits of both and which one wins?
Work out your workout before you start
People exercise for different reasons: to lose weight, to improve or maintain fitness levels, to tone up, to burn off excess calories, to train for a job or event - the list goes on. It is precisely because of this that Paul Guillermo, a sports therapist and personal trainer at Platform 3 gym in Dubai, advises that his clients identify their goals before embarking on a new training regime.
For those who want to increase muscle mass, weight training (also known as strength or resistance training) is the obvious choice. "Weight training is all about focusing on isolated areas of the body and building muscle," says Guillermo. "Traditionally you achieve this by forcing muscles to contract against an external resistance of increasing heaviness. As a result, you add bulk in specific areas as well as increasing strength, tone and muscular endurance."
These weights can take a number of different forms - machines, dumbbells, personal body weight, for example - and results will be seen only through consistent training over time.
Guillermo advises that anyone who wants to start training with weights book themselves in for a session with a trained professional first, to help guard against injury. This meeting should involve a discussion about medical and fitness history, as well as posture and movement analysis. He says that it is also important to be up to date with current thinking.
"Things have changed a lot over the past few years; many accepted ideas have become outmoded and if you just look at a book or even the internet and try to copy what you see, you can do some serious damage," he says.
Lifting weights is a specific discipline and not everyone who works out wants to add bulk. For those primarily interested in strengthening and toning, yoga and Pilates are both known for improving muscular and postural strength, as well as increasing concentration levels and body awareness.
In part due to the mental focus and breathing techniques involved, yoga is renowned for benefiting the mind (particularly in reducing stress levels), as well as improving flexibility and range of motion. Pilates, on the other hand, focuses on lengthening and strengthening major muscle groups in a balanced manner; by contrast with weight training, muscles are rarely, if ever, worked to exhaustion. While each has benefits, they are both anaerobic forms of exercise; to improve cardiovascular fitness, it is advisable to supplement them with some form of aerobic workout.
Omar Al Duri, the co-founder of Platform 3, says that in his opinion, variety is key: "If you stick to one form of training, this is when you end up limited. Not only does your body get used to certain exercises quickly, but you don't achieve overall fitness. I see people who lift weights and look great, but they don't have cardiovascular fitness."
No doubt because of this, fitness regimes that do it all (focus on strength, stability, flexibility and stamina, allowing individuals to get fit, reduce body fat and increase muscle definition) have become popular in recent years. Tracy Anderson, the woman responsible for Madonna's chiselled arms and Gwyneth Paltrow's killer legs, is one of the most famous advocates of this approach.
The Tracy Anderson Method, which Anderson claims will help devotees obtain a "teeny tiny dancer's body", involves an intense dance regime that incorporates several repetitions of a number of traditional gym moves, such as squats and bicep curls. To avoid unwanted bulk and to help create the sort of lean, sculpted physique that she - and her clients - have become known for, only light weights are used and the choreography of the regime is changed regularly, so that smaller accessory muscles are worked as well as large ones.
Laurie Alfano is the director of education at Xtend Barre International. She too advocates an approach that fuses different elements. "Many people seek to create a long, lean, chiselled body, which involves a regime of toning-based training. However, weight-bearing training should be used to maintain muscle mass, so a combination of both is the most efficient."
Xtend Barre is a training regime developed by Andrea Rogers, a former professional dancer with a Pilates background. Rogers set out to create a vigorous cardiovascular workout that would also involve toning and strengthening exercises and lengthening stretches.
"The workout combines the amazing results of dance with the principles of strength and safety in Pilates, to benefit the whole body. Individuals sweat and burn calories in addition to sculpting and toning their bodies," says Alfano.
Much like Anderson's workouts, these classes are tough, particularly for people who haven't taken dance lessons or done Pilates before. However, the promised results, which, according to Alfano, include "a stronger core to support a healthy body, a lifted derrière, improved posture, endurance and overall energy, increased flexibility and greater body awareness" should help novices to break through the pain barrier.
Guillermo says that ideally, a full workout would include "cardio, flexibility, agility and balance, core training and strength elements" and adds that he encourages this sort of variety among his clients.
He gives the "chest press on exercise ball" move as an example of this principle. "While traditionally, you would execute the move from a static position - on a bench, for example - thus isolating a muscle group, this way you work the full body. Lying on the ball forces you to use your core and pull in your glutes, as well as improving flexibility and working the chest muscles," he explains.
A guide to the "chest press on exercise ball":
Start by sitting on the exercise ball, then slide into a bridge position, with the ball between your shoulder blades, supporting your head.
Draw in your stomach, keep your knees aligned, make sure your feet are facing forwards and tense your buttocks. Hold the weights at a 90-degree angle at your elbow, palms facing away from your body.
While exhaling, slowly extend both arms up, above your chest and hold for two seconds. Inhale, slowly lowering the weights back to the starting position. Repeat 20 to 30 times.