Interested in doing a free weights workout? I think everyone at some point has picked up a pair of free weights and started at that infamous bicep curl in the hopes of giving their body a makeover. As a yoga instructor, I specialize in functional movement and understand the core. I thrive on teaching willing bodies how to move from the inside out.
The gym is a hard place for me to visit. I get a membership just to use the treadmill so I can walk. Being inside is tortuous to me because I love the outdoors but our winters in Wisconsin are bone cold. When at the gym, it is hard to watch the other members perform potentially stressful movements while using free weights (and those crazy machines). Don’t get me wrong, I love using free weights. I not only use them personally, but I incorporate them into my yoga and Core Functional Fitness™ classes. When doing so, I educate my students with these three important things.
1. Every movement is an extension of your core. When you curl the weight to contract your bicep you are really working to contract and stabilize your deep pelvic-core (pelvic floor muscles and transversus abdominus), and your arm is just an extension of your core’s contraction. Unfortunately, people become too focused on the obvious–the free weight and the action of the curl. Yes, the bicep does contract, but the body’s muscles are all interconnected. You don’t just have an arm. Like a Barbie doll, her arms and legs plug into her torso or core, the motherboard of her (and your) body. So take some time to get to know your pelvic floor (think bathroom muscles for starters). Start to train your brain to first focus on the contraction internally–in your mind. Not only will you lessen the chance of injury, but the weight won’t feel so heavy.
2. Stabilize before you mobilize. You can’t be mobile until you are first stable. In the quest for faster, bigger and stronger, this is often sacrificed, or never even acknowledged. A baby never learns how to walk before she learns how to stand. A toddler never learns how to run before he learns how to walk. Ever watch a toddler take his/her first steps? They move slow and steady as we clap our hands and tell them to come to us. But they know better, not to take that step until they are steady enough to do so. You watch them rock on their feet, learning their body’s limits and core strength. They practice bending their knees and then eventually take that step. We need to be like that baby, especially when it comes to using free weights. So what does stabilizing the body mean exactly? Well for starters, you need to learn to perform the movement or exercise before adding any external load. Are you lunging with free weights? Can you lunge effectively without weights? When you curl up a set of weights or a barbell, can you stabilize your torso so that it will not collapse when you lift the weight? Much of this comes back to the core, understanding how to use your deep core muscles and co-contract or brace will allow you to lift the weight without throwing/arching your body back simply to get the job done. Ever watch a weight lifter as they curl up? Their bodies get thrown back. Why? Because the weight is probably too heavy and they have not been shown how to effectively stabilize from the inside. This forces them to use their superficial muscles to try to get the job done.
3. Don’t just build the large bulky superficial (obvious) muscles. Our large skeletal muscles (I like to refer to them as the weight lifters muscles) are the easiest to access and the ones that we get more instant gratification. Because they are closer to the surface and we see definition develop more quickly. But our bodies cannot function on the development of these muscles alone. When we solely focus on muscles like the quads, pecs, and glutes, our bodies eventually end up in dysfunctional movement patterns and eventual injury. Overdevelopment of these muscles may help you to win a body building contest but they surely will not help you when it comes to supporting your spine. With core control you are able to avoid tinkling in your pants and can find more ease within your daily movement patterns. So think of the body in layers, work from the deepest layer outward. Your body is like a building, you don’t put on a fancy roof or siding without building the foundation properly, or that fancy building will eventually crumble.
Weights are a great addition to anyone’s fitness routine, and even to a yoga practice, but you must first understand that you need to build a foundation– from the inside out. Remember that your arms (legs) and weight is merely an extension of the core. If your core is not strong and stable enough then another body part will take the brunt of the movement which may cause injury or pain.
When working with free weights, my advice is to slow down. Internalize–think about–the movement, stabilize and engage your core, notice how you feel during the exercise, and don’t forget to breathe.