Our fitness expert Tom Berry, in his second column for the Cambridge Independent, explains how to use the great outdoors to build strength.

Tom Berry, founder and owner of To Be Personal Training. Photo: Keith Hepell

Strength is an important component of physical fitness.

Our bodies adapt to what we do, so our bodies get stronger if we perform strength exercises. Conversely, if our lifestyles are sedentary, our bodies weaken. The adage “use it or lose it” definitely applies.

There’s an evolutionary reason for this: our bodies evolved to be resourceful. Lots of muscle requires lots of calories, so if a person has little need for muscle (because they’re sitting at a desk all day), their body will shed it. But if you were a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer with an exceptionally active lifestyle, your body would invest in maintaining muscle because it would be essential for your survival.

Being strong has many benefits in the 21st century. Most people with sedentary jobs still enjoy being active, such as playing sports, gardening or doing DIY.

Being strong helps you do these things without hurting yourself. For example, many of us like to sort our garden in the spring. If you’ve been inactive all winter, not only are you going to be less productive, but you risk injuring your shoulder lifting pots or your lower back shoveling.

A person who has strength trained will be more physically resilient and more able to maintain proper technique when digging, lifting and carrying.

In addition to the functional consequences of staying strong, weight training develops a more athletic and toned physique.

I should manage expectations here. Very few people have the genetics, discipline, and dedication (and, ahem, “pharmaceutical assistance”) to look like a bodybuilder. Either way, strength training will give you a more muscular build. Strength training also gives a sense of accomplishment and a burst of feel-good hormones (endorphins).

In my first article for the Cambridge Independent, I wrote about the many ways to train aerobics outdoors. You can also perform very effective strength training routines outdoors.

Let’s start with a piece of equipment that everyone has: our body.

Bodyweight exercises (calisthenics) can be done anytime and anywhere. You can strengthen your legs with variations of squats, lunges, and step-ups (among many others).

It’s also easy to perform basic exercises like sit-ups, back raises, and planks (again, there are plenty more). You can perform push-up and pull-up variations for your upper body. Both of these exercises are great, but you need to know how to make them easier or harder. For example, a push-up can be transformed into a clap or a one-arm push-up. The same exercise can be regressed into push-ups from the knees or on the back of a park bench.

Over the last decade there has been a huge increase in the number of outdoor public fitness facilities (there are too many around Cambridge to mention).

Tom Berry, founder and owner of To Be Personal Training.  Photo: Keith Hepell
Tom Berry, founder and owner of To Be Personal Training. Photo: Keith Hepell

They range from old-fashioned “finishing trails” to machines that look a lot like what you would find in a commercial gym. I’m a huge fan of the former, but unfortunately the latter range from great to awful.

In my opinion, mimicking cardio equipment at a park, like incline bikes or ellipticals, is kind of silly. If you want to get your heart rate up, go for a walk, run or bike ride in the park, don’t be a hamster in a wheel.

The other pieces of equipment are great fun for the kids, but as a seasoned fitness professional, I can confidently say they’re not worth using if you want to use your time effectively.

However, strength training equipment tends to be much better. These machines typically consist of levers that allow you to lift your body weight as you perform various pressing and pulling movements. The limit is your strength to weight ratio.

If you are very overweight and very weak, you are going to struggle. If you are light and strong, the exercises will be far too easy. There are ways around this, and my recommendation is to practice with a friend and have them manually add (or remove) an appropriate level of gear resistance (i.e. gently pushing up or helping if you are in trouble).

If you’re lucky, you’ll find hydraulic equipment at a park near you. With these, the resistance can be subtly adjusted with a dial. They are awesome, and I hope more will appear in public areas.

As the weather improves, many people’s default exercise is running, but don’t forget to do strength training as well. I’m sure you’ll be able to find a park near you with good exercise machines, and if you can’t, there are plenty of great bodyweight exercises you can do.

Tom Berry is the Cambridge-based personal trainer behind To Be Personal Training – tobept.com.

Read more about Tom the first week of every month in the Cambridge Independent.