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The Basics of Starting and Progressing a Strength-Training Program

Jan 13, 2012

Written by Courtenay Dunn-Lewis, M.A., and William Kraemer, Ph.D., FACSM

The importance of resistance training in healthy populations is frequently overlooked. Resistance training significantly increases the amount of muscle and elevates bone density in young adults. Both men and women can achieve a more sculpted and toned appearance through resistance training. For older adults, resistance training has a great ability to maintain independent living, help offset age-related bone loss, and maintain the strength and ability necessary to complete cardiovascular workouts for aerobic fitness. For all individuals, strength training makes activities of daily living easier and allows for a sense of pride, capability, confidence, and independence.

Three fundamental goals stand out for anyone starting a new strength training program: 1) learning the fundamental exercises correctly; 2) preventing injury during this particularly vulnerable time; and 3) designing a program that will encourage adherence. Beginners can practice resistance training about two to three times per week, allowing a day of rest between workouts. It is important to remember that initial muscle soreness is a reality when beginning resistance exercise. Rest and recovery is crucial. Also, proper warm-up is needed. This includes five to 10 minutes of light cardiovascular exercise followed by gentle, moving stretches.

In the beginning, almost any stimulation of muscle will lead to progress. It is not necessary to focus on the amount of weight, the number of repetitions, or the number of sets at first. These factors will be more pertinent later in your weight-training program; in the beginning, it is far more important to focus on learning and executing proper exercise technique. It is also important to remember that the muscles are not the only tissues being strengthened. Connective tissues — such as tendons and ligaments — are also slowly adapting to the strain of the new workout. While your muscles may feel stronger quickly after starting a training program, your tendons need a few weeks to adapt to the new muscle growth and strength. It is easy to injure yourself in the beginning weeks, especially if your focus is on increasing the weight instead of on learning proper technique.

It is a good idea to give yourself as many sets and repetitions as you need to learn technique — preferably with proper supervision. Also, refrain from getting overly fatigued, either mentally or physically, in this learning phase. No progress is sacrificed in the first few workouts when slightly lighter weights are used. The goal is not to attain perfection on the first day. You should stop an exercise if you become frustrated. A starting point for the first three weeks of workouts might be performing one set at a weight that would allow from 12 to 15 repetitions and progress over the next few weeks to two to three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions. Not all exercises need to be performed for the same number of sets in a workout. Heavier weights need longer rest periods (e.g., one or two minutes of rest for lighter weights; two or three minutes for moderate weights and more than three minutes for heavier weights). At the same time, carefully monitor for symptoms of fatigue. Again, rest period length between sets and exercises should be carefully monitored and adjusted to reduce adverse symptoms of fatigue (lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea).

It is important, especially as one gets older, not to go to complete failure in a set as this can cause joint compression and breath holding (which, if done repetitively, results in dizziness and nausea). It is important to know that dizziness and nausea are not signs of a good workout and demonstrate that the workout should be stopped (and for the next workout, the rest between sets should be increased, weight decreased, and/or sets decreased to eliminate such symptoms). Fatigue within prescribed ranges is natural; pain is not, and represents a fundamental flaw in the exercise technique, an organic problem, or a medical issue that needs to be addressed upon immediate cession of the workout. Doing “too much too soon” is also another temptation as one starts a resistance training program. This can lead to overreaching — where the body becomes fatigued, one’s motivation to workout is lowered, and the potential for injury is increased. Still, progression to a higher number of sets (with the lighter load during this beginning phase of training) will allow more practice of the exercise technique along with a development for the continued toleration to resistance exercise stress.

Exercise choice depends on the individual, previous injuries, and other factors like flexibility. Focusing on exercise technique and major muscle group stimulation is the best approach. It is a good idea to start each training day with multiple-joint leg exercises (squats or lunges), because these exercises induce a greater hormone response than upper-body exercises. Also, these movements, when performed correctly, are safe for the majority of the population, can improve coordination, and can prevent injuries from everyday activities. Next, exercises that target the chest (i.e. bench press) and shoulders (shoulder raise) can be paired with exercises that target the back (seated rows and lateral pull-downs). Abdominal and lower-back exercises should focus on building stability and support; therefore, the bridge pose (top of a pushup) or the bird-dog exercise are excellent. A total body exercise program might include: proper leg presses or squats, deadlifts or leg curls, knee extensions (for those with healthy knees), bench press, horizontal rows, crunches (for those with a healthy lower back, and always balanced with lower-back exercise), lateral pull-downs, shoulder presses, arm curls, triceps extensions, and calf raises. Essentially, one should use eight to 10 large muscle group exercises that activate muscle tissue throughout the body. For beginners, performing a total-body workout may not take longer than 45 minutes depending upon the rest period length and number of sets.

To progress, novices can experiment with repetition ranges and increasing weights. It is important to vary the types of signals and stimulation to which your muscles are exposed. After about nine workouts (about three weeks), days with slightly heavier weights can be alternated with lighter days. Examples include sets of 12 to 15 repetitions, eight to 10 repetitions, four to six repetitions, and back to 12 to 15 again. The days with fewer repetitions would require more weight — for example, a four-to-six-repetition day should be done with a weight that you would be unable to lift more than six times (or fewer than four).

Again, proper technique is vital when increasing the resistance from one day to the next. If technique is not correct, the exercise should be stopped. In the beginning phases of a training program, a certified personal trainer can be of great help. Spotting is important when using weights; even when working with machine exercises, proper form can be broken and a certified personal trainer spotting every exercise can be very useful. Many free weight exercises (particularly bench press) should never be done without a spotter.

The most important aspect of strength training for beginners is to find a program you can complete consistently. Resistance training is an excellent activity for your health and lifelong independence. With proper fundamentals and emphasis on the basics, most individuals can incorporate this enjoyable exercise practice into their lives.

View the full winter 2009 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.

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