How to get strong? The answer to this question lies in resistance training. Not only will resistance (also called strength) training help you build a toned body with good shape, but it will help you develop power in the muscles (which, in turn, will increase your capacity for daily movements that require some degree of strength). This type of training is also really important to prevent against conditions like osteoporosis and posture problems. And it’s a great way to develop a lean body that requires more fuel consistently through the day (not just when exercising).
There are four variables you can use to achieve your physical goals and vary your programme to avoid boredom (trust me, it happens). Because these variable combinations can lead to unbelievably complex outcomes, I’m purposefully keeping things simple and prescriptive here – a kind of paint-by-numbers approach.
How to get strong: the principles
The first principle is repetitions (reps). If you’re aiming for growth in your muscles (resulting in improved tone and strength) work in the range of 8-10 reps. This means completing at least eight reps, but not more than twelve. If you can’t quite manage eight, drop the weight on the next set; if you can do more than ten, increase it. You’re looking to achieve “failure” in every set, in other words, you shouldn’t be able to perform another rep with good form on your own within the target range of 8-10. In general, lower reps (with higher weights) recruits more muscle fibres and builds muscle more effectively than the reverse so anything higher than around twelve reps and you’ll be heading into the muscular endurance territory (no significant size change). If this is your goal, aim for around fifteen reps.
An important note on the concept of “failure”! We’re not talking about pushing to injury. We simply mean that when you start to feel yourself struggling to either hold good form or contract those muscles one last time, you push against this and aim for one last rep. “Failure” is simply telling you where your current limits are. If your body’s screaming “enough” and you push past that, an injury is very likely. Which takes you right back to square one!
Beginner – if you’re a beginner and you want muscle growth, work at an upper end of twelve reps with an appropriate weight for the first 4-6 weeks, before dropping reps and increasing weights. You may not be able to do as many as twelve when first starting, but you’ll be surprised how quickly your strength improves. This gives you an opportunity to learn how to perform the exercises properly without overtaxing your muscles. Regardless of your goal, for your first four weeks you’re simply looking to build good technique as this is your ticket to avoiding injury and ensuring the most efficient and effective workout in the days, weeks, months and years to come.
The second principle is sets – the number of times you repeat an exercise. Initially, the higher the number of reps, the fewer the sets. I’d recommend a set range of 3-5, so use this to promote variety. A muscle needs to be challenged in order to adapt, so create challenges where you can. If you’ve been training three sets for a month, go to four sets for a while until you adapt and can handle the new load; then increase to five sets. From there you could come back down to three sets, but increase your weight. You’ll find that your muscles may get sore in response to the new challenge, but you’re not looking for soreness after every training session. The key to positive muscle responses is to find ways to consistently (though not too frequently) challenge them.
Beginner – start with two sets of any given exercise until you feel you’ve overcome the initial muscle soreness that occurs with a new physical activity. You may find you can comfortably increase to three sets after about three to four weeks of training.
3. Rest periods
The third principle is one of rest periods. This leads us into a massively technical aspect of programme design, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s keep it low key. There are two main types of muscle fibres in your body – fast twitch and slow twitch. Each uses different energy systems – think of them as the petrol vs the diesel engine. The petrol engine is your sprinter (fast twitch); the diesel is your marathoner (slow twitch). Each of these engines has different recovery rates. The petrol burns fuel very quickly, outputs more power but takes longer to recover; the diesel burns fuel more efficiently, but power output is slower and is quicker to recover.
So, in the case of building muscle, we’re using the petrol engine and need longer recovery between sets (60-180 seconds). If you don’t rest for long enough, the diesel engine kicks in, changing your outcome. Effectively, endurance – the diesel engine – breaks down muscle mass, so if you’re aiming for tone in the body, you’ll want to avoid using this engine altogether. Of course, if your goal is the endurance body and you’re performing high reps, you won’t need much rest between sets (30-60 seconds). Another way to gauge your ideal rest time is to start a new set once you feel you have enough energy to productively perform it.
There are different variables within the principal of tempo, but for our purposes it’s sufficient to say that one rep of an exercise for muscle growth should take around two seconds on the up phase (when the muscle contracts, or shortens, to produce the energy for movement), two seconds on the down phase (when the muscle is lengthening under tension), and one second in between the two phases. If you want to use tempo to vary your programme and provide some challenge, you could slow “time under tension” (TUT), particularly on the down phase, taking it to as much as four seconds. The important thing is to work with a speed that allows you to keep control of your movements, and to pause at the top and bottom of each movement for at least a second. This keeps any chance of momentum to a minimum.
Resistance training will help you:
• Reduce body fat
• Increase strength
• Increase metabolic rate
• Improve sexual function
• Increase flexibility and balance
• Reduce the risk of heart disease
• Improve functional movement for everyday living
• Maintain or even increase bone mass as you age
• Improve muscular agility, proven to help prevent incontinence
It’s also both your best anti-aging tool and the best non-surgical alternative for remedying back problems.
In, or nearing menopause? Watch here and here.
When to train/when not to
Perform resistance training anywhere from 1-6 days a week, depending on whether you combine upper and lower body in one session, or train them on separate days. Also, don’t train if you’re still sore from your last session, as your growth (and benefit) happens in the recovery period. Therefore rest is absolutely vital to a good training programme. You can see that the answer to the question “How to get strong” is multi-layered, and quite technical, but with a little focus and a clear plan, you’ll be reaching your goal in no time.