Become as strong as an old-growth tree with strength training exercisesWhen I started with strength training, it would have been helpful to have some simple definitions and concepts. I hope this page will be a resource for beginners and will inspire you to get started on a routine today.

In addition to the terms I explain below, Beginning Strength Training Routines for Home will give you an idea of what you might do at home with adjustable plate dumbbells and Beginning Strength Training Routines for the Gym outlines a simple and effective routine for those who work at a gym.

Getting Started

Here are some terms to understand before you start a strength training program.

Reps or Repetitions: A rep is the full movement pattern repeated within a set. A moderate number of reps (8-12) deliver strength and strong bones.

Sets: I usually recommend two sets for beginners, but one set will also make you stronger if you exercise at least twice a week. It’s not necessary to do many sets to become stronger and more fit.

Form: Learn how to perform an exercise correctly to protect your body from injury and to make your work effective. Form includes the way you hold your back and shoulders in the exercise, the range of motion, the speed or cadence of each repetition, etc. In general, movements are symmetrical with a firmly held straight back and engaged abdominal muscles.

The most essential aspect of good form is back position. Hold back in a “military attention” posture. Stand tall with chest lifted and shoulders down (no shrugging up). Pull shoulders together between the scapula (shoulder blades). It feels a little stiff at first, but will keep your back safe. Chin is slightly tucked and neck is in line with spine. Abdominals are engaged when you lift the chest, but don’t suck in the stomach or tuck your bottom.

Always keep your feet firmly on the floor or footrest, and your buttocks, shoulders, and head in touch with the pads of the bench or machine. Keep your face and neck relaxed by exhaling through a slightly opened mouth. Stay in control of the movement so that you can stop at any place and hold. This prevents throwing or jerking the weight. When the form begins to wobble or you’ve reached a point of momentary muscle failure, you’re done with the exercise for that session. Machines help hold good form. With free weights, you have to be more careful, but free weights teach us to use the whole body in natural, balanced motions.

It is always tempting to cheat. It sneaks in. Recently, I found myself sliding upward in the abdominal machine. I hadn’t noticed I was doing it, but it gave me better leverage. When I focused on keeping my bottom firmly on the seat, I could do fewer repetitions, but my form was better and I targeted the muscles I was after.  You can also “cheat” by moving faster or not completing a full range of motion.

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises: Compound exercises use many muscle groups at once and move more than one joint in natural and efficient movements. Isolation exercises use one muscle group. Compound exercises are efficient for building strength in natural motions. You pick up a bag of groceries with your back, shoulders, and arms, not just your bicep. Like carrying a bag of groceries, a rowing motion works the shoulders, back, and biceps. A bicep curl only works the bicep. A bench press or dip works the chest, shoulders, and triceps, and is more effective than a triceps isolation exercise that only works one muscle.

Breath: Exhale during the part of the movement that requires the most exertion and inhale during lower levels of exertion. Never hold your breath and strain, as this increases blood pressure.

Speed: Move slowly, 4-8 seconds per repetition. This prevents swinging or jerking the weight. Slowing down helps you keep good form and get the most benefit from the load you’re lifting. You should always be in control of the weight and be able to stop and restart at any phase of the movement. It’s a safe way to strength train.

Range of Motion: Find your full range of motion (ROM) in any exercise by moving through the full movement with little resistance. You should be able to complete this full ROM when you add resistance with a heavier dumbbell, another weight stack, or plate. For example, you can almost hit your heels to your buttocks using a leg curl machine. When you are rowing, your shoulder blades are fully contracted together at the end of the lift.  Use only enough resistance to allow you to move through the full motion and stop your set when you can’t get the full motion. The last 2 inches are the most important!

Intensity and Load: If you’re interested in building muscle and bone strength, choose shorter workouts with more intensity, fewer sets, and challenging weight loads. Low load, low intensity workouts with many repetitions and sets build muscle endurance more than muscle strength.

Progression: Strength training must be progressive to be effective. If you aren’t increasing the level of work over time, there is no muscle growth or improvement in bone structure. Progress comes from adding a small amount of weight or slowing the amount of time it takes to do your repetitions. You also progress by adding repetitions to a set, but only up to a prescribed number. Endless repetitions with low loads are not effective. In the first 6 – 12 weeks, you’ll make fast gains because of neuro-muscular learning, but the pace will slow as the progress comes just from growing muscle fibers.

The joy of making small steady gains and watching your body grow noticeably stronger and firmer is a great motivator, but it’s a mistake to add a heavy load too quickly. If you are stuck at one level, you may be pushing too hard or not hard enough. For making the best progress, over-exercising can be as much a problem as under-exercising.

Plan your exercise routine for maximum success: choose a resistance or load that will allow you to reach your target number of repetitions for the first set and do not go beyond the target number in the first set. Instead, pause for 30 – 60 seconds and begin a second set. When you can do 1 or 2 beyond the target number in the second set, increase the load the next week by the smallest load available. Do your first set with this heavier load, ending this set when you reach your target number of reps. Do your second set. If you can’t complete the reps in the second set while keeping good form, stay with that same load until you reach your rep number or even surpass it by 1-2 reps. Add weight the next week. Repeat this cycle of adding weight and increasing repetitions.

Recovery: Muscle grows by being stressed from exertion and then repairing itself. The repair takes as long as healing a paper cut and makes the muscle stronger than before. The muscle grows as you repeat this process, while your bones become structurally stronger. To insure good recovery, train just two or three times a week with at least one day rest between sessions. Each session should last from 30 – 60 minutes, including the warm up and cool down.

Strength training is demanding. Every 4-6 months or whenever you’re feeling fatigued, it’s good to take a week off. Continue aerobics and stretching during this rest week. Lower your resistance by 10 – 20% to begin your new cycle. This is also a good time to change exercises, such as moving from a chest press to a dip. You’ll enjoy positive changes in your new routine and feel new enthusiasm for your program. You should skip strength training when you are ill unless it’s only a mild cold. Listen to your body.

Record keeping: Keep a workout log showing date, exercises performed, amount of weight, and number of repetitions with a space for comments to inform your next workout. For example, if I reached the targeted number of reps that usually means I’ll add weight next workout, but if the last rep was a huge strain, I make a note to stay with the same weight another week—until I “own” the weight.  Your records will be invaluable over time to show you what works for your body and to show you how far you’ve progressed.

Specificity and Uniqueness: Each body is different and needs a slightly different training style. Fortunately, it’s easy to progress in the beginning with almost any style. After about 6 months, you’ll want to change your routine around, learning more skilled exercises and trying different movements.  In time and with experience, you’ll find what works best for you. Some people do better with fewer reps or just one set. Some people do best with fewer or more exercises. Some people do better with a slower cadence. Discovering your uniqueness is part of the pleasure of this journey. You’ll become an expert in training your own body.