How to Begin Strength Training

This article was first published in The Hindu on March 12, 2018.

12mpsheelaARTGAQ3IFB1H3jpgjpgMyths debunked, questions answered and doubts cleared, here

Strength, like stamina and flexibility, is one of the primary pillars of fitness. It helps retain and build muscle mass, increase strength and even aid fat loss.

Know the means

There are two ways of increasing strength and muscle mass. You could perform exercises using your own body weight (pushups, squats, lunges), or you could use external weights like dumbbells, barbells or machines. I recommend that a beginner start with using lightweights with dumbbells or machines, and gradually build strength in order to be able to handle their own body weight. Once you build enough strength by using external weights, you could move on to using your own body weight to challenge your muscles further, and proceed to do a combination of own-body-weight exercises and those with external weights. All the exercises need to be learnt from a professional so that risk of injury is minimised. Before starting a strength-training programme, do get a clearance from your physician.

Begin right

A couple of pairs of dumbbells (about 2-4 kg each), a mat, weight training gloves, water and proper (fitted) attire is all that is required. How much weight you lift for each exercise will vary. Typically, the larger muscles of the body like the chest, back, shoulders and glutes will be able to lift a heavier weight than the smaller peripheral muscles like the arms and calves.

Know the terminology

A routine typically consists of a series of exercises addressing different muscles or groups of muscles.

Each exercise is repeated several times (repetitions or reps) until the muscle tires. After a short period of rest, the next set is attempted and the exercise is repeated again until the muscle tires once more. Ideally, for muscle growth, you should not be able to perform more than 6-10 repetitions of the given exercise in one set. This means that after about eight reps, your muscle begins to protest, and by rep 10, it is so fatigued that you cannot push for more reps. Only you can decide what weight to use for each exercise. The weight you use will also differ from exercise to exercise. In time, you need to be able to push yourself gradually to increase the weight you use for each.

Performing each exercise with perfect ‘form’ is important if you want to prevent injury. Each exercise has dos and don’ts. These need to be adhered to meticulously. Understanding and remembering all the instructions for each and every exercise, (such as breathe in as you lower, breathe out as you lift, keep the back flat, keep the core engaged, keep the head lifted, spine aligned and so on), takes time and effort. While the exercise may appear simple, many get injured, especially as weight increases. This is one of the reasons why it is always preferable to have a trainer guide you to correct mistakes during the first few months of your initiation into weight training. Make sure the same muscle is not worked within 48 hours. So for instance, if you perform all the upper body exercises on a Monday, you should rest those body parts and aim to work them again only on a Thursday. You could then perform all the lower body exercises on a Tuesday and a Friday.


Wabi Sabi & Dichotomy of Control

Wabi Sabi is a fascinating Japanese ideology. It implies a very simple philosophy:

Nothing is perfect, Nothing is permanent and, Nothing is finished (But….. you make your peace with it.)

I think this is quite relevant to health, weight, fitness and wellness. One could of course interpret those words to imply that you simply accept the inevitable deterioration of your body or consider obesity, ill health and lifestyle disease a natural part of ageing and make peace with it. Since nothing is perfect, why bother trying to make it so? Since nothing is finished, why bother starting? And since nothing is permanent what is the point of attempting to stay fit or improve health?

I think however, it embodies something slightly different. It signifies the very essence of taking care of oneself for the right reasons and by using the right methods.

Nothing is perfect

Life situations are never perfect. You make the best of them. You may believe you don’t have the time to exercise, you may have a hectic travel schedule or sick kids to contend with. You may work long hours, be highly stressed and living under the duress of deadlines.

You don’t always have the time. You make the time. That’s just what you do when something is an important priority in your life. Even a twenty-minute workout at home (like a HIIT routine), is better than nothing at all if you can’t get to the gym. A quick run on the treadmill or a swim in the hotel pool is better than sulking in your room about your endless travel and how it impedes your fitness.

You may be obliged to (or want to) attend social lunches and dinners. This certainly influences your diet resolutions, but instead of sampling everything on the menu and living with the guilt, strategize how to eat out sensibly. Weigh your food options and make reasonable choices at every meal. Compensate for an indulgence by having a few light meals and making sure you workout. These are coping strategies that the clever people use to stay on track.

The myth of perfection – We are also confronted with another kind of perfection that often gets in the way of regular humans exercising for themselves and to improve their own health, mood and quality of life. We have been programmed into believing in perfection. More importantly, the kind of physical perfection portrayed by the media. Not everyone can look like the model on the cover of a magazine, not even the model on the cover of the magazine!! And neither should we try. Trying to look like somebody else is simply a wasteful exercise. Trying to adhere to the dictates of society to be certain size or appear a certain way will not necessarily get you a healthier body. Likely it will get you on the roller coaster ride of binge eating, starving, yo-yo-dieting, over exercising coupled with a lot of angst and frustration. Instead of watching your weight, counting calories, exercising maniacally, talking endlessly about it and worrying about not losing weight…..spend that time establishing healthy, sustainable LIFE HABITS.

Nothing is finished

The human body is a work in progress. We usually start exercising with simple goals like

  •  Lose ten kilos
  •  Get into that dress/those jeans
  • Run a marathon
  • Trek to the Himalayas
  • Control my diabetes

Once we achieve those goals, then what? Ideally,  we need to continue to include fitness into our day. Change our routine to make us better. Try new forms of exercise. Mostly, we are in a hurry to perfect and finish a process. We forget that the process itself is part of the journey and is more relevant than the end-point. The journey is the ‘now’ the destination is the ‘future’. We are in a hurry to lose weight, to reach the destination faster. We find ways to do it quickly, shabbily and with no regard for the true physiology or functioning of the human body or how to truly support its wellbeing. We fail to understand that we as humans can never be a finished product, perfect or permanent.

Fitness is a journey, not a destination – In our quest for weight loss or a better physique we tend to lose perspective. Understanding the larger picture, that losing weight is not the one and only objective of fitness, is what keeps us from falling off the wagon. If we spent half as much time focusing on our overall health, emotional wellbeing and level of fitness as much as on our physique, we would be much better off and more successful at it. Feeling defeated by a few setbacks and giving up at the first signs of difficulty is a sure way to take two steps forward and three steps back. Pick yourself up and move on!

Nothing is permanent.

Life changes. We change. Nothing is permanent.

We age. This is the normal physiological process. Yet, youth is revered. Even when we know it is never permanent, we strive to hang on to it with our teeth and the tips of our fingernails. The tremendous surge in clientele for botox, laser, face lifts, tummy tucks and so on are testimony to our infinite yearning to stay young and beautiful. This is a personal choice of course. There is no moral judgement against it. Ageing gracefully however is a science and an art. Keeping your body strong all the while growing intellectually, emotionally and spiritually is not the same as trying to hold on desperately to ones youth. Work with the flow, rather than against it. Build strength, maintain stamina improve flexibility. Understanding that nothing is permanent is what should keep us moving forward. Even good health, a great body, astounding intellect or a superior athletic capability is not permanent.  Elite athletes understand that their athletic prowess declines with age. Our bodies change in a myriad ways and we need to design new and more effective strategies of working towards bettering ourselves. We may not be able to run a marathon in our latter years (although I know many who do), but we will be able to continue to exercise, strengthen our bodies and keep ourselves free from disease (or at least manage disease better). We don’t have to succumb to obesity or ill-health resulting form poor lifestyle habits.

~ When you come to value our body for its uniqueness and for what it can do rather than simply what it looks like.

~ When we start to actually listen to it, give it what it needs not just what we thank we want.

~ When we stop punishing it for not looking the way we think it should.

~ When we use exercise as a way to celebrate and enjoy our body’s capabilities.

~ When we thrill in the aftermath of a long strenuous weight training session or a feel the joy of quivering legs after a run……….

Then Fitness has become a ‘way of life’ and not just a means to an end……… and this in itself is a gift.

On another note, Stoicism, (from ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy) talks about the ‘Dichotomy of Control’ and how one cannot completely control ones body or its deterioration as that is outside of our control. One should therefore be cognisant of this fact. This is certainly true and we’ve all heard of this ‘health freak” who dropped dead (and am sure, told ourselves ‘so what was the point?!). But we do have much under our control. How we lead our existing lives is certainly under our control and will determine the quality of life of day-to-day living  (and not just our demise). The attitude that allows a semblance of peace within us is, I think, one of coming-to-terms with a given situation. Accepting the true nature of everything and all the while staying motivated to continue to improve ones body, ones mind and ones life and the discipline and mindfulness despite this reality is one way we can make our way through this imperfect, impermanent and unfinished business of life.





A Change In Attitude

So you want to lose weight. Half the world does. Obesity is a worldwide epidemic so it’s only natural that every second person you meet is keenly seeking the holy grail of weight loss. Dinner conversations invariably return to feelings of guilt over indulgences. The Internet is flooded with clever advertising to lure vulnerable individuals into buying some product or the other with the promise of ‘losing ten kilos in ten days’ or similar fantastic claims.
You may not be thrilled with your body right now, in fact, you may view it with a good deal of distaste. Let’s ask ourselves a question, how did we get this way? How did we pile on the pounds? Where is that slender teenager? No doubt there are some who struggle with obesity all their lives. Over weight as children and teenagers, they are often faced with ridicule and marginalized. A large percentage of the population however, grows obese with age. A certain amount of weight gain with age is acceptable. But to become obese and as a result develop various obesity related complications like pain and discomfort, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, depression, indigestion and so on, is not.
Take stock of your lifestyle.
– Are you physically active all day or does your job entail a lot of sitting behind a desk?
– Do you exercise regularly?
– Do you stay home and watch a lot of television and do little physical labor?
– Do you deal with an inordinate amount of stress? More importantly, are you one of those people who does not handle stress well? Do you develop acidity, anxiety or insomnia as a result of your stress? Do your work and relationships suffer? Do you become an insufferable boss or mother?
– Do you go on eating or drinking binges?
– Do you starve yourself often with the hope of losing weight only to go back to binge eating?
– Do you get enough sleep? (Six to eight hours a night of uninterrupted sleep is recommended.)
– Do you eat well-balanced meals with plenty of vegetables, fruit nuts, protein and healthy fats or are you loading up on the bread/cereal group (rice, rotis, bread, etc.), refined, processed, packaged food with additives and sugars out of packets as is common and convenient?
– Do you eat home cooked meals or depend on canteens and hotels and takeaways?
– Do you travel a lot, subjecting yourself to different time zones, food, lack of sleep and stress?
– Does your life involve a lot of socializing with indiscriminate eating and drinking?
– Are you addicted to sugar and need to eat something sweet ever so often?
The list of poor lifestyle habits is endless. These are some of the reasons you could be steadily gaining weight. Each problem has to be addressed independently with a combination of life skills, dietary advise and regular exercise. There is no way around it. Whatever the reason for the weight gain, the solution is to eat better, exercise and change your lifestyle.
Here’s the problem – most people think an hour of exercise alone will solve everything. It takes more than that, although that’s a good place to start. Your lifestyle (as shown above) is important. What you do for the rest of the twenty-three hours counts far more than one hour of working out. This means change. A change in attitude towards your lifestyle and not just one aspect of it.
A new mind set and not just a new menu is what is required.
The real secret to losing weight and more importantly, keeping it off is your attitude. The ability to look at your lifestyle with a certain amount of objectivity and a critical eye and then take the necessary steps to change what needs to change. The ability to get the necessary professional help when required. It’s not easy to change a whole lifestyle. There are other people involved – family, friends, colleagues and boss who are probably helping you preserve the current lifestyle. Change may involve others and this is not always welcome. For change to be sustainable however, it has to be holistic.
Adopt a slow and steady approach. Help your body and mind gradually learn to eat better, exercise more, live healthier, sleep earlier, relax and breathe. Most importantly, learn to appreciate yourself and your efforts. Learn to respect yourself and your body.
Dr. Sheela Nambiar MD Obgyn
Fitness & Lifestyle Consultant, NAFC
Author – Get Size Wise & Gain To Lose (Published by Rupa)

TFL Fitness Retreat Oct 2013

A Fitness Retreat is something I have wanted to organize for the longest time….. and it finally happened in October 2013 in Ooty through – TFL ~ Training For Life.

The purpose of the retreat? To enlighten people about Fitness, the various aspects of it, the fun factor, to motivate, inspire and have them take away from the retreat –

~ A Weight Training Routine (that they can even use at home).
~ A ‘Total Body Stretch’ to improve flexibility.
~ An understanding of Cardio intensities and quantities. (most people don’t quite understand this even though they have been “walking” for years :))
~ An understanding of the principles of diet, food ….needless to say…a pandoras box opens here!!!

The purpose of the Retreat ~ is also to help people understand their bodies better. To EMPOWER them to take control over their health, bodies, fitness, weight and………. so much more.

Those who registered had a great time… am happy to say. The following pictures tell only part of the story…..

After a morning walk, demonstrating and experimenting with “intensity” of cardio.

After a morning walk, demonstrating and experimenting with “intensity” of cardio.

Still smiling.....

Still smiling…..

Food is so exciting. Even when you are supposedly “dieting”. The purpose of this demo was to show how food can be interesting, tasty AND healthy. Using GOOD QUALITY PRODUCTS is the key.

Food is so exciting. Even when you are supposedly “dieting”. The purpose of this demo was to show how food can be interesting, tasty AND healthy. Using GOOD QUALITY PRODUCTS is the key.

Early morning walk to the Grasslands. A beautiful, misty morning...


Weight Training session

“Poinsettia" ~ The guest house where the guests were accomodated


Get Size Wise….. my book is finally published!


GET SIZE WISEAfter a three-year wait my book “Get Size Wise” is finally out It published by Rupa Publishers, India. It took me about a year to write it and two years to get it published. Finally it is done and am hoping it is widely read.

So, this book is basically for the Indian woman (because I work primarily with Indian women), but the basic principles would apply to women anywhere. It gives her an idea of how exactly to go about her fitness routine. What she needs to include, what to be wary of, setbacks to anticipate and so on. No, it does not supply any magic tricks to “lose weight”, “get slim” and more such crap.

This book is more about Fitness than Weight alone.

However, eventually, as the book explains, when done right – Fitness and Diet, the weight will fall in place. That is my premise in the book.

I have seen too many women fall prey to clever marketing, advertising promising perfect bodies ……. if only they subscribe to a dubious product, procedure and so on. Of course, the women concerned are to blame too. They WANT the easy way out. They DO NOT WANT to be questioning these claims that promise miracles. They are constantly making excuses for themselves. They play the VICTIM ROLE very well, leaving their health and bodies to sheer chance and circumstances and under other peoples control.

As is very clear I am totally against women relegating control of their bodies to others or to society. I think they need to sit up and take notice of themselves. Prepare to be shocked or pleasantly surprised with what they see in themselves and then, make the necessary changes to progress not regress!! This seems to be extremely hard to do for many. It is much easier to go to, lets say a dietician or trainer and have her draw up meal plans or exercise routines for drastic results. Have her take responsibility for the success or failure of the person concerned in ‘losing weight’. If there is no weight loss, then the dietician/ trainer is to blame. They are uninterested in the ‘why’, unacceptable of their own responsibility and unwilling to question what is being recommended. They are not concerned with the long-term effects as long as there are short-term results. They choose to believe what suits them rather than try to sieve the wheat from the chaff. So for instance, if someone recommends ‘drink lemon and honey first thing in the morning’ to ‘burn’ fat, they would much rather believe that than – ‘exercise first thing in the morning’!

I believe women need to be more proactive with their choices about their bodies. They need to be more discerning about their long-term health and not just short-term cosmetic results. They should not fall prey to societal pressure to look a certain way. It is not always possible to get to a ‘certain size’. A lot depends on genetics and environment especially lifestyle, stress, work and so on. Comparing one with other women who one perceives to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘slim’ is a futile exercise.

Every woman is beautiful in her own way. She can also be the best possible version of herself physically by applying some basic principles of diet, exercise and healthy living. By challenging herself intellectually and creatively, she then can proceed to live a fuller more fruitful life.

Women are more likely than men to allow emotional challenges to affect their eating, weight and health. Crisis in relationships or work can set one to start abusing food and ultimately their bodies. Binge eating, anorexia, bulimia are all psychological disorders with a basis in ones lack of self-esteem and a troubled consciousness. Women are also more concerned about how society views their physical appearance. This would translate as them trying all means possible to ‘look’ a certain way. This self-defeating attitude can be highly corrosive to ones self-esteem.

You should ultimately want to look a certain way for yourself and not for society. No doubt, that societal influence is great even while making that choice. For instance, in the early 16th century a more voluptuous figure was considered beautiful. Today in the 21st century, such a body would be considered ‘fat’. The point is, should you try to attain a certain ‘look’ because it is expected of you? More importantly, what happens when you cannot achieve that look? Does it make you a worse person? Not at all.

Women have to understand that they are truly more than their weight on the scale. They cannot evaluate their life by a mere number. Yes there are a several reasons (not just cosmetic) why being overweight is not recommended, and why losing fat is advised. The reason to lose weight therefore should be more focused on health than mere looks.

Certainly, if you believe that just losing weight will make you feel better about yourself, you may be in for a surprise! You may feel ecstatic initially after losing the weight. This is because of the sense of achievement, the admiration and applause from others and what you see in the mirror. After a while however when this palls and when the complements fade, you still need to find a reason to continue to exercise and eat healthy for yourself. You still need the self-motivation to keep going with your fitness routine. You need to find those resources from within yourself and if you are lucky, from encouraging friends. This is what makes for a success story and for the difference between short-term weight loss and long-term achievements.

One has to understand that Fitness is a Journey, not a Destination. Being Fit is not just about being a certain Size, but an improved level of Performance of the Body and a Superior Quality Life.

This is the only way to persist with a fitness routine and healthy eating, day after day, week after week. Sometimes, even when you don’t want to. Sometimes, when you are lazy. Sometimes, when you just don’t see any reason to! It is the understanding of this journey that keeps you experimenting, progressing and enjoying the process enough to persist with it for as long as you possibly can.

It becomes a way of life. It becomes so much a part of your day that it is no more an ordeal to exercise. It is your way of saluting your body. Of respecting it. Rewarding it for being there for you!

These are the ideas that I hope will permeate the lives of those who read my book, “Get Size Wise”. I hope to make them love their bodies more. Be thrilled, amazed and appreciative of it. I also hope to make them stop abusing it with food or lack of exercise. I hope to help them understand that they ARE already beautiful but can become even better versions of themselves if they only try.





Training For Life ~ It’s not only about physical appearance…..

“For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies”.

John F Kennedy – The Soft American. Dec 1960

Perhaps no other civilization has held fitness in such high regard as ancient Greece. The idealism of physical perfection was one that embodied ancient Greek civilization. The appreciation for beauty of the body and importance of health and fitness throughout society is one that is unparalleled in history. The Greeks believed development of the body was as important as development of the mind. Physical well-being was necessary for mental well-being, with the need for a strong, healthy body to harbor a sound mind. Many founding medical practitioners facilitated the growth of fitness throughout ancient Greece, including Herodicus, Hippocrates, and Galen.

Historically the human race has always admired physical beauty. We have tried to achieve it in many ways. Besides improving ones physique, beauty treatments, implants, cosmetic surgery, make up….. You name it and we are always coming up with newer ways to “look” better.

It is quite natural therefore to want to improve ones appearance, or at least, make the best of ones appearance. Look better, take better care of ones skin, hair and body. However, I am not sure focusing on physical beauty alone will take one very far in any aspect of life including the happiness quotient. It fact it can be quite stressful to be a prisoner to ones looks, whether it is trying to build your body in a gym or doing makeovers in a parlor.

The question is, ARE WE REALLY BETTER? Does improving ones looks and body actually make for a better quality person? It may improve ones confidence levels which in turn creates a happier or more productive person. It may improve career prospects. It has even been found (unfair as it seems) that other people respond more favorable to good looking people thereby making for a more positive life experience.

The physical aspect should be just ONE aspect of the whole picture. (There are exceptions of course for professionals whose careers hinge on their physical appearance. Their approach to it would certainly require more focus on the physical in order to sustain a career).

There is no doubt that most people dream of physical perfection or at least what they perceive as perfection and beauty. This is more prevalent today with media attention on physical beauty.  One has to however use ones intelligence even while attempting to improve ones physical appearance. Indulging in procedures and practices that could eventually only harm ones health is a myopic approach to looking better.

Most people who start exercising do so with a single goal in mind – To lose weight. Fair enough. You have been told that weight matters and warned repeatedly about the ill hazards of being over weight   More importantly, I suspect it is the search for the achievement of physical beauty that one sees as the end result of losing weight that drives one to exercise.

However, here’s the thing, firstly, there is no guarantee that losing weight alone will make you beautiful and secondly, we know that weight loss by dubious means (starvation diets being the most common) certainly don’t leave behind a pretty picture. You wind up looking gaunt and unhealthy; your skin, hair and nails suffer, you feel irritable and unhappy while on extreme calorie restricted diets, you don’t function well and certainly cannot be productive. You could develop nutritional deficiencies while on extreme calorie restricted diets. A deficiency of vitamin B 12 for instance (found most commonly in meats, whole milk and fermented food), could be disastrous to the brain and nervous system causing depression, fatigue even mania and psychosis. A deficiency of Iron (found in red meat, green leafy vegetables, soya beans, seeds nuts, pulses) which is required for the oxygenation of the muscles and important organs, can cause extreme fatigue, depression, sleepiness, breathlessness an inability to exercise and so on.

The next relevant problem you might face while trying to lose weight rapidly with some bizarre diet is how long can you sustain it? What happens when you stop? Eating unrealistic restricted diets is not only foolish, but also counterproductive for your health. Eating a balanced but moderately restricted diet with all the necessary nutrients however IS sustainable and in the long term, shows better (however slower) results.

‘Dieting’ therefore has to be done with care and cleverness. In fact the word ‘dieting’ itself needs to be reviewed as that brings up images of starvation and struggle! It certainly does not have to be. Training your body to eat the right foods in the right quantities is central to success. It is however not something one achieves overnight. It takes time and effort. Making small changes slowly makes the changes more sustainable. For instance – the simple act of cutting out the butter from your bread every morning (2 teaspoons for 2 slices of bread) will save you approximately 75 calories a day. This may seem like nothing, but in the long haul, it is a big deal. Consuming more fruit everyday keeps you sated and increases intake of important micronutrients. Drinking more water keeps you well hydrated and avoids the common mistake of confusing thirst with hunger. Cutting your alcohol intake can save you many, many unnecessary calories.

Aspire to improve your appearance by all means. Train to get a better body, visit the parlor to get that cutting edge haircut, wear the right clothes to look great and feel good…… It’s all up to you.

Stimulating the mind, nurturing a relationship, caring for friendships, growing a career, harboring and exploring a passion, indulging in a hobby, traveling, learning a new skill, going beyond your comfort zone interacting with people from different walks of life to gain an understanding of the  bigger picture than your own circle of existence…… these are also important stimulants that add meaning to life…….Spend some valuable time on improving one’s SELF along the way. There is so much the world has to offer.

Physical fitness can certainly help us experience and participate in life more fully in order to enrich us. Let it then be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Respecting our body, treating it well, nourishing it and exercising it in the right amounts has its own dividends besides just a more beautiful body. It instills discipline. Creates a body awareness, improves body intelligence, self-confidence. It helps you value yourself more and therefore live more thoughtfully and graciously.