I write a lot about strength training in this blog, but what exactly is strength training and how do you pick the right program for your goals?
Strength training is ultimately the nexus of two important practices: lifting weights and fueling our bodies accordingly ie, what we put in our mouths. Part 1 of this post will cover everything to do with the training side of things, Part 2 will cover the importance of nutrition.
Let's start with the basics. Strength training means training with resistance or lifting weights. Strength training is not just for men. It's not just for body builders or athletes. Anyone can strength train!
You would turn to strength training if you want to:
1. Lose weight and look leaner
2. Get bigger and stronger
3. Gain strength without bulk
Depending on which one of these is your goal your focus for a program would be structured differently.
HOW DO I GET STARTED?
1. Pick a program
Decide what your goal is and pick one of the programs below. I strongly suggest following a program as oppose to just walking into the gym and randomly performing various exercises. Why? Because as with any new skill, progression is key. It also allows you to be more efficient during a training session. An imporant thing to note when deciding on your goal though: if you want to get bigger and bulkier but also want to lose some weight as well it's important to start with a fat loss program first. For optimum body composition results you should be aiming towards reaching your ideal body fat percentage before starting a hypertrophy (muscle building) program.
As a general rule I prefer to use free weight exercises instead of machines. While machines can be great for beginners or specific muscle focus, they neglect key core and stabilisation muscles. It also means you don't have to stand around waiting for others to vacate the machine you want to use! When it comes to performing the actual exercises check out websites like Bodybuilding.com or Exrx.net if you are unsure of correct form or technique.
2. Chose the right weights
Starting a strength training program can be intimidating, especially when you aren't sure what weights to start off with. There's nothing worse than selecting a too-heavy weight and then realising after the first rep that you can't lift it again! If in doubt, start lighter. You can always increase the weights after the first set, second set and so on. Don't be afraid to start off with an empty barbell on a set of squats, split squats or lunges - standard bars are usually 15 or 20kg. As a general rule, depending on your starting strength legs, back and chest exercises can usually take a heavier weight as they are bigger muscles. Save the lighter dumbbells for arms and shoulders.
3. Track your progress
Keep a notebook or use your phone to track what weight you used for each exercise and how many reps you performed. Your muscles need to be constantly challenged if you want to get leaner and burn fat. Therefore you can't always lift the same weight every time you are in the gym. You should be able to steadily increase your weight in small increments every 1-2 weeks. If you try heavier one week and are only able to push out 5 reps, go back to your previous weight and then try again the following week. Persistence is key!
Program Type: Strength Training for Fat Loss (for Beginners)
The goal is to keep the volume of work high and just keep moving!
Repetition ranges should also be kept relatively high (12-15 reps per exercise).
The weight should be kept relatively low without it being too easy - you still want to be really struggling to push out those last 2-3 reps.
Structure: the first two exercises should be compound exercises. Compound exercises are those that include more than one major muscle group at a time (for example, the squat, the deadlift, the chest press, the overhead press, etc). The second and third exercises should be larger muscle, multiple joint movements. The options are endless here - some of my favourite exercises include lunges, straight-leg deadlifts, hip thrusts, leg curls, any kind of seated row or lat pull-down or pull-up. The final exercises should be isolation exercises which focus on smaller, specific muscle groups like biceps or triceps.
No rest between exercises. You can rest for 30 seconds at the end of each set.
Exercises should alternate between lower and upper body for maximal metabolic response, ie, more fat burn!
Total workout time should be no more than 45-60 minutes.
Workouts should be completed at least 3 x per week and can be complemented with 1-2 cardio (ideally HIIT) sessions per week.
This sort of program is focused around fat loss. However, with any type of weight training you find that you gain strength as well. You should be able to increase your weight by small incremements each week to keep challenging your muscles.
Sample Workout Structure
A1: Compound Exercise for Legs, 3 sets, 12-15 reps
A2: Compound Exercise for Upper Body, 3 sets, 12-15 reps
B1: Multi-joint Leg exercise, 3 sets, 12-15 reps
B2: Multi-joint Upper Body exercise, 3 sets, 12-15 reps
C1: Multi-joint Posterior Chain exercise, 3 sets, 12-15 reps
C2: Multi-joint Shoulder exercise, 3 sets, 12-15 reps
D1: Isolation exercise - arms, 3 sets, 12-15 reps
D2: Isolation exercise - arms (antagonist muscle - meaning opposite), 3 sets, 12-15 reps
D3: Isolation exercise - shoulders, calves or core, 3 sets, 12-15 reps
Complete exercise A1 and then go straight to exercise A2 (no rest between). After you finish A2, go straight back and repeat the two exercises another 2 times, 3 sets in total. Rest for 30 seconds at the end of each third set.
Program Type: Strength Training to Build Muscle (Beginner to Intermediate)
If you are looking for a more muscly physique then your programming will differ from the one above. Strength training to build muscle, or what we call 'hypertrophy' requires lifting heavier weights. The reason for this is that lifting heavier causes more 'micro-tears' in the muscle which stimulates muscle repair and growth with the right nutrition and supplementation. Hypertrophy programs also require a smaller rep range, longer rest periods and rest days between body parts.
The volume of work needs to be kept relatively high - this can be achieved by number of exercises or number of sets.
Repetition ranges should be kept between 6-10.
The weight needs to be heavy. Pick a weight that is about 60% of your 1 Rep Max. This means 60% of the total weight that you can lift for 1 repetition only.
Keep yourself injury free by warming up first! I like to warm up with about 50% of the weight I plan to lift in my working sets
The structure for a hypertrophy program is generally based on body part. So for example, Day 1 you focus on legs and glutes, Day 2 on back, Day 3 on chest and shoulders and Day 4 on arms and abs.
Rest periods should be about 1-3 minutes between sets.
Total workout time should be around 45-60 minutes.
I personally prefer straight sets for this sort of routine (meaning you complete one exercise at a time), however if you are short on time you can superset agonist and antagonist muscle groups (ie, one set of a quad exercise such as squats, then straight into one set of a hamstring exercise such as lying leg curls).
Depending on the body-part split you should be working out 4 or 5 times per week with a minimum of 1-2 days rest between body parts so the muscles can fully recover. This will allow for better size gains.
Hypertrophy programs should be coupled with the right nutrition for maximum muscle growth. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post.
Sample 5 Day Body Part Split Routine
Monday (Legs + Glutes):
A1: Compound Exercise for Legs, 3-4 sets, 8-10 reps, 1-3 minutes rest
B1: Compound Exercise for Legs, 3-4 sets, 8-10 reps, 1-3 minutes rest
C1: Multi-joint Leg Exercise, 3-4 sets, 8-10 reps, 1-3 minutes rest
D1: Multi-joint Glute Exercise, 3-4 sets, 8-10 reps, 1-3 minutes rest
E1: Isolation Leg Exercise, 3-4 sets, 8-10 reps, 1-3 minutes
F1: Isolation Glute Exercise, 3-4 sets, 8-10 reps, 1-3 minutes
The remaining days would follow the same 2 x Compound, 2 x Multi-joint, 2 x Isolation exercise structure.
Wednesday (Rest day)
Thursday (Chest + Shoulders)
Friday (Arms + Abs)
Saturday (Rest day)
Sunday (Rest day)
NOTE: As I mentioned earlier on, if you are wanting to lose weight AND get bigger it's important that you start with a fat loss program first. Follow the fat loss training program and diet first until you have reached your ideal bodyweight. Only then should you start a hypertrophy program. I will cover the details of this in Part 2, however in short - both programs require very different nutrition plans - one to lean and one to bulk. It's not ideal to bulk first if you want to lose weight as this can just make the process harder for you down the track.
Program Type: Strength Training for Strength Gains without Bulk (for the Intermediate to Advanced)
There are a number of reasons why you may want to get stronger without gaining too much muscle mass. Training to increase strength is also known as Relative Strength training which means doing exercises which focus not only on the strength of the muscles but improving the overall function of the body's motor system. One of the ways we increase our strength is by recruiting more muscle fibres for a particular muscle group and by increasing the firing frequency of the motor neurons. This type of training is usually geared towards those who are experienced weightlifters or for athletes who want to improve their performance in a particular sports. Therefore this type of training is often based on very individualised programming. Stay tuned for a more in-depth post on this topic.
Strength training may seem like a daunting concept to a newbie but it doesn't have to be! As with any new skill, be prepared to face some trial and error before getting it perfect. However, if you start with a structured program and follow it you will be off to a great start.