This article was reviewed by Matt Pudvah CSCS, Head Strength Coach of the Sports Performance Institute at the Manchester Athletic Club.
You didn’t come to MedShadow to learn how to strength train, but here we are. The benefits strength training has on your health are immense and plentiful. Even better, training starts where you are — if you’ve never lifted a weight or if you’ve been training for years, this activity will adapt to your needs. Resistance training (as it’s also called) has been shown to improve your cardiovascular health, increase bone density, boost cognitive function, and develop your movement control.
The journal Current Sports Medicine Reports refers to resistance training as medicine. It says that strength training may help prevent and manage Type II diabetes, reduce lower back pain and discomfort associated with arthritis and fibromyalgia, and can even reverse specific aging factors in skeletal muscle (aka your muscles).
The idea of lifting weights may intimidate you, and so the point of this guide is not only to shed light on the health benefits of strength training but to teach you how to start strength training. Seriously, anyone can do it.
How Strength Training Works
The concept of strength training is an easy one to understand — you apply stress to specific muscles in your body, and they respond by getting stronger. When it comes to stress, we don’t mean the kind associated with the SATs, but physical stress in the form of an external load–such as weights, body weight, or a resistance band.
This external load creates mechanical tension (or just tension) and causes micro-tears within your muscle tissue. As a result, your body responds by repairing those tears and adapting to that specific amount of stress. To trigger more growth the next time, you must apply more stress, which can be done in a multitude of ways (more on that below). As you keep adding resistance over time, your muscles will continue to get stronger and bigger.
It isn’t easy to articulate how being bigger and stronger improves your everyday quality of life, but here goes. First, muscle tissue requires more calories to function, and so the more muscle you have, the easier it will be to lose weight and keep it off. Stronger muscles can better stabilize your surrounding joints, so you should be able to move easier, have less risk of falling, and generally feel better doing any activity such as running, golfing, or yard work—lastly, more muscle and less fat results in a more muscular and toned body. You’ll feel better about how you look and, as a result, feel more confident. A study in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment linked physical activity and one’s body mass index (a measure of healthy weight) to their self-esteem.
How to Create Tension
Again, tension is created by applying an external load to a specific muscle or group of muscles — such as by performing a set of pushups, curling dumbbells, or pressing a resistance band overhead. Here, we’ll quickly breakdown the most common forms of external loads.
Your body weight
For beginners, performing exercises such as pushups, lunges, and squats will force them to fight against their body weight. This creates tension, and it’s a perfectly acceptable way to start building strength and muscle–don’t let your fitness-crazed friends tell you otherwise.
These stretchy elastic pieces sometimes come with handles attached to either end for easy gripping or are looped. Either option is acceptable. Bands are versatile, accessible, cheap, and generally safer compared to weights. You can create an immense amount of tension with bands, as the resistance increases as you push and pull it further from its anchoring point. Bands also come in various sizes, and we suggest investing in a light, medium, and heavy version for more exercise variance. The only major limitation with bands is that compared to weights, you can’t measure how much you’re lifting, so progression becomes a little more challenging to manage. If you’re new to lifting, though, it doesn’t matter.
Dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells are the most common weights found in gyms across the globe. Most gyms have dumbbells that range from a very light five pounds up to 110 pounds (or even 200-plus in hardcore gyms) in five-pound increments. A wide selection of weights makes progressing (see below) more accessible as you can lift five pounds one week, 10 pounds the next, and then 15 pounds after that.
Sets and Reps Explained
When starting a strength training routine, you’ll perform a set number of exercises on your training days. With each exercise will come a set and rep recommendations. Reps, or repetitions, indicate how many times you’ll do that exercise. And sets determine the number of times you’ll perform that rep cluster. Let’s use pushups as an example. If your program calls for you to perform three sets of 10 reps, you will then do 10 pushups, rest, perform another 10 reps, rest once more, and then do your final set of 10 reps.
As far as how many sets and reps to perform, that depends on your goal and training experience. For beginners, three sets per exercise is a good starting point. Typically, you won’t want to exceed five sets since that can lead to fatigue. (Though, athletes like powerlifters and strongmen who train specifically for strength have been known to perform exercises for eight to 12 sets of two reps. You won’t.) Try one of these Pudvah-approved rep ranges based on a handful of basic goals.
- For muscle growth: 8-15
- For strength: 4-6
- For endurance: 15+
There is an inverse relationship between how many reps you perform and how much weight you lift. The higher the number of reps, the lighter the weight should be. If you’re lifting fewer reps, the weight should be heavier. Of course, “heavy” and “light” are relative, so how much do I lift you ask? A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to manage two more reps than the prescribed number. So, if you were performing a biceps curl for 10 reps, select a weight that you could do for 12. Finding this weight will take trial and error. When in doubt, choose a lighter weight and slowly build up to a more challenging load.
Finally, you’ll want to rest between each set of exercises. Start with 90 seconds if you’re brand spanking new to strength training. If your goal is to lose weight, then aim to decrease your rest time to 60 seconds, then 45 seconds, then to 30 seconds. If your goal is to build strength and you’re lifting heavier weights, then you’ll need more rest, about two minutes. (Some strength athletes rest up to four minutes between heavy sets.)
How to Progress With Strength Training
An excellent strength-training routine includes a mode of progression. Whether your goal is to lose fat, gain muscle, or build endurance, you must continually increase the amount of stress you place on your body — even if it’s minimal — each week. There’s more than one way to progress when it comes to strength training, and some may be better for others:
Sets and reps
Depending on your set and rep goal (see above), you should start on that range’s low end. For muscle growth, that means you’d start with eight reps for each exercise. You would add one to two reps to each set each week until you hit 15 reps. The weight you use stays the same. Once you hit the end of that rep range, you can increase the weight by about five pounds and start back at eight.
Increasing the amount of weight you lift each week is a more advanced method and is usually used by those looking to get stronger. Instead of increasing how many reps you do each week, you’d stick with your prescribed range and try to increase the weight you lift. Experts, such as Jim Wendler — a famed powerlifter — says even a half-pound increase works. He also adds that small increases are preferred as you’re less likely to get injured and leave more room for growth.
A third way to add stress to your muscle is to increase your time under tension (or TUT). This is another excellent technique to keep in your back pocket. Eventually, you’ll hit a plateau with how much weight you can lift within your desired rep range. When that happens, a good strategy is to lift those weights more slowly to increase the amount of time your muscle is under duress for.
When it comes to tempo training, there are four numbers you need to pay attention to, usually formatted like this: 3-0-1-0. The first number refers to the initial movement of the lift, the second denotes a pause during the lift, the return motion of the lift, and the fourth number denotes any pause at the end of the lift. Per the example above for pushup, you’d lower yourself to a count of three seconds, and then raise your body quickly to the count of one second.
If you find that you’ve hit a wall with how much you can lift for a set number of reps, then try starting out with a 2-0-2-0 tempo. Then, aim to add a second to the first and third numbers each week. This is a useful technique if you don’t have a lot of weights at home, Pudvah says.
How to Choose Exercises
At this point, you have a basic understanding of how strength training works, how to progress, and the style of lifting you want to tackle. Now you need to choose exercises so you can, you know, actually, train. For this, Pudvah has a basic roadmap that he uses to train everyone from investment bankers in their 60’s to college tennis studs.
The premise is simple: each workout, you want to select one exercise to train each of the seven “essential” movement patterns. Those patterns are a horizontal push and pull, a vertical push and pull, an exercise that has you flex your knees, and a movement that has you hinge your hips. According to Pudvah, these six patterns resemble many of our everyday activities. Vertical pressing — which is when you raise your arms overhead — resembles you reaching for a book from a high shelf. Every time you bend over to pick up your kid (or cat), you’re hinging at your hips. Just as practicing your handwriting results in more attractive penmanship, practicing these movements will make your movement more fluid and stable.
Below, Pudvah breaks down a few exercises to try in each category. Pick one move per workout.
- Horizontal Push: Pushups (full body or from bended knees), banded chest press, dumbbell chest press
- Horizontal Pull: Banded rows, bent-over dumbbell row, inverted rows
- Vertical Push: Banded overhead press, half-kneeling overhead press
- Vertical Pull: Assisted pullup, pullup, banded pulldown
- Knee-based Movement: Goblet squat, reverse lunge, bodyweight squat
- Hip-based Movement: Banded deadlift, Dumbbell or kettlebell swing
- Core: Front plank, side plank, dead bug
How to Warm-up
Before working out, you need to warm up to help prevent injury and prime your body to work efficiently and to create more fluidity in your joints. According to Pudvah, your warmup should consist of core exercise, a shoulder exercise, and a hip exercise. A good warmup shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes. After, you should feel supple, have a light sweat going, and feel mentally energized.
Here’s an example warmup:
Front plank: 20 seconds
Shoulder circles: 15 reps
Inchworms: 6 reps
Putting it All Together
The time has come to try your first workout. Don’t be nervous. This article may be long and filled with new information, but at the end of the day it’s just exercise. Here’s how you’re going to do this:
Take stock of the equipment you have. If you’re fortunate enough to have some bands or dumbbells, get those ready. If not, then you can get crafty with items around the house. A 16-ounce water bottle equals about a pound. A backpack filled with a book or two can be worn during squats or used for rows. (Use your kitchen or bathroom scale to keep track of how much weight you are adding. Remember, adding a half a pound is progress for beginners) If you have empty cat litter containers or water jugs, fill them up partly and sub those for dumbbells. If you want to increase weight but can’t find the right tool, you can just need to do more reps or slow the tempo. Or, your own body weight will do the trick for many whole-body exercises like squats and pushups.
After you have your equipment sorted, it’s time to choose your exercises. Regardless of your goal, Pudvah suggests a full-body routine. Pudvah suggests it specifically for beginners because you can accumulate more work overall with a lesser chance of injury per session. Also, you won’t have to dedicate time for more than three to four workouts per week.
Now you need to determine how many sets and reps you want to do. If you’re new, then just stick with three sets for each movement. As for reps, Pudvah suggests choosing the muscle-building range of 8-15. While that range is ideal for building muscle, it’s also just a good starting point for anyone dipping their toe into strength training. It’s the Goldilocks of rep ranges.
Directions: Perform the warm-up above three times through before working out.
Pushup (or modified pushup on your knees): 3 sets of 8 reps
Backpack row: 3 sets of 8 reps
Backpack squat: 3 sets of 10 reps
Overhead band press: 3 sets of 10 reps
Inverted row: 3 sets of 8 reps
Banded deadlift: 3 sets of 10 reps
Dead bug: 3 sets of 12 reps