Strength training can be defined as an exercise type that is designed to increase lean muscle tissue, improve structural strength, decrease excess body fat, increase endurance, and provide several additional physical and psychological benefits.
In fact, there are so many health, fitness and mental well-being benefits associated with regularly performing a strength training routine that it is our belief that all fitness routines should include some form of strength training.
The term "strength training" can be used to broadly describe an exercise type that is designed to increase lean muscle tissue and improve muscular strength and endurance. All exercise types that promote increases in muscular strength and lean muscle tissue can further be defined as resistance training. Resistance training can then be defined as performing an exercise that forces the muscles to contract when moving an object of mass.
With the broader category of strength training, the exercise movements can be further defined based on the method in which the muscles are being exercised. In other words, different resistance type exercises will work the muscles through varying angles and in a different manner. For example, one resistance exercise type may primarily exercise the “slow twitch” muscle fibers, which are predominately responsible for sustained, slow muscle contractions while other resistance type exercises may focus on exercising the “fast twitch” muscle fibers, which support shorter, faster bursts of movement.
Forms of Resistance Movements
Isometric Training focuses on continuous muscle contraction with little to no joint movement. Included within the isometric exercise types are yoga and Pilates, which emphasize balance, flexibility, coordination and a calming of the mind.
Isotonic Training involves performing resistive movements that utilize free weights, dumbbells, resistance bands, medicine and exercise balls, kettlebells, and body weight. More specifically, isotonic exercises require the muscles that are involved in the movement to contract throughout the specific range of motion required to perform the exercise.
Variable Resistance Training involves performing exercises on large machines typically found at fitness centers and gyms. The variable resistance training machines equalize the weight that is being moved over the entire range of motion for each exercise. This form of resistance training differs from isotonic training. When performing an isotonic exercise, the stress on the muscle and joint from the weight that is being moved varies throughout the movement.
Isokinetic Training is quite often used by physical therapy patients, and utilizes resistance machines that match the force generated by the individual. In other words, as the individual pushes or pulls, the machine varies its resistance to match that of the individual. For individuals that are unable to generate a significant amount of force, the machine will reduce its level of resistance to match that of the individual. This form of exercise is very safe, which explains why it is a preferred form of resistance training for individuals who are performing physical therapy.
Plyometric Training focuses on performing explosive compound movements and is also known as jump training. This type of training is considered a type of functional fitness and is designed to not only improve an individual's overall fitness level, but also improve their sports performance as well. However, caution must be taken when performing a plyometric training routine as the movements are explosive, increasing the risk for injury.
It should be noted that all forms of strength training are designed to improve muscle tone, strength, and lean muscle mass when performed with regularity. However, isotonic training is the quickest and most efficient way to improve structural strength and increase lean muscle mass. In addition, all forms of isotonic training provide countless other fitness and health benefits and, for this reason, should be included in all fitness routines.
It is important to understand how isotonic training increases lean muscle tissue and strength, and what is actually happening to the existing muscle tissue. When you perform a strength training exercise, you actually create tiny tears in the muscle tissue that was involved in the exercise. The muscle tissue is then repaired through nutrients delivered through the blood stream.
When you create tiny tears in the muscle tissue, the body overcompensates and repairs these tears by adding additional material to the muscle tissue, thus increasing the density and mass of the muscle. The intent of this process is to strengthen the muscle tissue and prevent these tears from recurring in the future.
Regularity and Modification
In order for you to continue increasing your lean muscle mass, you will want to ensure that you are regularly performing a strength training routine that tears the fibers of your muscle tissue so that they are in a continual state of repair. However, it is important to allow your body to repair the damaged muscle tissue before you exercise it again. This is why you need to allow 24 to 48 hours to elapse before you exercise the same muscle group again.
In addition, this is why it is important to continually modify your strength training routine. Once your body reaches an equilibrium in terms of exercise effort vs. the body's ability to perform the exercise, the damage to the muscle tissue will no longer occur. At this point, additional gains in lean muscle tissue will cease. By modifying your routine, you will keep your muscles in a continual state of growth and development. Modifications to your strength training routine include increasing the amount of weight used when performing an exercise, the number of sets and/or repetitions performed per exercise, and the actual exercise that is performed.
Types of Strength Training Programs
As previously mentioned, there are several categories of strength training that an individual can choose to perform as their primary exercise routine. Below is a brief description of the most common exercise types under the isotonic strength training category:
Free Weights and Dumbbells: Free weights and dumbbells represent the most common exercise type under the strength training category, and are ideal for individuals seeking to increase their lean muscle mass and strength.
Free weights and dumbbells offer a range of motion that is determined by the individual, and require that the individual understand how to perform the exercise correctly. For this reason, exercising with free weights can be dangerous to the novice or individual that does not focus on performing the exercises correctly.
When performing a free weight exercise, the individual is required to load the desired amount of weight by placing plates onto a bar. In some instances, a fitness center or gym may offer free weight bars that already have the plates loaded onto them. In general, each free weight and dumbbell exercise is designed to exercise a specific muscle group as the primary muscle group, as well as the secondary muscle groups required to support performing the exercise.
Circuit Weight Machines: Circuit weight machines are designed to primarily exercise one primary muscle group at a time. Weight training circuit machines offer ease of use for the individual in that they only move in a specific direction (adding safety), utilize a plate stack that only requires moving a pin to set the resistance to an appropriate level, and require very little set-up.
Typically, the circuit training machines are arranged in a series of rows where the individual begins at one end and performs one to three sets per machine. Once they have completed the exercise on one machine, they quickly move to the next machine and repeat the process. If each exercise is completed in quick succession, it's possible to achieve an aerobic effect. Many individuals that use weight training circuit machines work all muscle groups within a single workout.
Elastic Bands or Tubing: Elastic bands or tubing exercises promote resistance training by increasing the resistance of the band as it is stretched. This increase in resistance provides a progressive stimulus to the muscle to build strength and assists in increasing lean muscle mass. Performing an elastic band exercise can exercise a single joint or can simultaneously exercise multiple joints. This increases the functionality and efficiency of each exercise. Unlike free weights, elastic band exercises do not rely on gravity - instead, the resistance is generated as the length of the band is increased.
Performing an elastic band exercise routine is extremely efficient, as a single elastic band can be used to perform several different exercises. Typically, the resistance of each elastic band is specified by the color of the band. As the individual’s strength and endurance increases, they simply perform the same exercise with a different color elastic band, thus increasing the resistance and the difficulty of their workout.
Medicine Ball: Medicine ball exercises are an excellent way to engage and exercise the entire body. Medicine ball exercises are typically used to perform upper body, lower body and core exercises. Medicine balls are available in various sizes and generally range from 2 to 15 pounds. This variation in weight allows the individual to increase the size and weight of the ball that they use to perform each exercise as their strength and endurance increase. In addition, various exercises can be performed with the various medicine ball weights.
Medicine ball exercises promote muscle strength and toning, improved range of motion, cardiovascular conditioning, core strength development, coordination, balance and flexibility. Medicine ball exercises can be performed individually or with a workout partner.
Exercise Ball: Exercise ball exercises require that the entire body engage in the various exercises, which forces the body to maintain proper alignment. Exercise ball exercises require the body to utilize several muscles in order to maintain balance and stabilization.
Exercise ball exercises are excellent for stretching the various joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons of the body. In addition, adding an exercise ball exercise routine to an existing fitness program is outstanding for promoting spinal stabilization, core strength, endurance, balance and coordination.
Kettlebells: Kettlebell exercises, or girya, is a cast iron weight resembling a cannonball with a handle, and is used to perform ballistic exercises that incorporate strength, cardiovascular activity and flexibility into each exercise. Similar to dumbbells, kettlebells range in weight from 5 to 175 pounds.
However, unlike dumbbells, the center of mass for the kettlebell is extended beyond the hand. This being the case, kettlebells facilitate a wide variety of ballistic and swinging movements. Regularly exercising with kettlebells promotes increases in strength and endurance, especially in the lower back, legs, and shoulders. Kettlebells are excellent for improving hand grip strength as well. The basic movements performed with kettlebells include the swing, snatch, and clean and jerk, and engage the entire body when performed. Due to the movements performed with kettlebells, individuals with back or shoulder injuries or a weak core area should use caution.
Body Weight: Body weight exercises are exercises that are performed using only the body. Examples of body weight exercises include push-ups and pull-ups. There are several benefits associated with performing body weight exercises. First, most body weight exercises can be performed without the use of equipment. Second, almost every body weight exercise can be performed anywhere. Third, body weight exercises utilize the weight of the individual and gravity as the resistance mechanism. Finally, all major muscle groups can be exercised when performing a body weight exercise routine. Benefits derived from regularly performing a body weight exercise routine include developing muscle tone, core strength, balance, coordination and flexibility.
In addition, virtually any movement of any object of mass (including the human body) that forces your muscles to contract can be considered a strength training exercise. For example, moving bags of concrete, shoveling dirt into a wheelbarrow, and carrying boxes are all examples of moving an object of mass, and hence can be considered strength training exercises. However, it should be noted that while each of the previous examples can increase muscular strength, they are not designed to significantly increase lean muscle tissue.
Exercising Your Primary and Secondary Muscles
Virtually every strength training exercise that you perform will utilize both primary and secondary muscles. The primary muscle is the muscle that that exercise is specifically targeted to work, while the secondary muscles are the muscles that are required to support the primary muscle when performing the actual exercise. Below is a list of a few strength training exercises and the primary and secondary muscles that are involved in performing the exercises:
Primary Muscles Exercised: Pectorals
Secondary Muscles Exercised: Triceps, Latissimus Dorsi, Deltoids and Forearms
Primary Muscles Exercised: Quadriceps
Secondary Muscles Exercised: Gluteals, Hamstrings, Calves and Lower Back
Primary Muscles Exercised: Latissimus Dorsi
Secondary Muscles Exercised: Deltoids and Biceps
While it is true that each of the secondary muscles are exercised when performing the exercises listed above, each secondary muscle must also be exercised as a primary muscle group. One of the primary goals as you increase your lean muscle mass is to increase the lean muscle mass of all muscle groups so that your physique remains symmetrical. This can only be accomplished by treating all major muscle groups as a primary muscle and performing an exercise routine that includes specifically exercising each muscle group as a primary muscle group. Below is a diagram and description of each of the major muscle groups.
- Abdominals: The muscles that make up the front of your mid-section.
- Biceps: The muscles located on the front of your arm between your shoulder and elbow.
- Calves: The muscles that make up the lower portion of the back of your leg below your knee.
- Deltoids: The muscles that make up a large portion of the curve of your shoulder.
- Forearms: The muscles located on the lower arm between the elbow and wrist.
- Gluteals: The muscles of your posterior.
- Hamstrings: The muscles located on the back of your leg between your gluteals and knee.
- Latissimus Dorsi: The muscles located on the sides of your upper back under the arm pit.
- Pectorals: The muscles of your chest.
- Obliques: The muscles on the sides of your mid-section.
- Quadriceps: The muscles located on the front of your leg between your hip and knee.
- Trapezius: The muscles located on the sides of your neck.
- Triceps: The muscles located on the back of your arm between your shoulder and elbow.
The Benefits of Strength Training
There are several health and fitness benefits that are solely derived from regularly performing a strength training routine. For this reason, it is our recommendation that all fitness routines include a strength training portion where all primary muscle groups are exercised at least twice per week. Below are several of the health and fitness benefits associated with regularly performing a strength training exercise routine:
- Increase in muscular strength
- Increase in strength of muscle tissue, tendons and ligaments
- Improvement in flexibility
- Reduction in excess body fat
- Increase in Basal Metabolic Rate (i.e. number of calories burned per day)
- Increase in lean muscle tissue
- Increase in bone density
- Improvement in muscular and cardiovascular endurance
- Reduction in joint pain associated with Arthritis
- Decrease in resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure
- Positive change in blood cholesterol levels
- Improvement in glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity
- Improvement in strength, balance and functional ability in older adults
- Improvement in athletic ability
- Improvement in self-confidence and self-esteem
- Improved calmness, centering and balance of mind
Strength Training By Numbers
It is important to have an understanding of the various amounts of weight, number of exercises, sets, repetitions and times required for you to perform your strength training routine. In addition, you will want to take the time to define your personal strength training goals and thereafter, design your strength training routine to meet your personal strength training goals.
Below is a list of several items to consider when designing your strength training exercise routine:
Number of Strength Training Workouts Per Week: You will need to determine the number of days per week that you are going to perform your strength training routine. The number of days that you dedicate to your strength training routine will depend on several factors such as the amount of time that you have available and your personal strength training goals. In general, you will want to strength train between 2 and 6 times per week, every week.
Determining the number of days that you plan to strength train per week is important in that it will determine how many muscle groups you exercise per day. In other words, if you plan to only strength train 2 to 3 times per week, you may want to consider exercising all muscle groups per exercise session. If you plan to perform your strength training routine 3 times per week, another option is to perform upper body on one day, lower body on the second day, and upper body on the third day. The following week you would want to perform 2 lower body workouts and 1 upper body workout, and alternate this approach each week.
Performing your strength training program 4 or more days per week will allow you to perform workouts where you divide the muscle groups that you exercise each day into groups.
Number of Sets to be Performed Per Muscle Group: In general, you will want to perform a larger number of sets for the larger muscle groups and a lower number of sets for the smaller muscle groups. A typical number of sets for the larger muscle groups is between 15 and 20, while the typical number of sets for the smaller muscle groups is between 12 and 15. This breaks down to approximately 3 to 5 exercises of 3 to 4 sets a piece.
Number of Repetitions to be Performed per Set: When defining the number of repetitions per set, you will want to consider the exercise that you are performing and the intent of the actual exercise. If the exercise is an explosive exercise (i.e. flat barbell bench press) and you are seeking to actively increase your strength and lean muscle mass, you will want to perform a lower number of repetitions. In this case, you could perform between 1 and 10 repetitions per set.
When performing rhythmic exercises (i.e. cable crossovers), or if your weight training goals are to reduce excess body fat and simply tone the muscles, the typical number of repetitions is between 12 and 18.
Number of Days of Rest Between Workouts per Muscle Group: Providing the necessary rest for the muscle that you have just exercised is imperative to efficiently increasing your lean muscle mass and strength. In fact, virtually all muscle tissue development occurs during the rest period. Always allow each muscle group that you exercise at least 24 to 48 hours of rest and recovery before you exercise it again. If the muscle group that you exercised is still sore after 24 to 48 hours, allow additional time for the muscles to recover before exercising them again.
Amount of Time to Spend Performing a Warm-Up and Stretching Routine: Always perform a warm-up and stretching routine before you perform your strength training routine. In addition, always perform your warm-up routine before you perform your stretching routine. A typical amount of time to dedicate to your warm-up routine is 10 to 20 minutes. Once you have completed your warm-up routine, you will want to spend 5 to 10 minutes performing your stretching routine.
Your warm-up routine should consist of some form of cardiovascular exercise. Examples include jogging or running on a treadmill, riding the exercise bike, jumping rope, exercising on a rowing machine, and so on. Performing a warm-up routine will increase the blood flow throughout your body and ready your muscles, ligaments and tendons for your stretching routine. Performing your stretching routine will ready your muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints for your strength training routine and will also reduce your probability of injury as well.
Amount of Cardiovascular Exercise to Perform per Week: While there are countless benefits associated with strength training, there are several benefits associated with performing a cardiovascular exercise routine as well. This being said, in order to achieve a well-rounded level of health and fitness, you will want to perform a cardiovascular exercise routine at least twice per week. Remember, the goal of your cardiovascular exercise routine is to increase your resting heart rate to your target heart rate and achieve an aerobic effect. Achieving an aerobic effect is accomplished by elevating your heart rate to your target heart rate and maintaining that level for a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes.
Prior to defining your actual strength training workouts, you will need to determine the specific number of days per week that you are going to strength train. This will allow you to determine which combination of muscle groups you will exercise during each workout. By doing so, you facilitate a well-balanced strength training routine. Below are several examples of how you could define your strength training routine based on the number of days that you intend to workout per week:
6-Day Cycle: Perform your strength training routine for all major muscle groups in either 2 or 3 days. If you are able to exercise all muscle groups in 2 days, then you will exercise each muscle group 3 times per week. Under the 6-day cycle approach, it will take you 3 days to exercise all major muscle groups so you will exercise each muscle group twice per week.
5-Day Cycle: One approach under the 5-day cycle scenario is to exercise approximately 50% of your muscle groups on the first day and the other 50% of your muscle groups on the second day. On the third day, perform some form of cardiovascular exercise, a yoga or Pilates class, or some other type of exercise. On the fourth and fifth days, perform your strength training routine as you did on days 1 and 2. This approach will allow you to perform your strength training routine for each muscle group twice per week and leave one day to perform an additional exercise type.
4-Day Cycle: Under the 4-day cycle, it will be best to exercise approximately 50% of your muscle groups on the first day and the other 50% of your muscle groups on the second day. This approach will allow you to exercise all muscle groups in two days and exercise each muscle group twice per week.
3-Day Cycle: There are two approaches to consider under the 3-day cycle scenario. Under the first scenario, you can exercise your upper body muscle groups on the first day and your lower body muscle groups on the second day. On the third day, you can perform your upper body exercise routine. This will result in exercising your upper body twice during the first week and your lower body muscle groups once. During the second week, exercise your lower body muscle groups twice and your upper body muscle groups once. Alternate each week so that over time you are exercising your upper and lower muscle groups an equal number of times. In addition, you do not have to divide your muscle groups by upper and lower body and can experiment with different muscle group combinations.
The second approach is to decrease the number of sets per muscle group and exercise all muscle groups during each strength training session. This scenario will allow you to exercise each muscle group 3 times per week. This approach may be better suited for individuals that are looking to tone up and not gain a large amount of lean muscle mass.
2-Day Cycle: There are two approaches to consider under the 2-day per week scenario. First, you can exercise your upper body muscle groups on the first day and your lower body muscle groups on the second day. This approach will allow you to exercise each muscle group once per week.
The second approach is to decrease the number of sets per muscle group and exercise all muscle groups during each strength training session. This scenario will allow you to exercise each muscle group 2 times per week. This approach may be better suited for individuals that are looking to tone up and not gain a large amount of lean muscle mass.
1-Day Cycle: The best approach to supporting a 1-day per week strength training routine is to decrease the number of sets per muscle group and exercise all muscle groups during each strength training session. This scenario will allow you to exercise each muscle group once per week. As with the alternative approaches to the 3-day and 2-day cycles, a 1-day cycle will result in toning as opposed to significant gains in muscle mass and density.
As previously mentioned, it is our belief at Fitnesshealth101.com that all fitness routines should incorporate some form of strength training. Regularly performing a strength training routine will provide several unique health benefits that are derived only from performing strength training type exercises.
Individuals that regularly perform a strength training routine (i.e. resistance based) should also regularly perform some form of cardiovascular exercise. Exercise types under the cardiovascular category include jogging, running, swimming, biking, performing an aerobics class, participating in an athletic sport, performing a yoga or Pilates class, using an elliptical machine or treadmill, to name a few. In other words, an exercise type that elevates your heart rate to your target heart rate and is capable of maintaining that level for at least 20 consecutive minutes.
There are several forms of strength training, each providing a slightly different set of benefits. To this end, it is worthwhile to explore the various strength training types to determine which types best suit your personal health and fitness goals and fit into your lifestyle as well.