Strength training is the process of overloading the muscles causing strength, performance and size gains. Strength training is accomplished through a variety of means including weight lifting, body weight exercises and elastic resistance bands. A well rounded strength training routine improves health and physical appearance making it a necessity for everyone.

What is strength training?

Like all exercise, strength training involves overloading the muscles with work beyond what they’re normally accustomed to performing. This overload is what causes strength, performance and size gains. A strength training routine has plenty of benefits. It increases bone density & muscle mass, decreases body fat percentage and boosts daily energy expenditure.

Types of Strength Training Routines

There are many different types of workout routines, but strict adherence to a routine (any one of them) is much more important than which routine you follow. In other words, regularly following a routine is much more important than worrying about which one you pick. A good way to decide on a routine is to try a wide variety. Pick the one you enjoy doing the most. Other considerations include: available equipment, time and ability level.

Full Body. A full body routine targets every major muscle group of the body during every session. These workouts are typically used when you’re more interested in staying fit rather than bodybuilding or powerlifting. These workouts typically require fewer days per week than other routines. A full body workout is a great option for beginners.

Split Routine. A split routine targets a different muscle group each day. For example Monday could be a legs day and Tuesday could be a chest day. These types of routines are geared towards bodybuilders and powerlifters. They generally take more time, but for the average fitness oriented person, do not necessarily deliver better results. To hit every muscle group each week, these routines require 4-5 (sometimes more) sessions per week.

High Intensity/Circuit Training. A high intensity or circuit training routine is one combining elements of strength training and cardiovascular exercise into a single session. A typical strength training routine is broken up into exercises, sets and repetitions; pick three exercises and do three sets per exercise. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets. This keeps the intensity level low and time needed high. A high intensity or circuit training routine largely cuts out rest between sets. You move from one exercise to another with very little (seconds rather than minutes) rest. This keeps intensity high and time needed much lower. These workouts keep heart rate elevated like a cardio session with the use of strength training exercises such as squats, pull-ups and deadlifts. These routines save time because they combine strength training and cardio into one quick session. One of the most popular implementations of this is Crossfit.

Exercises, Sets & Repetitions

Full Body Routine. A full body routine targets every muscle of the body during every session. Pick two exercises per muscle for the major groups (chest, legs, back, shoulders, abs) and one exercise per muscle for the smaller groups (biceps, triceps, calves). Do 2-3 sets per exercise, 8-12 repetitions per set and about 60 seconds of rest between sets. You need to find a weight in which you are capable of completing eight full repetitions and no more than twelve. On the last repetition, you should be fatigued. If you are still comfortable after the last repetition, increase the weight. Here is a sample full body routine:

Muscle Group: Exercise Sets Repetitions
Legs: Squats 2 8-12
Legs: Deadlifts 2 8-12
Chest: Barbell Bench Press 2 8-12
Chest: DB Fly 2 8-12
Back: Bent-over Row 2 8-12
Back: Pull-ups 2 8-12
Shoulders: Overhead DB Press 2 8-12
Shoulders: Rear Lateral Raise 2 8-12
Biceps: DB Curl 2 8-12
Triceps: Cable Pushdown 2 8-12
Abs: Sit-ups 2 8-12
Calves: Standing Calf Raise 2 8-12
More exercises at ExRx

Split Routine. A split routine targets a different muscle group each day. Pick 2-4 exercises per muscle for the big groups (chest, legs, back, shoulders and abs) and 1-2 exercises for the smaller groups (biceps, triceps, calves). Do 3 sets per exercise, 8-12 repetitions per set and take about 60 seconds of rest between sets. You need to find a weight in which you are capable of completing eight full repetitions and no more than twelve. On the last repetition, you should be fatigued. If you are still comfortable after the last repetition, increase the weight.

Exercises Sets Repetitions
Day 1: Chest & Triceps 2-3 exercises for chest, 1-2 exercises for triceps 3 sets per exercise 8-12 repetitions per set
Day 2: Rest
Day 3: Legs 3-4 exercises for quads, hamstrings and glutes, 1-2 exercises for calves 3 sets per exercise 8-12 repetitions per set
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Back & Biceps 2-3 exercises for back, 1-2 exercises for biceps 3 sets per exercise 8-12 repetitions per set
Day 6: Shoulders & Abs 2-3 exercises for shoulders, 2-3 exercises for abs 3 sets per exercise 8-12 repetitions per set
Day 7: Rest

More Advanced

Once you become comfortable with either routine, increase the intensity by: increasing weight, increasing repetition range, picking different exercises and increasing the number of exercises per muscle group or sets per exercise. Another option is moving to a different type of routine (full body, split or circuit training).

Repetitions: Strength vs. Endurance

One of the most prevalent exercise myths/misconceptions says doing a high rep/low weight workout makes you toned while doing a low rep/high weight workout makes you muscular. There is a difference between high and low rep workouts, but it doesn’t deal with size and tone.

High repetitions are good at building endurance while heavy weights are good at building strength. Neither of these necessarily dictate muscle size and tone. Muscle size and tone are a function of calorie intake vs. energy expenditure.

Muscle Size. Gaining weight (gaining muscle mass) requires a calorie surplus – eating more than you burn. The body needs extra energy to build muscle. Without a calorie surplus, the number of repetitions and amount of weight you lift is irrelevant because the body won’t have an adequate amount of nutrients to build muscle. As far as exercise, building muscle only requires an overload – a stimulus above what the muscle is accustomed to. The overload is either in the form of more weight, more repetitions or a combination of both.

Muscle Tone. Toning or “getting ripped” requires a calorie deficit – burning more than you eat. Most people have a layer of fat covering their perfectly chiseled body. The amount of repetitions you perform does not necessarily influence body fat percentage. To burn fat, you need to create an environment in which the body uses fat stores for energy. This causes a reduction in body fat and an increase in muscle tone.

It’s very possible to build muscle with a high rep/low weight routine just as it’s possible to reduce body fat with a low rep/high weight routine. The relationship between how many calories you eat and burn is much more important than the amount of weight you lift or repetitions you complete.

Workout Journal

Overloading a muscle causes strength, performance and size gains. Over time, what once was an overload becomes an easy load. When the muscle gets accustomed to the workout you’re doing, the workout becomes less effective.

Keeping track of weight lifted and repetitions completed is one way to constantly push yourself to harder workouts. If you lifted 100 pounds one week, you’ll need to lift more than 100 pounds the following week to keep progressing. A workout journal allows easy tracking of exercises, sets, repetitions and weights, making those numbers much easier to manage.

Rest

Working out causes damage to muscle tissue. This damage is a normal part of the overloading process. During rest, the body repairs exercise induced muscle damage resulting in gains. You only get stronger during rest. Gains are limited when you don’t give the body an adequate amount of rest and nutrients.

The Bottom Line

The workouts outlined above are basic guidelines for building a strength training routine. As you get accustomed to the new workout, branch out and try different exercises and other routines. Remember, the routine you pick has much less to do with overall success than how closely you stick to it. A specific routine can’t guarantee success, only ample amounts of dedication leads to progression.

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