Strength Training for Beginners
**This post is a part of our beginner's guide to fitness series. To see all blogs in the series click here.
Whether your goal is to build muscle mass or achieve a more fit, more toned body, weight training can help you get there. Weight training, also known as resistance or strength training, uses your own bodyweight or tools, like weight machines, dumbbells, barbells or resistance bands to increase endurance and build lean, stronger muscles. Just a few of the benefits of strength training:
- Improved strength and muscle mass - A loss in strength as we age is associated with functional declines, slower gait speed, increased fall risk, loss of independence, hospitalizations and poor quality of life. Because maximum strength peaks around the age of 30, and begins to decline around 50 years of age, resistance training is an essential part of a comprehensive fitness program at any age to preserve and enhance strength and physical function.
- Increased bone density - Bone mineral density (BMD) refers to the amount of bone mineral per unit of bone tissue, and, essentially, reflects the strength of bones. Low bone mineral density (osteoporosis or osteopenia) means that bones are weak and, therefore, more prone to fractures. According to research, adults who do not perform strength training may experience up to a 3% reduction in bone mineral density every year of their life. Overall, the majority of studies in this area suggest that the health benefits of strength training include an increase in bone mineral density in both younger and older adults, and may have a stronger effect on BMD than other types of exercise.
- Reduced risk of depression - A meta analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry looked at 33 studies (a total of almost 1,900 subjects between them) to see if resistance training had any sizable positive impact on alleviating depressive symptoms. It determined that not only does strength training boost physical strength, but it also improves low mood, loss of interest in activities, and feelings of worthlessness.
- Reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and high blood pressure - A number of studies have found that two or more months of regular strength training can reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in subjects with hypertension. This study, for example, which included more than 1,600 participants aged between 21 and 80 years old, found that strength training twice or three times per week significantly reduced systolic blood pressure readings by 3.2 and 4.6 mm Hg, respectively, while it also reduced diastolic blood pressure by 1.4 and 2.2 mm Hg, respectively.
- Faster weight loss (combined with any necessary dietary changes) and Easier weight maintenance
If you’ve never lifted weights before, consider starting out with the help of a certified personal trainer. After a complimentary fitness assessment, they’ll be able to teach you the proper form for specific exercises and set up a strength training program tailored to your goals and current fitness level.
Starting to strength train doesn’t mean it has to be your only workout. Actually, for those just beginning, it is best to do resistance training just once or twice a week to start, then gradually increase the frequency as you adapt. The days you are not strength training, you can do another type of workout like walking, running, yoga or whatever you prefer.
Different Types of Strength Training
There are different ways to strength train. Muscle endurance training is best for beginners. It involves more repetitions of each exercise and more sets. This means you most likely will be using a weight that feels light at first and easy to lift but by the time you get to the twelfth repetition (or rep) you will be feeling like you cannot lift it anymore. That is the feeling you want to achieve with each set of reps you do. If by the tenth or twelfth rep you don’t feel like the weight is extremely heavy, you should increase the weight. After each set, take a break for 30 seconds to a minute before starting the next set. This type of training will help build lean muscle and increase your muscle endurance. It will not make you bulky like a bodybuilder. That is difficult for most individuals to achieve and takes a different type of resistance training, hypertrophy training.
Hypertrophy training can increase the size of your muscles. This type of training uses heavier weights and less reps. It also requires a different type of diet. Increasing your muscle mass to a large degree, or “bulking”, happens when lifting heavy weights regularly and eating to gain mass as well. In other words, if you are a beginner looking to tone your muscles, you won’t bulk up unless you are following a specific plan to do so.
Circuit training is a great way to get a full workout in faster and incorporate some cardio into your strength routine. Circuit training involves going through a series of several exercises until you reach the last one, resting and then repeating the moves again (and potentially again, and again). This type of training is very flexible as the work to rest ratios can be tailored to your fitness level and type of desired training. The exercises can also be modified especially for you and your goals.
There are a few other types of training out there as well, including power training.
For more information about the different tools that can be used when strength training, check out my blog post, Machines, Free Weights or Body Weight – Which is Best for Strength Training.
Strength Training Tips for Beginners
- Don’t overdo it! Start slowly and choose a weight that feels manageable. If you are struggling on rep 2 out of 10, the weight is too heavy. If the weight doesn’t feel heavy at rep number 10, choose a heavier weight. The correct weight for you will differ from exercise to exercise and be the one that makes you struggle to complete the last rep of each of your sets. For example, if you are completing 3 sets of 10 reps, pick a weight that makes you really want to take a break after the tenth rep of each of the 3 sets. (And do take a break between the sets!) Slowly, you will find that you will be able to increase the weight you are using. Generally, 3 sets of 10-12 reps of each exercise is great.
Don’t feel that you have to start with an hour long workout. Start with just one exercise for each major muscle group and build gradually adding more exercises to your routine from there. There isn’t a specific time that you should train for, but the exercises should be performed until you feel it’s difficult for you to complete another rep. Use your judgment, or consult a personal trainer, to figure out what works for you.
- Warm Up. Warming up your muscles prior to your workout will lead to fewer injuries and better results. Dynamic stretches or light cardio for 5-10 minutes will be enough to lubricate your joints and get your heart rate up for your workout. I like to recommend a 5 - 10 minute walk on the treadmill or 5 minutes on the elliptical prior to strength training.
- Include All Your Muscle Groups. Working each major muscle group at least two times a week is recommended. This includes the legs, hips, core, chest, shoulders and arms.
- Static Stretch After You Strength Train. Current research suggests static stretching (where you hold the stretch) is best done only after your workout, when your muscles are warm. The only stretches to do prior to your workout, during the warm up, would be dynamic. Dynamic stretches involve movement, not the periods of holding your body in place, which is the definition of a static stretch. After your workout, extend your muscle in a stretch and hold that position for 15-20 seconds before moving to the next static stretch. Just 5-10 minutes of static stretching after exercising can help to increase range of motion, improve flexibility, reduce potential soreness and relieve stress.
Strength training is an important part of staying healthy. With so many different methods and tools to use, it can be adapted for anyone at any fitness level. Please keep in mind, you will likely be sore the day or two after your workouts (especially if you are new to resistance exercise). This is called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, and it is a normal response to weight training but doesn’t have to happen after each workout, especially as you progress. Be sure to stretch after exercise, drink plenty of water and incorporate sound nutrition to help your body recover quickly between workouts.