Unless our job involves hard physical work, 21st-century living provides few opportunities to improve strength in our everyday lives. That’s one good reason to include two sessions of strength training in your weekly fitness routine. Weights/resistance can also be used to increase muscle size or improve power and endurance for better sporting performance. Training outcomes depend on choice of technique.
Strength training works your muscles with some form of weight or ‘resistance’. Some common examples include lifting free weights or using weight machines at a gym. But you can also use your own body weight by doing push ups and chin-ups. Or, you can challenge your muscles by pulling on stretchy ‘resistance’ bands. These can be anchored under your foot, to a door handle or around a bedpost, for instance.
Whatever exercise you use, there are four key techniques or types to help you build key aspects of strength. The key difference between the techniques is the number of times (repetitions) you perform each exercise. The number of times you complete a group of repetitions, known as a set, also has a bearing on your training outcomes.
This technique aims to improve a muscle’s explosive power, meaning its ability to perform a powerful movement in minimal time. Examples include launching into a fast sprint or jumping. Training for muscle power is generally used to help people improve their sporting performance. It involves doing one to six repetitions of each exercise at maximum speed. Depending on training goals, a power program can consist of one to three or three to six sets. For high-intensity exercises, a rest period of at least two to three minutes per set is recommended.
All types of weight training will improve your strength. But this technique aims to improve absolute strength — meaning the ability to lift or push heavy weights. It involves one to six repetitions of each exercise performed relatively slowly. This can be done for three to six sets with a rest interval of 1-2 or 2-3 minutes, depending on the amount of weight being lifted.
This type of training aims to increase the amount of lean muscle in the body. It’s especially useful for weight loss. It can also help with achieving a lean, toned look. For older adults, it can help counteract or reverse the age-related muscle loss that can lead to frailty. For novice and intermediate training, it involves doing 8 to 12 repetitions relatively slowly, generally for one to three sets per exercise. Rest periods of 1-2 or 2-3 minutes are advisable between sets, depending on the load.
This kind of training helps muscles to be able to keep performing a movement for a prolonged period of time such as in rowing. Training for muscular endurance involves doing 20 repetitions or more at a controlled speed, generally for one to three sets. It is recommended that short rest periods be used for muscular endurance training - 1-2 minutes between sets of 20 repetitions and even less than a minute if you are doing a more moderate number of repetitions, such as 10-15.
Beginners need to start off by using lighter weights until their technique improves. But, it’s also important to keep challenging muscles by gradually increasing the weight. If you keep using the same weight all the time and never increase it, your strength won’t change. The idea is to use a weight that is heavy enough to progressively tire your muscles throughout the repetitions. That way, it becomes a real effort to do the final repetition.
Both free weights and weight machines are effective ways to strengthen muscles. The main difference is that using free weights involves more coordination and stability. You have to work harder to control the movement of the weight. A static weight machine may offer greater stability and can sometimes help guide movements. Because you often need to sit on weight machines, they can be more suitable for older people and beginners.
You can — there are resources available to guide you, and some of these are available in the Further Information section below. But, ideally, it’s best to get some expert advice from a qualified personal trainer or qualified gym instructor. This can help you get your technique right and use weights more safely. Strength training classes at gyms or community centres where available can also help you learn more about working with weights.
Whatever type of strength training you choose, it’s always important to:
American College of Sports Medicine
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Selecting and effectively using free weights [document on the Internet]. 2011 [cited 2013 May 31]. Available from: http://www.acsm.org/.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Selecting and effectively using home weight machines [document on the Internet]. 2011 [cited 2013 May 31]. Available from: http://www.acsm.org/.
Ratamess NA, Alvar BA, Evetoch TK, Housh TJ, Kibler WB, Kraemer WJ, et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand: progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2013 May 31]; 41(3):[687-708 pp.]. Available from: http://www.acsm.org/.
Last updated: 31 May 2013
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