The Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training

by Mackenzie L. Havey
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The Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training

Just about everyone would love to be able to run faster, jump higher and hit harder. With that said, most of us would also like to be able to climb a flight of stairs without getting winded, haul groceries without becoming fatigued and complete other daily activities with ease. Whether you’re looking to jump into the ring, sign up for a 5K or simply live a healthier life, strength training plays a big role in improving your ability to complete every one those things. The challenge is figuring out how to approach strength workouts, and finding the motivation to do so.

To get you started, we’ve rounded up some of the proven benefits of strength training, along with methods on how to to implement such a program.

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There’s no shortage of evidence to back up the health-related benefits of strength and resistance training. It’s been shown to decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke, lower blood pressure and improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity. Research that studied older adults found that this activity’s potential to increase strength and power thereby reduces the difficulty many seniors experience while performing daily tasks. It also encourages participation in other types of exercise.

Strength training also has a positive influence on bone density and health — in particular helping to prevent osteoporosis in aging adults. Although aerobic exercise is still cited as an important component of promoting overall health, resistance exercises play a particularly vital role in building and maintaining bone mineral content and density. So whether you’re looking to fortify your bones against injuries during exercise or simply build strength as you age, a regular resistance training regimen is paramount.

Setting aside the aforementioned benefits of strength training that will impress your doctor at your annual physical, most of us are also drawn to resistance training because we want to get stronger and look better. If it’s a svelte figure you’re gunning for, regular resistance training has been shown to improve body composition. It also assists in reducing belly fat and building lean mass. What’s more, studies have demonstrated that weight training improves performance in other types of physical activities, including walking endurance and running economy.

Interestingly, resistance training has even been cited in improving mental health. While more research is in the works, studies have shown that regular strength work can have a positive influence on reducing feelings associated with anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue. What’s more, there’s no denying the boost in self-esteem you get when you look and feel stronger.

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When starting a strength training program, it is important to determine your overall goals. Are you looking to build muscle for show or for more practical purposes? This is the difference between bodybuilding and strength training. The latter is all about functional strength, while the former is more concerned with increasing the size of your muscles, often for aesthetic purposes.

While we all want to look good, functional strength is a priority for most of us. We want everyday tasks to feel easier, but we don’t want it to feel like we have to climb Mount Everest every time we show up at the gym.

Strength training workouts that are designed to build functional strength train your central nervous system to recruit muscles effectively through various movements. It’s all about strengthening the muscles, connective tissues and bones to handle a variety of moves, whether it’s lifting, pushing or pulling. While this type of program might not transform you into a mirror image of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it will allow you to execute a wide range of activities with greater ease.

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While the concept of strength training isn’t foreign to most, the methods by which to do so often are. Indeed, there are a wide variety of ways you can arrive at the same level of functional strength, depending on the setting and equipment. One approach isn’t necessarily better than another — they simply offer different avenues to increased strength. The four main methods of strength training are: body-weight moves, free weights, resistance bands and machines.

Body-Weight Moves: As you might expect, body-weight exercises build strength by requiring you to do different moves that support the weight of your own body. Think: planks, push-ups and crunches. The beauty of these types of exercises is that they are supremely effective in achieving the goal of increasing strength without any equipment. If you hate going to the gym or simply find it more convenient to do your strength workouts at home, body-weight exercises are a great option.

Free Weights: Free weights include exercises that utilize dumbbells, such as bicep curls or tricep extensions. Like body-weight exercises, these allow for full range of motion to develop overall functional strength. Every gym has free weights, or you can purchase your own to train in the comfort of your living room.

Resistance Bands: Similar to free weights, elastic resistance tubing also allows for full range of motion. They are available in a variety of resistances to mimic increasing weight as well. Since resistance bands don’t rely on gravity the way free weights do, they offer you the opportunity to do a greater variety of functional exercises, including pushing and pulling on all planes of motion.

Machines: While you can certainly go out and purchase a fancy exercise machine for lifting, most people use weight machines when they are at the gym. Machines are generally easy to use (they often have diagrams that show you how to operate them) and help train proper form during lifting movements. They also isolate muscle groups if you’re looking to focus on specific areas. The downside is that the movements are often less functional, so although they build strength, that strength doesn’t always translate to other activities.

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The American College of Sports Medicine recommends working the major muscle groups with resistance training exercises 2–3 times per week. Those muscle groups include: chest, arms, shoulders, abs, back and legs. ACSM suggests performing between 2–4 sets of 8–20 repetitions of each exercise, depending on your goals. In addition to taking rest between each set and exercise, you should also allow for 48 hours of recovery between sessions.

When determining how much weight to lift or how many reps and sets to do, consider your current fitness level. At the end of each exercise, you always want to feel as if you could do one more repetition. So while you should experience some fatigue, it shouldn’t be to the point of complete exhaustion.

As you build strength, it’s important to keep the in mind the principle of progression, which the ACSM defines as: “The act of moving forward or advancing toward a specific goal over time until the target goal has been achieved.”

This means that a properly designed program will change in load, volume, rest and frequency so that you build strength over time. If you progress too quickly, you’re likely to get sidelined by an injury. Conversely, if the program doesn’t continue to challenge you along the way, strength gains will plateau. The idea is to up the ante methodically over weeks, months and years to get you to that desired level of health, endurance and strength.

Since this can be tricky to determine on your own, recruiting the help of a trainer is invaluable for those new to strength training. Even if you only meet with the trainer a couple of times, he or she can help you design a program that makes sense for your fitness level and goals. A trainer will also help ensure you’re doing exercises safely and effectively, as well as address any health concerns or past injury history. Over time, you may gain a greater sense for what and how much you should be doing when it comes to strength work, but in the beginning, an expert can put you on the right track.

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  • Shubho

    Not true. You cannot get big without getting stronger and you cannot get stronger without getting bigger. The point where you choose between strength and size as two different training goals is when you are both strong and big. Until then doing both is better than doing one or the other.

    • Emma Richter

      Actually, you can specifically target size or strength. Doing more reps with a lower weight will give you more muscular endurance and a toned look. By lifting heavier weights, you’ll appear to have bigger muscles. You will be stronger, but you won’t gain muscular endurance by lifting heavier weights.

      • Burnje

        So then what would be a reasonable weight range to use for muscular endurance for say a 5 5″ medium built person

        • MamaStar

          It depends on the person and your personal strength. I’m 5’2″, 180 pound, 29″ waist,38 year old woman that can squat 315 pounds 8 times but only bench 125 pounds 5 times. My single arm db curls are 45#
          I’m only stating these stats to show that I have some definite strengths and weaknesses and I’m not what you would consider a fitness guru. I have been powerlifting for quite some time and I’m 3rd generation of lifters in my family with my father, 2nd cousin and great-uncle all competitors.
          I try to build both endurance with my first 2 sets and strength with my last 4. I naturally build muscle quickly and I know some men that no matter what they do they are naturally thin. A lot depends on your genetics. Genetically I come from thick extremely strong people but I have also known some very thin strong people as well. My husband is one that does not gain muscle or fat easily but he is strong.

        • Emma Richter

          It really depends on what you’ve been doing and for how long. Also, the weight you use will widely vary depending on if you’re deadlifting, squating, bench pressing, overhead pressing, or if you’re doing exercises with dumbells and kettle bells.

  • I don’t get the 48 hour rest period between sessions, isn’t that a little excessive?!

    • Angela T

      If you workout at 6 pm on Monday, waiting 48 hours would mean working out at 6 pm on Wednesday.

      • I’m not stating that I don’t know what 48 hrs is, what I am saying is why am I waiting that long? What benefit am I getting?

        • Littlemc6969

          If you resistance train correctly, your muscles will actually tear a bit. You need at least 48 hours to give them time to repair themselves and that’s if you get 7-8 hours of sleep.

          A lot of people will say even a three day rest for a muscle group is beneficial and if you feel worn out its ok to rest that day. However, cardio is perfectly fine to do whenever.

        • davedave12

          I thought you felt 48 hours was a long time. Angela is just saying that 48 hours is just skipping one day . Actually it is one day per muscle group – so if you do legs Monday, you can do shoulders and chest Tuesday — just do not do legs Monday and Tues — look up Push, Pull Legs

    • MamaStar

      As an example if you are lifting free weights you don’t want to do squats 2 days in a row you will want to have at least one rest day in between. I have leg day 1-2 days a week depending on the rotation.
      I’m a powerlifter and the thing I disagree with in this article is you can do abs and calves every day. Those are your main supporters and are in constant use anyways. It’s like saying your tongue needs a rest day, lol. I only do weighted every other day though.
      Form and flexibility are the things you want to concentrate on to help avoid injury. Yoga is a great help to achieve this.

    • Scott Sheaffer

      As Mark Rippetoe says, “You don’t get stronger by lifting weights. You get stronger by recovering from lifting weights.” Your lifting session stresses your muscles and inflicts minor damage in the form of micro tears. Then when you rest between workouts, your body adapts to the stress as your muscles heal from the damage you inflicted. They end up being stronger than before. If you don’t allow for recovery and you’re just constantly inflicting more damage before your muscles heal, you could just be wasting your time spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. Many people trace the 48-72 hour idea back to a paper published by Dr. Hans Selye in 1936. He found that it took 48-72 hours for muscles to heal and adapt from the damage inflicted by something like lifting. Remember, 1936 is before steroids.
      Now there are those who do believe in lifting almost every day, An example is the Bulgarian Method in Olympic weightlifting. However, as critics like Lyle MacDonald have argued, Bulgarian Method only seems to work for genetically gifted elite athletes who spend a decade or more building up to the program, and who, due to government support, do nothing but train, recover, and compete. Plus, these athletes get drugs supplied by their government and help from their government in getting past the drug tests. Oh, and one other thing. By one coach’s estimate, only 1 out 61 athletes succeeded on the program. For a country like Bulgaria in the 1980s though, it was worth destroying 60 athletes in order to find one Olympic medal winner. If you’re a person just trying to get in better shape, that kind of program probably isn’t for you. There’s also a powerlifting program which calls for training six days a week. Again, it’s for advanced athletes. Also, it rotates training modalities, so you’re not going after the same training effect every day. One day is max strength. Another day is for speed. (Powerlifting guru, Louie Simmons says that to get stronger, you must get faster. So many powerlifters incorporate dynamic effort days where they lift relatively light weights as fast as possible in low rep sets. That’s one major difference between training for pure strength and training for looks as bodybuilding often calls for sets with a measured tempo.) A third day is a rep day, again with light weights. Any way, the point is that there are systems that call for lifting every day, but they aren’t for most people. Most people are better off allowing their muscles 48-72 hours of recovery. In fact, some of the strongest people in history have stuck to training only 3-4 days a week. Andy Bolton, the first person to deadlift 1,000 pounds is an example.
      One way to start off is with a full body routine, three days a week. Some people move on to split routines in which some muscle groups are trained one day and others are trained another day. This allows for training four or more days a week while still giving each muscle group a 48-72 hour recovery/adaptation period. Really though, some people have done very well sticking to three day a week routines and a few basic compound exercises like squats, bench presses, deadlifts, presses, and something like rows, chin-ups, or pull-ups.
      A lot of people have difficulty understanding that more isn’t always better. It’s a concept that baffles many people new to strength training. They see all kinds of insanity like The Biggest Loser and think that’s the way to approach everything. It’s not the way to go for most people when it comes to gaining strength and muscle mass. Recovery is a key part of the process.

  • Tawny Redden

    I’m confused. Where’s the next aession? Did I miss a link?

  • Scott Sheaffer

    I hope I’m not posting twice, but my original response doesn’t seem to have shown up. Anyway, as Mark Rippetoe says, “You don’t get stronger by lifting weights. You get stronger by recovering from lifting weights.” Your lifting session stresses your muscles and inflicts minor damage in the form of micro tears. Then when you rest between workouts, your body adapts to the stress as your muscles heal from the damage you inflicted. They end up being stronger than before. If you don’t allow for recovery and you’re just constantly inflicting more damage before your muscles heal, you could just be wasting your time spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. Many people trace the 48-72 hour idea back to a paper published by Dr. Hans Selye in 1936. He found that it took 48-72 hours for muscles to heal and adapt from the damage inflicted by something like lifting. Remember, 1936 is before steroids.
    Now there are those who do believe in lifting almost every day, An example is the Bulgarian Method in Olympic weightlifting. However, as critics like Lyle MacDonald have argued, Bulgarian Method only seems to work for genetically gifted elite athletes who spend a decade or more building up to the program, and who, due to government support, do nothing but train, recover, and compete. Plus, these athletes get drugs supplied by their government and help from their government in getting past the drug tests. Oh, and one other thing. By one coach’s estimate, only 1 out 61 athletes succeeded on the program. For a country like Bulgaria in the 1980s though, it was worth destroying 60 athletes in order to find one Olympic medal winner. If you’re a person just trying to get in better shape, that kind of program probably isn’t for you. There’s also a powerlifting program which calls for training six days a week. Again, it’s for advanced athletes. Also, it rotates training modalities, so you’re not going after the same training effect every day. One day is max strength. Another day is for speed. (Powerlifting guru, Louie Simmons says that to get stronger, you must get faster. So many powerlifters incorporate dynamic effort days where they lift relatively light weights as fast as possible in low rep sets. That’s one major difference between training for pure strength and training for looks as bodybuilding often calls for sets with a measured tempo.) A third day is a rep day, again with light weights. Any way, the point is that there are systems that call for lifting every day, but they aren’t for most people. Most people are better off allowing their muscles 48-72 hours of recovery. In fact, some of the strongest people in history have stuck to training only 3-4 days a week. Andy Bolton, the first person to deadlift 1,000 pounds is an example.
    One way to start off is with a full body routine, three days a week. Some people move on to split routines in which some muscle groups are trained one day and others are trained another day. This allows for training four or more days a week while still giving each muscle group a 48-72 hour recovery/adaptation period. Really though, some people have done very well sticking to three day a week routines and a few basic compound exercises like squats, bench presses, deadlifts, presses, and something like rows, chin-ups, or pull-ups.
    A lot of people have a hard understanding that more isn’t always better. It’s a concept that baffles many people new to strength training. They see all kinds of insanity like The Biggest Loser and think that’s the way to approach everything. It’s not the way to go for most people when it comes to gaining strength and muscle mass. Recovery is a key part of the process.

  • Jacqueline Christina Gruetzbac

    I’m a big fan of apps – are there any the author would recommend? I don’t like gyms so the personal trainer is out, but I do like fitness apps that can give a basic routine to start with until I get the hang of it and set out on my own.

    • Karim

      Download YAYOG

      • Cristy Curley

        FitStar is my new favorite. Has multiple levels and fun music.

    • Cristy Curley

      FitStar is my new favorite. Has multiple levels and fun music. Syncs with MyFitnessPal.

  • puwd

    where’s the beginners workout for strength training or was this article just supposed to tell us why a beginners workout for strength training is a good idea, or is it that one exists, but that’s not what this article is about…what was the point of the article, really?