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General Strength Training Guidelines
By C. and D. Schurman, CSCS
How many body parts should I work in a routine? How often should I do strength training? How long do I rest in between sets or even workouts? How many sets, reps, exercises? And so forth. These are the types of questions we get from our clients and on our Ask Body Results Forum every day. To help readers better understand some of the complexities of strength training, we’ve outlined some general principles for strength training, below.
Duration of Strength Sessions
Try to keep your strength training sessions (from first heavy work set to last) to an hour or less. This doesn’t include any warming up, stretching, or cardiovascular training you might want to do. While there ARE some people out there who have the capacity to do more high-intensity strength work beyond an hour at a time (i.e. someone with fantastic genetics, with a high tolerance for work, or who may be taking something to help them), for most of us, 45-60 minutes of high quality effort is about all we need or can put out before we actually start going into a catabolic (breaking-down) state.
Try to train each muscle group anywhere from one to three times per week. When you first start a program, you may be able to train the full body three times a week; after you’ve been training seriously for a number of years, you may find that in order to recover enough to be able to make progress in the next workout, you only need to work a body part or muscle group once every seven to ten days! This is a highly individual variable; to share my own experience, I’ve been strength training since the high school days of swim team and basketball, but much more seriously over the last seven years. My split consists of upper body exercises twice a week (one day is pushing-dominant with assistance exercises and the other is pulling-dominant) and lower body twice a week (one is speed- and power-dominant, the other endurance-dominant.) There truly are as many “splits” out there as there are individuals, and Body Results trainers can help you figure out what works best for you via our WebTrainer (for more information on how to get started, see www.bodyresults.com/p1webt.asp.)
Choice of Exercises
Try to use primarily compound, multi-muscle free weight exercises rather than exercising on machines that “isolate” a particular muscle group or exercises that only work very small muscles. For example, the squat, clean, and deadlift (with any and all variations thereof) work the entire posterior chain (or back side of the body) including the thighs, hips, butt, lower back, upper back, abdominals, and to some degree (depending on grip) the shoulders or arms. Compare that to a leg extension machine where you’re only hitting the front of the thigh (quadriceps) and you’d have to do 6 more exercises to hit the same muscles that you’re using for either the squat, clean, or deadlift. Compound exercises let you get in and out of the gym more quickly, and allow you to use heavier weight, thus giving you more results.
Be sure when you’re doing any exercise that you are controlling the weight and performing each repetition with quality form. If you get sloppy with your repetitions, you 1) won’t get as much from the exercise as you could, 2) increase your risk of injury, 3) recruit different muscles than you’re actually trying to target, and 4) teach yourself bad habits that will be much more difficult to break. The most common example is someone trying to “cheat” curl a monstrous weight who has to use a large amount of torso swing (involving the lower back, upper back, shoulders and thighs) to rock a barbell upwards and catch it somewhere before it hits his sternum. While he may be trying to target his biceps, the weight is far too heavy and he may end up having a hernia instead of getting the biceps to grow. If you’re going to cheat, there is a time and place for it AND a safe way to do it, but not when you’re just starting out.
Avoid Training to Failure
We’ve discussed this principle before at www.bodyresults.com/e2rpe.asp in our Rating of Perceived Exertion article. In general, try to end each set before going to all-out failure. This means trying to keep a couple of repetitions remaining in reserve. As with any rule, there are exceptions – for example, if you want to find your 1RM (1 repetition maximum) on a bench press or squat, on occasion you will do a repetition that you simply cannot complete (which is the same as going to failure). Since this is quite taxing on the nervous system, if you “train to failure” too often, you run the risk of overtraining.
Try to vary the number of repetitions, number of sets, and types of exercises you do every two to six weeks. If you like body weight exercises including situps, pushups, and pullups, for example, go right to the training article at www.bodyresults.com/e2pushups-pullups.asp. If you like the bench press, alter the angle, hand spacing, try dumbbells, barbells, 1-arm presses, stability ball presses, chain presses (more like a pushup), or try adding bands or chains for additional resistance. Try alternating back and forth between muscle groups –in other words, do a set of a pulling exercise, then a set of a pushing exercise, and repeat back and forth until you’ve completed the desired number of sets. If you always try to do sets of 20, throw in a few sets of 6 or 10 and try to lift more weight; if you always do single repetitions, try a few sets of 4-6 to build a little more endurance.
IN GENERAL, each workout, try to make some sort of progress over the previous workout. That may mean trying to add 1.25 or 2.5 pounds to each side of a dumbbell or barbell, completing an extra repetition over what you tried last workout, or slowing down the repetitions so that the muscle group has to work that much harder. You need to progressively overload a muscle group in order for it to be stronger the next time you work it. If you’re always doing the same 20 situps or 30 pushups, you might find that that particular exercise gets easier, but then what? Find a way to change the angle, add weight, or somehow make it more challenging. Remember, though, that there will come a point where the dramatic gains you may experience when you first begin ANY new program will eventually slow down and it will seem harder to keep increasing your strength – which is when you have to become more creative with your lifting and start trying more advanced training strategies including:
- wave loading (see www.bodyresults.com/s2preseason3.asp)
- ladder training (see www.bodyresults.com/e2ladder.asp)
- “5% Solution” (see www.bodyresults.com/e25solution.asp)
If it were a simple matter of forever continuing to add weight in order to get stronger, top bodybuilders including Arnold Schwartzenegger would be able to hoist a truck in the air and top Olympic and powerlifters would be shattering world records left and right.
Finally whenever doing exercises such as bench press or squat, be sure to use a spotter or perform the exercise inside a squat rack with the safety bars set to act as your spotter if you get in trouble and cannot lift the weight back up. Always be safe! Keep lifting!