Weight Lifting (Resistance Exercise)

  • Author:
    Richard Weil, MEd, CDE

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

How important is the order in which I perform my exercises?

Studies have almost exclusively used an order in which exercises work large muscle groups before smaller ones. The reason is that a small muscle group that fatigues first will be the weakest link in the chain and prevent large muscle groups from working to full capacity. For example, if you isolate and fatigue your biceps muscles with curls, and then try to do lat pull-downs (which use the biceps, shoulders, and back), you won't be able to do as much work for your shoulders and back because your biceps will already be fatigued. However, a recent study showed that for general strength conditioning, the order of exercises didn't matter; that is, strength gains were similar for people whether they used large or small muscles first. The researchers did comment though that if you are training for a specific event (sports-specific training), say tennis, where you need the pectoral muscles as the primary muscle group for the forehand stroke, then you would train the pecs first before exercises for the forearms and wrist. In the starter programs below, you will see examples of working large to small muscle groups.

What are weight-lifting splits?

A split refers to the practice of dividing workouts by muscle group. For example, you can work all upper-body muscles on one day and lower-body muscles on another. Or you could work all the pushing muscles (triceps, pecs, and anterior shoulder) on one day, and the pulling muscles (biceps, lats, rhomboids, and posterior shoulder) on another. There are many possible combinations of splits, and I suggest that you experiment to find what works best for you. In the starter programs below, you will see examples of a split.

How much should I rest between sets and between days?

The amount of time you rest between sets can significantly affect your results. Rest up to three minutes between sets if pure strength development is your priority, and one to two minutes if muscular endurance and tone is your priority. Three minutes permits the muscles to recover from fatigue so that you can generate enough energy to perform another maximal lift on the next set. Benefits are not discreet. That is, there is carryover from one style to another, so that if you rest just one minute between sets, you will still increase endurance and tone, and if you rest three minutes between sets, you will still gain endurance and tone. I recommend one to two minutes for most people. More than that and you may end up spending more time chatting with others in the gym than getting down to what you're lifting for in the first place, that is, getting stronger. The guiding principal with weight lifting is volume. That is, the equation sets x reps x weight (in pounds). You can see that the more work you do the more benefit there is. If you take a lot more time resting than lifting, then you minimize your benefits. Take breaks between sets for sure, but get back to work as soon as the muscles are rested.

In the technique of lifting called circuit training, you move briskly from one weight lifting station or free-weight exercise (or abs) to another. Generally, you don't take more than 15-20 seconds to get to the next exercise, and I recommend that you do 15-20 reps per exercise. There are both cardiorespiratory and strength benefits to this training. Combining them is not as beneficial as dedicated cardiorespiratory or strength training alone, but it's a good workout and nice break from more traditional training.

The number of days that you rest between workouts can also affect your results. The standard advice is to rest two days between workouts. This makes sense if you push hard, since the muscles need time to recover and grow. In fact, it can take up to five days for muscles to fully recover from a tough workout, and if you push too hard, you might experience symptoms of overtraining (fatigue, loss of strength, inability to lift 100%, chronic soreness, and persistent injuries). Resting and lifting are not mutually exclusive with splits, however. It's OK to lift two days in a row. Experienced lifters do it all the time by splitting their workout so that they work one muscle group per day. For example, they might work their upper body on one day, and legs on another, or back muscles on one day, and chest muscles on the next. Experiment with different splits until you find what works best for you.

The golden rule is to remember that muscles recover and grow during downtime, not when you train, and so it's important to take time off. You know you need more rest if you have any symptoms of overtraining.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/28/2015

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Weight Loss/Healthy Living Newsletter

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors