At home or at the gym, building muscles might just change your life. Here’s how to do it

At home or at the gym, building muscles might just change your life. Here’s how to do it
  • PublishedMay 10, 2024

Muscles are getting plenty of positive press lately and for good reason.

Increasingly, we are understanding that lifting weights or doing resistance exercises are not just about getting ripped (though if that’s your driver, all power to you).

By building muscle, we can safeguard against falls into older age, make our bones stronger and less brittle, better control our blood-sugar levels and reduce the risk of a suite of serious diseases.

“It’s really about improving functioning, improving capacity,” physiotherapist Sammy Prowse, who works with the AFL’s Hawthorn Football Club, tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.

“It might be that you’re looking to be able to play with your grandchildren, or you might be a labourer and you’re noticing that you need to have strength in certain positions, or you might be an athlete; it’s about optimising your muscles and the way in which your body performs.”

Building muscles also helps in managing pain, she says.

“We know that 30 per cent of Australians have pain or 16 per cent have lower back pain. So it’s really high … one in three has pain.”

But Prowse says it doesn’t need to be this way: “There is so much that we can do.”

Person in purple activewear and hair up holds arms out and squats down in an orange and purple lounge room.
A set of squats is one effective resistance exercise that can be done anywhere.(ABC RN: Anna Levy)

How to build strength

There’s a simple equation to building strength, Prowse says.

“What you really need to be ensuring is that [you’re bearing] load — load is the thing that brings strength.”

There are lots of exercises to help.

For example, squatting can be done at home without any equipment.

“You can do that by bending your knees and ankles, and you really want to think about it as though you’re sitting back into a chair. So you really stick your bum back so that your knees don’t shear forward,” Prowse says.

“That’s a great one. It’s functional. It relates to walking, going up and down stairs, sitting to stand — these are activities we do all the time, and it includes our major muscles of the legs … all of the muscles that we need, essentially, to move around.”

For abdominal exercises, a safe place to start — if you don’t have any upper limb, arm and shoulder injuries — is doing a plank from your knees, Prowse says.

There are many different ways to do this, including holding yourself up on the floor or by putting your hands on your bed, and taking your knees or feet back on the floor, so that your body creates a long line, and holding the position for a few seconds. 

Person in singlet and shorts leans with bent arms against a bed with knees on the floor and feet raised behind them.
Planking, which can be modified to suit your strength and environment, is a good exercise for building abdominal muscles.(ABC RN: Anna Levy)

You might start with three sets of five repetitions, with a break between sets, and you can gradually increase the reps to 10 or 15, when it feels safe to do that, or increase the seconds you hold for.

“Those are things that you can do around the house that really do make a difference. It’s great if you can access amazing facilities … but you can actually just do this in your own home. And it really does work.”

Elements of Pilates and yoga also have “underlying principles of strength”. Another option is to see a physiotherapist who can tailor a program for you.

If you can commit to the routine, you’ll reap the rewards, Prowse says.

What if my workout is making me sore?

When building strength there is a concept of “safe” pain, which doesn’t include pain from injuries.

Illustration of person in tshirt and pants seen from behind, holding hands against their upper and lower back.
Pain after exercise can mean you’ve done a great workout, or it can mean there’s a problem.(ABC RN: Anna Levy)

Safe pain is pain that, on a scale where 0 is none, ratings up to four out of 10 would be considered normal. This is when your muscles are working and you’re unlikely to be doing any damage, Prowse says.

“That’s a good place to be.”

However, above four out of 10, things get “a bit sketchy”, she says.

Pain at that level should be considered in relation to any injury you might have, your physical condition and your body. When the line between safe and unsafe pain feels blurry, a physiotherapist can help.

Aim to feel ‘good in your body’

Ella Mason, a fitness coach and founder of a strength-based gym in Melbourne’s north, says any exercise that “pushes you out of your normal window of tolerance or comfortability or resilience” is a great way of building strength.

Along the way you’re likely to build confidence, too, they say.

“As we go along with strength training, we start to understand our bodies a bit better. The more autonomous we are in our bodies and how we move them, without someone telling us how to and how not to, we get to understand our individual bodies.”

Mason is a big fan of strength training over a lifetime, rather than in small spurts.

That goes for bodies of any gender, ability, size and age.

“I advocate a lot for all bodies to be able to do movement,” Mason says.

“We have all sorts of people come through the gym [including] older people who are in their 70s and 80s, who are new to strength training [but who can] suddenly lift things that they never have before [or are] regaining really good balance and reflex, which in relation to falls mitigation as we age, is really important.”

For everyone who is strength training, the same ethos should apply.

“It’s really just about feeling good in your body.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *