The Language of Strength Training
Ok, maybe you and a friend have decided to join a local gym. Or maybe you found some weights in the garage and you've bought a book to help you get started with weight lifting at home. You might want to learn about some of the language used in strength training. It's easy.
First, those heavy black, or grey, or colored things that you are lifting are the "weights". The smaller 1, 2, 5, 10 pound weights, like the ones the woman is holding in the picture above, are usually called "hand weights". The larger, heavier weights like the one the man is lifting may be called "barbells" or "dumbbells". Some companies make weights in special shapes and they have their own names like "kettlebells". Gyms also have strength training machines that use weighted bars for resistance. Some gyms use strength training machines that use oil-filled pistons or air to create resistance. You can also used rubber resistance bands for strengthening. The principle is the same, you make your muscles stronger by making them move more weight.
You may hear people in the gym talking about reps or sets.
“Reps” means repetitions, the number of times that you lift a weight.
“Sets” refers to groups of repetitions with a rest period in-between.
For example, if you lift a weight up and down 10 times in a row that's 1 set of 10 reps.
If you lift the weight up and down 10 times, then take a little rest, and then lift the same weight 10 more times, you can say that you've done "2 sets” of "10 reps” apiece.
Simple -- you'll sound like a pro.
The next thing you need to do is to figure out how much weight you need to lift and how many reps you need to do. If you were a professional football player, your trainer would take you to the gym and watch you lift weights to determine how much weight you could lift with each set of muscles. Then the trainer might test you again after a few weeks to see if you were getting stronger. But I don't recommend that sort of testing for the rest of us. It would be too easy to overdo things and get injured.
Instead, we can just focus on finding a safe weight to start with for each set of muscles.
If you are just starting a strength training program, I recommend starting with fairly low weights to give your muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons a chance to adjust to new stresses.
So to get started, find a weight that you can lift or push about 10 times before you need to rest. Each group of muscles will be different. Your legs will probably be stronger than your arms. If you are lifting weight with the biceps muscles of your upper arm, that weight might be 2 or 3 pounds. If you are using a leg press machine, you might be able to start with 40 or 50 pounds. Use that weight 2 or 3 times a week for 1-2 weeks or until it gets easy and you can lift or push the weight 12 or 13 times or more. When that happens it's time to increase the weight a bit. In other words, if you've been lifting a two-pound weight with your arms and its becoming easy, increase the weight to 3 pounds and go back to lifting it 10 times. If you're working on a leg press machine and you are pushing 50 pounds, once it gets easy and you can push it more than 12-13 times, increase the weight to 55 or 60 pounds and go back to pushing it 10 times.
Then after another 2-3 weeks, the weights may get easy again, at least for some exercises. When that happens, increase the weight again until you can only move it about 10 times without a rest. At the end of the set of 10 repetitions, your muscles should feel quite tired. Use that weight for your workouts for the next few weeks. Then, when it gets easy to lift, increase the weight again. You get the idea. If you are working in a gym, they may give you a chart to keep track of your machine settings and your weights. If they don't, bring your own notebook.
Take your time. After a few months, you should get to the point where you can use this rule: if you can't lift the weight at least 8 times, it is too heavy; if you can lift it more than 13 times, it is too light. At first, you will be able to increase the weights every 2 or 3 weeks but later, as you get stronger, the changes may come only every few months.
OK, now you have learned how to figure out the weights and reps. But, how many sets should you do? Remember, "Sets” refers to groups of repetitions with a rest period in-between. You will often see people doing 3 sets of 10 reps apiece. That means they lift the weight 10 times, then rest a minute or so and then lift that same set of weights again. Then they do the same thing for a third time But doing three sets of each weights may not be right for you.
How many sets you should do depends on several factors, including how long you have been exercising, how much time you want to spend in the gym, and what you are trying to accomplish. Studies have shown that you only need one set for each muscle group to build strength. So, for most people, doing one set of 10 repetitions for each muscle group, two or three times a week will give you good results.
However, some people like weightlifting and want to do more. That's OK. If you have extra time and, if you are not experiencing significant muscle soreness or fatigue between workouts, you can increase to 2 or 3 sets of 10 repetitions per machine per visit. Either way, whether you do 1, 2 or 3 sets, you need to work at a level where your muscles feel tired at the end your exercise for each muscle group. You don't need to crawl out of the gym or limp to the couch, but you should feel tired when you finish your weight training program.
And remember, the most important part of "progressive strength training" -- when the exercise gets easier, don't increase the number of repetitions that you do, increase the weight. Lifting light weights 15 or 20 times is exercise but it is not strength training and it will not make you stronger.
You may get a little sore when you start a new exercise program but you should not have pain while doing the exercise. Please look at the page called muscle soreness, for more details.