Liam Harrison on Exercise, Self-Worth and Stress

the benefits of strength training, the importance of proper movement, and why recovery is key when training.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Liam Harrison, and I am 23 years old. Throughout my life, thanks to my parents, I was always into sports. Sports is an integral part of my life, and it is thanks to them, for pushing me to participate in sports, that I have grown an interest towards strength training. 

In 2020, I completed a BSc (Hon) in Sports and Physical Activity from the University of Malta, and I am now reading for an MSc in Strength and Conditioning at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. I am reading for this MSc in distance learning; thus, this allows me to study and work simultaneously, therefore putting what I am learning into practice with my clients and athletes. 

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What are the benefits of strength training?

Strength training should be an integral part of anyone’s life, to maintain string muscles and bones and live longer, healthier lives. It is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) that people perform 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise plus at least two (2) strength training sessions per week. 

Some of the main benefits of strength training include increasing muscle size and force production capabilities, increasing bone density, increasing joint lubrication, and decreasing the chance of falling in elderly adults. Strength training is vital to living a long functional life; if we have stronger muscles and bones, we can be more independent in our life for longer. This means that we can work for a longer duration, carry heavier stuff, and perform everyday tasks without aches and pains. These might also include carrying groceries, walking, and going up the stairs or simply hanging out clothes on the washing line. 

Strength training can also be beneficial to strengthening the cardiovascular system, that means making the heart and blood vessels stronger and more efficient in pumping blood around the body. 

When it comes to athletes, strength training also reduces the chance of injury by up to 69%, thus, it is imperative that any athlete who is looking to lengthen their athletic career must perform strength training aside from their sport skill training.

There are different types of strength training…How can one find a balance between them?

Correct. There are different modalities of strength training which different people use for different reasons. For example, a person can train for maximum strength qualities, and someone else can train for strength-endurance qualities. When it comes to athletic training, it is important that the athlete and coach know what physical qualities they want to improve, as each quality will require a different training method. When it comes to the general population, for someone looking to get fitter and perhaps stronger, it comes down to personal preference and personal goals. 

In reality, one must keep in mind that strength training is movement, and we must think of it as movement. As recommended by the WHO, in each of the two (or more) strength training sessions, we must aim to train all the major muscle groups in our body. This means that we must engage our body in the main five movements: Squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, and bracing. Getting stronger in all these movements will train us for longevity. 

One must also ensure that the principle of progressive overload is applied in training. This means that for a person to get stronger, what they do in the gym must progressively challenge the body further, for the body to adapt. As an example, if on my first week I perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions of squats with 10kg, the next time I should try and make this a bit harder. There are 3 main ways to do this: 1. By increasing the weight lifted; 2. By increasing the volume performed i.e., increase the number of sets or repetitions and 3. By performing the exercise with a slower tempo, thus, getting more time under tension. 

If any of these methods is progressively applied, one will instantly notice that after for example 8 weeks of training, they are most probably lifting more weight than when they first started.

There’s the famous misconception that to lose fat, you need to spend hours on cardio machines. How does strength training help with weight loss?

It is a known fact that one of the best ways to burn fat as an energy source is through low intensity steady state training (L.I.S.S). However, this does not mean that strength training should not be an integral part of any weight loss journey. 

To continue on what we discussed in the previous point, as we progressively get stronger, our body also physically adapts by increasing the amount of muscle mass in the affected areas. This means that the body must now sustain more muscle mass, and thus, this requires more energy. Simultaneously, as the muscle fibres are broken down during strength training, the body performs a process which is called protein synthesis, i.e., the process by which muscle is re-built. This process requires a good amount of energy which in the long run will increase the amount of energy required throughout the day. When this is paired with a good diet, in which the person is in a calorie deficit, fat loss will ensue.

You specialise in movement…tell us a little bit about how proper movement is key for strength training.

My main job as a strength and conditioning coach is to ensure that the movement quality of my clients, both athletes and the public, is of good quality. Good movement quality is paramount for longevity. 

Let us take an athlete as an example. If an athlete performs poor movement quality in the gym, can we expect that athlete to be efficient in the way they use their energy on the field? No. Thus, perfecting movement quality is important for movement and energy efficiency. 

Now let us take somebody that wants to lose weight performing a squat as an example. As a general “rule” a squat should be performed to full depth or at least to a parallel height to the ground. If a person keeps on performing quarter squats, when in their program it says that they should be performing full squats, are they really getting the most out of that movement? No. This does not mean that quarter squats do not have their place in a training program, however, ensuring good and safe movement quality will enhance the desired results and ensure longevity in training and in life.

Why is recovery so important when training? Does sleep affect progress?

Recovery is one of the key requirements to see effective results from any training program. If we do not allow time for the body to recover, we will miss out on the opportunity for the muscles and other tissues to grow and adapt. Repeatedly not recovering from strength training is a very common issue in many gym-goers who think that the more they do every day, the more results they will see. It is true, that when you are a beginner and start training consistently, you will see results very quickly, however, we must ensure that a strength trained muscle is given at least 24-48 hours to recover before training it again. 

One of the most underrated tools for recovery is in fact sleep. Nowadays, it is very easy to get carried away with all the technology available. Things like recovery guns, compression boots, supplements, massages etc are all useful tools to help someone recover from training, however, we must not fall into the trap of using these methods instead of taking care of our sleeping patterns, together with good hydration and nutrition. It is recommended that we should get at least 8 hours of sleep at night, 7 of which must be undisturbed sleep. 

When we sleep, protein synthesis is being performed at a high rate, rebuilding the broken-down muscle tissue to get stronger and bigger.

If someone has problems with having an undisturbed sleeping pattern, there are a number of things which one can try to improve their sleep. Firstly, we must create an environment which puts our body in sleep mode. This means that the room must be totally dark, without any light and sound distractions. Secondly, the room must be a bit cool, and blankets can be used to warm up the bed. The use of technology also hinders sleep quality. Our technological devices all emit blue light which signal our eye receptors that it is time to stay awake and alert when our brain wants to sleep and rest. Ideally, we avoid using technological devices at least 1 hour before getting to bed, however, if this is unavoidable, one can change the settings of their device to reduce the emission of blue light and emit orange/red light instead. Lastly, caffeine also plays a very important role in affecting sleep quality. Any use of caffeine past 2pm is not recommended as it tends to affect the quality of sleep.

During the month of November, here at Fortify, we’re raising awareness on men’s mental health, suicide prevention, and testicular cancer. What are the benefits of training when it comes to mental health?

Strength training is one of many forms of exercise that can be performed by anyone. Any form of physical activity which is enjoyed by the person performing it can be useful to serve as a place of self-reflection, improving self-worth and perception and a place of stress relief. When we perform physical activity, be-it strength training, yoga, running, dance or playing any sport, endorphins are released throughout the body. Endorphins are what we call the “happy hormones” as they instantly make us feel better about ourselves, even if we are having what could be a bad day, week, month or even a year. 

 

Strength training can also help someone feel better when they start seeing that they are getting stronger, losing some weight, or even looking better in the mirror. This can boost self-worth and self-esteem in the long term. 

Having said that, it is important to note that it is very common for us men to hide our feelings, and not express them with anyone. I cannot emphasize enough the fact that if someone is experiencing any mental health symptoms, please seek help from a professional or simply open up about how you are feeling.

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