If you're new to the concept of strength training, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of strength workouts out there. Some programs prioritize good form over everything else, while others emphasis a high-intensity approach. Program A suggests starting with dumbbell rows and Program B begins with the shoulder press. Program C insists the best results come from training 4 days a week, yet Program D claims you can see even more significant gains by training a mere 2 days weekly. It would be understandable if trying to sift through the vast amounts of sometimes contradictory information about so-called "best strength training workouts" drained the energy you intended to channel into your workout.
So, how can you actually determine which strength training workout will be best? The short answer: the best strength training program for you will depend on your goals, your experience level, and your personal preferences. For the long answer, read on.
Strength Training, Defined
The simplest, most fundamental definition of strength training is any muscle-building activity. To get a bit more precise, strength training describes physical exercise that uses resistance to induce muscular contraction, thereby increasing strength, anaerobic resistance, and the size of skeletal muscles.
That said, it's a common misconception that lifting weights will make you bulky. In fact, strength training can lead to more significant weight loss results than cardio training. According to Michaela Devries-Aboud, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at McMaster University, when you lift weights, you overload your muscles, which then trains them to adapt to lift more weight. This increases lean muscle mass. The more lean muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest. Having more muscle increases your everyday basal metabolic rate, making it easier to create a calorie deficit, a central component of weight loss.
While it's common to see the terms "weightlifting," "resistance training," and "strength training" used interchangeably, they are not synonymous with one another. Resistance training refers to any exercise that causes your muscles to contract against an external resistance, which can be your own body weight or any other object that activates muscle contraction. The term “strength training," which is also associated with weight lifting, refers to resistance exercises designed to build strength. And weight lifting functions as a subcategory of strength training.
Curious about what strength training workout routines entail? While there's plenty of variation, you can expect the following aspects to appear in any strength training approach you try.
- Heavy lifts: The defining characteristic of strength training is that you increase the amount of weight you lift over time. This is the best way to build strength. As you progress, you will go through periods in which you increase the volume (meaning more sets and more repetitions), but the ultimate goal is to push, pull, and squat increasingly heavy loads.
- Short sets: Strength training emphasizes sets of lower repetitions (often abbreviated to reps)—typically, between four and six—in order to allow you to lift as much weight as possible. For those who are new to the world of weight lifting, a set is a series of reps completed back-to-back and followed by a brief break before the next set.
- Rest periods: Taking a rest period that allows for recovery prior to each set allows you to lift more weight, which again, is the number one priority. It also ensures you can maintain proper form throughout all your sets, which improves performance and reduces risk of injury.
- Compound exercises: These exercises involve tasking multiple joints and muscle groups with moving through a full range of motion, and perfectly facilitate the goal of moving the heaviest weight possible. Some examples of compound exercises include: the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up/pull-up.
Why Choose Strength Training
According to the Mayo Clinic, strength training deserves a place in any fitness program. Even if you're a serious runner or a yoga devotee, it's important to make time for strength training exercises.
One reason for this is that as we age, our lean muscle mass naturally decreases. From age 30 to age 70, you can lose more than 25% of the strength muscle fibers in your body. Studies show that strength training can counteract negative aspects of the aging process by ensuring you maintain your muscle mass and motor function as you grow older.
Some other proven ways that strength training can benefit your overall health and well-being include:
- Encourage weight loss: In addition to the calories you burn while working out, and as touched on previously, strength training increases your basal metabolic rate so your body burns more calories at rest.
- Increase bone density: Strength training places stress on your bones in a safe, structured way, which increases their density and reduces your risk of developing osteoporosis.
- Improve balance: Research shows that building muscle can lead to better balance. This reduces risk of falls, allowing older individuals to remain more independent. It can also elevate quality of life for individuals of all ages.
- Alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions: Experts have found that strength training can reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms related to a number of chronic conditions, including heart disease, arthritis, depression, and more.
- Enhance cognition: It appears that consistent strength training sessions can sharpen cognition and learning skills.
5 Core Principles the Best Strength Training Workouts Share
There is no single best strength training workout. As we discussed in the introduction, several factors will influence which strength training workout is the best fit for you. Given that a universal goal for all strength training workouts is to build strength, however, there are certain core principles that the best and most effective workout plans share.
1. Practice Progressive Overload
The principle of progressive overload is central to classic strength training plans. Progressive overload describes the practice of overloading your muscles by attempting to lift as much weight as possible. The muscles respond by growing stronger, which allows you to lift heavier weights, which causes your muscles to grow stronger again.
Unless you are an advanced lifter, however, or working under the supervision of an experienced coach, you should not attempt to perform exercises at the absolute limit of your strength—what's known as a one rep max. It's possible to make significant strength gains using the principle of progressive overload to fatigue the muscle fibers by lifting sub-maximal weights for more than a single repetition.
To do so, many recommend training to failure, though different experts stake out sometimes contradictory views on the best way to put that into practice. Reaching momentary muscular failure means that the first repetition at a given weight fails due to inadequate muscular strength. Some coaches hold that you should train to failure on all sets, while others state that will result in overtraining and recommend only training to failure on the last set of a given exercise.
It's possible, too, to build strength in less intense ways. Progressive overload does not require one rep max lifts or training to failure. Instead, you simply need to ensure that you steadily increase the amount of resistance you're working against. If you're lifting weights, for instance, that means the amount you load onto the bar should be heavier 3 months from now than it is today.
2. Pay Equal Attention to All the Major Muscle Groups
Most of us tend to have a natural affinity for certain lifts. Say, for example, that the deadlift comes easily to you. It could be tempting to make that a mainstay of your strength training sessions and neglect the overhead press, pull-ups, the bench press, and so on.
While this may initially feel gratifying, over time, it will result in muscle imbalances. The best strength training programs give equal attention to the upper and lower body. That doesn't mean you need to do a full-body workout every time (although there's nothing wrong with that approach). You'll just want to ensure that all the major muscle groups get fatigued so that you build strength evenly throughout your body.
3. Give Your Muscles Time to Recover
As touched on previously, practicing progressive overload helps to build muscle. As you may know, or may be able to intuit, this type of training is quite demanding. That means you should give as much time and attention to recovery as you do to the active part of your training regimen. The stronger you get, the more important recovery becomes.
The best strength programs drill progressive overload for each major muscle group and—crucially—include adequate time for those muscles to rest and repair before they're trained again.
Just as there's no single answer to the question of which strength training workout is best, the amount of time required between workouts varies. For those new to strength training, some guidelines you may find helpful are to aim for training each muscle group at least 2 times weekly while including at least a full rest day between training sessions for each muscle group. That means if you tax your arms and chest with the bench press on Monday, you would let those muscle groups rest until Wednesday at the earliest.
4. Include Rest Periods Between Sets
It's vital not only to include rest periods, but also not to shortchange them. While it can be tempting to stick to short rest periods, which allow you to push through a workout faster and feel more of a burn as you do, cutting your rest periods short undermines the paramount principle of progressive overload.
Short rest periods will steer you toward lighter weights, or fewer sets, both of which will impede your progress. According to a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, individuals who take longer rest periods between sets build more muscle and gain more strength than those who take shorter rests.
So, just how long of a rest period should you use? A review paper published by Menno Henselmans, a peer-reviewed researcher and member of the Legion Athletics Scientific Advisory Board, set out to answer that question.
After closely analyzing all existing research on how different lengths of rest periods impact muscle and strength gains, Henselmans found that the best metrics come from your intuition. The most effective rest period will be as much time as you need in order to feel wholly prepared for your next set.
If you have the kind of temperament that thrives on precise measurements, you can stash these away. Typically, the time it will take you to recover works out to 2 minutes for light to average sets and 3 for your heaviest sets. Depending on the day, you may feel you need to take longer—and you should listen to that feeling.
5. Make Exertion Enjoyable
Don't discount this principle. Michelle Segar, psychologist and author of “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness,” explains in her book that the human brain is geared to make decisions that lead to immediate gratification. That means if you want to stick to a strength training program, it's important to choose one that results in immediate, satisfying results.
No one can change their physique in a single training session, but the approach you choose should consistently yield perceivable changes that make you excited for each session.
Keep in mind, too, that if a particular strength training program isn't delivering in the way you'd hoped, you can try a different one. That said, hopping from one to the next can impede progress. Unless it makes you entirely miserable, commit to a program for at least 3 months, enough time to accurately gauge what it has to offer.
How to Start Strength Training
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), adults should train each major muscle group 2 or 3 days weekly.
Older adults or those who have been previously sedentary should begin with light intensity exercises. One reason for this is that muscles get weaker after age 50 at a rate of approximately 15% per decade. To avoid over-taxing muscles, older adults as well as those unaccustomed to strength training should begin with lighter weights and shorter sessions. The ACSM recommends exercising 2 days per week and doing one set of 10-15 repetitions for each muscle group. Weight can be increased at regular intervals, bringing benefits such as increased bone density and decreased insulin resistance. Older adults should be sure to include core exercises in their training program to improve balance and stability.
According to Shawn Arent, director of the Center for Health and Human Performance at Rutgers University and a Fellow in the American College of Sports Medicine, a 2-day weekly strength training program can yield impressive results for novices. For those who are already fit, strength training (whether done on its own or in addition to another training modality) optimizes your well-being, though you will typically need to devote at least 3 days a week in order to make progress.
Weights and repetitions depend on your age, previous experience, and baseline strength. When in doubt, remember that one set of 12 to 15 repetitions typically suffices for full-body exercises as well as those targeting individual muscle groups.
The ACSM guidelines address recovery time as well, suggesting that you allow each muscle group 48 hours to recover before targeting it again. Muscle soreness is likely to happen as you’re building up your strength, so allowing time for rest and recovery is crucial.
Before starting a strength training workout, begin by running through a quick warm-up. Typically, that looks like 5 to 10 minutes of cardio exercises and/or dynamic stretches.
If you're new to strength training, your priority should be learning proper technique. Dial down the intensity as low as you need until you're fully confident in your starting position and progression for an exercise. It can be incredibly valuable to work with a coach who can observe you and communicate where your form may be slipping.
When you design your strength training plan, you should tackle full-body exercises as well as those that work large muscle groups in the upper body or lower body—such as the glutes, quadriceps, back, chest, and hamstrings—before smaller muscle groups like the shoulders, triceps, biceps, and calves. If you fatigue a smaller muscle group first, the larger group will not work at its maximum potential.
Here's an example of what this looks like in action: for a workout that includes bent-over rows and bicep curls, complete the bent-over rows first. You work your biceps in both exercises, but you also target the larger and stronger back muscles in the rows. If you've already fatigued your biceps, then your back muscles will not get an optimal workout.
Choose isolation exercises, which work only one muscle group at a time, to increase the intensity for that muscle group. All bicep and tricep exercises are isolation exercises.
One way to use isolation exercises is to start with a heavy weight that you can do for 10 repetitions, complete the 10 repetitions, rest, and then do another set of repetitions using a lighter weight. Do as many repetitions as you can at that weight, then continue to scale down as you reach your fatigue threshold. Add one set that requires you work to the point of momentary muscular failure for each workout, choosing a different exercise and a different body part each time. Keep a record of how many repetitions you can perform, then challenge yourself on a weekly basis by trying to improve your total.
Building an Effective Strength Training Workout Plan
As touched on previously, a good, effective strength training workout plan will work all the major muscle groups in the body: the back, abdomen, chest, arms, and legs. Each of those muscle groups is comprised of other, smaller muscles and muscle groups, such as the quads and abdominals.
Here's an outline of which exercises target specific muscle groups. Many of the exercises below are compound exercises, meaning they engage multiple muscle groups. In those instances, they're listed beneath the largest muscle group they target.
Back and Core
Working the muscles of both your upper and lower back is incredibly important, particularly if you spend your day working in front of a computer.
Some fundamental back exercises include dumbbell rows, deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts.
Keep in mind that your core muscles wrap around your back. If you suffer from lower back pain, strengthening your core muscles can help address that.
To practice engaging your core muscles, place your hands just above your hips and tighten the muscles beneath your palms—this is called bracing.
Many experts feel that compound, full-body exercises work the muscles of the abdomen more effectively than isolation exercises like crunches.
Planks and side planks are two effective body-weight core exercises that can help you build strength.
A number of exercises can help you develop a muscular chest. You're likely familiar with the bench press and push-ups, two challenging choices that certainly produce results.
The chest press, of course, also targets this muscle group. Other exercises include dips and flys.
Many people hope to develop strong, toned shoulders and arms—often, the focus here is more on the desired appearance than functional goals.
Some of the best exercises to work your shoulders include side lateral raises, overhead press, reverse fly, bicep curls, and tricep extensions and kickbacks.
You can strengthen your legs and knees using bodyweight exercises or weighted exercises. Building strong quads—the four large muscles that run along the front of the thigh—helps to support and fortify your knees.
Squats, of course, are a classic and highly effective leg exercise. Many regard them as the most challenging leg exercise, especially when heavily weighted. Olympic lifts like the snatch and power clean also work the muscle groups in your legs. The Bulgarian split squat improves balance while building strength, and walking dumbbell lunges can double as cardio exercise.