Funny thing about exercise – it’s not all created equal. Is one form of exercise better than another? Depends on your goals. If your goals include getting lean, building muscle or just looking better all around, you should be strength training.
Why You Should Be Strength Training
You’ll get stronger and stay stronger longer. Building strong, lean muscle now means that you’ll be stronger as you get older and that means that you’ll be less injury prone. Quite literally, the time is NOW.
The health benefits that you gain from strength training are almost unlimited: improved bone strength, stronger heart, lowered risk of certain diseases, controls hunger and blood sugar, increases metabolism, improves balance, coordination, flexibility and endurance, reduces blood pressure, lowers stress, improves mood, decreases fat stores…
In addition, who doesn’t want to look better naked? Who doesn’t want to be a little bit stronger and leaner and tighter? Who doesn’t want to skip the hour long elliptical session for some heart-pumping, energy-boosting strength training?
What Happens to Your Body When You Strength Train
Apart from all the goodness listed above, here’s what happens to your body physiologically when you start to pick up weights. How does strength training translate to more muscle and a toned look?
When you lift weights, you are actually making tiny, microscopic tears in your muscle fiber. Those tears trigger your body’s healing process. With the right nutrients in your system, it’s this reparation that builds thicker, stronger, more shapely muscle. The soreness you feel after a killer workout? That’s your body rebuilding what you broke down. That’s a good thing.
At the same time, your body works immediately to adapt to the exercise to prevent the same sort of damage later. This is the reason why over time, you’ll need to change up your workout routine so that your body can continue to grow and repair and get stronger.
Time to Get Started
If you are just getting started at the gym, the simpler the plan the better. It is far better to do a few, good exercises correctly than it is to vaguely know an entire database of exercises and do them all improperly. Keep it simple.
For beginners, I recommend starting with a full body routine, done 3-4 times a week, with a rest/off day in between workouts.
To build muscular strength and endurance (important for overall health), you’ll want to shoot for 6-12 reps. To lose a little fat while gaining muscle, I recommend circuit training. With circuit training, you’ll complete 1 set of each exercise in the plan in order with little rest in between. You’ll repeat the circuit for the prescribed number of sets. With circuit training, you’ll build muscle, keep your heart rate elevated and get in and out of the gym in record time.
If you have no gym equipment…
That’s okay. Here’s a great beginners body weight strength training circuit:
Perform 1 set of each exercise in order, resting 30 seconds in between. This is 1 circuit. Complete 3-4 circuits, resting 1-2 minutes in between.
Body Weight Squats x 10 reps
Jump Jacks x 12-15 reps
Walking Lunges x 10 each leg
Plank x 15-20 seconds
Push-Ups x 10 reps
Mountain Climbers x 10 reps
Kneeling Donkey Kicks x 10 each leg
If you have dumbbells…
Start with light dumbbells. If your first round is too easy, increase the weight. Perform 1 set of each exercise in order, resting 30-45 seconds in between. This is 1 circuit. Complete 2-3 circuits, resting 2-3 minutes in between.
Goblet Squat x 10 reps
Walking Lunges x 10 each leg
Dumbbell Deadlift x 10 each leg
Dumbbell Floor Press x 10
Seated Shoulder Press x 10
Bent Over Row x 10
If you have a barbell and weights…
Start with just the barbell. Typical barbells weigh 45 pounds. If you find your first round too easy, increase the weight used for the next round. Remember, form first. Perform 1 set of each exercise in order, resting 30-45 seconds in between. This is 1 circuit. Complete 2-3 circuits, resting 2-3 minutes in between.
Squat x 10 reps
Bench Press x 10 reps
Barbell Row x 10 reps
Overhead Press x 10 reps
Deadlift x 10 reps
Choosing How Much to Lift
First things first: do every single exercise with no weight at all until you’ve nailed your form. FORM FIRST. This is a massively important step to avoid injury and enable yourself to progress as you get stronger and start lifting heavier. Learn the basic movements first. When practicing exercises like barbell squats and deadlifts, use a fairly weightless object like a broom stick or PVC pipe instead of a bar.
**This is one of those times that I not only encourage you, I implore you to watch yourself workout in the mirror. It’s not vain, it doesn’t make you a meathead, you don’t have to grunt. It’s important to watch yourself to check your form. If it feels or looks wrong, it probably is.
When you are ready to add weight, start with the lightest you can find. For barbells, that means an unloaded bar. For dumbbells, find those small weights. Even as you get stronger, your first set should be a warm-up, done with light weights or an unloaded bar.
When you feel ready to add weight, add in small increments. For the barbell, that means 5-10 pounds. For dumbbells, that means the next size up. Base changes off of how you feel and whether or not you can hold form. You can continue to add small increments of weight until you start to struggle and/or you break form.
**Note the weights you use and the number of reps and sets you complete each time you workout. You’ll use those numbers as a baseline for each sequential workout.
How to Progress
As you continue to strength train, your body will adapt to what you are doing in order to try to prevent the damage that it has to repair. While this is a great thing, if you don’t challenge your body, you won’t continue to build muscle. To challenge your body you have to change a variable in your workout.
You can do this in a number of ways:
Increase the amount of weight you are lifting.
Increase the number of reps you perform in each set.
Increase the number of sets you complete of each exercise.
Decrease the amount of rest you take in between sets.
Increase the difficulty of particular exercises (i.e. take your incline push-up to a straight-body push-up or your bench dips to the dip bars).
Add resistance bands.
Change your position (i.e. stand instead of sit during your shoulder press, rotate your wrists instead of keeping them neutral, widen your grip on the lat pull-down).
Plan for Recovery
When you start to strength train you might find that you are sorer than you used to be after workouts. There are a few things you should do to help your body recover and prepare for your next workout.
- Eat nutritious, balanced meals regularly. Even on your days off, your plate should be a healthy balance of lean protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and vegetables. Your body thrives on nutrients. If you ask a lot of it at the gym, make sure to take care of it in the kitchen.
- Take rest days. Does that mean sit and veg on the couch? No. But it does mean avoid lifting heavy weight, take a long walk or easy hike to get your blood flowing and put in some quality you-time.
- Get some sleep. Your body recovers most efficiently at rest. 8-9 hours a night should do it.
- Warm ups and cool downs. Before every workout be sure to warm up your muscles. Perform light cardio for 4-5 minutes followed by some dynamic stretching. After every workout be sure to cool down. Perform light cardio to return your heart rate to normal. Stretch and foam roll before you leave the gym.
*FINALLY* If you are ready to get started but unsure of how to set your goals, exactly what you should be doing to achieve your goals and not sure that you can do it alone, I want to introduce you to my Jump Start Program! 2 months worth of workouts, healthy eating guidance, questions answered, accountability, lessons and strategies to get you to where you want to be.