Fitness Articles

Reference Guide to Strength Training

An In-Depth Look

Page 3 of 4
3. The Specificity of Training Principle: This refers to the fact that only the muscle or muscle group you exercise will respond to the demands placed upon it. By regularly doing bicep curls, for example, the muscles involved (biceps) will become larger and stronger, but curls will have no effect on the muscles that are not being trained (such as your legs). Therefore, when strength training, it is important to strengthen all of the major muscle groups.

4. The Detraining Principle: After consistent strength training stops, you will eventually lose the strength that you built up. Without overload or maintenance, muscles will weaken in two weeks or less! This is the basis behind why individuals lose muscle mass as they age—because they are detraining by exercising less frequently.

How Much Strength Training Should You Do?
When considering the guidelines for aerobic exercise, keep the FITT principles in mind (Frequency, (Intensity, Time and Type).
  • Frequency: Number of strength training sessions per week Aim to train each muscle group at least two times per week, and up to three if you have the time or are more advanced. One day per week may help you maintain your current level of strength, but in most cases, it will not be enough to build muscle. It is important to rest 1-2 days in between working the same muscle(s) again. Rest days give the muscles time to repair themselves from small tears that occur during strength training, and this is how you get stronger. For example, if you do a full body routine on Monday, do not lift again until Wednesday or Thursday (1-2 days). If you decide to split up your strength training (due to time, schedule or personal preference), and do upper body exercises on Monday and lower body exercises on Tuesday, it’s okay to lift two days in a row—because you are working different muscles. You wouldn’t lift upper body again until Wednesday or Thursday, or lower body again until Thursday or Friday.
  • Intensity: How much weight or resistance you should lift This is a tricky one—and if you’re new to exercise, it will take some trial and error. The intensity of the resistance you lift should challenge you. It should be high enough that as you approach your last repetition, you feel muscle exhaustion. Exhaustion means your muscle is so tired that you can’t do another full repetition in good form. Many people do not lift to exhaustion, mostly because they don’t know that they are supposed to. They tend to just lift the number of reps that they have subscribed to and stop.

    For example, if you are going to do 10 reps of biceps curls, don’t merely stop on that 10th rep if you haven’t reached muscle exhaustion. You could either continue doing reps until you do reach exhaustion, or take this as a sign that the weight you are lifting is too light. Increase your weight until you do feel exhausted on the 10th rep. How much weight/resistance you lift will work hand in hand with the number of reps you do (see Time below).
  • Time: Number of reps and sets you should do Going from the starting position, through the action and back to the starting position counts as one rep. Most people lift somewhere between 8 and 15 reps, which equals one set. Most people do 1-3 sets with rest in between each set.

    How many reps should you do? Most experts recommend between 8 and 15 reps per set. If your goal is to build strength and muscle size, then aim for fewer reps (like 8-10). Because you are doing fewer reps, you will need a heavier weight to reach muscle exhaustion in each set, so that’s where the words “heavy weight, low reps” come from. If your goal is general fitness or endurance, then aim for more reps (like 10-15). Because you are doing so many, you’ll need a lighter weight.

    No matter what your goal, be sure to lift resistance that is heavy enough to exhaust you at the end of your set. So, while you may be able to curl 20 pounds and feel exhaustion in 8 reps, you may only be able to lift 12 or 15 pounds if you are doing 15 reps.

    The ideal number of sets has been debated about for years. A good rule of thumb is 1-3 sets. Research studies have shown that performing 2 sets is not significantly better than one. And performing 3 sets is not significantly better than doing 2. The only significant difference is between 1 and 3 sets. As long as you are working to the point of exhaustion, you can maintain and even build strength by doing only 1 set. But unless you are crunched for time, most beginners start with 2 sets of each exercise.

    Make sure you rest 30-90 seconds between sets. You can use this time to stretch the muscle you are working and catch your breath or get a drink of water. The longer you rest, the more strength you will have to finish out your next set just as strongly as the previous one—which will aid in your strength development. Continued ›
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About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

Member Comments

  • Very helpful. - 2/27/2016 7:38:24 PM
  • i needed to read this!! - 6/15/2014 10:11:00 PM
  • Lots of information here. Thanks. - 5/3/2014 6:23:46 AM
  • I also have to take issue with this concept of HAVING to take a rest day. Do you think MINERS or FARMERS or anyone else that has a physical component to their WORK has the luxury of taking a DAY OFF you are kidding yourself. - 1/26/2014 5:55:07 PM
  • This article is exactly what I have needed! Thank you - 1/25/2014 10:37:41 AM
  • I learned a lot by reading this. I do want to get stronger so it gave me fuel to use to do this. so with workout at home and weight lifting class I can get stronger and see more muscles......I like that. - 1/20/2014 8:00:34 PM
  • I totally disagree with the statement that fewer reps builds stronger muscles. All that matters is that you work the muscle to failure NOT how many time you do a particular exercise,.If that were the case bodyweight exercisers would be hooped. - 12/28/2013 9:47:23 PM
  • I disagree with the statement that strength training strengthens tendons and ligaments. I'd like to see where this has been proven. I have Ehlers Danlos so my tendons and ligaments (and other connective tissue) are too loose, causing my joints to dislocate frequently. Exercising, even gentle and no impact, causes more problems with my joints, not less. I have to pay close attention to everything I do because even one uncontrolled movement causes pain and dislocations. When I was in sports as a kid my joints actually became much worse, not better. Now my hips can dislocate just from walking. Thus my tendons and ligaments became weaker - not stronger - through exercise. If the Ehlers Danlos was diagnosed as a kid I would have been told to exercise less, not be in sports, and I would have had access to doctors who could provide proper braces for my joints well before my joints got to be this bad.

    There are also many cases of people who have torn tendons and ligaments through exercise (ever seen an achilles tendon snap while someone's running?). They're not being strengthened, but being tested and pulled. - 7/15/2012 4:31:51 AM
  • I think this article makes a lot of really good points, and I'm really glad that the "Specificity of Training" principle was included - I just wish the SparkPeople Training Plan Generator would get the message. Since it's well documented that doing a leg day back to back with an arm day is totally fine since you're targetting complete different muscles, it's so *frustrating* that the workout generator *won't let you* enter back to back workouts on different mucles groups, reminding you that you shouldn't train back to back without a rest day (perfectly true, if you're using the same muscles). I realize that this is the wrong place to vent about this, and I've already raised it in the "tech" forum, but it seems I can't help myself - BAH!

    In any case, I was happy to see this idea, and others that are equally important, explained here clearly and accurately. Bravo. - 12/13/2011 11:08:35 AM
  • Don't forget that water exercise, especially vertical exercise like water aerobics, has a strength component. Water resistance is 12x the resistance of air, so every move in every direction is evenly resisted. To add challenge similar to adding weight to dumbells, you can use various devices to increase buoyancy or drag resistance. You can employ speed, acceleration, and direction change to further up the ante. AND there's no danger of dropping a chunk of iron on your toe! - 12/13/2010 1:11:15 PM
  • I have been strength training since 1987. I had a trainer for a couple years. After becoming comfortable at one weight, I increase it just like you're supposed to do. I mostly do machine exercises, but also bicep curls--free weights. However, a few years ago, I was getting strange sensations in my right thigh, sort of like when your arm or hand "go to sleep" and you experience tingling in it. I had that sensation in my right thigh. I went to physical therapy, and now I have specialized stretches to do every day. My thigh has much improved. However, I was told not to do the abductor or adductor machine exercises since they are not at all helpful, and as I remember they are not highly recommended in the Fitness section of SP. I was also doing the back stretch machine, which to me was like rocking and it was even fun. I had worked my way up to putting all the weight blocks on, including even extra weight--over 300 pounds--and I was quite proud of myself, to be able to lift more weight than many of the men. But the physical therapist was very critical of this, saying I would definitely be popping a disk if I continued doing that. She said that someone my age, 63 then, could not do exercises like they could at a younger age. She also nixed the leg pushes I was doing and said I should not be going over 150 lbs. (I was lifting about 100 lbs. more.) So I pass this information on if it can be of use to anyone. And if Jen wants to comment on this or give me some advice, I'd appreciate it, since I want to be sure that what I'm doing is all right. - 12/13/2010 1:00:15 PM
  • I've just started strength training in my pulmonary rehab program and I really excited. I used three different machines yesterday for 10 reps each. Can't wait to get more familiar with the system! - 10/9/2010 1:54:26 PM
  • very good info for the novice! thanks a lot - 10/9/2010 1:47:28 PM
  • It says I read the article in March, but i don't remember reading it before. I enjoyed it and feel that I am still a beginner. At my age, I may never progress any farther.!
    Very informative. - 10/9/2010 11:23:15 AM
  • Great article! I'm reading a lot about strength training and working out with a small weight-lifting class. Up til now, that part of the gym was a black box to me. I ignored it.

    Weight-lifting is fantastic. It makes my gym workouts far more interesting because I mix it up every day. I appreciate and learn from other gym members--many of those exercises are a LOT harder than they look, I had no idea. My body is sculpting as I'm losing weight. At 5'6" and 214 lbs, I'm obese. But I'm a lot stronger than the skinny girls taking the weight training with me. Yay! - 3/3/2010 10:54:57 AM

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