How to Choose a Strength Training Program
No matter your fitness objective, resistance training can probably help you achieve your goals. Trouble is, with the internet so besieged by training tips and recommendations, how can you tell a strength training program that will deliver real results from another that offers false promises?
To help you cut through the clutter, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to choosing the best strength training program for you. Some programs will require equipment (free weights, resistance bands, etc.), some won’t. But before you even begin to worry about identifying the right tools for the job, you have to figure out what that job is. In short, you need to determine what you want your strength training program to do for you (besides the obvious, of course).
5 Main Goals of Any Strength Training Program
Whether you pump iron, stretch rubber, throw balls, pull cables, battle ropes, swing kettlebells, or use your body as your barbell, you’re going to become stronger. While some protocols and equipment are more effective than others, challenging your muscles triggers adaptations that help them better meet that challenge.
But the benefits of strength training extend beyond simply increasing strength. It can also help you build muscle (i.e., increase muscle size), boost power, improve muscular endurance, and lose fat, depending on how you approach it.
Here’s how training strategies differ for various goals.
1. Increase strength
Strength is defined as the maximal force you can apply against a load — or, more simply, how much weight you can move (lift, squat, press, etc.). Strength-focused programs typically use low-repetition sets with heavy weights that are at least 85 percent of your one-rep max (1RM).
Not sure what your 1RM is? “Use a weight that challenges you to complete six reps per set,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. “You should also rest for 2 to 5 minutes between sets to allow for sufficient strength recovery.”
2. Build muscle
If your goal is to increase the size of your muscles (think: bodybuilding), conventional wisdom dictates that you should stick to 6 to 12 reps per set, and to limit rest to 1 minute between sets. But new research suggests that the ideal rep range might be wider than previously thought. One study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found no difference in hypertrophy (i.e., muscle growth) between men who performed 20 to 25 reps per set and those who did 8 to 12 reps per set.
“The key seems to be lifting to volitional failure,” says Thieme. Also known as “technical failure,” it’s the point at which your form begins to break down (as opposed to “absolute failure,” which is when you can’t do another rep). “So choose a weight that causes you to reach that point in your last set of each exercise,” he adds. “That goes for every strength training goal, not just hypertrophy.”
How many times should you work out per week to build muscle?
As far as frequency, aim to train at least 2 days per week, and no more than 5 or 6 days. “The key is to stimulate muscle growth often enough to effect lasting increases in size and strength, but not so often that such adaptations are hampered by insufficient recovery,” Thieme explains.
3. Boost power
In the context of fitness, the technical definition of power is “the time rate of doing work,” which is basically the speed at which you can apply force. It’s all about explosive movement, and there are many ways to go about increasing it, but two of the most common are weightlifting and plyometrics.
To increase power by pumping iron, the typical advice is to perform multiple sets of 1 to 5 explosive reps using 75 to 90 percent of your 1RM. As with strength building, you’ll need to rest for 2 to 5 minutes between sets to allow for sufficient power recovery. Olympic lifting and power lifting are examples of this kind of resistance training.
The second common power training method, plyometrics, is also sometimes referred to as jump training, although that’s not entirely correct, as you can do upper-body plyometrics as well. Jump squats, split jumps, box jumps, clapping push-ups, and medicine ball throws are all examples of plyometric exercise.
4. Improve muscular endurance
The ability of a muscle to contract repeatedly for an extended period of time without fatiguing is known as muscular endurance. That’s not to be confused with cardiovascular endurance, which is the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the body’s tissues — including muscles — during sustained activity.
If you want to increase muscular endurance through strength training, you’ll need to do multiple sets of 15-plus reps. That typically means using a weight that’s around 70 percent of your 1RM. Rest between sets should also be minimal (30 seconds or less).
5. Lose fat
When it comes to exercising for fat loss, cardio gets the lion’s share of the attention. And while it’s true that cardio can be an effective option — especially if it’s high-intensity cardio (e.g., HIIT) — it’s not the only one. A strength training program emphasizing compound, multi-joint exercises at 6 or more reps per set can help you reach your fat-loss goal, says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., a strength coach in Boston, Mass. The reason: It keeps your metabolism elevated for longer after you finish working out, burning more calories overall.
Strength training will also help ensure that you don’t lose muscle as you shed fat. Studies show that when you focus on steady-state cardio (think: jogging) for weight loss, as much as 25 percent of that lost weight comes from lean mass, aka muscle). With strength training, nearly all of the weight lost is fat.
It’s worth noting, however, that while strength training can aid fat loss, you won’t optimize it without dialing in your diet. That doesn’t mean just cutting calories. Indeed, if you reduce your intake too drastically, you may experience the opposite of the desired effect, as your body might respond to severe calorie restriction by slowing your metabolism to conserve fuel and energy.
Instead, gradually lower your daily intake by 200 to 300 calories every few weeks until you hit the ideal intake for your desired weight and activity level. Also focus on fueling with whole foods, vegetables, fruits, and grains, and limit processed foods as much as possible. What you put in your body affects what you get out of it.
Secondary Benefits of a Strength Training Program
Pick a primary goal, and get any or all of these at no extra cost!
Among the most powerful fringe benefits of regular strength training are its bone-building superpowers. Bone loss typically begins in a person’s 30s, but can be slowed by strength training, thus reducing the risk of fractures later in life, according to a research review in Clinical Cases in Mineral and Bone Metabolism.
By extension, strength training can help prevent injury throughout your musculoskeletal system, even if it isn’t your activity of choice. Runners, for example, can benefit greatly from adding strength training to their weekly workout regimen. According to Gentilcore, bigger, stronger muscles may help runners limit wear and tear on their joints. “If the muscles are bigger, they’re able to absorb and produce more force,” he says.
Studies also show that building stronger muscles can improve biomechanics and reinforce connective tissues. The result: less time on the disabled list.
The whole “survival of the fittest” thing isn’t limited to the natural world. After analyzing data from more than 80,000 UK residents, researchers from the University of Sydney discovered that those who engaged in strength training at least twice a week reduced their risk of death from any cause by 23 percent, regardless of whether they did weightlifting or bodyweight training.
Key Elements of a Strength Training Program
Regardless of your goal, any smart program should feature each of the following.
All of the aforementioned strength training strategies emphasize compound (multi-joint) moves like squats and pull-ups that hit multiple muscle groups. “Muscles don’t work in isolation in the real world, so if you want to build functional, real-world strength, the bulk of your program should encompass exercises that train your muscles to be strong together,” Thieme says.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do isolation exercises like bicep curls and triceps kickbacks, which target a single muscle and move a single joint. It just means that they shouldn’t be the focus of your workouts.
No matter your goal, you won’t make gains if you don’t consistently increase the challenge to your muscles. This concept is known as progressive overload. By regularly increasing the amount of weight you lift, how you lift it, and/or the exercises you do, your muscles will continue to adapt by growing stronger, Thieme says.
Even when you find the perfect program for your goals, remember to incorporate recovery into your weekly routine. This means prioritizing quality sleep, nutrition, and hydration, as well as scheduling rest/recovery days.
“But don’t confuse rest with inactivity,” says Thieme. “Stay active — walk, hike, bike, swim, do yoga, etc. — but keep your intensity below ‘workout’ level.” If you can easily carry on a conversation, you’re good. If you can’t, you’re pushing yourself too hard to facilitate your recovery.
Keep in mind that it’s perfectly normal — even expected — to feel sore in the first 24 to 48 hours following exercise if you’re starting a new program or switching up your routine. This is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.
It’s usually temporary, and as long as it doesn’t inhibit everyday movement, it’s not a valid excuse to take an extra recovery day. But if it causes you to wince while climbing stairs or getting out of a chair, or if it lasts longer than a week, back off exercise for a day or two.
To make the most of your strength training program, you also need to prioritize protein. “Your muscles won’t grow if you don’t provide them with sufficient materials to do so,” Thieme says. “And in this case, those materials are amino acids.”
Shoot for 20 to 25 grams of protein per meal, and .5 to .9 grams per pound of bodyweight total per day. Protein shakes offer a quick, convenient means of getting the muscle-building nutrients you need throughout the day — especially after a workout.
What Are the Best Muscle Groups to Train Together?
There are no hard-and-fast rules as to which muscle groups you should train together. You may choose to follow classic bodybuilder muscle pairings like chest with triceps, back with biceps, and shoulders with legs. Or, you could do total-body workouts every time you exercise.
However, the muscle groupings you train on any given day are less important than ensuring you’re giving your muscles sufficient recovery time between sessions. If you work, say, your chest and back one day, don’t do an arm workout the following day, for example.
“Any time you press something you also use your triceps, and every time you pull something you also use your biceps,” Thieme says. So be mindful of which muscles you’re targeting, and give them ample rest before hammering them again.
How Long Does It Take to See Results from Strength Training?
So long as you’re training regularly, you can expect to see increases in strength within a couple of weeks of starting any new program. “Those initial increases are mostly neuromuscular,” says Thieme. “Your nervous system adapts fairly quickly to stresses, and will become more efficient at communicating with your muscles.”
Physical changes (read: muscle growth and greater definition), on the other hand, typically take longer to notice. With consistent training, you’ll likely start noticing changes in muscle size and shape after about 3 weeks.
Can You Get Stronger Without Weights?
People often assume that strength training means lifting massive weights, but there are modalities to suit any goal, preference, and price point. In fact, you carry a highly effective muscle-building tool with you at all times: your own bodyweight. And while bodyweight training has a reputation for being a beginner strength training approach or a “plan b” for when you don’t have access to weights, it can help even veteran lifters build more muscle.
“Bodyweight training can be just as effective as pumping iron for packing on lean mass, and if you want evidence of that, look at a gymnast,” says Thieme. “Pound for pound, gymnasts are among the strongest athletes in the world, and the only weight they use to build all that muscle is their own.”
Best of all? Using just your body allows you to do your weight training at home.