There is no time like today to start strength training. Need convincing? Resistance workouts deliver powerful health benefits such as increased bone density and improved balance. Regular strength training can also reduce the symptoms of chronic conditions, such as arthritis, back pain, depression and diabetes. And if toned arms, stronger legs and a firmer midsection sound good, strength training can help you out there, too—combined with regular cardio and a healthy diet, lifting weights increases your lean muscle mass. And because muscle—even at rest—burns more calories than fat, starting a strength training routine is an important step toward managing or maintaining your weight.
If you are a woman who is worried that lifting weights will cause you to “bulk up,” rest assured that your body chemistry won’t let that happen. Women have lower levels of the hormone testosterone, so they don’t gain muscle size in the same way that men do. (You would have to spend hours in the gym lifting weights each day to get muscles like the ones female bodybuilders have.) In fact, because women are so susceptible to osteoporosis and bone fractures beginning with the onset of menopause, regularly lifting weights is especially important.
Before you start a strength training regimen, take note of the tips below. You’ll be better prepared for a rewarding, comfortable and safe practice.
- Talk to a certified fitness instructor. It’s common for newbies to rush through a few moves—say, biceps curls and lunges—and call it a day, or to copy what other exercisers are doing in the gym. But if you mimic a person who is using bad form, you set yourself up for injury. And if you hurry though a few mindless moves, your body won’t reap the benefits. Before you begin a weight-lifting program, or before you add a new exercise or strength training machine to your workout, ask a professional to show you how to do some exercises that are customized for your goals and then have her check your form. Make sure your expert is certified: Fitness professionals do extensive training to gain certifications from acclaimed organizations like the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American College of Sports Medicine.
- Consider wearing lifting gloves. They protect your hands from blisters and help you concentrate on your exercises, rather than on any discomfort from your grip on the weight. You can purchase these online or at a sporting goods store.
- Start by warming up. Just like an opera singer practices a few scales to prepare her vocal chords and lungs before taking the stage, weight lifters need to stimulate their cardiorespiratory and neuromuscular systems before the effort of strength training to facilitate increased range of motion and the comfortable, efficient execution of moves. You can warm-up your muscles and raise your heart rate by walking, jogging, biking or rowing for five to 10 minutes.
- Do a couple of preparatory sets. After warming up, start your weight training session with two light sets of 10 repetitions each, one for your upper body (push-ups, for example), and one for your lower body (such as squats). Experts call these “rehearsal” sets and they prime your muscles and joints for the range of motion and work ahead.
- Pick a heavy enough weight... There’s a sweet spot when it comes to how heavy your weight should be: You want to reach the point of muscular failure—the threshold at which your muscles can no longer raise or press the weight—somewhere between eight and 12 repetitions. If it’s too light, you’re not adequately challenging your muscles and are shortchanging your results. Finding the right heaviness requires trial and error with different weights. As you become more experienced, your trainer may suggest you mix in some workouts with only five to eight reps per set (to cause hypertrophy) or as many as 12 to 20 reps (if muscular endurance is the goal).
- …but don’t go too heavy. Never pick a weight that’s so heavy you have to twist and jerk to complete the repetition. If you can’t pull or press a weight with proper form, you need to stop and take some weight off before you damage connective tissue and, possibly, a muscle. Tissues adapt over time as you challenge them; too great a challenge too soon can put you at risk for an injury.
- Control your movement. To control the speed of your repetition, try using a “one-two-three” count. The up phase (pushing or lifting, also called concentric) is completed quickly to a count of “one,” and the down phase (lowering/releasing, also called eccentric) should be completed slowly to a count of “two-three.” If you go faster, momentum helps you complete the repetition, which makes it easier—and less effective. Your initial focus should be multi-joint exercises that target your major muscle groups. For example, the chest press instead of the chest fly, a triceps press instead of triceps extensions.
- Don’t hold your breath. Most people tighten their muscles and hold their breath during the lifting or pushing portion, but working muscles need a constant flow of oxygen in order to create energy to fuel their contractions. In addition, breathing properly reduces the tendency to tense up muscles, which will lower your risk of injury. Try to inhale and exhale no matter how much effort you expend. As you exert the greatest force, exhale; as you relax, or return the weight to the starting position, inhale. (Some experts recommend inhaling through your nose, but if it is more comfortable breathing through your mouth, do that.)
- Bending is best. Whether you’re lifting free weights or pushing or a pulling a strength training machine, you’ll extend your limbs to their full reach before retracting them again. But never “lock” your elbows or knees when your arms or legs are extended, because you can strain, sprain or even tear a ligament or muscle. Make each movement smooth and be sure to keep a slight bend in your knees and elbows.
- Mix things up. There are innumerable ways to strengthen your muscles—whether that’s by increasing the heaviness of the weight, trying Pilates or yoga, doing a different set of moves or swapping machines for dumbbells. Talk to your exercise physiologist or trainer for ideas—most recommend that you change up your routine every four to six weeks to maximize results and minimize boredom.