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Strength Training for Beginners (and Experts, Too)

Strength training, otherwise known as weight training, is one of those activities that provides a wide range of benefits for the person who does it regularly. Like yoga, strength straining makes all your muscles stronger, enhances flexibility, and improves cardiovascular capability and capacity. In fact, two strength training sessions per week combined with one or two yoga classes per week will lead to super-fitness for most people within only a couple of months.

Strength training is beneficial for teenagers, young adults, and older adults.1 Many strength training exercises are done in a weightbearing position, and the process of doing reps and sets with a modestly or moderately heavy load makes your bones stronger. Not only muscles, but also the soft tissues of the musculoskeletal system, including tendons, ligaments, and joint cartilage, are made sturdier by receiving increased supplies of oxygen and other nutrients. Engaging in a regular program of strength training will provide more restful sleep, rid your metabolism of accumulated toxins, add sparkle and tone to your skin, and improve your overall sense of well-being. All at the low price of two to three hours per week.

The key question is how to begin. Many books and online training videos are available. Most fitness centers offer a complimentary lesson or two with a personal trainer to enable you to learn the basics. Simply put, you want to train all of your major muscle groups once per week. For example, you can exercise your chest and back muscles on one day and your shoulders and arms on another day. If you're also doing one or two yoga classes per week, or one yoga class and two walking or running days per week, your leg muscles are covered.2

Let's say this is your chest and back day. Ideally you'll do three different exercises per body part. For your chest you could do lying-down (supine) bench presses with dumbbells, supine flies (in which you hold the dumbbells overhead and then open your arms out to the side), and incline bench presses with dumbbells. For your back, you could do one-arm rows, supine dumbbell pullovers (in which you use both hands to hold one dumbbell overhead and then lower the dumbbell all the way behind your head), and lat pulldowns on a machine. All together, doing these six different exercises, three sets per exercise, should take about one hour.

Then, two or three days later in the week, you do strength training for your shoulders, biceps, and triceps. Shoulder exercises could include seated overhead presses, standing lateral raises, and seated bent-over rows. Bicep exercises could include seated alternate incline curls, machine bicep curls, and seated concentration curls. Tricep exercises could include push-ups, lying (supine) tricep extensions, and machine tricep pressdowns. Again, these nine different exercises, three sets per exercise, should take about one hour.

There are many video clips available on the internet that demonstrate the mechanics of each of these exercises. Good form is critical. In fact, making sure your posture is balanced and your abdominal muscles are activated is more important than the amount of weight you are lifting.

Beginners, especially, need to know how much weight they should be using on each exercise.3 Importantly, lifting too much weight too soon will usually lead to injury. Of course, we want to work-out as safely as possible. Choose a weight at which you can comfortably do eight repetitions. If you can't do eight, the weight is too heavy. If eight repetitions with a particular weight seems ridiculously easy, try again with a weight that is 10% heavier. Repeat the process until you find the starting weight that is comfortable for you. There are many types of weight progression programs that you will employ as you become accustomed to the weight-training process. The main point is to begin to engage in this highly beneficial form of exercise. As your mastery of these techniques slowly improves, a new world of fitness, fun, and satisfaction will be revealed.

1Conceicao MS, et al: Sixteen weeks of resistance training can decrease the risk of metabolic syndrome in healthy postmenopausal women. Clin Interv Aging Epub Sept 16 2013

2Karavirta L, et al: Heart rate dynamics after combined strength and endurance training in middle-aged women: heterogeneity of responses. PLoS One 2013 Aug 27;8(8):e72664. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072664

3Van Roie E, et al: Strength training at high versus low external resistance in older adults: Effects on muscle volume, muscle strength, and force-velocity characteristics. Exp Gerontol Epub ahead of print

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