Whether you’re a devoted jogger, a regular in the front row of your local cycling studio, or a newly obsessed pickleball enthusiast, you understand the advantages that physical activity can have on your cardiovascular system and mental well-being. However, if your fitness routine focuses solely on cardio, you’re missing out on the many benefits of strength training. The notion of picking up a set of weights or trying out a new weight machine might seem intimidating, but strength training is a crucial component of a well-rounded fitness routine and offers more advantages than just building muscle.
Not sure where to begin? Utilize this guide to gain a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of strength training, its advantages, and the most effective strength training exercises to incorporate into your routine.
What Is Strength Training?
Strength training, also referred to as resistance training, is a method of enhancing muscle strength or size by contracting your muscles against an external resistance (think: free weights, kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells, or your own bodyweight due to gravity). Presently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends including at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities in your weekly workout routine, ensuring that you target all major muscle groups (such as legs, arms, back, and core) with your strength training exercises. For optimal benefits, aim to perform at least one set of eight to 12 reps of each exercise; at the end of your set, you should be struggling to complete another rep, as advised by the CDC.
Once you feel at ease with that basic strength training routine, you can intensify it by adding more weight, increasing your reps, or varying your tempo. “To maximize the effectiveness of your workouts, you should train at a relatively high intensity to the point where you are near or unable to perform any additional repetitions with proper form and technique,” says Brandon Groth, C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning specialist and managing partner at Delos Strength in Chicago. “This will provide enough stimulation to the body to initiate these adaptations and changes” — in other words, muscle growth and enhanced strength.
By the way, don’t overlook the importance of recovery. “Exaggerating and exercising every day for extended periods of time can actually have a negative impact on your results and overall health,” advises Groth. “You need your body to fully recover between sessions so that you can continue to make progress and achieve results.”
Strength Training Equipment
While strength training is often associated with weightlifting, you can also employ your own bodyweight as a form of resistance, points out Betina Gozo, C.P.T, C.F.S.C., a certified personal trainer and Nike Global Trainer.
Bodyweight [training] is of utmost importance,” she highlights. “You can enhance your muscular strength at any given time, in any location, solely relying on your physique” while experiencing advancements in muscle power.
One way to enhance bodyweight strength workouts? Incorporating static holds (also known as remaining completely still for an extended period of time, like a squat hold) or eccentric training, which focuses on elongating the muscle fibers (typically during the phase of the exercise that brings the weight back to the starting position, such as raising the dumbbell during a biceps curl). “When training eccentrics, you often develop muscle and strength faster, and when training isometrics at the end range, it will aid in strengthening the specific movement you are training,” adds Gozo.
However, if you are a member of a gym or have access to a few sets of dumbbells, utilizing the strength training equipment available to you can make your workouts more effective and efficient, adds Groth. Alternatively, for those exercising at home, a set of adjustable dumbbells, a suspension trainer like a TRX, and some resistance bands can help you advance your strength training, says Groth.
Once you are prepared to incorporate strength training equipment into your routine, you have a variety of options to suit your requirements:
- Resistance bands: Similar to large rubber bands, resistance bands are elastic strips that come in various shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. Generally, the thicker the resistance band, the more resistance it provides (emulating the sensation of a heavier weight). They are lightweight and easy to transport, making them ideal for at-home workouts or when traveling (or, you can use them to simulate heavier dumbbells — find out how).
- Dumbbells: A dumbbell consists of a straight handle with two equally weighted ends, evenly distributing the weight. Dumbbells are available in numerous weight options, ranging from as light as one pound to as heavy as 150 pounds. (Here’s how to determine when to use light weights versus heavy weights, just so you know.)
- Barbells: A standard barbell weighs 45 pounds and measures approximately seven feet in length, as does an Olympic barbell. You can add weight plates as necessary to achieve your desired weight. Some gyms may also provide a 35-pound barbell that is smaller in diameter and only about 6.5 feet long; these lighter bars may be more suitable for beginners as there is less distance between the weight plates, resulting in less stability being required for performing exercises. Other variations of barbells include a hex bar, a safety squat bar, a multi-grip bar, and an EZ bar.
Kettlebells: Kettlebells have a bell-shaped spherical form, featuring a ball that is flattened on one end and a curved handle on the other. Unlike dumbbells, the weight distribution of a kettlebell is uneven, thus challenging your stability during strength training.
Kettlebells are additionally perfect for intricate or composite actions (envision: a neat-squat-press combination) as the form of the bell renders it simpler to seamlessly change your hand position.
Weight machines and cable resistance machines: Resistance machines and cable resistance machines are staples in most fitness centers, and they enable you to safely move in fixed planes of motion (i.e., you don’t have to worry about dropping a weight on your foot if it suddenly feels too heavy). They typically engage only one muscle group at a time using a predetermined range of motion.
The Advantages of Strength Training
Certainly, you’ll witness some muscle gains once you commence resistance training, but there are even more health benefits that will derive from consistently performing strength exercises. Here, experts break down the top advantages of strength training.
Quick anatomy refresher: As you age, you commence losing strength and muscle mass, and these reductions occur at a faster rate if you’re sedentary than if you’re physically active. A weaker body with fragile bones is more prone to harm, whereas a stronger body with solid bones is more resilient, says Groth.
One solution? Strength training. “[Strength training] improves your overall strength and muscle mass,” he says. “This [type of training] will lead to increased bone mineral density and will strengthen your connective tissue, joints, and tendons,” because lifting weights applies a high level of tension to your muscles. By applying tension to your muscles with strength training, you’re training your body to stabilize itself under stress (think: reacting quickly when stepping off a curb the wrong way or carrying a heavy box overhead with proper form that won’t leave you aching the next morning). Case in point: Consistent strength training programs have been shown to enhance bone density in the elderly population.
By the way, individuals with periods witness significant reductions in muscle mass once they reach menopause, so if that’s you, it’s probably time to commence strength training. In actuality, muscle mass and bone density can begin to decrease as early as your 20s, notes Groth. Runners may also benefit greatly from strength training to prevent harm, reduce the risk of running-related pain, and increase power, which can lead to faster paces. “Focusing on compound movements that involve multiple muscle groups will help [runners] enhance overall strength, stability, and coordination,” he adds.
Improves day-to-day functioning
Whether you’re a tenant whose active dog needs plenty of exercise or you’re a new mother in the suburbs adjusting to a hectic lifestyle, one of the biggest benefits of strength training is that it assists you with the tasks you tackle in your daily life.
“Building functional strength and resilience allows one to accomplish everyday tasks,” says Gozo. “Transporting groceries, pursuing your children around, or storing a large rack of dishes away up on a high shelf is way more attainable with strength training.” That’s because as you progress with your strength training, your body adapts to having more stress put on its muscular system. Or, put another way, carrying a Facebook Marketplace find up your stairs won’t seem like such a strenuous task when your body is accustomed to weighted squats, shoulder presses, and farmer’s carries.
Just so you know, the presence of muscle tissue plays a role in your resting metabolic rate (also known as the amount of energy your body requires to function at rest, or calories burned while you’re not active). According to the American Council on Exercise, as your muscle mass increases, your resting metabolism also increases.
“Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so if you can enhance your muscle mass, you’ll be able to elevate your resting metabolic rate,” explained Alexandra Sowa, M.D., who owns SoWell Health in New York. This was previously stated in Shape magazine. Thus, engaging in weightlifting, swinging a kettlebell, or executing a barbell back squat can contribute to a higher metabolic rate. However, it’s important to note that your metabolism is influenced by various factors outside of your control, such as age, genetics, and gender. Therefore, don’t anticipate an immediate transformation in your metabolism solely through strength training. Additionally, it’s crucial to remember that maximizing calorie burn shouldn’t be the sole focus of your strength training routine.
The Finest Strength Training Exercises
If you’re new to strength training, the abundant equipment and numerous exercises available for each muscle group can be overwhelming. However, you can begin by performing simple, functional movements that imitate your everyday activities, as recommended by Groth. “Mastering the fundamental movements will lead to remarkable progress,” he advises. “By incorporating squats, lunges, deadlifts, push-ups, and rows into your routine, you’ll set yourself up for success.”
Ready to advance your strength-training workout? Consider prioritizing compound movements that engage multiple joints, as they challenge your body control, enhance your balance, and improve stability. Groth suggests dividing your strength-training exercises into these basic categories and selecting one or two exercises from each to create a comprehensive workout routine.
The Finest Strength Training Workouts
Whether you prefer bodyweight workouts, heavy lifting with a barbell, or something in between, there are numerous ways to build muscle strength through resistance training.
Try these resistance training exercises 2-3 times per week for optimal outcomes, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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