Strength Training: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

How often should I lift weights?

Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There is a lot of disagreement among the experts regarding ideal strength training frequency. However, most say that it’s a good idea to leave a day or two between workouts targeting a particular muscle or muscle group. That means you can work out two to three times a week if you’re doing full-body workouts, or do split routines in which you work different muscle groups on different days if you want to train more frequently.

The split strategy is typically used by more advanced strength trainers because it allows them to work out four to six days per week and do more sets overall. However, studies suggest that you can get similar strength gains with fewer full-body workouts as with split routines, assuming you do the same number of sets over the course of the week (Heke, 2011; Crewther et al., 2016). For example, you could do 20 sets three days a week (full-body routine), 15 sets four days a week (split routine), or 12 sets five days a week (split routine) for a total of 60 weekly sets. Of course, many strength trainers use their split routines to get in more weekly sets than they could with two to three full-body workouts per week.

A meta-analysis of strength training studies conducted by Rhea et al. (2003) found that working each muscle group three times a week for beginners and twice a week for more advanced strength trainers yielded the most significant benefits. Other research (cited by Wescott, 2010) indicates that allowing several days of recovery after working a muscle group is ideal because it supports proper recovery and muscle adaptation. The twice-a-week-per-muscle group approach is also supported by the research of Candow and Burke (2007), who found that strength trainers can get the same results from two workouts per week as three.

Should I use free weights or machines?

Image Courtesy of Patrisyu, FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image Courtesy of Patrisyu, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dumbbells and barbells (free weights) maintain consistent resistance throughout the entire range of motion associated with an exercise, whereas machines vary resistance, taking the strain off weaker supporting muscles and allowing you to lift heavier weights. They also restrict movement to one plane, whereas free weights allow for movement along multiple planes, which causes additional muscles to be recruited as part of the process, not only to move the weight, but also to balance the rest of your body.

Free weights are better for building functional fitness

Free weights work not only the target muscle, but also the muscles that support it, which develops better functional fitness in the long run and reduces the risk of injury. In other words, using free weights helps to build the type of strength that is useful for sports and meeting the physical challenges of everyday life (for example, running across an uneven surface without falling, carrying heavy things, etc.).

Another advantage of free weights is that you can buy a set to use at home to skip the gym commutes and fees. If you have limited space, there are adjustable sets available that allow two dumbbells to provide a wide range of weights.

When to use machines

Although free weights are more effective for building functional fitness, there are situations where machines are better. Because they stabilize areas of the body not being directly targeted and guide you through the movement to reduce the risk of poor form, they are useful for beginners and those recovering from certain injuries.

Image Courtesy of Patrisyu, www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image Courtesy of Patrisyu, www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Should I use an exercise ball with free weights?

Strength training on an inflatable exercise ball causes your body to recruit core muscles for stabilization. This is great for building core strength and stability, but not as effective for building strength in other areas of the body because you won’t be able to lift as much weight. If you want to incorporate this strategy, mix in some ball training with regular training, but don’t do your weight lifting exclusively on the ball unless core training is your primary goal.

Should I stretch before a workout?

Dynamic stretching is active movement of body parts through their full range of motion without holding a position for any length of time, whereas static stretching (the kind most people do) involves holding stretches for anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes.

Dynamic stretching reduces the risk of injury and can improve performance. Static stretching, on the other hand, can have a negative impact on performance by reducing strength and power if you do it right before a workout. Moreover, research suggests that static stretching before a workout probably won’t reduce the risk of injury, and may even increase it. So do some dynamic stretching prior to your workout and save the flexibility-building static stretching for after your workout.

How should I warm up for a strength training workout?

Image Courtesy of Ambro, www.freedigitalphotos.net
Image Courtesy of Ambro, www.freedigitalphotos.net

Research has shown that warming up before a strength training workout can help to prevent injury. In addition to dynamic stretching, there are a few different ways to warm up:

    • If you go for a short session of cardio, most experts recommend a classic range of options (jumping jacks, jump rope, using a cardio machine such as an elliptical or stationary bike, etc.)
    • Many experts also suggest doing some push-ups, bodyweight squats, lunges, and other exercises that, when done quickly, combine cardio and light strength training.
    • Another recommended option is to warm up by doing a series of quick sets with much lighter weights than you normally use. If you choose this option, do the same exercises you plan to do during your main workout so that your warm-up targets the muscles you’ll be using.

Many warm-ups combine two different strategies, for example, a few minutes of general cardio followed by dynamic stretching or a warm-up with light weights.

How do I cool down after a strength training workout?

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Image Courtesy of Imagerymajestic, www.freedigitalphotos.net

There is some evidence that doing a brief bout of cardio at the end of your strength training workout (for example, cycling on a stationary bike) can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Also, while research has shown that static stretching probably has little (if any) impact on muscle soreness after workouts, it does help to increase and maintain flexibility, so it’s worth doing. The end of your workout is a great time to do it because you’re warmed up, which reduces the risk of sustaining a stretch-related injury.

Should I do a full-body workout or a split routine?

Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This debate has been going on for a long time. Many experts recommend full-body routines for beginners and split routines (working different muscle groups on different days) for more advanced strength trainers, but there hasn’t been a lot of research conducted to examine the relative effectiveness of the two strategies. However, I did find a couple studies that provide some insights:

    • Heke (2011) found that doing full-body or split routines significantly increased strength and decreased body fat percentage, and there were no significant differences between the two groups in strength gains or body composition changes.
    • Crewther et al. (2016) found that full-body and split routines produced similar gains in strength, though the full-body routine also resulted in greater fat loss.

Both full-body routines and split routines have unique advantages.

Full-body strength training advantages

    • Full-body programs save time because you only need to train 2-3 times per week (though you’ll need to work hard during these sessions to see the same benefits as split routines).
    • Research suggests that full-body strength training may result in greater fat loss.
    • Muscles don’t work in isolation when doing things out in the real world, so full-body workouts are probably better for building functional fitness (fitness that helps with sports and the physical requirements of life in general) because they include all muscle groups and usually incorporate compound exercises.

Split-routine strength training advantages

    • Split routines allow you to work out more frequently, which is useful if you’re aiming for extreme hypertrophy (getting really big). With a split routine, you can train 6 days a week.
    • You can do shorter individual workouts with a split routine, which reduces the risk that you’ll get too tired to do exercises properly or lift sufficiently heavy weights during the second half of your workout.
    • Split routines ensure that you vary your exercise routines regularly so that you’re not doing the same exercises during every workout (mixing things up usually gets better results than sticking with a set routine, but you can also mix things up with full-body workouts).

You don’t have to choose between the two strategies. Both get results. If you want to hedge your bets, you could do one or two full-body routine days and a couple of days of splits. As long as you work every muscle group a couple of times a week and increase the weight you lift whenever you can do 8-10 reps comfortably, you should see results regardless of whether you prefer full-body or split training.

How long should I rest between sets?

Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A number of studies have tackled this question, and the findings indicate that ideal rest times vary based on your training goals:

    • Athiainen et al. (2005), study: Resting for 2 or 5 minutes between sets made no difference in results for advanced strength trainers.
    • Willardson & Burkett (2006), study: 3-minute rests allowed strength trainers to complete more repetitions than 2-minute rests, which may support more significant strength gains.
    • Willardson (2006), research review: At least 3 minutes of rest between sets is ideal when trying to build muscle power; shorter rest intervals (30-60) seconds should be used when the goal is hypertrophy (size); and 30-second rests are more effective for those seeking to build muscular endurance by lifting lighter weights with more repetitions.
    • Willardson & Burkett (2008), study: Advanced strength trainers had no significant differences in strength gains with 2-minute and 4-minute rests between barbell squat sets.
    • De Salles et al. (2009), research review: Rests of 3-5 minutes between sets are more effective for those using a high weight/low-repetition/multiple-set strategy to build strength fast. For those who care more about hypertrophy than power, rests of 30-60 seconds are ideal, and for muscle endurance, shorter rest intervals of 20-60 seconds are best.

Overall, the data support the following recommendations, based on your strength training goals:

    • Power: Rest for approximately 2-3 minutes between sets if you want to build muscle strength.
    • Size: Rest for approximately 30-60 seconds between sets if your goal is hypertrophy.
    • Endurance: Rest for approximately 30 seconds between sets if your goal is muscular endurance.

How do I get an abdominal six-pack?

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It’s impossible to lose weight in just one area. You could do hundreds of sit-ups a day and build a beautiful six-pack, but if it’s buried under fat, no one will see it.

Your best chance of getting a six-pack is to do both intense cardio and weight training. However, many people who get the six-pack have to go much further than this, not eating enough so that they’re constantly undernourished, which can impair their performance and overall fitness.

A very small percentage of people are naturally inclined to develop a six-pack easily, but most people require a very extreme diet and exercise program to achieve this, and even then, due to genetics, age (it’s particularly challenging to get a six-pack after age 30), gender (women tend to store more fat), and other factors, some people never will.

If you care more about fitness, performance, health, and strength, forget the six-pack, and focus on training to increase your power, endurance, and overall fitness. If you really want to try for the six-pack:

    • Do lots of cardio exercise, including high-intensity interval training.
    • Do a strength training routine at least three times per week that includes both compound exercises (exercises that target lots of big muscles simultaneously) and abdominal exercises (not just sit-ups, but also leg lifts, planks, twists, and other exercises to develop the full range of core muscles).
    • Restrict your calorie intake, avoid junk food and fast food completely, and get your calories only from lean proteins, healthy fats such as olive oil, and complex carbohydrates.

Does strength training cause women to bulk up?

Image Courtesy of Patrisyu, www.freedigitalphotos.net
Image Courtesy of Patrisyu, www.freedigitalphotos.net

The short answer to this question is “no.”

Women can’t gain the same bulk as men unless they take steroids or have unusually high testosterone levels (women do have some testosterone, but far less than men). Female bodybuilders with enormous muscles spend far more time in the gym than most strength trainers (typically 6 days a week, 1-3 hours per session), and the majority take steroids as well.

Strength training burns fat and improves body composition

Female strength trainers who work out with weights a few times a week replace fat with muscle so that they become stronger and more toned. Muscle weighs more, but it takes up less space, so female strength trainers often gain weight while losing inches.

Image Courtesy of Andongob, www.freedigitalphotos.net
Image Courtesy of Andongob, www.freedigitalphotos.net

Strength training workouts burn calories, but strength trainers also burn more calories even when resting because muscle uses more calories than fat. However, achieving these benefits requires lifting heavier weights than most women choose.

Many women lift weights that are too light to produce any real benefits because they’re afraid of bulking up. If you want to trade fat for muscle and develop a firmer, stronger body, you should choose weights heavy enough that you can’t do more than 8-10 repetitions with them and do bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, and tricep dips.

Strength training provides significant health benefits for women

Strength training is extremely beneficial for women because they tend to lose more muscle and lose it more quickly than men as they age. They are also at greater risk for osteoporosis, and strength training prevents bone loss.

Strength training keeps women fitter, stronger, and more youthful (both in appearance and ability) as they age. Female strength trainers enjoy a significantly higher quality of life in their later years and are far less likely to become disabled by injuries, illnesses, and the general weakness associated with aging.

Strength Training Resources

For more strength training, general fitness, and health articles, visit the Mind-Body Health page.

References:

    • American College of Sports Medicine. (2013). Resistance Training for Health and Fitness [PDF]. ACSM.org.
    • Ahtiainen, J. P., Pakarinen, A., Alen, M., Kraemer, W. J., & Häkkinen, K. (2005). Short vs. long rest period between the sets in hypertrophic resistance training: influence on muscle strength, size, and hormonal adaptations in trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(3), 572-582.
    • Barnham, T. (2014). Should I do a split or full-body workout? Men’s Health. 
    • Candow, D. G., & Burke, D. G. (2007). Effect of short-term equal-volume resistance training with different workout frequency on muscle mass and strength in untrained men and women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 21(1), 204-207.
    • Crewther, B. T., Heke, T. O. L., & Keogh, J. W. L. (2016). The effects of two equal-volume training protocols upon strength, body composition and salivary hormones in male rugby union players. Biology of Sport, 33(2), 111-116.
    • De Salles, B. F., Simao, R., Miranda, F., da Silva Novaes, J., Lemos, A., & Willardson, J. M. (2009). Rest interval between sets in strength training. Sports Medicine, 39(9), 765-777.
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    • Hutchinson, A., PhD. (2011). Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise.  HarperCollins.
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    • Marek, S. M., Cramer, J. T., Fincher, A. L., & Massey, L. L. (2005). Acute effects of static and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching on muscle strength and power output. Journal of Athletic Training, 40(2), 94-103.
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    • Rhea, M. R., Alvar, B. A., Burkett, L. N., & Ball, S. D. (2003). A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35(3), 456-464.
    • Sinkler, J. (2013). 4 Myths About Strength-Training Busted! Step away from the five-pound dumbbells! Lifting heavier weights is the secret to scoring a leaner, fitter, hotter body. Women’s Health.
    • Sloan, C. (n.d.). Does Lifting Weights Make Women Bulk Up? WebMD.com.
    • Smith, B. (n.d.). Ask Men’s Fitness: is it better to do full-body workouts or body-part focused routines? Men’s Fitness.
    • The American Council on Exercise. (2014). Five Reasons You Shouldn’t Skip Your Cool-down.
    • The American Council on Exercise. (2016). Free weights vs. Strength-training equipment. ACEFitness.org.
    • WebMD, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD. (March 21, 2007). Striving for Six-Pack Abs.
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    • Willardson, J. M., & Burkett, L. N. (2008). The effect of different rest intervals between sets on volume components and strength gains. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 22(1), 146-152.

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