These physical adaptations help prevent common chronic diseases and injuries and help with daily activities.
They are also essential for maintaining our independence and quality of life as we age.
Keep reading our ultimate guide to learn why strength training is recommended for everyone and how to incorporate it into your workouts.
What is Strength Training?
Strength training, also known as resistance training or weight lifting, is a form of exercise where our muscles act against resistance.
When our muscles have to act against enough resistance, the tissues undergo microscopic tears.
With proper nutrition, those fibers will eventually be repaired and become slightly bigger. This is how we build bigger, stronger muscles.
Why is Strength Training Important?
Strength training is crucial because our muscles do much more than just help us perform bicep curls.
Your muscles are active metabolic centers, full of bustling cellular activity, and are involved with a host of hormones and are central to many biological processes.
For instance, they play an essential role in the complex web of metabolism.
Those with more muscle mass have higher metabolisms, burn more calories during exercise and at rest, and have better blood sugar regulation.
Regular strength training also strengthens supporting tissues like our tendons.
Our bodies are phenomenal at adapting to new stimuli and adjusting. It's one of the many evolutionary adaptations that has made our species successful.However, this tendency can be annoying when it comes to our fitness.
To build bigger, stronger muscles (or lose weight or body fat), we have to continue to challenge our bodies. We do this through the process of progressive overload.
Progressive overload is the process of training harder over time, so we continue to see progress. But what does 'harder' even mean? This is where the vocabulary and mathematics of strength training become important.
There are many ways to achieve progressive overload in your strength training, such as increasing the weight, the number of sets or reps, manipulating your rest time, etc.
Sets & Reps
Strength training is broken down into the number of repetitions we perform for each exercise and into groups called sets.
The number of sets and reps we do will vary greatly depending on our fitness goals and the type of movement we're doing.
For example, you'll lift lighter weights for more reps if your goal is endurance, typically for sets containing 12-20 reps.
If your goal is bigger muscles (also called hypertrophy), you'll lift moderately heavy to heavy weights for sets containing 6-12 reps.
If your goal is pure strength (or power), you'll lift heavy weights for sets of 1-5 reps.
Rest is crucial in the weight room because it allows your muscle fuel called ATP to regenerate. The time you rest in strength training is carefully calculated and matches your primary fitness goal.
- If your goal is endurance, you'll rest for 20-40 seconds between sets.
- If your goal is hypertrophy, you rest for 30-90 seconds between sets.
- If your goal is strength, you'll rest for 3-5 minutes between sets.
Training volume is the total amount of work performed during your workout. You calculate training volume by multiplying the amount of reps X sets for a general estimate.
Reps X Sets = Training Volume
Strength athletes take it further by adding the weight lifted to the equation.
Reps X Sets X (225 lb squat, for example) = Training Volume
We keep track of training volume as it is another way to track our progress.
In strength training, intensity refers to how heavy the weight is relative to your absolute maximum, aka 1 rep max (1RM).
Let's say you can barbell squat 95 lb, 1 time:
Then low intensity would be 50% of that: 47.5%
Moderate intensity would be 75%: 72 lb
High intensity would be 98%: 93 lb
While this may seem like an advanced concept, understanding training intensity can help you navigate your workouts and keep you honest in your training.
Remember, if we're not challenging ourselves, we won't make progress.
Suppose you're not a strength athlete like a powerlifter or Olympic weight lifter. In that case, you may wonder how to gauge your workout difficulty to track your progress and guarantee results without using an advanced tactic like 1RM testing.
As a coach, my favorite tool is the rating of perceived exertion scale (RPE).
RPE allows you to rate how difficult an exercise feels at any given point, which is incredibly useful.
This type of subjective difficulty scale is crucial because humans are not machines. So weight and volume are going to feel different from week to week.
For example, a 40 lb goblet squat could feel great this week, while the next week, it could feel heavy because you barely slept, work has been extra stressful, you're sore from your last workout, etc.
So for most of us, we need a way to measure how difficult an exercise feels on a given day to keep us working hard enough to meet our goals–but not overtraining or hurting ourselves.
RPE enables us to adjust our training from day to day to keep us working hard and progressing, but not overdoing it. This can help us limit muscle soreness which knocks many people out of their workout routine when it's severe.
How many hours a week must you strength train to reap all the benefits? Two to four hours of strength training per week is enough for most people, but you should spread it throughout the week.
Benefits of Strength Training
For many years, the powers that be have focused on pushing the benefits of aerobic exercise, and for good reason.
But a mountain of evidence now shows that strength training is for everyone, with children as young as 6 and older adults benefiting from this training style.
Increased Muscle Strength and Tone
95% of the clients I've trained over the years have wanted to change their appearance in some way, and many claim to want to look 'toned.'
As a coach, I know that 'toned' doesn’t technically exist, not as some magical separate physiological process anyway.
But I know what they mean, and you likely do, too. They want more shape and more definition to their bodies.
There are only two ways to achieve muscle tone:
- You can gain muscle
- You can lose fat
For most people, it takes a combination of gaining muscle and losing fat to see more muscle definition.
Regular strength training increases the strength of our muscles and surrounding tissues and gives you the defined look that so many exercisers seek.
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Improved Bone Density and Joint Health
If we're sedentary, as we age, we can expect to lose muscle and bone density each year. These losses are significant and can result in a loss of strength, function, and balance–all of which can rob us of our independence and quality of life.
Boosted Metabolism and Weight Management
As a personal trainer, I found great joy in helping clients break free from the cardio hamster wheel and see results they'd been chasing for years by introducing them to weight lifting.
It's a secret that all strength coaches know, but many clients do not: the secret to significant and sustainable fat loss is a great strength program combined with strategic cardio.
Study after study has shown that people lose more body fat with weights and cardio combined vs. cardio alone.
Think of your muscle as a calorie furnace- the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism, and the more calories you burn 24/7.
Enhanced Functional Strength and Athletic Performance
We get athletic crossover benefits by using weight training to develop our muscular strength and size, including increased balance, coordination, and force production.
These are essential components of many sports and why many sports cross-train with strength work.
Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases
Strength training has vast implications in preventing and treating diseases like obesity, depression, and anxiety.
Higher muscle mass correlates with improved lipid profiles, insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure. All of which fight diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
A recent review of all data to date also showed that high-intensity exercise is highly effective in treating depression and anxiety and improving the mental health of participants without mental illness.
How to Incorporate Strength Training Into Your Fitness Routine
Personal trainers are taught the S.M.A.R.T. method when setting fitness goals with clients.
S - Specific
M - Measurable
R - Relevant
T - Time-bound
Let's look at a goal and see if it's SMART.
I want to lose weight
Immediately, you can see this goal is non-specific and, therefore, not measurable, so we can't evaluate if it's attainable. We also don't know if this is relevant to their life right now, and there's no time frame specified.
Try this instead:
I want to lose 10 pounds in the next 6 months by lifting weights 3x weekly and doing 3 interval cardio sessions weekly.
This is a reasonable and attainable goal for most people, and we have a clear plan and a way to measure our success.
Strength Training Workout Tips and Best Practices
Now that you understand the tremendous benefits of lifting weights, you can start incorporating strength into your fitness program.
Warm-up and Cool-down Routines
Think of your warm-up and cool-down as an exercise on and off-ramp, respectively.
A proper warm-up includes 5-10 minutes of light cardio which gets the cardiovascular system online and blood flowing to your muscles.
Crucially for strength training, you'll want to follow that with a few sets of activation exercises.
These are simple exercises with little to no extra resistance that target the specific muscles you will call upon in the workout to ensure they're ready to work.
For example, if you're doing legs and back, your warm-up could include air squats, glute bridges, and lightly banded rows to wake up your quads, hamstring, and back muscles.
Cooling down is less crucial but may be an excellent opportunity to gently transition out of your workout and include some stretching or walking.
Proper Lifting Form: Neutral Spine & Bracing
Unlike some lower-risk activities, such as walking, lifting requires dedication to form and technique.
While the health risks associated with avoiding strength training are much higher than those with participation–it's not without risks, like any athletic pursuit.
No matter what type of lift you're going for, there are a few foundational form cues you'll need to master to lift weights safely and effectively, namely: finding a neutral spine and bracing your core.
When our spine is aligned and all our core muscles are activated properly, we can lift much heavier weights safely. These two movements are the foundation of every strength exercise.
Tips for Finding a Neutral Spine
- Stand tall either up against a wall or using a lifting dowel or broom handle placed against your back, as pictured in this video.
- The back of your head, mid back, and tailbone should all touch the bar/wall.
- Bend forward at the waist keeping your shoulders pinned back, hinging at the knee. This is bending with a neutral spine.
Tips for Abdominal Bracing
- Start laying on the floor on your back, with your knees bent.
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your side.
- Breathe into your belly and feel it expand in every direction.
- When you exhale, flex all the muscles in your stomach and glutes. You will feel them tighten. This is bracing your core.
Types of Strength Training Exercises
Compound exercises–or multi-joint exercises–are precisely as they sound. Exercises that use multiple muscle groups across multiple joints.
Squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, pull-ups, and push-ups are all compounds.
Compound lifts are phenomenal for building strength, hypertrophy, and improving overall function. They should be the foundation of your strength training program.
Isolation exercises are the opposite of compounds, working only one muscle group at a time.
Bicep curls, tricep extensions, and hamstring curls are all isolation exercises.
Isolation exercises are a favorite of bodybuilders because they are great for targeting and building specific muscles.
Free Weights vs. Machines
Free weights are those you can pick up and move around, such as dumbbells and kettlebells but also include functional equipment like sandbags and even resistance bands.
Machines are fixed-strength equipment that typically uses pulley systems to create resistance.
Free weights are generally a superior choice because they are often compound and challenge our core and stabilizing muscles much more than machine movements. However, lifting on machines is still useful.
Specific isolation exercises like hamstring curls are great, and they are perfect for anyone new to weight lifting, as well as those with injuries who need additional support and stability.
Strength Exercise Hierarchy
You want to complete the most complex and taxing exercises first. The order of operations for strength training generally follows this order:
Compound exercises -> Isolation Exercises -> Machine exercises
Sample Strength Training Workouts
Total Body Warm-up
5-10 minutes cardio of your choice
Single Leg Glute Bridge 15x each leg
Repeat 2-3x as needed
Beginner Strength Workout Routine
If you're new to strength training, your initial program should focus on building your muscular endurance and mastering the form of each exercise.
It's also a time to familiarize yourself with the weight room and find confidence in that space. You can achieve this with three total body workouts per week.
Make sure you're resting 30-90 seconds between each set of each exercise.
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3|
|Goblet Squat 4 x 12||Romanian Deadlifts w/ DB 4 x 12||Bench press 4 x 12|
|Walking Lunges 4 x 12||Standing calf raises 4 x 15||Glute kickbacks 4 x 12|
|Seated Cable Row 3 x 12||Single arm rows 3 x 12||Lat pull down 4 x 12|
|Seated leg curls 3 x 12||Face pulls 3 x 12||Rear delt fly 3 x 12|
|Back Extensions 3 x 12||Lateral raises 4 x 12||Bird dogs 3 x 15|
|Bicep curls 3 x 12||Tricep pull downs 4 x 12||KB Halo 4 x 30 sec|
|Suitcase crunches 3 x 20||Single arm farmer carry 3 x 20 yd||SA hip flexor march 4 x 20|
Intermediate Strength Workout Routine
Now that you've built a fitness foundation and built up some muscular endurance and cardiovascular capacity, you're ready to move on to a more advanced strength program, typically after 6 months of consistent training.
Remember that we must keep increasing or altering the stimulus to drive adaptation. This means you'll lift heavier weights, take longer rest periods, and try more complex exercises.
Rest 2-4 minutes between sets of 5 reps or less, and 30-90 secs for all others.
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4|
|Barbell Squat 3 x 5||Barbell Deadlifts 4 x 12||Barbell bench press 4 x 12||DB Shoulder press 4 x 8|
|Weighted Lunges 3 x 10||Standing calf raises 4 x 15||DB RDL 4 x 10||Push-ups 4 x 10|
|Bent over row 3 x 8||Single arm rows 3 x 10||Chin-ups 4 x 8||Curtsy Lunge 3 x 8|
|Bicep curls 3 x 12||Weighted back extensions 3 x 12||KB Halo 4 x 30 sec||Sled push 4 x 10 yd|
|Dead Hangs 3 x 45 sec||Single arm farmer carry 3 x 20 yd||SA hip flexor March 4 x 20||KB around the world 3 x 30 sec|
Advanced Strength Workout Routine
An advanced weight lifter has been training for two years or more and has done 1 R.M. testing on all their main lifts, i.e., the barbell squat, deadlift, bench, and overhead press.
Advanced lifters must work much harder to progress as their body is well adapted to the demands of strength training. Progress becomes much slower and less dramatic over time.
Rest 3-5 minutes for reps 5 or less and 30-90 secs for all others.
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4|
|Barbell Squat 5 x 5||Barbell Deadlifts 5 x 5||Barbell bench press 5 x 5||Barbell press 5 x 5|
|Bulgarian split squats 3 x 8||Standing calf raises 4 x 15||DB RDL 4 x 10||Push-ups 5 x 10|
|Bent over row 3 x 8||Pull-ups 4 x 10||Lat pull down 4 x 12||Curtsy Lunge 3 x 8|
|Dead Hangs 3 x 60 sec||Single arm farmer carry 3 x 20 yd||SA hip flexor March 4 x 20||KB around the world 3 x 30 sec|
Strength Training Tips
Embrace Heavy Weights
My biggest tip as a personal trainer of 10 years: embrace heavy weights!
As trendy and cute combo exercises and body weight workouts are, they're not enough stimulus to grow your muscles and build strength for long.
Prioritize rest and recovery
Muscles are built during recovery–seriously!
Something I see from those with an aerobic exercise-only background is shock when I tell them the importance of rest, both during workouts and between sessions.
"You want me to sit here and do nothing for 3 minutes?!"
Yes. Yes, I do.
Rest periods are essential so when we jump back into lifting, we can bring 100% intensity and focus to the task at hand.
Track Your Progress
This doesn't have to be high-tech and can be as simple as a marble notebook, but you must track your progress.
You maintain progressive overload and keep progressing by keeping track of the weights used and sets and rep counts from week to week.
Don't Lift with Your Ego
This one is usually the hardest for experienced lifters returning from a hiatus: don’t lift with your ego.
Remember that you are not in competition with a version of you from the past.
Don't get frustrated when your body has naturally given up on the adaptations you haven't been working to maintain, instead focus on great form and re-establishing the habit of lifting instead.
Never Neglect Your Warm-up
We've all done it: been pressed for time and rushed into a workout without an adequate warm-up.And we've all regretted it.
Including a comprehensive warm-up is essential for performance and injury prevention, so don't skip it.
Best Apps for Strength Training
Best overall: Future, available for iOS and Android
This interactive fitness training platform offers flexibility, variety, daily motivation, and access to hundreds of expert trainers and coaches ready to design a program tailored to your fitness level, goals, equipment availability, schedule, and personal preferences.
Apple Watch Rental Program
Record Mode for better coaching & feedback
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Strength is a central pillar of health and strength training should be included in your workout program.
Many types of strength exercises and training protocols are available, and your program should be tailored to your goals and ability.
Regular strength training builds muscle, increases bone density, reduces body fat, and can help with weight maintenance.
It also helps prevent and treat chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, depression, and anxiety.
You can get all these benefits with just three total body workouts a week.
Strength is for everyone, so grab some weight and discover the joy of building strength today.
More Strength Training Advice from GymBird Experts
- Ultimate Kettlebell Strength Training Guide
- Optimal Strength Training Frequency
- Functional Strength Training Benefits
- Best Strength Training Exercises
- Resistance Band Strength Training
- Understanding Reps in Strength Training
- Ultimate Guide to Olympic Weight Lifting
- Building the Ultimate Powerlifting Home Gym
- How to Start Powerlifting
- Bodybuilding Guide
- Types of Strength Training and Their Benefits
Current Sports Medicine Reports. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health.
Sports Medicine. Exercise and bone mass in adults.
British Journal of Sports Medicine. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews.