Pumped any iron lately? If not, you may want to consider it. Resistance exercise is a great way to round out an aerobic workout and help you stay strong. I'll discuss the ins and outs of resistance exercise in this article and then suggest two basic training plans to get you started.
What is resistance exercise?
Resistance exercise is any exercise where muscles contract against an external resistance with the objective of increasing strength, tone, mass, and/or muscular endurance. The resistance can come from dumbbells, weight machines, elastic tubing or bands, cinder blocks, cans of soup, your own body weight (for example, pushups), or any other object that forces your muscles to contract. Results take time but are sure to come when you train consistently over time.
What are types of resistance exercises?
There are several types or styles of resistance exercise. Power lifting (a weight-lifting competition in which participants compete in the squat, dead lift, and bench press), Olympic weight lifting (the type you see on TV where athletes lift the weight overhead), strength training (lifting weights to get stronger), and weight lifting (the sport of lifting heavy weight, typically fewer than six repetitions).
What is progressive overload?
One of the fundamentals of resistance exercise is the principle of progressive overload. Progressive overload, as the term suggests, means that you increase the workload gradually over time as your muscles accommodate to the resistance, with the objective of gaining strength and/or mass. For example, suppose that you've been doing biceps curls for two weeks with 12 pounds, 10 repetitions, and then at week three, 12 pounds is easy and you could lift more. According to the principle of progressive overload, at this point, you would increase the weight if strength improvement is your goal. Your strength will remain the same if you keep the weight the same.
What is volitional fatigue?
Another fundamental of resistance exercise is to lift each set to volitional fatigue. Volitional fatigue is the point in the set where you can't lift one more rep without cheating it up (using momentum, leaning way back, etc.). Although there isn't a large body of research to prove that lifting every set to volitional fatigue is necessary for maximal benefit, most strength and fitness professionals agree that working to exhaustion changes muscle fibers in a way that leads to significant growth.
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As many of us have already noticed, muscle mass decreases as we age. Beginning in the fourth decade of life, adults lose 3%-5% of muscle mass per decade, and the decline increases to 1%-2% per year after age 50. Muscle keeps us strong, it burns calories and helps us maintain our weight, and it is also an essential contributor to our balance and bone strength.
What are sets and repetitions (reps)?
Sets and reps are the terms used to describe the number of times you perform an exercise. A rep is the number of times you perform a specific exercise, and a set is the number of cycles of reps that you complete. For example, suppose you complete 15 reps of a bench press. You would say you've completed "one set of 15 reps." A set can be any number of reps, so if you complete 10 reps of a bench press, you would say you've completed "one set of 10 reps," and if you complete just five reps, then that would be "one set of five reps."
How many sets should I do?
Research is clear that beginners can develop as much strength performing one set per exercise as they can performing three sets. This is because beginners typically start off with a low level of strength, which leaves room for improvement (called an "adaptive window"). Muscles respond quickly to resistance exercise in untrained individuals because the adaptive window is large. This is great news because the motivation to continue working out is reinforced by immediate and significant improvement. However, after three to four months, strength gains will level off and then multiple sets (three to five per exercise) are necessary if further improvement is desired.
How do I go about lifting for strength?
Muscular strength is gained when you lift heavy. For pure strength development, keep the resistance heavy enough so that you cannot lift more than eight reps, and then follow the progressive overload principle and increase the weight when you can lift more than eight. Expect your reps to drop whenever you increase the weight. For example, suppose you've been doing 10 reps of bench presses with 175 pounds and you increase the weight to 190 pounds. Because the weight is heavier, you will lift fewer reps, but as your muscles accommodate over time, you will again be able to lift more reps. When strength is your priority, you can experiment with heavy days. Heavy days are when you lift as much as you can one time. This is called a one-repetition maximum (a 10-rep maximum would be the weight you can lift 10 times to fatigue). Heavy days are challenging, and caution must be used to avoid strain or injury to the muscles, so I don't recommend them more than once a week. Your muscles need time to recover and grow.
Muscle weighs more than fat.
How do I go about lifting for tone and endurance?
Tone and endurance is maximized when you keep the weight light enough to lift 12-15 reps. Again, the principle of progressive overload applies. That is, increase the weight when 15 reps become easy.
Lifting for strength, tone, and endurance (general conditioning)
Keeping the reps in the eight-to-12 range emphasizes a combination of strength, tone, and endurance. This is a realistic quantity of training for most individuals. The recommendation in the American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand, "Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults," is for beginners to lift eight to 12 reps, and for the range to widen to one to 12 reps for intermediate and advanced training. Although research supports the eight to 12 recommendation, I believe it's prudent for beginners to start with 12-15 reps to reduce the risk of injury, and then the weight can be increased after a few weeks when the muscles have accommodated. Keep in mind that strength, tone, and some mass still accrue by training with reps in the 12-15 range, and so you don't have to lift heavier than that if you prefer not to.
How many days should I lift?
Beginners, because of their wide adaptive window, will accrue significant benefits with two to three days of training. Advanced lifters need at least three days per week, and typically more for significant gains because they are already so strong (more benefit takes more effort). It's not uncommon for bodybuilders and other strength athletes to train four to five days per week. The American College of Sports Medicine recommendation is for a minimum of two nonconsecutive days each week.
How do I know how much weight to lift?
Trial and error is the way to determine how much weight to lift. Select a weight that looks close to what you think you can lift based on your goals. If general conditioning is your goal, then select a weight you think you can lift eight to 12 reps (or 12-15 reps for beginners). If you can lift it 25 times with ease, then it's too light, and if you can lift it only four times, then it's too heavy. There are no formulas to calculate this. Simply decide what your goal is so you know how many reps to lift, take a guess by looking at the weights, and then give it a try. You'll quickly become adept at picking the right weight.
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How much do I increase?
Increases in the weight you lift aren't prescribed with generalized precision, partly because muscle groups vary so much in size and strength, and partly because of the practical matter of the weights available at the gym. Typically, you increase to whatever dumbbell is next on the rack (or plate on a weight machine), and so if you're lifting 12 pounds with biceps curls, then the next dumbbell available is usually 15 pounds. There is an option to increase in smaller increments with dumbbells by using an accessory called a donut, a magnetic 1¼ pound weight that attaches to the end of the dumbbell (they come in other weights besides 1¼ pounds as well). Weight machines have half weights for the same purpose. Ask your gym manager to purchase donuts if they don't have them.
Weight lifting equipment: free weights vs. machines
Dumbbells and barbells are free weights. They are "free," or untethered, unlike a weight machine where the weight stack is connected by cables to cams and pulleys and only move in one direction. There are advantages to both styles of lifting.
- Weight machines are easy to use.
- There are some exercises you can do with a machine that you can't do with a dumbbell. For instance, cable rows (on a rowing machine) would be difficult to replicate with free weights. You could do bent-over dumbbell rows, but they won't be quite the same. For my money, cable rows feel smoother than any exercise in the gym! The cable machine is freestanding or bolted to a wall and you usually sit to use it. From the seated position, you reach for the cable (there are several different handles) and pull as if you are rowing a boat. The handles can be straps, V-bar, or a straight bar. The wider the grip the more you will use your lats (muscles in the back that give swimmers that big V-shape); the narrower the grip the more you will use the rhomboids (muscles between the shoulder blades).
Weight machines are a little safer because they are more controlled and you can't drop one on your foot! However, there is an argument to be made for the fact that some machines may be too big or too small for some people, and this could put the body in a biomechanical position that doesn't match the natural anatomy of that person. In that situation, the person might be moving heavy weight through a range of motion that doesn't match the way the joint moves. So there might be dangerous stress to the joint. This has not been studied, but it speaks to the idea that you should always start resistance training with light weights. This way you can test whether the machine might not be good for you without risking damage from lifting heavy. If you wake up the next day with pain in the joint (not the muscle), consider having a fitness trainer evaluate how you move on the machine to determine if it's safe or not. And of course, never work through pain, and if pain continues, then stop using that particular machine.
- Free-weight training requires balance and coordination, and so if you are involved in a sport that requires balance, or you just need balance training, then free-weight training might be more effective.
- Free-weight training may recruit more muscles than a machine because you have to stabilize your body when you lift a dumbbell, whereas the weight machine supports you. For example, a biceps curls is going to feel more natural and use more muscles in your torso (to support the weight) than if you did a seated biceps curl in a machine where the machine does some of the work and you can lean against it for leverage.
- There are a variety of exercises that you can do with dumbbells that you can't do with machines. Lunges, step-ups, and many upper body exercises can be performed with free weights if you're creative.
- There is no evidence to suggest that either method is superior to the other. My suggestion is to combine free weights and dumbbells to get the best of each. The ACSM weight training position stands states the following: "For novice to intermediate training, it is recommended that the resistance training program include free-weight and machine exercises. For advanced strength training, it is recommended that emphasis be placed on free-weight exercises, with machine exercises used to complement the program needs."
- New weight lifters should work with a trainer to be sure that they are doing exercises correctly and not potentially damaging muscles.
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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.
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What about proper weight-lifting techniques?
I wrote a response to this question in the Ask the Experts section that you can find here: https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/
art.asp?articlekey=77873. I mentioned in my response that there is no research to show the proper form for any resistance exercise. People are built and move differently, and so you need to listen to your body when you perform resistance exercises and make sure that you feel it in the muscles that you want to work. The basics rules I proposed in my response were (1) take your time and lift mindfully, (2) feel it in the belly of the muscle you're trying to work and not in the joints, and (3) select weights that your body can handle without having to cheat or force the weight up (leaning way back, using momentum, etc.). If you're not feeling it in the belly of the muscle, then either adjust your position and movement until you do, or ask an experienced lifter or trainer to watch you lift so they can make corrections if necessary.
What are the benefits of weight lifting? Is it ever too late to start?
New benefits of resistance exercise seem to be discovered all the time. Research to date shows that resistance exercise is associated with improvements in all of the following:
Is it ever too late?
It's never too late to start a resistance-exercise program. In a classic study in a Boston nursing home, 100 residents ranging from 72-98 years of age performed resistance exercise three times a week for 10 weeks. Muscle strength increased 113%, walking speed increased by almost 12%, and thigh-muscle area increased 2.7%!
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You'll find two starter programs below. They are broken up by muscle group and are three days per week. You can experiment with splits, exercises, and the number of days per week. I suggest 12-15 repetitions and one to three sets per exercise for beginners (remember, you can gain significant strength with just one set). I've included more than one exercise for each muscle group. You can stick with one exercise if you like, or experiment with more than one. Use the principle of progressive overload and increase the weight when you can perform 15 reps easily. If you're using elastic tubing, start with the tube that you can lift 12-15 times to fatigue, and then increase when you get stronger.
Day 1: Chest (bench press with bar or dumbbell press, flies, pushups), triceps (bench dips, kickbacks)
Day 2: Back (bent-over rows), biceps (curls, standing or seated)
Day 3: Shoulders (lateral raises, front raises), legs (squats, lunges)
Here's a different split.
Day 1: Chest (bench press with bar or dumbbell press, flies, pushups), back (bent-over rows, pull-downs)
Day 2: Biceps (curls, standing or seated), triceps (bench dips, kickbacks)
Day 3: Shoulders (lateral raises, front raises), legs (squats, lunges)
It's worth it!
Resistance exercise is worth it. You'll gain strength, endurance, and confidence. It's feels great to feel strong, and I encourage you to give it a try! Remember, it's never too late to start!
Medically reviewed by a Board Certified Family Practice Physician
Peterson, Douglas M. "The Benefits and Risks of Exercise."
UpToDate.com. June 2015. <http://www.uptodate.com/contents/the-benefits-and-risks-of-exercise>.