As much as I like being outside, I have to confess to being somewhat of a gym rat. I’ve been a regular in the weightroom since I was 17, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But my reasoning has changed over the years.
Back then, it was about looking better, bigger and more ripped. I even admitted it back then – it was a vanity thing.
But as the years have rolled by, the real benefits of weight training have shone through while the vanity issues have faded away. Lately, it’s been all about finding ways to use the tools in the weightroom to help me perform better outside and enjoy the outdoors more.
A few weeks back I posted about why runners should lift weights. This is going to be an extension of that line of thinking. Whether you’re a casual hiker, backpacker, climber, hunter or skier, there are plenty of reasons why you should find your way to the gym and strengthen your frame.
I’ll go over a few of those, then pass along a few exercises that are key for outdoor athletes and enthusiasts.
The foundation of strength starts with your legs. We use these limbs constantly, but they have some of the most neglected muscle groups in our bodies. Leg work is hard but necessary. Weaker legs lead to knee and hip pain, and often times we compensate for leg weakness by overusing other parts of our bodies, like the back. And then comes back issues which can sideline you indefinitely.
Speaking of the back, working on your core is paramount. A healthy midsection, front and back, will make you more mobile and avoid pesky – and at time debilitating – back problems.
A sturdy frame will make all those endurance feats that much easier. No doubt, a strong heart and lungs are key to doing what we love. But if those muscle groups are not strong, they’ll wear down well before you’ve fully tapped into your cardio greatness.
Unlike what bodybuilders tend to do, what we need are compound exercises that work lots of muscle groups at once. The reason being: Our activities are those in which our bodies are doing a lot of things at the same time, requiring coordination of disparate muscle groups. So we won’t be talking about wrist curls or other isolation exercises here. The ones I’m talking about are the kings of all weightroom moves. Here’s some of my faves:
The squat. Whether you’re doing this with just body weight or loading up a barbell with plates, this one stands atop as the best exercise around. It works your entire body, with a focus on the largest muscle groups in your legs and butt. This one builds power, elongates the quads and hamstrings and provides more bang for the buck than anything. Done correctly, it will help develop your core as well. A word of caution: do it right. Keep your back straight, and bend down at the knees to where the top of your thighs are at least parallel to the ground. If you find yourself stopping short of that, swallow your pride and use less weight. This is one exercise you need to do right. Drop down slowly, then push off your heels, looking up, back straight and explode through your hips.
The pullup. Ask any rock climber and they’ll tell you this is a great exercise. Ask any bodybuilder, and they will say the same thing. Pullups work the largest muscles on your back as well as hitting your shoulders and biceps. What’s even better: you don’t need any weights at all. Your body weight will suffice. Be sure to hang with your arms straight, then concentrate on squeezing your shoulder blades together as you lift yourself up. Raise your chin level with the bar. If body weight pullups are not challenging enough, use a belt chain with weight plates to add to the challenge. If body weight is too much, use a spotter to “assist” by lifting up on your feet as you go, or use power bands hooked up to your feet and the bar.
The bench press. Use this with either a barbell or dumbells. The bench press works the big muscles of the chest while also hitting the front side of your shoulders and your triceps. Be sure to get a good stretch on your chest as you go down. Do not bounce the bar of your chest or lift your butt off the bench. Just go slow and controlled, using weight you can actually do without cheating.
The deadlift. Is there anything more basic than picking up something off the ground? The deadlift, like the squat, uses a boatload of muscles all over your body, pounding your legs and back. Getting a good grip and bending at the knees, keep your back straight (not rounded), push through your heels while looking up and lift straight up. It’s OK is the bar slides up your shins. For a lighter variation, you can also turn a dumbbell on its side and pick it up from the top end.
There are tons of other exercises you can do that are more muscle group-specific, but these four are an excellent foundation. A rotation of these exercises three times a week, added to your other training, will do wonders on the trail, on the rock, on the hunt or on the slopes. There’s everything right with getting outside and there’s nothing wrong with going out there with a strong body.
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