Getting Started with Strength Training

(This is an update of a post from my old blog)

This is about getting started with strength training. For those who have little or no experience with the topic.

I firmly believe that just about everybody will benefit from strength training. It has different health benefits from cardio and flexibility training. It is part of the ACSM guidelines for physical activity for adults.

One of the big reasons is that strength training is all about functional activities. I could rename the core exercises of a typical strength training program as:

  • Picking up heavy things
  • Carrying heavy things
  • Carrying heavy things up and down the stairs
  • Pushing something
  • Pulling something
  • Keeping your spine stable

First though, we need to properly define strength training: Strength training is exercises hard enough that you can only do 12 in a row or fewer. Or, with isometric exercises, a position you can only hold for less than 45 seconds. 

Otherwise what you are doing is endurance training. Which is not the same thing.

Primarily, it’s not about which exercises you do, but how heavy. Bodyweight squats are an endurance activity for most folks because they can do 15 or 20 or more. But if you did the exact same exercise while holding weights – enough weight that you could not do more than 12 – then the exercise would be strength training instead.

The basic exercises I recommend here are dumbbell exercises. This is because adjustable dumbbells are cheap, readily available and usable at home; alternately they are commonly available an just about any gym. Dumbbells also address a common cause of hesitation in new folks, the concern about the bar, in barbell exercises. 

The Exercises

  1. Squats – can also be done with the dumbbells held by the side
    • Can also be done with a goblet style hold for lower weights
  2. Split squats 
  3. Straight leg deadlifts
    • Alternate option, easier to do safely – Hip thrust/bridge with weight (you can start this with dumbbells in your lap. You need to put your back up against something sturdy. I push a chair up against the wall).
  4. Bench press – can be done on the floor, a bench isn’t necessary
  5. Bent-over row
  6. Shoulder/overhead press – do this standing not seated 
  7. Pull-ups (a pull-up bar can be gotten that works in almost any apartment and doesn’t require tools to install). Here‘s a primer on doing pull-ups if you can’t yet.
  8. Planks – when you get up to 45 seconds, start adding weight. Put it on the small of your back
  9. Side planks – when you get up to 45 seconds, start adding weight. Put it on your hip
    • Start with the bent knee version if necessary

This set covers every major muscle group in the body and works them in all the major planes of motion. So it is very nearly complete.

The amount of weight you are looking for is something that will develop strength, which means higher weights and lower reps.

Start at 12-15 RM – Repetition Maximum – the number that you can do before you cannot do another with good form.

Start easy on the exercises to develop your form. In the long run good form is much more important that increasing weight quickly.

For each week pick an intensity level. Do all of your exercises at that level. Every 4 weeks you can increase the intensity level.

Intensity levels:

  1. 15 RM – learning the movement
  2. 12 RM – building endurance for the movement
  3. 10 RM – building muscle
  4. 8 RM – building muscle and strength
  5. 6 RM – building strength

I wouldn’t go higher than that without a spotter though.

Do the workout at least twice a week and each session has a rest day in-between another session. So not more than three times per week.

Aim for multiple sets of each exercise. 2-3 sets is a reasonable workout.

But if you only have time to do one of each then start there.

You need to rest between each set to get the most out of it.

  • 12-15RM – rest 60+ sec.
  • 8-12RM – rest 90+ sec.
  • 6-8 RM and heavier – rest 2-4 minutes

You can shorten the rest periods if you alternate exercises between different muscle groups e.g. push/pull or upper/lower. But you’ll still need rest between sets. This sort of plan can be done on “light” days.

For strength training you should also have a “heavy” day where you don’t alternate like this, take appropriate rest periods and do fewer exercises.

Questions? Feel free to ask.

There’s a part II about Putting Together the Program.

Author: Steven Hirsch, DPT, CSCS

Physical therapist, strength coach, historical fencer.

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