The Benefits of Strength Training and Tips for Getting Started


Guide I-111
Raquel Garzon
College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, New Mexico State University.


Author: Extension Nutrition and Wellness Specialist, Department of Extension Family and Consumer Sciences, New Mexico State University. (Print friendly PDF)

Most of us know that getting enough exercise in our lives is important for our health, but we may not know exactly how to get started or what kind of exercise is recommended. There are different forms of exercise, and each has its own unique benefits to our health and our quality of life. The primary types of exercise are aerobic, strength, and flexibility training. They each have their own benefits, and they are all important when it comes to staying healthy for as long as possible.

This guide will focus on strength training, which is often neglected when it comes to our exercise routines. Many people think that strength training is only important when you are young, that it is only for men, or that you should only do it when you are trying to bulk up your muscles, but that simply isn’t true. All people can benefit from strength training at any age, and it is easier to start than you think (Figure 1). This guide will help you to understand why strength training is important and beneficial, give you basic guidelines on what exercises to do, and give you ideas on how to make it practical in your everyday life.

Photograph of a person holding two dumbbells.

Figure 1. Strength training is important for people of all ages and for men and women alike. (© Milovan Radmanovac | Dreamstime.com)

Definition of Strength Training

Strength training is a type of exercise that improves muscular fitness through the use of resistance to the muscle. It involves activities that make your muscles do more work than they usually do. In other words, they are activities that overload the muscles. An exercise counts as strength training if it involves a medium- to high-level effort and if it works major muscle groups of the body.

How People Can Benefit from Strength Training

There are several benefits that strength training can provide in our lives. Here are some of the most important ones:

  • Muscle mass. As we age, we lose muscle mass. Strength training can help you maintain and fight against the loss of muscle mass.

  • Osteoporosis. Strength training can help prevent osteoporosis by increasing bone mass and bone strength.

  • Arthritis. Strength training can reduce pain and disability associated with arthritis and slow or reverse bone mass loss in arthritis.

  • Heart disease. Strength training can decrease the risk of heart disease by improving cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. It also decreases the stress placed on the heart when lifting or moving objects.

  • Overweight/obesity. Strength training can help to lower body fat levels or improve body composition. It can also help us maintain muscle mass during weight-loss efforts.

  • Daily activities. Regular strength training lowers the risk of having limitations in daily activities due to a lack of muscular fitness. These daily activities might include carrying children or groceries, climbing up and down stairs, moving furniture or heavy boxes, engaging in sporting activities or hiking, and even standing for long periods of time.

  • Blood sugar. Strength training can improve blood sugar levels and improve the use of insulin in the body.

  • Psychological stress. Strength training on a regular basis may reduce the symptoms associated with depression and anxiety and may also help reduce fatigue. It can also contribute to improved self-esteem.

  • Brain. Strength training can improve memory and thinking skills.

Ways to Do Strength Training

There are many ways to accomplish strength training. The primary methods used are:

• Free weights (Figure 2)

Photograph of free-weight dumbbells.

Figure 2. Free weights are one method of strength training available, but they are recommended for more advanced workouts since they require more coordination and balance to use. (© Michael Flippo | Dreamstime.com)

• Machines with weights and cables (Figure 3)

Photograph of a weight-lifting machine.

Figure 3. Machines that use weights and cables are generally safer for beginners to use. (© Julián Rovagnati | Dreamstime.com)

• Bands, tubes, medicine balls, and other portable tools (Figure 4)

Photograph of bands, tubes, and medicine balls used for strength training.

Figure 4. Bands, tubes, and medicine balls are convenient strength training aids that can be used at home. (© Lunamarina | Dreamstime.com)

• Body weight (Figure 5)

Photograph of a person doing a pushup.

Figure 5. Exercises such as pushups and crunches use your body’s weight for resistance. (© Suprijono Suharjoto | Dreamstime.com)

No strength training method is better than another. The most important principle is to challenge the muscles to do more work than they normally do. You do not have to stick with only one method of strength training. You can mix up the methods you use each time you work out or even mix up the methods within one particular workout. You have as many options as you would like. The method(s) you decide on for strength training may depend on personal preference, access and availability, convenience, or comfort level with the different methods. It is important to choose methods that are safe and practical for you. Machine-based exercises are generally safer for beginners than free weights because machines are more stable and rely less on coordination and balance. As your muscular fitness improves, free weights can be added to your fitness routines.

Strength training should target the major muscle groups: chest, back, legs, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and the trunk/core (Figure 6). It is recommended that you vary your exercises in such a way that you do some that use multiple muscles at one time and some that isolate specific muscles individually.

Illustration of the major muscle groups of the body.

Figure 6. The major muscle groups of the body. (© Anastasiia Koreshkova | Dreamstime.com)

Complete body training of all muscle groups helps to reduce muscular imbalances that can lead to injury.

For each exercise:

  • Use proper form and technique (be sure that you are in the correct stance or have the right settings on the machine).
  • Use controlled movements (do not swing weights or use momentum to lift weights or your body weight).
  • Use the full range of motion of the joint (do not stop short of the beginning or ending point of the exercise movement).
  • Use proper breathing techniques (exhale during the exertion portion of the repetition).

Recommendations for How to Strength Train

The focus in this guide is for adults who want general strength training recommendations to improve overall muscular fitness. The recommendations here are not for advanced strength training plans. The recommendations provided here are appropriate for men and women of all ages. Older persons should begin with lighter resistance and a greater number of repetitions until muscular conditioning improves, then increase resistance and follow the typical recommendations provided.

Number of Repetitions

Repetitions or reps refers to the number of times you perform the exercise.

To emphasize muscular strength and size:

  • Do 8–12 reps per set that produces muscular fatigue (to the point where another repetition would be difficult to do without help).
  • Take 2–3 minutes of rest in between sets.

To emphasize muscular endurance:

  • Do 15–20 reps per set that produces muscular fatigue.
  • Take 1–2 minutes of rest in between sets.
  • Do no more than 2 sets per exercise.

Number of Sets

A set is a fixed number of repetitions. For example, you might do 2 sets of 15 reps each, with 2 minutes of rest in between sets. Most people benefit from 2–4 sets of exercises per muscle group. For beginners and/or older individuals, 1 set per muscle group can be beneficial to get started. One exercise can be used for the 2–4 sets or several different exercises, whatever is preferred. Gradually increasing the amount of resistance over time is ideal to strengthen muscles.

Number of Days Per Week

  • Strength training of each muscle group is recommended two to three times per week.
  • Whole body workout sessions, so that all muscles are trained, are recommended at least two times per week.
  • Forty-eight to 72 hours of rest time in between training sessions is recommended.

Improvements gained through strength training reverse quickly when you stop strength training; therefore, staying consistent with these routines is critical.

Table 1 gives examples of a beginner workout and an intermediate/advanced workout. Note that these are just examples. The number of total sets can vary from 8 up to 30 or more and anything in between. Generally, the more advanced you are, the greater number of sets required to challenge the muscles.

Table 1. Example Strength Training Workouts for Beginner and Intermediate/Advanced

Muscle Group Targeted

Beginner

Intermediate/Advanced

Chest

Pushups: 1 set of 12 reps

Bench press: 2 sets of 8–10 reps

Chest fly machine: 1 set of 10 reps

Chest fly dumbbell: 2 sets of 8–10 reps

Back

Cable rows: 1 set of 12 reps

Pull-ups: 2 sets of 8–10 reps

Assisted pull-ups: 1 set of 10 reps

Bent-over rows: 2 sets of 10 reps

Legs

Leg extensions: 1 set of 12 reps

Squats: 2 sets of 10 reps

Leg curls: 1 set of 12 reps

Lunges: 2 sets of 8–10 reps

Shoulders

Overhead press: 1 set of 12 reps

Military press: 2 sets of 10 reps

Lateral raises: 2 sets of 8–10 reps

Biceps

Dumbbell curls: 1 set of 10 reps

Preacher curls: 2 sets of 8 reps

Concentration curls: 1 set of 10 reps

Triceps

Cable pushdowns: 1 set of 10 reps

Overhead extensions: 2 sets of 10 reps

Triceps dips: 1 set of 12 reps

Core

Crunches: 1 set of 15 reps

Russian twists with weight: 2 sets of 12 reps

Superman: 1 set of 15 reps

Hyperextensions: 2 sets of 12 reps

Plank: 2 sets of 30 seconds

Total

11 sets

28 sets

Preventing Injury

  • Warm-up: Begin each exercise of a new muscle group with a lighter resistance and higher number of repetitions.

  • Stretching: Stretch any muscle worked at the end of the exercise session. Generally, you will need to stretch every major muscle group at the end if you have completed a full body workout as recommended here.

  • Gradual progression of volume and intensity: Increase slowly over time the amount of resistance and the number of sets.

  • Choose appropriate exercises: If you are working out alone without a partner, avoid exercises in which you might need help from a partner. If you do have a partner, you can ask them to “spot” you. As you perform the exercise, your partner will watch to see if you need help lifting a weight and will help you if needed.

  • Use equipment properly: Ask for help if you do not know how to use equipment or are not sure of the proper settings. Avoid equipment you do not know how to use.

  • Use correct form and technique for each exercise.

  • Listen to your body: Stop if you feel pain or anything that does not feel right.

Tips for Overcoming Barriers and Incorporating Strength Training in Your Life

  • Find a partner to work out with.

  • Attend a group fitness class that emphasizes strength training.

  • Make the exercises accessible and fun.

  • Choose exercises that are convenient and practical in your environment.

  • Break up your workout into segments throughout the day if you are at home. It does not have to be done all at one time.

  • Do your exercises at home during your favorite television shows.

  • Schedule your exercise sessions in your day just like you would any other important appointment.

  • Pack your gym clothes ahead of time and have them ready to go when you start your day.

  • Download free apps on your phone for body weight workouts. If you don’t do your regular routine, you can always do a body weight workout in 12 minutes or less.

Before Getting Started

Speak with your doctor to make sure that you do not have any medical conditions that would limit your ability to engage in strength training. Strength training may not be recommended if you experience chest pain, lose your balance due to dizziness, or have specific medical conditions. You may also need to modify the types of exercises you do if you have a bone or joint problem that could be aggravated or worsened by certain types of exercises. If you are cleared for exercise by your doctor but experience pain or discomfort during exercise, you should stop the exercise and talk with your doctor.

References

Anderson-Hanley, C., J.P. Nimon, and S.C. Westen. 2010. Cognitive health benefits of strengthening exercise for community-dwelling older adults. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 32, 996–1001. doi: 10.1080/13803391003662702

Garber, C.E., B. Blissmer, M.R. Deschenes, B.A. Franklin, M.J. Lamonte, I.M. Lee, D.C. Nieman, and D.P. Swain. 2011. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: Guidance for prescribing exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43, 1334–1359. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318213fefb

O’Connor, P.J., M.P. Herring, and A. Caravalho. 2010. Mental health benefits of strength training in adults. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 45, 377–396. doi: 10.1177/1559827610368771

Page, P. 2012. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International Journal of Physical Therapy, 7, 109–119. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273886/

United States Department of Health and Human Services. 2008. 2008 physical activity guidelines for Americans. Retrieved from https://health.gov/paguidelines/pdf/paguide.pdf

For further reading

I-101: Physical Activity and You (for Adults)
http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_i/I101/

I-103: Physical Activity and Kids (School Age): Information for Parents
http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_i/I103/

I-105: Osteoporosis
http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_i/I105/welcome.html


Photo of Raquel Garzon

Raquel Garzon is the Extension Nutrition and Wellness Specialist at NMSU. She has a doctorate in health science and is a Registered Dietitian. She has experience working as a clinical and community dietitian for adults and children, as well as working in the area of high-performance training for corporations and professional athletes. Her goal in Extension is to improve the well-being of New Mexicans through programs, collaborations, and education.


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July 2017 Las Cruces, NM