Beginner strength training: Stronger legs to walk longer

Walking is great for your health, and complementing your walks with basic strength training can bring you even more health benefits. Strength training can help you burn more calories, increase your functional strength, and improve your bone density. Even if brisk walking is the core of your exercise routine, stronger legs may enable you to get those 2,000 extra steps per day or finish that intense walking workout. You don’t need a gym membership – you just need your body – and strength training can actually be really fun!

We’re going to explore how strength training can boost your overall health and fitness, bump up your step-count, and increase your calorie burn. We’ll also cover some simple activities you can start with right away to get more steps and improve your workout.

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Strength Training for Walkers:

Group of people happy after a good workout

The Benefits of Strength Training

We’ve already mentioned increased calorie burn, having stronger legs that can take you on long walks, resilience should you experience a fall, and improved overall health associated with strength training. There are more benefits to consider:

  • Strength training protects bone health and muscle mass.
  • You’ll experience a lift in your mood and energy level.
  • It can help you manage chronic diseases like arthritis.
  • It helps keep weight off “for good.”
  • Like all kinds of exercise, it may improve cognitive function.

Current Physical Fitness Guidelines

Group of active people walking for fitness

We already know that quality exercise and a proper diet are essential to good health. According to Physical Fitness Guidelines for Americans, published by the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion for the CDC and available at Health.gov:

  • Healthy adults should aim for 150-300 minutes of moderate exercise every week (half that if you’re doing vigorous exercise like running or playing basketball).
  • Healthy adults should incorporate muscle-strengthening activities as well as aerobic activities for additional benefits.
  • Adults who are disabled or otherwise challenged physically should still attempt to get some exercise.

Will I Start Looking Like a Bodybuilder?

The short answer is no – not unless you’re putting in a ton of work at the gym and eating a very specific diet. The actors and celebrities you see with chiseled physiques probably have an army of trainers and nutritionists, and they can devote much of their time to working out. It’s certainly possible for regular people to get in amazing shape, but it doesn’t happen by accident.

Many women, in particular, avoid strength training because they worry that they’ll develop muscles and look like men. For someone who is new to or casual at strength training, it’s almost impossible for this to happen. Large muscles come from lifting very heavy weights + a diet of eating a lot of calories. Basic strength training can tone your muscles and improve your strength, which is great for everyone!

How to Start Strength Training

Men stretching getting ready for a walk or run

Stay Safe and Warm Up First

Before doing any kind of strength training routine, make sure to warm up, get your blood flowing and joints loosened up first. You wouldn’t expect a professional athlete to perform without a proper warm-up, yet even a strength training beginner needs a good stretching and warm-up routine. A good place to start is to do a quick warm-up walk or some dynamic stretching. Even if you’re doing light or bodyweight exercises, you want to make sure your body is ready to go before your workout.

Simple Walking Warmup

Couple doing jumping jacks outside

Do a 5-minute walk, or alternatively pace back and forth or walk circles at home. Here are some easy and quick warmup ideas to get your upper body loosened up:

  • Arm Circles – Gently swing your arms in a circle. First, make small circles with your arms bend, then straighten them somewhat to create bigger circles. Remember your arms can rotate clockwise and counterclockwise!
  • Jumping Jacks – With your arms bent at a 90-degree angle and feet together, jump your feet out so you’re standing shoulder with apart and touch your fingers together over your head.
  • Running in Place – Start by doing a slow jog in place, then do 5 seconds of quick running in place before returning to your slow jog.

It can also be good to do some light, dynamic stretching before a workout. You’ll get more steps in during your daily walk and feel better, looser, and more motivated to walk tomorrow! Remember that you should usually stretch after warming up, and don’t stretch so deep that you feel pain or discomfort.

Basic Stretches for Walkers

  • Ankle and Hamstring Stretch – Sit at the edge of a chair with your left leg extended. Put your heel on the floor. Flex your foot, pointing your toe forward and then pointing your toe up towards the ceiling. Then lean forward slightly from your hips. You should feel to feel the stretch in your ankles while you rotate your toe and then in the back of your thigh. Switch legs and repeat.
  • Groin Stretch – Stand up and hold on to a chair. Stand with your legs slightly wider than your shoulders. While your right foot points forward, turn your left foot to a 45-degree angle out to the side. Gently lunge in that direction, see if you can get your knee to go as far as your toes (but don’t go past them). Switch sides and repeat. You should feel this stretch in your groin area.
  • Touch Your Toes – This classic stretch needs no explanation, but don’t leave it out! It’s an excellent way to test your flexibility over time and get your whole back loose and ready for a walk. Go light with this stretch – you don’t want to bend so far that you injure your back. Try to build flexibility over time!

These are only a few ideas. You can find many resources online on warmups and stretching, and there are almost endless examples of useful stretches you can do.

Beginner Guide to Starting Strength Training:

Coach helping an older man do perfect pushups

Follow these tips to get started with strength training:

Quick Safety Tips Beginners

  • Start light – Start with bodyweight exercises, or use very light weights. Only increase the weight or intensity when you’re confident your form is perfect and your current weight or difficulty level feels easy.
  • Use proper form – Using proper form is more important than how much weight you can lift or how many repetitions you can do. Proper form ensures you’re using the correct muscles and that your joints are operating in a way that minimizes your risk of injuries.
  • Ask for help – Ask a professional for help, or use online resources to check your technique. Pacer’s guided workouts have videos showing you how to do each exercise. If you’re using weights, try to find a certified trainer who can show you proper form and watch to see you’re doing exercises correctly.
  • Train with a partner – Especially if you’re using weights, make sure you have a partner nearby who can help you if you get stuck under a weight or have a problem. Bodyweight workouts are more forgiving as there’s nothing that can fall on you, but it’s good to have some way to call for help just in case anything goes wrong.
  • Get your rest! – Exercising breaks down your muscles, and they get stronger when you rest them and let them build themselves back up again. If you work out too often and don’t rest, you can suffer from overtraining which can leave you tired and sick.

Now that you’ve grabbed some light weights and a buddy, start by just adding some straightforward upper body exercises to your walk. Remember that your muscles will be building and repairing during your “off days.” Don’t work out the same muscle groups continuously.

How to Implement Strength Training: A Great First Routine

Couple using a resistance band during a walk

A great way to incorporate strength training into a walking workout is to stop periodically and do some upper body exercises. This is easier if you have access to a treadmill, as you can get off, do an exercise and get back on. If you don’t, you can try this workout with a resistance band which is easy to carry in a light backpack. If you’re walking around a park or track, you can bring some light weights and put them down, then walk around and come back to pick them up. You don’t want to carry weights in your hands as you walk, because that can throw off your walking posture and lead to injuries.

Here’s a great sample routine published by Fitness Magazine. It will tone your upper body as you walk, improve your calorie burn, and make you stronger in case of a fall:

  • Start with three big, sweeping arm circles with each arm
  • Walk for 5 minutes

Then do 25 reps of this:

  • Hold some very light weights and start with hands near your hips.
  • Bring weights up to armpits, skimming your torso with your knuckles and keeping elbows bent through the movement.
  • Squeeze shoulder blades and upper-back muscles together. Draw your elbows back, raising your fists to shoulder height.
  • Lower hands to start and repeat.

Then get on with your walking.

This is only one possible walking workout. You could do the same thing with a resistance band, or do something as simple as pushups or bodyweight lunges.

Some Great Strength Training Tools

Couple using yoga mat and medicine balls

You don’t need a gym membership or fancy home workout gear to get started. Here are 3 basic pieces of gear that are cheap and super useful!

Yoga mat

Many bodyweight exercises benefit from a padded surface you can sit or lie on. A cheap yoga mat placed on your floor is all you need to get started. Try to find one that isn’t slippery and sticks well to the ground, so that it’s stable when you lie on it. You can find many cheap yoga mats online (like these).

Resistance band

Resistance bands are stretchy bands that you can wrap around something heavy or step on to act like weights or exercise machines. Some are shaped like a big rubber band, while others have handles that you can pull on. Resistance bands are a cheap, easy way to do many basic exercises in the comfort of your own home! Do be careful what you wrap your band around, however! You don’t want to get so into your workout that you snap something off of the wall! Here are some resistance band exercises you can try.

Medicine ball

A medicine ball is just a large, weighted ball that you can use in many ways as a strength training workout. You can lift it or swing it over your head. Some medicine balls are built to slam on the ground, or have handles to lift in various ways. You’re basically only limited by your creativity. Here are some ideas to get started.

On Wearable Weights

Women walking with weights in a park

According to recent studies done at Harvard, it’s not wise to “use wearable ankle weights while you’re walking or during an aerobics workout, because they force you to use your quadriceps (the muscles in the fronts of the thighs) and not your hamstrings (in the backs of the thighs).” In short, wearable weights can cause muscle imbalance and lead to injuries.

They can even lead to soft tissue injury. Some wearable ankle weights will pull on the ankle joint when you’re walking. They can bring the risk of tendon and ligament injuries throughout your entire leg.

Wrist weights can bring on the same types of soft tissue injury.

Weighted vests, however, have been proven to be an excellent choice for walkers. Per Harvard University, the pressure weighted vests put on your bones can be a superb stimulant for new bone growth.

Final Thoughts

Strength training is a great way to mix things up, burn calories and strengthen your muscles. Stronger leg muscles let you walk longer and help prevent injuries from walking. Believe it or not, but jumping jacks, bodyweight squats and more can help you hit that 10,000 step goal. Make sure that you’re doing your exercises correctly, however. Pacer’s guided video workouts are a great place to start!

Get Pacer

If you haven’t downloaded the Pacer app yet, download Pacer now for free (on mobile)! You can also check out our website (mobile or desktop) or follow our blog for more great walking and healthy lifestyle tips.

Related Reading & Resources:

Arthritis.com: Stretches for Walking

Sparkpeople.com: How Many Calories Does Strength Training Really Burn?

CDC: Physical Activity Resources 

 

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