Have you ever heard that strength training is good for you and thought, “Yup, that sounds like a good idea, but…”
That “but” usually precedes a question. Like:
- “… but what exactly do you mean by strength training?”
- “… but does it require lifting heavy weights?”
- “… but can I add it into what I’m already doing?”
- “… but is it really that important?”
- “… but how do I get started? I don’t even know where to begin.”
In this article, we’ve got you covered. We’ll answer the top 12 questions we get asked about strength training, and we’ll even give you a sample routine you can try out today.
So if you have any hesitations about strength training, wait no further. Strength Training 101 is now in session.
1. What Is Strength Training, Exactly?
When you hear “strength training” you might think of a barbell loaded with weight, but there’s a lot more to it than that. (And many more options beyond doing heavy squats or beefy deadlifts.)
At Girls Gone Strong, we sometimes use the terms resistance training and strength training interchangeably. In technical terms, resistance training is any type of training in which the muscles work against some form of resistance. These types of movements or exercises impose an increasing demand on your muscles and central nervous system, causing an adaptation. That “adaptation” is your body getting stronger.
Here’s how it works.
When you apply a stressor, your muscles respond to and work against the stress. This movement against resistance causes microtears in your muscle fibers, and these tears are what stimulate the body to begin rebuilding the muscle. When you repeatedly stress and rebuild, stress and rebuild, you end up gaining muscle and increasing the efficiency of your neural pathways. All that to say, you are able to more efficiently perform the same (or similar) task in the future.
Say, for example, that bodyweight lunges are really challenging for you. With practice (repeated stress), your body is forced to rebuild those recruited muscles to be bigger and stronger and your brain learns and refines that movement pattern. Eventually, the movement becomes easier.
And while this is the most common form of training for building strength, the goal may not always (or only) be to get stronger. It is also useful for building muscle mass, losing body fat, improving certain aspects of physical performance, and rehabilitating an injury.
2. Is Strength Training Really That Important?
Strength training is really valuable for optimal health. Benefits can include:
- Increased muscle growth, strength, power, recovery, and endurance.
- Increased integrity of bone and connective tissues.
- Increased metabolism.
- Increased insulin sensitivity.
- Reduced rate of injury.
- Reduced lower back pain.
- Slowing of age-related declines like strength and bone loss.
- Prevention of osteoporosis (a disease characterized by low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue) and osteoarthritis (a common form of arthritis where the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of your bones wears down over time).
Strength training can be especially vital in helping us stay active, prevent falls, and enjoy a better quality of life as we age.
There’s also a psychological component.
Strength training can be incredibly empowering because it shines a spotlight on all the things our amazing bodies are capable of, rather than on our what our bodies look like.
So many times I’ve heard clients and friends say that they wish they would have started strength training when they were younger. I totally get that. It can make you feel stronger, more confident, and more willing to “take up space”. With some practice, strength training can transform from feeling like something you “should” do to being something that gives you life!
Like our GGS Coaching grad Sarah puts it: “It’s like I’m a totally different person. I trust my body. I have faith in it. I feel really strong. I’m 42, and I’ve just had two children. You wouldn’t think that this would be the time that that would happen. It feels really good.”
3. Do I Need to Use Weights in Order to Strength Train?
Simple answer: no. Since strength training is all about challenging your muscles through resistance, you can use, well, anything that creates resistance. The world’s your oyster!
For example, you could use:
- Exercise bands
- Exercise machines
- Bodyweight exercises
- Barbells and plates
- Medicine balls
- Suspension straps
Strength training workouts don’t need to be confined to the gym either. You can perform them at home, at the playground, or just about anywhere if you get a little bit creative. In fact, choosing bodyweight training can often remove or lessen certain barriers to strength training, such as time and money. (Imagine working out without having to pay for a gym membership, travel to and from the gym, organize childcare, etc.)
The takeaway here: If you’re super crunched for time and don’t have a lot of resources at your disposal, a bodyweight workout may be the answer.
In addition, regardless of your age, your fitness level, or your past training experience, bodyweight training can improve your strength with the appropriately applied progressions.
If you’re curious to learn more about how to properly modify bodyweight training exercises to increase (or decrease) their intensity, check out this article by Dr. Laura Miranda.
4. How Often Should I Train?
When trying to figure out how often you should strength train, there are a few things to consider.
First, I’d like to introduce a concept that we use in GGS Coaching called the Optimal Effective Dose (OED).
To explain the Optimal Effective Dose, imagine your efforts on a continuum. To find the right “dose” of exercise, we first need to establish what each end of the continuum looks like, starting with the Minimum Effective Dose and ending with the Maximum Tolerable Dose.
In training, the Minimum Effective Dose (MED) is the minimum amount of stimulus required to achieve a desired effect — basically, the bare minimum to more forward, which can be beneficial and appropriate for some people.
On the other hand, the Maximum Tolerable Dose (MTD) is the highest amount of stimulus that a person can handle before experiencing negative consequences. This is the kind of training that’s appropriate for professional or competitive athletes, and it’s often a full-time commitment.
Somewhere between the two, there’s a sweet spot that we refer to as the Optimal Effective Dose (OED). Your OED is what gives you results in a relatively timely manner when you work consistently, all while still living your life.
Your OED should allow you to do the following:
- Feel in control of your hunger and appetite (i.e., cravings).
- Recover enough from each training session to allow you to train again by the time the next session rolls around.
- Feel generally good and energetic (not overly sore or exhausted from exercise).
- Participate in other obligations and activities in your life (e.g., family, career, social, leisure).
Finding your OED is important because when it comes to training (and many other things in life), more isn’t always better (or necessary). If you can achieve the results that you want in a few short sessions per week, it doesn’t make sense to be grinding away in the gym for several hours more than that. It’s the equivalent of paying $50 for a T-shirt when the price tag reads $25. Get in, get out, and get on with it.
With that in mind, how do you figure out how often you should train? Here are two important tips that our GGS Coaching clients find helpful.
Tip #1: Consider Your Schedule
If your schedule allows for two 30- to 40-minute strength training sessions per week, and you feel confident that you can consistently get those done, that is a great place to start.
Resist the urge to set a lofty goal of 75-minute sessions several times per week if your schedule doesn’t currently allow for that. Why not set yourself up for success? When you consistently get the training done, it’s motivating! Success boosts your confidence and helps to further engrain this wonderful new habit.
Tip #2: Set a Goal That Works with Your Ability Level
Be honest with yourself regarding your current ability level. If you haven’t been exercising at all, it’s probably best to start small while you work on making exercise a part of your regular routine. This will help ensure that your new workout routine isn’t too overwhelming, either physically or mentally.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to get overzealous when embarking on a new fitness venture. We can easily to overestimate our time and abilities, which means that we’ll shoot for workouts that are actually longer, more intense, or more frequent than what we can really maintain. And when we feel discouraged, we’re more likely to quit.
Similarly, even if you’re an advanced exerciser, it’s very unlikely that you’ll benefit from engaging in multiple exercise sessions every day. Your body needs to recover adequately from one session to the next, which requires time — more on that later.
(And if you’re thinking about the fact that some professional athletes do, in fact, train very intensely, consider this: It’s their job. Their entire lifestyle is tailored to sustain this type of training, and even then, it’s usually not a year-round schedule.)
As a good guideline, a schedule of two to four strength training sessions per week works well for most women. The newer you are to strength training, the fewer sessions you need; the more experienced you are, the more you can handle. Here’s how this can look like depending on your ability level and the time you have available to train each week:
Keep in mind that, to be realistic, the other types of physical activity you engage in — like cardio training, group exercise classes, or yoga — should also be considered and included in your calculations of the total time you have available each week.
Bottom line: You’re better off setting goals you can easily and consistently achieve than setting overly ambitious goals and getting discouraged when you can’t achieve them.
5. Do I Need to Do Any Other Exercise If I Strength Train?
In our experience, an optimal combination for most women is to perform cardiovascular training in addition to strength training. We suggest a combination of the following:
- Moderate-intensity cardio
- High-intensity training (HIT) OR high-intensity interval training (HIIT)
We typically recommend HIT for beginner or intermediate exercisers, although advanced exercisers are welcome to do it as well. HIT training brings your perceived continuous effort throughout the workout to between 7 and 8.5 out of 10.
We only recommend HIIT to intermediate and advanced exercisers. This interval-based form of training brings perceived effort during the work periods to 9.5 out of 10 — or higher!
Regardless of which you do, we recommend doing it one or two days a week.
Moderate-intensity cardio should bring your perceived effort to 5 or 6 out of 10, and be performed one or two days a week.
When people think of moderate-intensity cardio, they often think of running or using machines such as the elliptical or stair climber. But there are tons of options for this type of workout, including:
- Fast-paced yoga
- Circuit training
As long as your perceived effort stays at a 6 or 7 out of 10 throughout the session, you’re good to go.
In addition to this, we recommend including as much low-intensity movement as your desire and schedule allow. This type of movement has you working up to a 2 or 3 on the perceived effort scale, and you should be able to carry a conversation throughout.
It doesn’t have to be perceived as “exercise” either! Here are some of the simple ways women in the GGS Coaching program are integrating low-intensity movement into their lives:
- Taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.
- Using active transport (like walking or biking) to go to work or run errands.
- Carrying groceries instead of getting them delivered.
- Picking up their kids or their pets.
- Choosing to park a little farther away and walk.
Instead of thinking that more is better, think about cardio in terms of sustainability.
You should enjoy the exercise that you do and be able to fit it into your life in a way that enhances it. If you don’t feel like you can sustain the amount of cardio you’re currently doing, both in terms of time commitment and enjoyment, stop and head back to the drawing board.
6. Do I Need to Bother Warming Up? (Can’t I Just Get to It?)
When I first started exercising, I hated to warm up. I thought it was a monumental waste of time. I’d walk on the treadmill for five minutes, and then get to it. I discovered that my body doesn’t perform best this way. Nowadays, I look at my warm-up time as a luxury. It’s 15 minutes for me to jam out to my favorite music and prepare my body and mind for movement.
For many of us, our bodies are used to doing one thing most of the time: sitting. Many people have sedentary office jobs, and their bodies are hardly primed for movement when they get into the gym. A proper warm-up should prepare you for training not just physically, but mentally as well.
A well-designed warm-up — like those we prescribe in GGS Coaching — that includes diaphragmatic breathing, general mobility work, and activation of main muscle groups also provides the additional benefits of reinforcing alignment, encouraging better breathing patterns, and building efficient movement patterns.
Components of an ideal warm-up include (in order):
You may not always have the time (or need) to do an ideal warm-up, so while all of these elements have their place, it’s up to you at each training session to determine what you need most that day. As some elements from the above list are marked optional, prioritize the ones that aren’t — namely diaphragmatic breathing and core-pelvic floor connection breathing — as well as dynamic warm-up and movement preparation.
Taking a few minutes to prepare your workout can make a huge difference in your mindset and the way your body moves and performs during your workout. It’s worth it!
7. What Kinds of Movements Should I Do?
Exercises typically fall into one of six major movement patterns. A well-rounded strength training program includes movements from all six categories. Though you don’t have to do all six on the same day, make an effort to incorporate movements from each category throughout your training program.
The six major movement patterns are:
- Single-leg or split-stance
- Upper-body push (horizontal and vertical)
- Upper-body pull (horizontal and vertical)
- Core (rotation; anti-rotation; anti-extension; anti-lateral flexion; and hip flexion with neutral spine, hip, and spine extension)
Here are just a few examples of each movement pattern:
Squat or Knee-Dominant
- Bodyweight squat
- Barbell back squat
- Barbell front squat
Hinge or Hip-Dominant
- Romanian deadlift
- Conventional deadlift
- Barbell glute bridge
Single-Leg or Split-Stance
- Reverse lunge
- Split squat
- Single-leg squat to box
- Push-ups (horizontal)
- Dumbbell bench press (horizontal)
- Overhead press (vertical)
- Barbell corner press (vertical)
- Inverted rows (horizontal)
- Lat pull-downs (vertical)
- Pull-ups (vertical)
- Half-kneeling chop (rotation)
- Pallof press (standing, tall-kneeling, or half-kneeling/anti-rotation)
- Front planks and variations (anti-extension)
- Side planks (anti-lateral flexion)
- Bear crawls (hip flexion with neutral spine)
- Prone back extension (extension)
When it comes to training, there are two types of movements: compound movements (also known as multi-joint movements) and isolation movements (also known as single-joint movements).
Compound movements involve more than one muscle group and joint while isolation movements involve only one muscle group and joint. Isolation movements aren’t absolutely necessary for everyone. For example, a person whose primary focus is to get stronger can get in plenty of bicep work by doing pull-ups, or enough quad work by squatting, instead of including biceps curls and leg extensions in their workouts.
When setting up your training, prioritize compound movements over isolation movements.
Why? Because compound movements provide the biggest bang for your buck by recruiting several different muscle groups at once. As a result, they use more energy, which also means that you’re better off doing them first when your “tank” is full and you can do more work.
Some examples of compound, or multi-joint, movements are:
- Squat variations
- Deadlift variations
After you have completed your compound movements, you can work in some isolation, or single-joint, movements. Some examples include:
- Bicep curls
- Seated leg-extensions
- Tricep press-downs
- Calf raises
Isolation movements are typically best used as a way to target a certain muscle for growth. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with using isolation movements, but compound movements should be your priority if your goal is gaining strength or using maximum energy expenditure to change your body composition.
8. How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?
The wonderful thing about being new to strength training is that it’s really common to experience strength gains and see physical changes relatively quickly. Strength training is a brand new stimulus for your body, which will respond quickly as a result! “Beginner’s gains” are a beautiful thing!
In GGS Coaching, our exercise programs typically include two to four sets of most exercises, though this varies depending on the person. Typically, the number of sets you perform is linked to the total number of reps you’ll do each set. The number of reps per set may vary depending on your goals, your training experience, and how frequently you are training. The following are some good guidelines depending on what your goal is.
Goal: Increase Your Maximum Strength
A max strength program will typically specify one or more main lifts for the workout. The rest of the program will include accessory lifts, which use a lower intensity and higher volume.
If you’re interested in gaining strength but not in gaining size, the accessory work is still important to complete. Instead, simply work toward the lower end of the volume range for the accessory lifts (i.e., 2 to 6 sets of 6, keeping track of how your body responds and adjusting accordingly).
- Main lifts: 2 to 5 reps per set and 3 to 6 sets for each movement
- Accessory lifts: 6 to 12 reps per set and 2 to 4 sets for each movement
Goal: Gain Muscle & Increase Muscle Size
Hypertrophy training is what is often referred to as “bodybuilding,” and the focus is on gaining muscle size. When training for hypertrophy, most programs typically include multiple exercises per body part within the same workout.
This type of training can and should use a wide range of loads and rep ranges to maximize muscle growth, although moderate loads are most often used since they allow for adequate mechanical tension, volume, muscle microtrauma, and metabolic stress.
- 6 to 12 reps per set and 3 to 6 sets for each movement
Goal: Improve Muscular Endurance
Muscular endurance is the combination of strength and endurance within a muscle. Muscular endurance training can improve the ability to deal with fatigue and the buildup of lactic acid — that burning sensation you can sometimes feel when training.
Typically, this type of training involves a moderate to high number of reps per set, but not necessarily a high number of total sets. Circuit training with low rest is one of the ways this type of training is often organized.
- 10 to 20 reps per set and 2 to 3 sets for each movement
It’s important to note that each one of these is a valid goal in and of itself. Let your personal preference — and not other people’s opinions — dictate what goal you choose for yourself.
9. How Much Weight Should I Use?
Before choosing how much weight you’ll use for an exercise, it’s important to know how to perform the movement.
For example, make sure you can perform a proper and pain-free bodyweight squat before adding external load using dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. Adding load to a movement that you are doing improperly will not help you progress in the right direction. The same goes for performing an exercise properly, but with pain. Only once you know how to properly perform the movement and feel comfortable with it is it time to add weight.
We recommend that you choose a weight that allows you to leave one or two reps “in the tank.” This means that after completing the recommended reps, you are still able to perform one or two more reps — with proper form — if you absolutely had to (but you won’t actually do them.)
Put another way, you aren’t training to failure, (i.e. to the point where your body simply cannot perform the exercise anymore). Your last rep should feel challenging, but doable.
Selecting the right amount of weight takes some trial and error, and the only way to figure out what is best for your body is to dive in. Try a lighter weight, see how it feels, and then adjust accordingly.
In fact, we recommend that you always err on the lighter side when selecting weights. Starting too heavy can compromise the integrity of the movement and prohibit you from being able to finish your set. If you realize that your selected weight is too light halfway through your reps, rack the weight, write that set off as an extended warm-up, give yourself a minute of rest, and go a bit heavier for your next set. No biggie.
10. How Do I Get Better?
As I mentioned earlier, part of strength gains stems from the stress placed on your muscles. The stress breaks down the muscle tissue, and then during recovery, the body repairs and rebuilds that tissue to be stronger than before.
In other words, if you want to get stronger and more efficient with your workout (and reap the other benefits, like increased muscle mass) one of the best things you can do — besides being consistent with your training — is, wait for it…
… work on your recovery.
When we say “recovery,” we aren’t just referring to rest. Rest and recovery are different. Rest means that you took a day or two off from strength training, or spent some time snuggled up on the couch with a good book. While these things are important — and recovery does include some rest — recovery is more multifaceted than merely resting your body.
When we talk about “recovery,” we’re mostly talking about three things: nutrition, sleep, and stress management.
Together, these things help your body repair itself after exercise and get stronger. With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to maximize your recovery:
- Eat plenty of nutritious foods and get an adequate amount of protein. 1–1.5 grams per pound of lean body mass is a good place to start.
- Be certain that you are getting plenty of high-quality sleep each night.
- Incorporate some ways to decrease chronic stress into every day. A 5- to 10-minute leisurely walk, a quick meditation, or a few deep-breathing exercises can fit into the busiest of days.
Your recovery is just as important — if not more so — than your actual training sessions. (That’s why in GGS Coaching, we don’t just work on exercise and nutrition; we also take a deeper look at your sleep and stress management practices to help you can reap the most benefits, both in and out of the gym.) If you feel like you’re not getting any better despite being consistent with your training sessions, take a look at your recovery. It might be the thing that’s holding you back.
11. What’s the Best Way to Get Started Right Now?
The answer? Try our sample workout plan.
Here are two sample workout plans you can use to train twice per week. To put this into practice, here are the basic steps:
- Before each session, start with foam rolling, diaphragmatic breathing, and a dynamic warm-up (like we saw in Question 6).
- After your warm-up, start by consecutively completing all the sets in exercise 1a, (resting 60 to 90 seconds between each set).
- Then, move on to the next set of exercises, alternating between exercises 2a and 2b until you’ve completed all your sets.
- Do the same for exercises 3a and 3b.
- Remember to rest 60 to 90 seconds between each movement.
Here’s your workout plan!
1a. Goblet squat: 3–4 sets x 6–8 reps
1a. Incline push-up: 3–4 sets x 6–8 reps
12. How Do I Stay Consistent?
When it comes to keeping up a strength training program (or any health or fitness change, for that matter), some days will be easier than others. So what makes the difference between “falling off the wagon” and making patient but persistent progress?
In our experience, it comes down to two key things: coaching and community.
The combination of a coach who’s in your corner and a supportive group of people who are there to celebrate your wins, share your struggles, and help you stay inspired… that is a magic combination right there.
While helping hundreds of thousands of women over the years, we’ve learned that when it comes to staying consistent, nothing compares to the magic combination of coaching and community. Again and again, our GGS Coaching clients say it’s these two things that help them stay the course, no matter what life throws at them.
So seek out supportive people, join together with friends, or find a coaching program that speaks to your needs and goals. You’ll be stronger for it.
Want help getting the best results of your life — without extreme dieting or exercise?
Finally with GGS Coaching there’s a way of eating and exercising that’s effective, enjoyable, and easier than ever before (even if you’ve tried everything).
If you’re ready to:
- Stop restricting, dieting, and obsessing about food
- Eat food you love — that satisfies you — and still get the results you want
- Spend less time in the gym, not exhaust yourself, and still achieve your goals
- Trust your body and trust yourself around food
- Feel good in your skin, and radiate confidence from the inside out
We can help.
That’s why we created GGS Coaching.
Women need coaches who understand their unique needs and challenges, and GGS Coaching is a coaching program designed by women, for women, run by women.
Helping women is what we do here at GGS. Tell us what your goals are, and we’ll help you achieve them in a way that lasts.
GGS Coaching was designed as the antidote to all of the typical obsessive, restrictive, exhausting diet and exercise programs out there, which are too difficult to sustain for any real length of time.
We get it. That’s why we use a sustainable, skill-based approach to help you practice the exact skills you need to get the results you want – without overhauling your life.
GGS Coaching isn’t just about getting the best physical results you’ve ever gotten in your life — it’s about becoming the best version of yourself, one step at a time.
On January 1st, 2020, we’re accepting a small number of new coaching clients.
If you’re ready to work with a world-class GGS Coach, we strongly recommend you join our free, no-obligation pre-sale list below to enroll early and save up to 45% off the general public price.
Once you join the pre-sale list, we’ll send you more info about the program. And when enrollment opens, we’ll give you the chance to register 24-48 hours before everyone else. Plus, you’ll save up to 45% off our general public price.