Your Foolproof Guide to Building a Strength Training Workout

What comes to mind when you think about strength training? Is it extremely fit people at the gym, lifting large amounts of weight and flexing their big muscles in the mirror? Or is it videos you do at home, where the instructor uses crazy equipment or performs complicated bodyweight exercises you would never dare to attempt? Maybe what comes to mind is a big question mark because you’ve never followed a regular strength program and don’t know how to get started. Perhaps you’ve considered strength training in the past, but figured spending money on pricey sessions with a personal trainer is the only way to get real results.

While strength training is some of those things, it's also an essential and simple element that should be part of every fitness plan. Strength training doesn't have to mean bulky biceps or be shrouded in mystery. With a solid understanding of the basics of strength training, anyone can put together their own program that will keep their muscles challenged without requiring hours at the gym in order to see results.
  1. Set your goals. Everyone has different reasons for starting a strength program. Are you training for a 5K and want to improve your performance? Have you always wanted to do a pushup but lack the upper-body strength? Do you have specific areas of weakness that keep you from doing the things you want to do in everyday life? For example, do you have trouble walking up the stairs without your legs getting tired, or can’t pull something heavy off of the top shelf in your closet? Let your goals guide the creation of your strength program so you can measure progress and improve your quality of life.
  2. Learn the basics. You don’t have to be an expert in pyramid routines, drop sets and explosive training in order to create a quality strength routine. Knowing the basics of reps, sets, frequency and intensity is usually enough to help create a balanced program. Keep in mind that after four to six weeks, your body gets used to the same routine, making it less effective than it once was at the start. It’s important to add variety to keep yourself and your muscles challenged.
  3. Start with a full-body routine. Full-body routines are best for beginners and those looking to save time. You can get a good workout in 20 to 30 minutes, two to three days per week if you are smart with the exercises you choose and target all of your major muscle groups in one session. Split routines are great for those who have more advanced training goals or who prefer to do strength training workouts more frequently (since you can do lower body one day, upper body the next) throughout the week.
  4. Explore the world of compound exercises. Repeat after me: More is not always better. You don’t have to do 20 different exercises in order to get a good workout; compound exercises are moves that work more than one major muscle group at a time. Typically, there is one primary muscle group that does the majority of the work, and one or more secondary muscle group that "helps." For example, squats primarily work the quadriceps muscles, but also work the hamstrings and glutes. Compound exercises are a good way to save time, versus doing isolation exercises (like a bicep curl, for example) that target just one muscle at a time.
  5. Work opposing muscle groups. If you understand the concept of push/pull exercises, you can easily create your own balanced strength routine. These exercises take into account how you’re actually moving during the exercise and which muscles are involved with each movement. For each "push" exercise you’re doing (think squats or chest presses), you’ll want a "pull" exercise (deadlift, row) to balance it out. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to lift the same amount of weight on both the push and pull elements, but understand that working opposing muscle groups will prevent strength imbalances, so that one muscle group doesn’t become significantly stronger than another.
Now that you have the basics of how to develop a strength routine, it's time to create a simple full-body program, targeting the following major muscle groups:
  • quads (push) and hamstrings/glutes (pull)
  • chest/shoulders/triceps (push) and back/biceps (pull)
  • core
By focusing your attention on these groups, you can get a quality, full-body workout with just five exercises. As you progress in your routine, you might find you need to add more weight and/or repetitions to increase the challenge. For example, if you are doing a set of 12 repetitions of an exercise, the 12th rep is the last one you should be able to do in good form. If you can easily keep going after 12, the weight is too light. If you can’t get anywhere close to 12 without sacrificing form, the weight is too heavy. You might also decide to add more exercises or swap out others based on your needs and preferences, but a routine like this is a great starting point. 
Pick one exercise from each category below and you’ve got a full body strength workout! (In general, one to two sets of each exercise with 8-12 repetitions per set is a good place to start.)
  • Quads: Squats and lunges. There are numerous variations of the squat and lunge, such as single-leg squats, skater squats and lateral lunges.
  • Hamstrings/Glutes: Deadlifts, bridges and step-ups.
  • Chest/Shoulders/Triceps: Chest press, pushups and shoulder press.
  • Back/Biceps: Dumbbell rows, shrugs and pull-ups. 
  • Core: Planks, pendulum, bicycle crunches and Supermans.
Remember that there is no perfect program. Each of us has different goals and bodies that respond differently to the demands placed on them. Additionally, a healthy diet and regular cardio are important pieces of the weight loss and healthy living puzzle. If you’ve been avoiding strength training because you don’t understand what to do or where to start, these basics will help you easily create a routine you can use anywhere. You might even be surprised at how lifting weights makes you feel, both physically and mentally. When you have a plan, you’ll walk into the weight room at your gym (or your own basement!) with confidence and the motivation to stay focused during your workout.