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How to Strength Train

Strength training is an important part of a well-balanced fitness program. Adding weight or resistance to your program increases your metabolic rate resulting in a leaner you. Strength training also increases your bone density, flexibility, and muscle tone while making your muscles, tendons, and ligaments stronger. This guide reviews the principles of strength training and how to apply them according to your goal.

Strength Perspective

For many years strength training has been used in the context of becoming bigger, faster, and stronger. These adaptations, although appropriate for athletes and weightlifting enthusiasts, only represent a portion of what strength training can offer. Beyond hypertrophy and speed development, strength training plays an important role in becoming leaner, more toned, and in some cases, smaller. The various types of strength and specific adaptations are addressed through variations of the training stimulus. In short, how you strength train determines the effect it will have on your body.

Hot Tip: Get Lean!

Contrary to popular belief, muscle doesn’t weigh more than fat. However, there is a big difference in the volume of these tissues — in other words, the amount of space they take up in the body. Fat has almost a 20-percent larger volume compared to muscle tissue. This explains why you can increase muscle but lose inches!

Strength training helps increase muscle so you can burn unwanted fat. Using girth measurements, body fat percentage, or even the fit of your clothes are better ways to measure body composition changes than simply tracking your weight.

As with any mode of exercise, learning how to perform movements correctly is essential to avoiding injury and maximizing effectiveness. By understanding the principles first, you can begin introducing movements into your routine appropriate to your fitness level. The use of good form and full range of motion is imperative to good results. Proper form takes time to develop, and like most things, practice makes perfect. Form should never be compromised and serves as your primary indicator for appropriate amounts of load and reps.

Program Design

The details of a training program are determined by your desired goal, current fitness level, and fitness background. The most successful strength training programs apply the principle of periodization — a method of organizing your training using designated periods of time to develop specific adaptations and training goals. The first phase, or cycle, of your program develops a training base, and each cycle thereafter will progress toward your goal. There are different models of periodization, but the fundamental theme is the same — in order to see positive results, the training stimulus has to change.

Specific Adaptations

When the body is repeatedly exposed to stress (for example, during exercise), it learns to adapt. During a strength training session, your muscles are broken down and consequently need time to recover. It’s during the recovery process that your muscles repair and get stronger. As you adapt, your recovery time decreases because the body has become efficient at performing those exercises.

The objective of your strength program is to achieve specific adaptations. Once the body has reached this point — usually within 4 to 8 weeks, depends of frequency of sessions — you want to modify your program so other adaptations can occur. Progressing into different phases of your program helps you avoid plateaus and overtraining. The following variables, or training stimuli, affect your recovery and subsequently specific adaptations:

  • Exercise selection: Exercises are categorized by complexity. The number of joints involved, degree of stability, and amount of force required to produce movement all determine complexity.
  • Exercise order: Adaptation occurs first to the central nervous system, so learning movements correctly requires a fresh mental state. New, high intensity, complex, or any movement that requires additional focus should always be performed at the beginning of your workout (after the warm-up) .
  • Load: The percentage of load (commonly a percentage of one rep max) applied to a movement determines the amount of repetitions performed and amount of force required to perform. The amount is individual to your strength and should be challenging for the reps performed without affecting form.
  • Frequency: How often you perform an exercise or a workout increases your rate of adaptability. Intensity: How hard an exercise or workout is to complete affects the type of muscle fiber used, the amount of calories burned, and length of recovery between sets and workouts.
  • Volume­: The total amount of work (sets multiplied by reps) characterizes the desired training effect.
  • Tempo: The speed at which an exercise is performed affects performance.
  • Rest: Time in between sets is characterized by volume and intensity.

Training Effect

The exercise variables you manipulate, individually or as a group, determine the effect on neuromuscular coordination and performance. The outward appearance of your muscularity is also affected by appropriate diet and recovery strategies. Regardless of your strength training experience performing exercises correctly, utilizing a proper warm-up and taking the necessary recovery time affects your results.

Strength training is used to produce four primary effects based on specific variables: muscular endurance, hypertrophy, strength, and power. The strength training novice or anyone beginning a program after a long break should focus on building a foundation of muscular endurance and coordination. As you become more experienced, you begin changing variables based on your desired outcome.

Muscular Endurance

Training for muscular endurance is characterized by higher volume workouts with low-to-moderate loads.

  • Load: Light to moderate, usually between 50 and 75 percent of your one rep max.
  • Volume­: Moderate to high, usually 2 to 4 sets of 12 to 20 reps.
  • Rest: Low, usually 30 seconds in between sets.
  • Frequency: 2 to 3 times per week.

Hypertrophy

Training for hypertrophy involves using moderate loads to perform more repetitions than a strength program. During this phase, muscular failure is the focus, often requiring the execution of the next set before full recovery.

  • Load: Moderate to heavy, usually between 70 and 85 percent of your one rep max.
  • Volume­: Moderate to high, usually 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 reps.
  • Rest: Moderate, usually 30 to 90 seconds in between sets.
  • Frequency: 2 to 4 times per week.
Hot Tip: KISS Principle

This acronym for “Keep it Simple, Stupid” (not that you are stupid) is a good reminder not to over-think your strength program. Using complex variables, fancy exercises, or other extremes won’t make your program any more effective. Start simply by having a plan and following it consistently. Then modify that plan periodically as you re-assess your results.

Strength

Training for increased strength requires high resistance and near maximal contractions for a lower rep range with a full recovery period

  • Load: Heavy, usually 85 percent or greater of your one rep max.
  • Volume­: Low, usually 3 to 6 sets of 2 to 6 reps.
  • Rest: Full, usually 2 to 5 minutes in between sets.
  • Frequency: 2 to 4 times per week.

Power

Power is defined by the ability to generate force quickly. Training for increased power also requires heavier loads for a lower-rep range, but unlike strength or hypertrophy training, you are not training until exhaustion. The primary focus is the rate at which you are able to produce force. Therefore, loads and reps will vary by the total number of attempts.

  • Load: Moderate to heavy, typically 75 to 90 percent (depending on number of events and attempts) of your one rep max.
  • Volume­: Low, usually 3 to 5 sets of 1 to 5 reps.
  • Tempo: Fast.
  • Rest: Full, usually 2 to 5 minutes in between sets.
  • Frequency: 2 to 3 times per week.

Be Strong

When beginning a strength training regimen, don’t forget that your body is a weight too — and using bodyweight exercise is a great way to introduce the principles of strength training. Choose exercises that use the muscle or movement you want to train and are appropriate to your experience level. Remember to keep it simple and focus on consistency. Once you’ve completed a phase of programming, assess your results to create a new plan.

The details of a strength training program should complement your experience, ability, and goal. If you are an athlete, your training should mimic the demands of your sport, and the training stimulus should complement or enhance performance. If you are an athlete of life, your training should reflect the demands of your life. Use movements and loads appropriate to enhance your ability to perform daily functions and overall health.

The amount of reps, sets, and rest varies by fitness goal. Use this guide to understand the basic rules of strength training and how to progress properly.
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