The Ultimate Guide to Strength Training

There's more to fitness than tedious cardio. Here's why strength training needs to be a part of your workout routine.

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Whether you're a dedicated runner, a regular in the front row of your local cycling studio, or a newly obsessed pickleball fan, you know the benefits that exercise can have on your cardiovascular system and mental health. But if you're focusing your fitness routine only on cardio, you're missing out on all of the upsides of strength training. The idea of picking up a set of dumbbells or trying a new weight machine might be intimidating, but strength training is an important part of a well-rounded fitness routine and offers many more benefits than just muscle gains.

Not sure where to start? Use this guide to learn more about the basics of strength training, its benefits, and the best strength training exercises to add to your routine.

What Is Strength Training?

Strength training, also known as resistance training, is a way of building muscle strength or size by contracting your muscles against an external resistance (think: free weights, kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells, or your own bodyweight thanks to gravity). Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends incorporating at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities into your weekly workout routine, making sure you hit all major muscle groups (such as legs, arms, back, and core) with your strength training exercises. For maximum benefits, aim to do at least one set of eight to 12 reps of each exercise; by the end of your set, you should be struggling to complete another rep, advises the CDC.

Once you feel comfortable with that basic strength training routine, you can increase the intensity by either adding more weight, increasing your reps, or varying your tempo. "In order to get the most out of your workouts, you want to train at a relatively high intensity to the point where you are close to or unable to perform any additional repetitions with proper form and technique," says Brandon Groth, C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning specialist and managing partner at Delos Strength in Chicago. "This will provide enough stimulus to the body to start making these adaptations and changes" — that is, muscle growth and improved strength.

BTW, don't forget about recovery. "Overdoing it and working out every day for hours at a time can actually have a negative impact on your results and overall health," advises Groth. "You want your body to fully recover between sessions so you can continue to make progress and get results."

Strength Training Equipment

While strength training is often associated with lifting weights, you can also use your own bodyweight as a form of resistance, notes Betina Gozo, C.P.T, C.F.S.C., a certified personal trainer and Nike Global Trainer. "Bodyweight [training] is number one," she emphasizes. "You can strength train anytime, anywhere with just your body" and still see improvements in muscle strength.

One way to amp up bodyweight strength workouts? Adding isometric holds (aka holding completely still for an extended period of time, such as a squat hold) or eccentric training, which focuses on lengthening the muscle fibers (usually during the portion of the exercise that returns the weight to the starting position, such as when you bring the dumbbell back up during a biceps curl). "You'll often build muscle and strength faster when training eccentrics, and when you are training isometrics at the end range, it will help your body get stronger in the movement you are training," adds Gozo.

But if you belong to a gym or have access to a few sets of dumbbells, use the strength training equipment at your disposal for more effective and efficient workouts, adds Groth. Or for those working out at home, a set of adjustable dumbbells, a suspension trainer such as a TRX, and some resistance bands can help you level up your strength training, says Groth.

Once you're ready to add strength training equipment to your routine, you have plenty of options to suit your needs:

  • Resistance bands: Similar to oversized rubber bands, resistance bands are strips of elastic that come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. In general, the thicker a resistance band, the more resistance it provides (mimicking the feel of a heavier weight). They're lightweight and easy to transport, making them ideal for at-home workouts or travel (or, you can use them to fake heavier dumbbells — here's how).
  • Dumbbells: A dumbbell consists of a straight handle with two equally sized weights on each end, evenly distributing the weight. Dumbbells come in dozens of different weight options, as low as one pound and as high as 150 pounds. (Here's how to decide when to use light weights vs. heavy weights, FYI.)
  • Barbells: A standard barbell weighs 45 pounds and is about seven feet long, as does an Olympic barbell, and you can add weight plates as needed to reach your preferred weight. Some gyms may also have a 35-pound barbell that's smaller in diameter and only about 6.5 feet long; these lighter bars may be more accessible for beginners because there's less distance between the weight plates and thus less stability is required to perform any exercises. Other barbell variations include a hex bar, a safety squat bar, a multi-grip bar, and an EZ bar.
  • Kettlebells: Kettlebells have a bell-like globular shape, featuring a ball flattened on one end with a curved handle on the other. Unlike a dumbbell, the kettlebell's weight distribution is uneven and thus challenges your stability during strength training. Kettlebells are also ideal for complex or compound movements (think: a clean-squat-press combo) since the shape of the bell makes it easier to smoothly transition your hand placement.
  • Weight machines and cable resistance machines: Weight machines and cable resistance machines are mainstays in most gyms, and they allow you to safely move in fixed planes of motion (i.e., you don't have to worry about dropping a weight on your foot if it suddenly feels too heavy). They typically engage only one muscle group at a time using a set range of motion.

The Benefits of Strength Training

Sure, you'll see some muscle gains once you start resistance training, but there are even more health benefits that will come from consistently performing strength exercises. Here, experts break down the top benefits of strength training.

Prevents Injury

Quick anatomy refresher: As you age, you start losing strength and muscle mass, and these reductions occur at a faster rate if you're sedentary than if you're physically active. A weaker body with brittle bones is more prone to injury, whereas a stronger body with dense bones is more resilient, says Groth.

One solution? Strength training. "[Strength training] improves your overall strength and muscle mass," he says. "This [type of training] will lead to increased bone mineral density and will strengthen your connective tissue, joints, and tendons," because lifting weights applies a high amount of tension to your muscles. By applying tension to your muscles with strength training, you're training your body to stabilize itself under stress (think: reacting quickly when stepping off a curb the wrong way or carrying a heavy box overhead with proper form that won't leave you aching the next morning). Case in point: Consistent strength training programs have been shown to improve bone density in the elderly population.

BTW, people with periods see major reductions in muscle mass once they reach menopause, so if that's you, it's probably time to start strength training. In fact, muscle mass and bone density can start decreasing as early as your 20s, notes Groth. Runners may also benefit greatly from strength training to prevent injury, reduce the risk of running-related pain, and increase power, which can lead to faster paces. "Focusing on compound movements that involve multiple muscle groups will help [runners] improve overall strength, stability, and coordination," he adds.

Improves everyday functioning

Whether you're an apartment-dweller whose active dog needs plenty of exercise or you're a new mom in the suburbs adjusting to a hectic lifestyle, one of the biggest benefits of strength training is that it helps you with the tasks you tackle in daily life.

"Building functional strength and resilience allows one to accomplish everyday tasks," says Gozo. "Carrying groceries, chasing your kids around, or putting a big rack of dishes away up on a high shelf is way more attainable with strength training." That's because as you progress with your strength training, your body adapts to having more stress put on its muscular system. Or, put another way, carrying a Facebook Marketplace find up your stairs won't seem like such a grueling task when your body is used to weighted squats, shoulder presses, and farmer's carries.

Elderly populations, in particular, can benefit from strength training, says Groth. "Strength training not only can increase your longevity but can improve the quality of life as you age," he notes. "Being able to do more, have more energy, and recover from injuries and sickness quicker are things I think we all want as we continue to age."

And since strength training helps prevent injuries, a regular strength-training routine means you're less likely to be in pain or uncomfortable during your everyday life. "[Strength training] leads to fewer injuries, aches, and pains and makes the tasks of everyday life easier and more enjoyable," says Groth. TL;DR: Strength training just might be the thing that makes it more comfortable for you to move a heavy dog food bag or bend over to look under the sofa.

Increases metabolism

ICYDK, muscle tissue is a contributing factor to your resting metabolic rate (aka the amount of energy your body needs to continue functioning, or calories burned at rest). As your muscle mass increases, your resting metabolism increases as well, according to American Council on Exercise.

"Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so if you can increase your muscle mass, you'll be able to raise your resting metabolic rate," Alexandra Sowa, M.D., owner of SoWell Health in New York, previously told Shape. So lifting weights, swinging a kettlebell, or nailing that barbell back squat can contribute to a higher metabolic rate. But heads up: Your metabolism is also affected by several factors that are out of your control (think: age, genetics, or gender), so don't expect strength training to completely change your metabolism overnight. And of course, burning as many calories as possible doesn't need to be (and shouldn't be) the only focus of your strength training workout routine.

The Best Strength Training Exercises

Being a beginner to strength training can be overwhelming, from all the equipment at your disposal to the dozens of exercises you can try for each muscle group. However, you can start with simple, functional movements that mimic your everyday life, advises Groth. "Really nailing the basic movements will get you great progress," he says. "If you can squat, lunge, deadlift, and do push-ups and rows, you will be setting yourself up for success."

Ready to progress your strength-training workout? Try focusing on multi-joint compound movements, which recruit several muscles while also challenging your ability to control your body and improve balance and stability. Groth suggests breaking your strength-training exercises into these basic categories and choosing an exercise or two from each one to build a well-rounded strength-training workout.

The Best Strength Training Workouts

Whether you're rocking bodyweight strength workouts, lifting heavy with the barbell, or tackling something in between, there are plenty of ways to build muscle strength with resistance training. Try these strength training workouts two to three times a week for best results, according to the CDC.

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