By William J. Kraemer, Ph.D. 

As we all are in a “stay home-stay safe” or “social distancing” world of today, exercise has become an even more essential part of life.  With makeshift home gyms and weight rooms being adapted in, living rooms, spare bedrooms, basements and garages, we have all learned how much we miss our gyms and health clubs.  From exercise videos to online fitness classes to walking and cycling safely in our neighborhoods, we are trying to get that exercise we need for both physical and mental health.  However, cautionary tales might be thought of in order to safely take on many times new modalities and exercises for the first time. 

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Risks of Overtraining

This was underscored to me when an older friend of mine decided with all of his extra free time working from home, he would increase his 30 min walks to three times a day.  The result — “shin splints” — which is an inflammation of the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around your tibia, a lower leg bone.  It was painful and took almost two weeks to recover from during which time he could do no exercise.  In sports medicine, we talk about this as being “too much too soon” or a type of acute overtraining.  Another younger and highly fit friend of mine took on a new exercise video form of exercise, and the next day was “so” sore and needed a few days to recover.  So, the take-home messages from these cases are to be careful and progress slowly with any new exercise program or increases in what you are already doing.  Also, do not take on any new program that your physician has not said you are ok to do, especially as one gets older.  Additionally, make sure any new weight training routines are safely done, as barbell bench presses alone without a spotter, can really be dangerous! 

Conditioning Domains

Your exercise routines should address three different domains needed for a total conditioning program: strength, aerobic endurance, and flexibility.  Aerobic and flexibility training are easier to address at home and even in a closed-in apartment in NYC.  But what about strength, not so much without your gym equipment, right? In this blog, let us look at strength training a bit more.

As most of you know, strength training is important for our neuromuscular system and plays a big role in both fitness and health, even mental health.  A quick review, muscles are activated by the brain.  Motor nerves run from the brain down the spinal cord and then out to activate a group of muscle fibers to produce force.  The number of muscle fibers activated or recruited to provide the needed force is based on the “resistance” used.  New research has again shown that the more resistance used the more muscle that is stimulated.  Thus, some workouts use heavier resistance to stimulate muscle, so it becomes “trained.”  This principle has been around for ages and is called the “Size Principle.”  We saw this in my lab a long time ago when women who did “step aerobics” had no training changes in a large amount of muscle compared to the women who did step aerobics but also did some heavy resistance training as well.  So if you do not want to see parts of your muscle detrain, using some progressive heavy resistance strength training is needed.

Maximal Force Requirements

Basically, just because you are drenched with sweat does not mean you have stimulated all of your muscles.  To stimulate all of the muscles, you need to have maximal force requirements in a workout. Remember the parts of the muscle that are not trained, detrain with time.  In the weight room, this is done using heavier resistance loads as part of a periodized or varied program.  But how do you “get at” muscle using some heavier resistances in this new “home adapted” gym and weight room?  Good question. And, we cannot also forget about the safety aspect of an unsupervised environment.

You must remember that weight training adaptations are specific to the exercise and angles used in an exercise. For that exercise or angle, the amount of resistance that is used dictates the amount of the muscle stimulated or trained.  First, you are not alone as thousands of athletes are in the same predicament trying to keep up their “strength fitness.”  Having done a lot of video meetings with strength coaches across the country, this is a big issue right now.  So, for those of us who are used to a weight room, this can cause one to go a bit crazy and scrambling to adapt to today.

Use Caution While Improvising

One good point is that maximal strength detrains the slowest of all the fitness parameters.  I have seen a multitude of improvised weight rooms on video from friends dragging out the old dumbbells, using cement-filled cans, to using rocks and tires and anything that can provide resistance.  Always be careful with your make-shift gyms. One friend of mine used an old weight training bench from his basement storage room that he bought for his kids decades ago.   When doing dumbbell bench presses, one of the bench legs broke but fortunately, he was using some light weights and did not get hurt.  Make sure all equipment is in good working order.  Rubber bands age and snap, benches break or are put together incorrectly, and so on.  In another case, an experienced lifter, thought “tire flipping” was a good way to get some good overload exercise, and being an experienced powerlifter, she took on this BIG tire in her driveway.  The result, a pulled/strained inter-costal rib muscle, and recovery took a few weeks as it hurt to breathe.  Remember, it is very important to progress carefully with new exercises and loads. 

Dr. William J. Kraemer, Ph.D.  is a member of the AdvoCare Scientific and Medical Advisory Board Member and is compensated for his role. Check with your health care provider before beginning any fitness program.

William Kraemer Ph.D., FACSM, FNSCA, FISSN, FACN
Professor of Human Sciences at Ohio State University
  • More than 450 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts related to sports medicine, exercise, sports science and sports nutrition
  • Over 100 book chapters, author of ten books

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