Basics of Strength Training

Whether you are 18 or 80, a long-term exerciser or a beginner, you can benefit from a regular strength-training program. Besides making your muscles and bones stronger, strength training reduces your risk of injury, improves your balance and mobility, improves cardiovascular condition and may help trim extra body fat.

Where “exercise” was once widely associated with aerobic conditioning activities such as running and cycling, we now know that a balanced program with plentiful strength training is the surest path to long-term health.  Indeed, the line between the two has grown blurry as popular programs like P90X and CrossFit training have encouraged a mixed mode of exercise that develops and improves a broad range of athletic capabilities. If you think about it, this makes sense: many of our day-to-day functional activities require strength and balance (e.g. lifting bags at a grocery store or carrying a suitcase) more than the ability to run for long periods of time (unless you run to and from the grocery store).

Strength training activities are generally pretty straightforward but, because you’ll be working with weights that are heavier and activities that are more strenuous than you usually encounter in real life, you’ll want to talk with a trainer to get started.  A trainer can teach you the proper way to use different weight machines and the proper form for strength-training exercises. This will maximize your ability to grow stronger while minimizing your risk of injury.

What Are The Basics?

The basic idea behind strength training is that of muscular adaptation.  That is, if you challenge a given muscle with a weight it is unaccustomed to handling, it will adapt by becoming stronger and more efficient. The trick is in selecting an exercise and a weight that is appropriate to gain the training effect. If an exercise is performed incorrectly or the weight is too heavy, you may end up with an injury that prevents you from continuing.  Since it takes weeks to build strength and no single day’s exercise makes you substantially stronger, it is critical that you avoid injury and train consistently.

On the other side of the ledger, you must select a weight and an exercise that actually does challenge your ability. We do not grow stronger by working a muscle at a rate that is well within its capabilities: it must be challenged. The simple rule of thumb is that any given exercise should be performed A) enough times that the muscle(s) involved show significant fatigue and B) at a high enough weight that this fatigue occurs within 6-24 reps. Note that this rep range is higher than was once thought useful  (it used to be 6-12 reps) but recent research has raised this upper limit.  If you are working in the higher rep range (e.g. over 12 reps) it is particularly important that you work right up to the point where you feel that one more rep would compromise form.

It is important that you recognize that if you sit down on a machine or pick up a weight and simply do some reps until you feel like stopping – with the last rep being hardly more challenging than the first – then you are not strength training; you are wasting time. Instead, strive to work until the muscle(s) being worked are really fatigued but not so hard that form begins to deteriorate.

Over weeks, you should find is that a weight that is challenging when you start gradually becomes easier. Where once, finishing 8 reps was difficult, you now find yourself able to perform 10, 12 or more. Once you feel that an exercise has grown too easy, you’ll be ready to increase the weight or intensity. And this is the key to strength training: continuously increasing your challenge via higher weight or greater intensity as your body progressively adapts to the exercises. After a month or two of training, you’ll feel noticeably stronger, more balanced and more confident.  After a year or two, you’ll be a fundamentally different, more physically capable, person!

Types of Strength Training

There are many types of strength-training: free weights, weight machines, body weight (e.g. push-ups),  resistance bands and tubing, weighted balls, and kettlebells are all popular.  If you are a true beginner, weight machines are a great way to start since they restrict your range of motion and thus your likelihood of injury.  However, such machines are very expensive and generally require a gym membership. The other drawback to weight machines is that they usually isolate a single muscle or movement and are thus not as functional (not as much like real life) as other types of exercise. Thus, once you have become stronger and more confident, consider asking a health or fitness professional for advice on working with free weights, performing bodyweight exercises or trying other types of equipment.

If you don’t have access to a gym, consider purchasing an appropriately-paced DVD exercise program and simply getting started at home.  There are literally dozens of well-paced and effective programs on the market and many of them require minimum investment in equipment.

A Few Last Thoughts

Work all muscle groups. Try to exercise each muscle group two to three times each week (3-4 times per week for core muscles) and to maintain equal work across all muscle groups. If you train less than this, you will not advance as quickly. If you do more then you will not be providing enough time for recovery.  If you ignore a muscle group you may create imbalances in your body that lead to injury. This chart identifies your muscle groups:

Upper Body Lower Body
chest quadriceps (front of thigh)
upper back hamstrings and glutes (back of thigh and buttocks)
shoulders calves
biceps (front of upper arm) abdominals (stomach)
triceps (back of upper arm) lower back

It is a good idea to start with 8 to 10 exercises, each focusing on one muscle group. In each case, work the largest muscle groups first (chest, back, legs), then move to smaller muscle groups (shoulders, biceps, triceps).  As you become stronger and more confident, you may choose to do what are called “split sets”: working one set of muscles (e.g. upper body) on one day and another set on a second (or third) day.  The advantage of split sets is that you can spend more time – and make more progress – on each muscle group.  If you are working harder and splitting sets, twice a week per muscle group is enough.

Give it a rest. As a general rule, each muscle that you train should be rested for at least 48 hours before being exercised again. This allows the fatigued muscle to rebuild. This is really, really important and many new exercisers ruin their progress by working too hard. You do NOT get stronger while exercising: you get weaker (that’s the idea). You get stronger during the rest phase while your body tries to adapt to the challenge that you just endured!

Listen to your body. You will get more overall gains with more days per week and more sets, repetitions, and weight, but the most important guide is your body. Listen to it.

Track your progress. Keep a log of your workouts, recording how much weight you lift and the number of sets and reps you do for each exercise. Your log will help you track your progress, inspire you to improve your performance, and allow you to better gauge when to increase the intensity of your strength-training workouts.  The Motivation Alliance log will not only let you track your progress, it will automatically calculate a “best performance” statistic for each exercise (although the “maximum lift” calculation only works when entering 10 or fewer reps at a given weight).

Eat Right.  During your rest/rebuilding phase your body will need to have the raw materials needed to synthesize muscle.  If your diet consists of cheese puffs and soda then you will not grow stronger no matter how much you work out.  Diet is key to maximizing your strength gains and protein is the critical nutrient.   According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the appropriate amount of protein per day for endurance and strength athletes – and you are pursuing athletic improvement even if you aren’t playing sports – is between 0.5 – 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.2 – 1.7 grams per kilogram).   Thus, a 130 pound person will need between 65 and 104 grams per day and a 170 pound person will need 85 to 136 grams.  If you are a beginner and/or not working particularly hard, stay at the lower end of this range.

It is also important that you have a variety of proteins since not all food sources provide complete proteins.  If you have trouble consuming enough protein, there are a variety of delicious protein snacks and drinks available at the supermarket.

Important Note: people suffering from renal insufficiency or other kidney disease should not consume enhanced quantities of protein since that can accelerate renal disease progression! 

Closing Note: as always, consult with a physician if you are new to exercise or are planning on a significant increase in activity.

40 thoughts on “Basics of Strength Training”

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  4. I work out about 6 day’s a week , I run, spin,weigth lift, ect. I enjoy a good work out

  5. I’ve been doing crossfit/bootcamp for 3 years. It’s everything described in the above read. I highly recommend it if you want results. It is true when said, “you are what you eat”

  6. Brilliant! Very insightful information such as the increased rep range as compared to the outdated theory on reps, the difference in results with free weights vs. machines, and also touching on the most vital concepts of seeing gains which are diet and rest. A really great article, bravo.

  7. I swim labs twice a week at the ymca, work out on the machines especially on my core and my legs.after having a stressful day at the work place it feels pretty good

  8. I walk around the resevoir in my neighbor hood about 2-3 times/week. I also work on muscle a different group every 2days.

  9. I’m finding my strength is diminishing every year past 65. It’s somewhat demoralizing, but I know the strength would fade much faster if I quit my routines.

  10. Great information! I do strength exercise with either machines or free weights after 25 mins of cardio.

    1. Hi Jae Yun! That a great way to warm up your body (cardio first) and a great way to balance your workout: strength and cardio. Keep up the great work!

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