If you want to kick your fitness routine up a notch, consider giving the treadmill a break and showing the loaded barbells some love. You’ll still sweat those calories off with the added benefit of toning your body. But what is strength training, exactly? To put it simply, strength training (a.k.a. resistance training) involves using your own bodyweight or tools, like dumbbells or resistance bands, to build muscle mass, strength, and endurance.
If you’re new to the weight room, getting started might seem a little intimidating, but implementing strength training into your fitness routine doesn’t mean you have to completely say bye to your preferred workout. You can start by practicing resistance training just a few times a week, says Sarah Revenig, CSCS, trainer at Soho Strength Lab. “As you adapt, you can increase your frequency of training.”
It usually takes a few weeks to start seeing results, but strength training is a sure way to build rock-solid abs, load up on your booty gains, or seriously sculpt that part of your body you’ve been determined to tone up. It also keeps your system burning calories even long after you’ve left the gym, a benefit that makes strength training worth it for those with weight loss goals. Here’s a quick guide on strength training for those ready to get started.
Benefits Of Strength Training
- Stronger bones: “Over time strength training programs increase bone density and increase overall stiffness of the connective tissues,” Revenig says. “As we age, especially women, this is especially important because, while it might sound undesirable, these two things are critical to injury prevention. We need the body to be able to stiffen and stabilize upon impact or against an external force.”
- Improves body image: Several studies have looked at the relationship between body image and strength training and found that women who strength train self-report more positive feelings about them bodies after completing resistance training programs compared to those who don't. That was the case for the 49 college women in this study who strength trained twice per week for 12 weeks, as well as the 62 women who reported more positive body images, after lifting weights twice per week for 15 weeks, than the 92 women in the study who didn't strength train.
- Builds lean muscle and decreases body fat: As muscle mass increases, so does your resting metabolic rate. “A higher resting metabolic rate means that your body burns more calories at rest to just maintain essential functions of the body,” says Revenig. This doesn't happen overnight—consistency is key—and Revenig says you should pair your strength training with proper nutrition in order to see results.
- Can alleviate symptoms of depression: A meta analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry looked at 33 studies (a total of almost 1,900 subjects between them) to see if resistance training had any sizable positive impact on alleviating depressive symptoms. It determined that not only does strength training boost physical strength, but it also improves low mood, loss of interest in activities, and feelings of worthlessness.
Different Types Of Strength Training
- Muscle Endurance Training: Revenig recommends beginners start by lifting a higher volume, meaning more reps and sets, of lighter weights. "This allows your tissues to build up tolerance for more intense training programs,” she explains. “You can't expect to make progress when you constantly have to stop because you're completely out of breath.”
- Circuit Training: Circuit training involves going through a series of several exercises until you reach the last one, resting, and then repeating all the moves again (and potentially again, and again). Revenig says you can modify this kind of workout to align with your personal goals. “You can manipulate your work-to-rest ratio in circuits depending on what kind of training effect you're after," explains Revenig.
- Hypertrophy Training: Strength training does build muscle, and it can be used to increase the size of your muscles too...but only if you're doing a type of strength training called hypertrophy. So anyone who's worried that you’ll end up looking like a bodybuilder just because you picked up a weight, don’t be. “An increase in muscle size does NOT equate to bulking unless you are eating to gain mass as well,” says Revenig. You also have to be lifting medium to high reps of a moderate to heavy weight consistently to see significant changes to the size of your muscles, FYI. In other words, strength training a couple times a week isn't going to do the trick.
- Max Strength Training: Revenig suggests transitioning into this type of training once you’ve built up your muscle endurance and mastered basic form. This kind of training involves bringing your number of repetitions down to about 3–6 and increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting.
- Explosive Power Training: Explosive power training isn’t designed for beginners, says Revenig. “Beginners would not be successful in the explosive power realm until they have had time to develop maximal strength.” That’s because it involves training at maximum intensity for short periods of time. Olympic lifts and the push press are two examples of the explosive exercises she's talking about.
Strength-Training Tips For Beginners
- Start with a load that feels manageable. Use your judgment (or consult a personal trainer) to figure out what works for you. “If you’re struggling on rep 2 out of 10, the weight is too heavy," says Revenig. "Alternatively, if you find reps 8–10 of that same set to be challenging with the weight you picked, it’s likely an appropriate selection." As you start to build strength, you can gradually increase your weight load from week to week. “Try to match or slightly increase the weights you used the week prior,” Revenig suggests.
- Make the most of your warm-up time. Taking time to properly warm up is the fitness equivalent of allowing oil to heat up in a pan before you start cooking—it leads to better results! You can maximize your pre-workout time before strength training by doing dynamic stretches. Revenig recommends inchworms, deadbugs, hip bridges, and birddogs. Also try and get in 5-10 minutes of light cardio to lubricate your joints and elevate your heart rate.
- Avoid exercising to exhaustion. Revenig says research suggests ending your set just before you completely drain your tank is more effective. This is especially true for beginners, as doing so wasn't found to be necessary in order to increase muscle strength, according to a 2016 study.
Here's a five-minute dynamic warm-up video you can do before any strength training workout:
How much time should I put into strength training?
According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), you should actively strength train at least two times per week. It's important to remember to engage all the major muscle groups. That includes the legs, hips, core, chest, shoulders, and arms.
In terms of how long, there’s no specific time that you should be training for, but the exercises should be performed until you feel it’s difficult for you to get another repetition in. Your muscle strength and endurance will progressively increase over time, but gradually adding to the amount of weight and the days you workout will result in even stronger muscles, says ODPHP's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Jasmine Gomez is the Commerce Editor at Women’s Health, where she cover the best product recommendations across beauty, health, lifestyle, fitness, and more. When she's not shopping for a living, she enjoys karaoke and dining out more than she cares to admit. Follow her @JazzeGomez.