Beginning a Strength Training Program

Strength training is at the top of many “New Year’s Resolutions” and “to do” lists. However, if you do not have strength training experience and try to initiate a program on your own, you may end up with injuries, poor results, wasted time and a sense of failure. In order to make your resolutions a reality, you must plan ahead to make necessary changes to your lifestyle and seek out information to prepare yourself mentally and physically for your challenge.

This article outlines the basics of beginning a strength training program. The information provided is for new exercisers, and although we cannot demonstrate the exercises for you, the information should help you get started! Remember to consult your physician before beginning your program. She may have important recommendations for you depending on your health and medical history.

Make the Time
Once you’ve decided you’d like to start strength training, the first thing you MUST do is look at your schedule. Where and when will you exercise? Luckily, an initial program can take as little as one half hour, two or three times a week. If you have even less time per day, you can split your time up to 15 minute segments twice a day. In addition, you can create a very effective program that can be done in your own home, thus saving time and energy.

The Tools You’ll Need
You’ll need to buy some free weights, 3, 5 and 8 pounds depending on your baseline strength, and perhaps some additional fun tools like rubber bands and tubing and the very “hot” new prop, the physio-ball. Used in physical therapy for decades, these large balls are superb for stability and balance training as well as strengthening muscles. They can even be used as a “bench” for some of the exercises in which you may traditionally use a weight bench.

Order is important!
Large muscle groups should be worked prior to small muscle groups, so the order of exercises is important. I like the natural progression from legs, up through your core (the muscles that attach at your torso) and then to your upper body. I recommend the following order:

  1. Start with the large muscles of the legs,
  2. Move to your middle body (or “core”),
  3. Then on to your upper body

While order is important, you may find certain exercises challenging for your current fitness level, so you may choose to do those first. For example, abdominal and low back exercises can be done first (or last), as long as you are not too tired to do them well. Form is important to obtaining successful results.

Selecting the Weight
Choose a weight that produces fatigue in the muscle after 10-15 repetitions of the exercise. If you choose a weight that is so heavy that you can only lift it 6-8 times, you may risk injuring yourself – stay with “high reps” and lower weight to start.

Begin with one exercise per body part, performing only one “set” of that exercise. Rest between sets if you feel out of breath, or if the muscle becomes very fatigued.

Lower Body
For the large muscles of the legs like the quadriceps (front of thighs), and gluteals (buttocks):

  1. Perform a modified squat or lunge exercise first. Weights can be held at your sides during these exercises. You could also add a “wall sit” for stability and strength by sitting against a wall (like you are sitting in a chair) and hold this position for 10-30 seconds. This is much harder than it sounds!
  2. Follow these large exercises with exercises for the inner and outer thighs such as side lying leg lifts or inner thigh lifts, to provide balance and support for the hip area.

Middle Body
For your “middle body” or core, you’ll need to do an exercise to strengthen the rectus abdominus, or the ab muscle in the center of your belly, as well as an exercise for the obliques, the muscles at your waistline. The obliques are very important for good posture.

  1. “Curl-ups” (half a sit-up) will target your rectus abdominus, while crossing one shoulder to the opposite knee will get your obliques. Traditional situps, where you curl all the way up to your knees, are no longer recommended due to the risk of back injury.
  2. In addition, I always include a core stability exercise such as a “plank hold”. Plank hold is a yoga variation in which you rest on your forearms, with the rest of the body in a traditional pushup position (knees off ground, body “straight as a plank”, curl up on toes) and hold this position for 10-30 seconds. Keep your belly button drawn up into your spine and breath steadily as you hold this superb exercise.

Upper Body
Your upper body consists of your chest, back, shoulders and arms, and this is a good order to follow.

  1. For your chest muscles:
    First, try a pushup, modified on bent knees, or straight leg. This is a very difficult exercise. Proceed carefully and don’t overdo it. Keep your abdominals very tight as you perform the pushup so as not to strain your back. A pushup works not only your chest and arms, but also your “core” muscles, so it is very valuable. Those with shoulder or neck injuries should consult with their doctor or a physical therapist prior to trying pushups. Next, try a bench press or fly. Lie on your back and use free weights over your chest. (Think about the opposite of a pushup – weights are lowered slowly to chest and then pushed back up).
  2. For your back muscles:
    Single arm row, upright row or lat pull down (performed on a cable exercise machine) will target these all important postural muscles. I always tell my clients to do more back than chest exercises, as it is very important to have the back be strong enough to hold our posture. Low back exercises are also important, and a plank hold, as described previously, is one way to start.
  3. For your shoulders:
    An overhead press and lateral raise work the middle shoulder. A lateral raise is a more difficult exercise and should be done with light weights. Additional exercises for the back of the shoulder and the rotator cuff are very important, as again, we need to create strong postural muscles which will prevent chronic pain and injury. The shoulder is the most frequently injured body part from strength training, so consult an expert if you have any concerns.
  4. For your arms:
    We generally work the biceps, located on the front of the arm, and the triceps, on the back of the arm. A basic bicep curl, curling the weight up from the thigh to the shoulder, will work the biceps. The triceps are usually weaker than the biceps, so use lighter weights. Overhead extensions or “kickbacks” work these muscles well.

A basic program as outlined above can be done for 6 weeks before you need to add more. Because your body will adapt to your exercise program, you’ll need to increase weight, or double all exercises in 6 weeks or so. Change your program by changing exercises and adding more work every 6-12 weeks, depending on how quickly the program becomes easy for you. Be careful as you increase weights lifted – only increase by the smallest increment possible. Do expect delayed onset soreness from your exercise program, but do not tolerate any unusual aches or pains that do no subside quickly. Contact your doctor immediately if this occurs, as you may have an injury that needs attention.

Now that we have provided some basic ideas for you to get started, it’s up to you! There are many excellent books outlining strength training programs to assist you as well. Of course, consulting a certified personal trainer is money well spent, as you will avoid errors which could result in injury.

See related article: Strength Training for Women