What is strength training?
Strength training is about building a stronger body by making the muscles, ligaments and tendons stronger so they can move heavier loads. It is different to bodybuilding which is about hypertrophy – making the muscles bigger. A side effect of strength training can be bigger muscles but this depends on your diet (a higher than average amount of protein is required to increase muscle size; you can also take certain substances such as steroids) and your testosterone levels (typically, men have bigger muscles than women because they naturally produce more testosterone).
In this article, I will be primarily discussing what is also known as progressive strength training – it is progressive because in order to build strength you have to continually challenge the muscles by lifting progressively heavier weights.
Why strength training is useful
There are a number of reasons in no particular order:
- as we age, we become less active and our muscles will shrink in size and strength; regular strength training will keep the muscles strong
- as we age, due to a less active lifestyle, our bones will weaken; regular strength training will stimulate the bones which will help to offset osteoperosis
- the activity of strength training will burn fat; it may not burn as much as going for a run but it still burns calories plus it builds muscle which requires calories to stay the same size; in other words, you will burn fat while you sleep!
- you will develop a more aesthetically pleasing physique with less saggy parts as the muscles “hold” us better
- improved functional fitness – you will be able to go about your daily duties more effectively whether it’s just holding heavy shopping bags or pushing a lawn mower.
- combined with a reasonable calorie deficit, you will lose weight and obtain a more satisfying physical shape
Who is it suitable for?
It is suitable for everyone regardless of age, sex or levels of fitness because you will be using a weight size you can manage. The premise is that through regular training, you will increase your strength and can therefore manage a greater size over time. It is not a quick process but it is certainly a process that you will benefit from in the long run.
Ideally you will use a barbell with plate weights but you can also use a pair of dumbbells with plate weights. If you attend a gym you will be able to use fixed dumbbells which means it will be more convenient but you can train at home without any problems.
I do not really advocate using machines as they assist you with lifting. You will not develop the supporting muscles which can lead to imbalance and injury.
To gain strength, you will repeatedly perform sets of exercises. In this case, you will perform 3 sets of 6 exercises – this means that you repeat 6 exercises, have a 2-3 minute rest then repeat the same exercises 6 further times before another rest; finally you repeat the exercises another 6 times. The final 5th and 6th repetition should be quite a struggle. If it is too easy, then repeat another set but remember for your next session to increase the weight (as to how much, you will have to estimate yourself).
In terms of regularity, you are advised to train twice a week, for instance, Tuesday and Friday, with a 2-3 day rest in between each session to allow the muscles to recover. Other training methodologies advise 3 or 4 sessions splitting the exercises up but for a beginner, this is unnecessary. I’ve been training for 2 years and still train like this and continue to experience strength gains.
Over time, as your strength develops, you will start to find the weights you’re lifting less of a challenge and when this happens, you should make a note to increase the mass a little the next time you train so the final couple of repetitions are always difficult.
The exercises below are known as compound exercises because they use multiple muscle groups which strengthen the body throughout rather than isolated exercises which focus on just one muscle. Not only will you train numerous muscles at once but you will save time. For instance, the bench press trains the pectorals, the triceps and the core. You will find that all the exercises work the core and for this reason I do not include any specific core exercises as they are unnecessary for developing proper core strength.
This works the chest. Use a flat bench. If you do not have access to one, you can perform this exercise on the floor.
With a barbell: http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/PectoralSternal/BBBenchPress.html
With dumbbells: http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/PectoralSternal/DBBenchPress.html
Try to keep your back straight. If you find you’re overly arching your back, then the weight is too heavy for you – reduce the size and your body will develop the strength.
This works the legs; a lot of routines ignore the legs leading to a strangely unbalanced physique.
This version is preferred: http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/Quadriceps/BBFullSquat.html
If you do not have access to a squat rack, you can still develop the legs with Hack Squats: http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/Quadriceps/BBHackSquat.html
Deadlifts work the back. Correct form is very important here if you are to avoid permanent injury to your back.
If you find them easy, do more reps per set. Also see my beginner’s guide to doing pull ups. I have linked to Bent Over Rows which also work the lats but in a slightly different way and will be an exercise to perform if you find pull ups difficult; however, I strongly recommend that you work on your ability to do pull ups.
This routine can be performed all year round and for the rest of your life as part of your weekly exercise routine. You will find that you continually develop your strength. It will take 2-3 months before you really notice changes in your body – it’s a bit “old school” as it’s not an instant fix (which always results in long term failure) but if you persist, you will enjoy the benefits as your body changes.