About 6 months into my fitness journey, I joined a gym with the intent of moving from using the Wii Fit to actually lifting weights. The problem was, that’s all I would do: “lift weight”. I had no real idea of what I was doing. I just basically went from machine to machine doing 10 reps of the exercise on a given machine and then moving on to the next machine. There was no real plan, and I really had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t really strength training.
After a couple of months of spinning my wheels, I started working with a personal trainer. During that time, I learned how to focus on specific body parts, the foundations of how to lift, and how to really engage the muscle groups to get stronger. Within a few weeks, I increased my strength and built noticeable muscle.
Now, as a personal trainer myself, I help others with strength training programs to assist them with fat loss and to build lean muscle. It’s one of my favorite things to visibly see the results my clients make after just a few weeks of training. They look stronger, they feel stronger, and they are stronger. They improve their performance in the sports they play, and are able to accomplish the activities of everyday life much easier because of their strength training program.
I realized that there are others out there who were just like me, who honestly do not know where to start or what to do when it comes to strength training. I’ve created this guide for beginners who are looking to start a strength training program, and are not familiar with the basic concepts of strength training. If you’re looking to become a body builder, this guide isn’t for you. But if you’re interested in losing weight and building lean muscle through a strength training program, then read on!
What I’ve put together here is some core principles to a strength training program that you can use to not just “lift weights” but actually train. I’ve included a sample workout at the bottom of this guide that you can view and download, but my hope is that you can use these principles to build your own program with the equipment that you have on hand. Note, I’m providing your with information and stories about what I’ve found that works for me and has worked for most of my clients, but individual results may vary with a strength training program. As always, please consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program, and to make sure you are healthy enough to engage in a strength training program.
Why strength train?
You might still wonder why you should strength train. There are so many benefits, that if I listed them all in this article, it would be well over 4,000 words. So here are three basic reasons why you should start a strength training program:
- Building muscle burns more calories, which can help you lose weight – Muscles burn almost a quarter of the calories we use on a daily basis. So it stands to reason that the more muscle mass you build, the more calories you can burn. The more calories you burn, the more fat you lose (assuming you keep your calorie intake the same). Evidently, the reason for this is that as strength training breaks down your muscles, and your body burns extra calories to repair your muscles. In addition, some studies have shown that your metabolism can increases 8-9% for the three days following a strength training workout. What does that mean in a practical sense? Let’s say you normally eat a 2000 calories a day diet. By regular strength training and building lean muscle mass, you now burn an extra 160 calories a day. That means 4800 calories a month, or a little over a pound a month! Now, there are different articles that say that “strength training will not help you lose weight“, and this is technically true, because muscle is denser than fat you could build muscle and actually gain weight. However, in my personal experience, the above calorie burn helped me significantly in losing inches in my waist and ultimately lose weight on the scale.
- Injury resistance – From a general health perspective, strength training has lots of secondary benefits beyond just stronger muscles and a leaner looking body. Regular resistance training also builds the tensile strength of your tendons and ligaments. Strengthening tendons and ligaments helps make you more resistant to injuries like sprained ankles or a torn ACL, as common examples. Note that I say “injury resistant“. These injuries can still happen, but you’re less likely to tear your rotator cuff if you’ve been doing exercises to strengthen your shoulder muscles. Regular strength training also helps build bone density. As we age, we lose bone density. This leads to a greater risk of breaking bones – think about how grandma is more likely to fall and break her hip. Studies have shown that strength training can increase bone density by 1% to 3%, thus lessening your risk of breaking a bone.
- Helps with the activities of everyday life – even if you don’t consider yourself an athlete, you probably still have to do things like carry bag of groceries up a flight of stairs, carry suitcases to the car, move furniture, etc. it becomes much easier to throw the 20 pound of dog food over your shoulder and walk out the store if you’re used doing deadlifts, farmers walks, curls, etc. Building strength is especially needed as we age, since we naturally lose muscle mass over time if we don’t train. This study from AARP shows that even if you’re 50 or over, strength training is important.
- Principle: Strength training is good for you.
A Common Misconception
One of the most common objections I hear about why people don’t want to do strength training is “If I lift weights I’ll get big and bulky.” When many people hear “weight lifting” or “strength training”, the image that pops in their heads is often that of a big, bulky, bodybuilder with huge muscles and not an ounce of fat.
The truth is those bodybuilders follow an intensive resistance training programs for muscle growth, or hypertrophy, usually lifting 4-5 days a week. Bodybuilders also follow a very strict diet, consuming a lot of calories in order to feed their muscles and “bulk up.” They are also genetically predisposed to build that type of muscle. So unless you follow a hypertrophy plan and eat 4,000 calories+ a day, you won’t get that large from strength training.
- Principle: Lift heavy weight. You won’t get bulky.
What are sets and reps?
In most training programs you’ll read references to “sets” and “reps”. You might wonder what this means. A rep (short for repetition) is the actual completion of the exercise movement. A set is the number of reps completed of that exercise without any rest. A set is broken up by rest periods in between. The number of reps and sets and even rest period that you would use in strength training really depends on your goals. There are basically three modes of strength training: training for muscular endurance, training for muscular size, and training for strength.
Training for muscular endurance is generally done used by endurance runners, obstacle course racers, triathletes, and other athletes looking to be strong, lean, and able to keep going. This type of training usually involves low weight or even body weight, done for a high number of reps for 2-3 sets. For example, doing 3 sets of 20 push-ups with a short rest of 30 seconds or less in between sets would be ideal for muscular endurance.
Training for muscular size, or hypertrophy, is typically done by bodybuilders and figure competitors in order to build large, defined muscles. It involves lifting a moderate to heavy amount of weight for between 6-12 reps, and usually involves more sets. An example of this might be doing the bench press with 225 lbs. for 4 set with 8 reps, with a rest of about 1 minute between sets.
Training for muscular strength is generally done by powerlifters and strongmen. Think of World’s Strongest Man competitions. This type of training usually involves lifting heavy weight for very low reps and sets. An example here might be bench pressing 315 lbs for 5 sets of 3 reps, with a 3 or 4 minute rest in between sets.
Here is a chart that outlines general guidelines for training, based on strength training research:
|Training Type||Sets||Reps||Rest between Sets|
|Muscular Endurance||2-3||12 or more||less than 30 seconds|
|Muscular Size||3-6||6-12||60 to 90 seconds|
|Muscular Strength||2-6||less than 6||3-5 minutes|
All that said, as a beginner, the sweet spot that you’re looking to get to with any given exercise is about 25-30 reps. You could accomplish this by doing 3 sets of 8 reps or 3 sets of 10 reps, with no more than a rest of 1 minute between each set. This number of sets and reps will give you the combination of building size, strength, and endurance. As you progress, you can adjust the sets and reps according to your ultimate goal, based on the chart above. What I have found to be a good approach is to combine exercises for endurance and strength. What this might mean is I do sets with low reps of heavy bench press followed by push ups for higher reps.
- Principle: Try to complete 3 sets of between 8-12 reps of each exercise.
How much weight should you lift?
When deciding how much weight to lift, you’ll often times hear a discussion of one rep max or 1RM. Your one rep max is basically the most weight you could lift for one rep. There are different methods for calculating your one rep max, but for simplicity’s sake we won’t consider the 1RM right now. As a beginner, you should look to lift a weight that is heavy enough so that after completing the 25-30 reps in your set, the last couple of reps of the last set are difficult to accomplish.
The goal is to exhaust the muscle group you’re working to the point that you can no longer perform the exercise with the proper form. In fact, if your plan was to do 3 sets of 10 reps, and on the last set, you can only complete 8 or 9 reps, then you’re probably lifting a heavy enough weight. You’ve “gone to failure” because you can’t lift anymore. On the other hand, if after completing the last rep of your last set, you still feel like you could have lifted more, then increase the weight the next time you train with that exercise.
The one exception to this guideline is your legs. Since we still have to walk, you don’t want to exhaust your muscles to the point where you can’t walk at all after your workout.
As you progress, you can increase the weight you lift so as to build greater strength. If you’re first starting out, you may want to work with the weight you established as what you can lift for the 25-30 reps for about 3 weeks. Thereafter, you can add weight. A general rule of thumb is to add 5 pounds to what you you lifted previously, and then in another 2 weeks add another 5 pounds. For the first 3 weeks though, focus on getting the form down and the habit of exercise.
- Principle: Lift enough weight so that your last two reps are difficult or impossible to complete
There are basically five movement patterns that we use in everyday life. When crafting your strength training program, you should incorporate all of these movement types in your program. Some of the examples of movements we make that I’ve listed below may seem small, and you might even think “why would I need to strength train to pick up heavy weight off the floor, if the heaviest thing I ever pick up off the floor is a piece of paper?” Remember, one of the benefits of strength training is being resistant to injury, so if you’ve ever met someone who threw out their back just bending over to put on their shoes, then you can see the value in strength training for all of these movement patterns.
- Bend and lift – Everyday, you probably have to bend over to pick something up. Your shoes when you get dressed, a pen you dropped, or a box that got delivered to your house. Of course, from time to time, you might have heavier things to lift, like your baby, boxes during a move, or your groceries. The exercises that you would use to build strength for this movement would include the squat and the deadlift. These are both great foundation exercises that strengthen not only your legs, but also your back and core.
- Single leg movements – Walking, running, even going upstairs require a single leg movement. It requires strength in the legs, hips, and glutes (butt), as well as balance. The exercises you use to build strength for this movement include lunges and step ups.
- Push movements – Pushing a door open, putting things up on a high shelf, or pushing a heavy piece of furniture all require push movements. You primarily use your chest, shoulders, and triceps for these types of movements. The bench press, shoulder press, and tricep extension would work these push muscles.
- Pull movements – pulling a door open, pulling a box off of a shelf, or pulling a suit case behind you are all pulling movements. Your primary muscles for these types of movements are in your back and biceps, so bicep curls and rows are great exercises for strengthening these muscles.
- Twist movements – Turning around and handing something to your cube mate, loading groceries into your car from the cart, even getting out of bed require twisting movements and core stability. Woodchops, haybailers, and side planks build the core strength needed for these movements.
- Principle: Train your whole body by training in all movement patterns (Bend and lift, single leg, push, pull, and twist)
- Principle: Strength train at least 3 times per week.
- Wescott, W.L. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health
- Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R. W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning