strength training what, why, and when
David Arcemant, BS, CSCS
Regardless of my client's goals, one thing is always for certain: we will be doing resistance training. Regardless of their status in fitness, whether they want to lose body fat, increase athleticism, or improve their quality of life, resistance training has been shown to be a must for everyone. Resistance training gives profound benefits for various and complex reasons. Here I will describe the most important considerations for resistance training and why everyone should be doing it.
-What is strength training?-
First and foremost, we must address the concept of training. Training is defined as a process towards an outcome or goal in the future. Therefore, each training day must have continuity for the desired outcome. In contrast, performing routines that lack a direct path towards the outcome is different than training. There is nothing wrong with doing exercises that do not have any direct correlation to previous workouts. In fact, people often begin exercising without any direct approach with the results they wanted. For example, losing body weight can very well be achieved while doing a variety of exercises, regardless of what approach is being made. However, without a training approach, the goal set out cannot be achieved as efficiently. For example, you may be able to run 10 miles without ever training for it, but it's probably more effective to train towards a 10 mile run.
Now, because training has been previously defined as a process for a desired goal, strength training is simply the process of becoming stronger by means of using resisted exercises. I know what you're thinking: what about people that do not want to become stronger? What if I just want to lose weight? What if I just want to run 10 miles? What if that isn't my goal at all?
Well, while the primary goal may not be to become stronger, becoming stronger will allow you to reach for your primary goal, whichever goal it may be.
So if strength training is utilized to become stronger, what does being stronger mean?
For that matter, what does strength mean?
Strength is defined as the ability to produce a force against an external load. Therefore, the stronger you become, the more force you can produce. However simple the concept of being strong sounds, the benefits of becoming stronger are through the adaptations achieved.
-So why should you strength train?-
As mentioned previously, becoming stronger leads to very important adaptations that can only be achieved through strength training. Whichever the overall goal may be, being strong will help you reach the end destination faster. A simple analogy to imagine is a destination that you set in your car when you want to reach somewhere. When you have a destination needed to be reached, you set your GPS to a series of paths you can take to best reach the location; If you already know where to go, you simply use your past knowledge in reaching the place desired. The car is used for transporting you from where you are now to where the GPS (or your own navigation) is directing you. If the GPS takes detours or is inefficient in navigating you to your destination, you will take longer to achieve your goal. Likewise, if the car is weak and shuts down often, it will take longer to reach your destination. However, a straight forward navigation with a strong and efficient car can bring you to a location with minimal hiccups. Sure, depending on where you are to where you want to be will still take time, especially if the desired location is a good ways away from where you are. But, the process will still minimize time constraints if the GPS and car were both efficient. Further, if the car shuts down beyond repair before even reaching the destination, then you will never reach where you wanted to at all! In the case of strength training and becoming stronger for your goal, the overall program can be viewed as the navigation map for your desired goal, but the amount of strength you have can be viewed as the car. Therefore, the stronger you become, the more efficiently and effectively you can reach your goal. Again, much like the car, being strong may not be the overarching goal. However, it is an effective means to the end and desired outcome.
-When should you strength train?-
So now your mind has been set that strength training is a must for your goal. So the next question is: when should you strength train? Well, there are a few factors to consider. One, how much time do you have? While some will have all the time in the world to put into their training and goals, others may be constrained to other life activities, such as work, family, and school. Second, how strong are you already? For those new to strength training, you may be fine with a minimalist approach to your strength gains. However, if you missed in the lottery of being genetically strong, strength training will be a bit more important to upkeep than someone who has been luckier with their gene pool. Lastly, what is your end goal? For some that have the actual goal of becoming stronger, such as a strongman, powerlifter, or weightlifter, strength training will be of high importance and will therefore be much more frequent. However, for others that wish to pursue other endeavors, strength training will still be of importance, but it will be under the other activities needed to reach the main goal.
With these factors stated, the general recommendation for adults set by the NSCA is two to three times a week with 2-3 sets of various multi-joint exercises. Good quality lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses will give the most bang for your buck, especially compared to most machine based exercises and single joint exercises like curls and leg extensions. Intensities should be kept moderately high around 70-85% of your 1 rep max. For most people, this does not mean much, so let's discuss a more practical approach to starting a strength training routine. In layman's terms, rep ranges should fall between 5 and 10 reps per set for strength gains to occur. Further, the end of the set should feel as if you only had 2-3 reps left for that set.
So, if we were to lay out a two day/week workout, here is what it would look like:
Squats x5-10 reps x2-3 sets
Bench Press x5-10 reps x2-3 sets
Cable Rows x5-10 reps x2-3 sets
Deadlifts x5-10 reps x2-3 sets
Overhead Press x5-10 reps x2-3 sets
Pulldowns x5-10 reps x2-3 sets
While this is a very basic and limiting template, this routine can lay a foundation for anyone new to strength training. As stated earlier, some will stall on their strength progress faster than others and may need to improve their strength by utilizing more overall training. That said, increasing the amount of sets can also delay any plateaus from occurring. Further, while the rep ranges are greatly varied, you can easily progress by finding a solid starting point and adding weight little by little each week until you begin to fall below the rep ranges, in which you can cycle the routine again with a higher starting point. This routine will also take a limited amount of time, which can also free you up to improve on other activities and goals!
1. Fragala, MS, Cadore, EL, Sandor, D, Mikel, I, Kraemer, WJ, Peterson, MD, and Ryan, ED. Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2019.