Strength training exercises

Challenging your muscles with strength training (also called resistance training) exercises 2 or 3 times each week is all that is needed to improve the strength and tone of your muscles – as well as gain you several long-term health benefits to your muscles, bones and general metabolism. But like all forms of exercise, you need to undertake it on a regular basis.

Why tone up?

Life today sees many of us ‘sitting’ for long stints during the day, every day. Our muscles pay the price: the stiffness of joints and the weakening of muscles that we sometimes blame on ageing are often a direct effect of inactivity.

Making the effort to have toned muscles will mean you have strong muscles. Strong muscles are firmer – they look better – and they help avoid potentially debilitating bone and joint injuries. Doing strength training exercises can increase your lean body mass (the non-fat parts of your body), which raises your metabolic rate, so helping with weight management. Having well-trained muscles also improves your ability to take up and use glucose which reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes.

What are strength training exercises?

Strength training exercises work your muscles by applying a resistance against which the muscles need to exert a force. The aim is to use an appropriate weight or resistant force that will work the target muscles to fatigue, over 8 to 12 repetitions of an exercise. A typical beginner’s strength training programme involves 8 to 10 exercises that work the major muscle groups of the body. These exercises are usually performed 2 to 3 times every week.

Whilst going to a gym will provide access to specific strength training equipment and supervision, as well as providing an environment that some people find supportive, it's not essential and some strength training can be undertaken at home. For example, in many exercises, the weight of your own body is used as the resistance against which the muscles need to work, and a pair of hand-weights or even 2 soup cans can supply the resistance in some exercises.

How often should you do strength training?

Strength or resistance training is just one component of an all-round fitness programme, which should cover aerobic fitness, flexibility, muscular strength and endurance. If you are a beginner exerciser, you will gain the most benefit from 3 strength training sessions a week, however, 2 sessions will still give very good results.

Initially, the improvements in strength are due to neurological adaptations, as your nervous system learns how to more effectively recruit your muscle fibres. Then, as you continue with the program, some muscle growth, as well as improvements in tone becomes noticeable.

It is generally recommended that you don't train the same muscles on consecutive days. This is because muscle tissue needs to recover from the strength training which stimulates its growth. If you do want to train on consecutive days, it's recommended that you work on different muscle groups, e.g. arms on Monday, legs on Tuesday.

Sticking to your routine is the key to maintaining your fitness and as your strength improves you'll need to increase the amount of resistance that you use with each exercise. A gradual increase will reduce the risk of muscle strains, which can occur if you increase your loads too rapidly.

Warming up and stretching

Before doing your strength training exercises, you need to warm up. This means about 5 minutes of activity, such as cycling, rowing or skipping.

The aim is to increase your heart rate and to raise a light sweat. The increased movement of blood through your muscles will warm the tissues and make them more pliable – a simple measure to help prevent injury during exercise.

Follow your warm-up with a short 5-minute stretching routine, again as a means of preparing your muscles. Make sure you gently stretch each of the muscles that you will be working during the strength training exercises – the muscles in your back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms and legs – holding each stretch for just over 10 seconds.

You can stretch the muscle group you have just used immediately after your set of strength training exercises – before you move on to the next exercise. The muscles will be warm and flexible at this time. For example, do a set of 12 reps of a biceps curl and then stretch your biceps muscle before moving on to a triceps strength training exercise.

Cooling down

Equally important is cooling down after your strength training exercises. This can involve easy walking or cycling for 2 to 3 minutes, followed by 5 to 10 minutes of stretching. The aim is to:

  • remove metabolites (intermediate substances formed by metabolism) from your muscle tissue;
  • prevent blood pooling in the lower half of your body; and
  • help you be ready for your next strength training session in 2 to 3 days' time.

Warning

The exercises and information included in this article are general. If possible you should seek more personalised exercise advice and have your strength training tailored to your individual needs. If you have an existing injury or any health problems, or you do not already exercise regularly several times each week and you are middle aged or older, first check with your doctor about your suitability for a resistance training programme.

Before starting your resistance training, ask a trained fitness instructor about the correct technique involved in such a programme, including ways to progress your fitness gradually and minimise injury risk.

Definitions
  • Programme: your overall fitness programme composed of various exercise types — aerobic training, flexibility training and strength training.
  • Session: a component of your fitness programme, e.g. a strength training session or a swimming session, which you perform a certain number of times each week.
  • Set: a group of successive repetitions of an exercise performed without resting, e.g. 2 sets of abdominal crunches with 15 reps would mean you do 15 crunches then rest or stretch the abdominal muscles before doing another 15 crunches.
  • Exercise: a particular movement designed to strengthen a particular muscle or group of muscles, e.g. calf raise. There may be 8 to 10 exercises to perform in a beginner’s strength training session.
  • Repetitions or ‘reps’: the number of times you repeat each exercise in a set. For exercises that work your arms or legs, you will need to count reps for one limb (say the right arm) then repeat these for the opposite side (the left arm), before moving on to the next exercise. The upper body is usually exercised for fewer reps than the lower body, e.g. 8 to 12 reps of a biceps curl compared with 15 to 20 reps of a lunge.
  • Weight or resistance: how heavy the hand-weight or fixed weight is, e.g. 3 kg. Different weights may be used for different exercises within your strength training session.

Strength training exercises

At the start. Begin with one set of each exercise, comprising as few as 5 reps, no more than twice a week.

Your aim. Gradually increase, over a few weeks, to one set comprising 8 to 12 reps for each exercise every second or third day.

Beyond this. Once you can comfortably do 12 reps of an exercise you should look at progressing further. Options include increasing weight or resistance – thus increasing the intensity of muscular effort – or increasing the number of sets of each exercise to 2 or 3. The health benefits of strength training can be attained safely by most people if they do 1 set of 8 to 10 reps of each exercise each second or third day. If you have a particular sporting goal in mind and want to increase your level of fitness further, talk to a trained fitness instructor about how to increase the intensity and duration of your strength training programme gradually.

Tips for strength training
  • Always exercise the largest muscle groups first, such as your hips and upper legs, then move to your lower legs, upper torso, arms, abdominals and lower back.
  • The abdominals and back muscles are stabilising muscles which help you to maintain correct posture and should be exercised at the end of the session so that they are not fatigued too early.
  • When lifting a weight, breathe continuously throughout the movement – don’t hold your breath or your blood pressure may go up.
  • When lifting a weight, control the movement: take 2 seconds for the lifting movement, pause for one second, then 4 seconds for the lowering movement.
  • Concentrate on maintaining good posture – use a mirror to see that your body is aligned correctly.
  • Limit strength training sessions to one hour in length – no more.
  • Don’t do strength training sessions on consecutive days unless you work different muscle groups in each session, e.g. arms on Monday; legs on Tuesday.
lunges1. Lunges — to strengthen your hamstrings (back of thigh), quadriceps (front of thigh), gastrocnemius (calf) and gluteus maximus (bottom) muscles. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, hands on hips. (Optional: hold a small hand-weight in each hand, with your hands by your sides.)
1 rep = step one leg a generous stride length forward and bend this knee to make a right angle between your thigh and your shin. Allow the heel of the back foot to lift off the ground as you bend the back knee towards the floor. Hold for a few seconds, then return to standing upright. Do the same movement, this time moving the opposite leg to the front. Note: keep your back straight and head upright throughout; make sure that your front leg does not bend beyond forming a right angle between your thigh and shin, that is, don’t allow your front knee to extend over your foot.
squats2. Squats — to strengthen your quadriceps (front of thigh), gluteus maximus (bottom) and soleus (deep calf) muscles. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. (Optional: hold a small hand-weight in each hand.)
1 rep = slowly bend at the hips and knees, lowering yourself until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Slowly return to standing upright.
standing calf raises3. Standing calf raises — to strengthen your gastrocnemius (calf) muscles. Stand on the edge of a step with just the front of your foot on the step. Hold the railing for balance throughout the exercise.
1 rep = take your weight on the ball of one foot by lifting the opposite foot off the ground slightly. Raise the heel of the foot that’s taking the weight as high as is comfortable, then return to the level position; lower this heel until you feel a stretch in your calf muscles, then return to the level position.
wall push ups4. Wall push ups — to strengthen your chest, arm, shoulder and upper back muscles. Stand facing a solid wall at arm’s length, with feet shoulder width apart. Place the palms of your hands flat on the wall, at shoulder height. Before starting, step your feet back a few inches.
1 rep = slowly lean closer to the wall and let your hands take some of your weight by allowing your elbows to bend. Keep your back and neck straight and in line with your legs; avoid bending at the hips. Lean as close to the wall as is comfortable and hold for a few seconds, then straighten your elbows as you return towards the upright position. Remember to keep your abdominals contracted to prevent your back from arching. Note: this exercise is really a standing ‘push up’. The exercise requires more effort the further that your feet are back from the wall. As you gain strength you may like to progress to a knee push up, which is performed on the floor in a face-down position, and then to a standard push up.
biceps curl5. Biceps curl — to strengthen your biceps muscle (at the front of your upper arm). Stand comfortably, with your feet shoulder width apart, and hold a small hand-weight in one hand, palm facing to the front.
1 rep = bend your elbow so that you raise the hand-weight to your shoulder, stopping short of fully flexing your elbow. Return to the starting position by slowly lowering your forearm. Avoid fully straightening your elbow. Keep your wrist straight throughout.
triceps extension6. Triceps extension — to strengthen your triceps muscle (at the back of your upper arm). Lie on your back on a floormat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hold a small hand-weight in one hand, at arm’s length above your shoulder. Use your free hand throughout this exercise to support the upper arm that’s being worked, aiming to keep it in a vertical position, perpendicular to the floor. Avoid holding the weight over your face or head.
1 rep = slowly lower the weight, stopping just before your elbow is fully bent (flexed). Return the weight to the starting position.
abdominal crunches7. Abdominal crunches — to strengthen your rectus abdominus muscles (at the front of your abdomen). Lie on your back on a floormat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, shoulder width apart. Rest your forearms crossed over your chest with your hands on your shoulders. Tuck your chin into your chest to ensure the back of your neck is lengthened.
1 rep = raise your head and upper back off the floor as far as is comfortable, aiming to raise yourself to your knees. Concentrate on using the muscles at the front of your abdomen to achieve this movement, rather than bending your neck and upper back excessively. Hold for a few seconds, then gently lower your head and upper back to the floor.
seated abdominal twists8. Seated abdominal twists — to strengthen your oblique abdominal muscles (at the sides of your abdomen) and your rectus abdominus muscles (at the front of your abdomen). Sit on the edge of a chair with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, shoulder width apart. Place one forearm on top of the other and raise your arms in front of you, to shoulder height. Lean back slightly and tighten your abdominal muscles.
1 rep = twist as far as you can in one direction, hold for a few seconds, return to the centre. Repeat in the opposite direction.
back extensions - lying down9. Back extensions — to strengthen your upper and middle back muscles. Lie face down on a floormat, and bend your elbows so that your fingers are touching your ears.
1 rep = slowly lift your chest and shoulders approximately 15 cm off the ground – hold – then slowly lower to the ground again.
quad knee and arm extension10. Quad knee and arm extension — to strengthen your upper, middle and lower back muscles. On a floormat, position yourself on all fours (on your hands and knees) with your back flat and parallel to the floor. Focus your eyes on the mat to keep your neck straight.
1 rep = while keeping your head, neck and back in a straight line, slowly raise one arm and the opposite leg off the ground, so that the elevated limbs are in line with your torso. Hold for a few seconds, then lower your limbs to the floor again. Repeat using the opposite limbs. Hold your abdominal muscles tight to prevent your back from arching.
Last Reviewed: 24 March 2015
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