Building lean muscle mass is a key component of a good fitness program. Working on the strength of your muscle groups can have positive effects on your confidence, appearance, balance, and posture. Experts like Tony Horton recognize that not only does strength training build muscle, but a well-planned combination of diet and exercise can also yield improved strength. They also know that consistent attention to the target muscle groups through strength training will create hypertrophy, that all-important increase in the size of muscle cells.1
Learn how you can begin a strength-training program and start to feel the benefits of regular resistance workouts for muscle growth.
Getting Started: How To Add Strength Training To Your Routine
Let’s start with a reminder of the basic physics of working out:
Force = Mass x Acceleration
The aim of strength training is to challenge your muscles to produce lots of force. To enhance the force you’re producing requires more mass, more acceleration, or both.2
This is exactly how muscle strength grows: taxed by events, muscles break down and then grow anew so that, in the future, they can more easily meet that same demand. You achieve this effect by repeatedly placing your muscles under load (resistance or mass). This forces the structure of your muscles to change. Microfiber tears in the muscles themselves become a hotspot for incoming ‘satellite cells.’ These specialized repair teams self-replicate and either generate new muscle tissue or patch the original damage through a process called protein synthesis. Muscle gain occurs because this recovered, repaired muscle is stronger than before, allowing you to lift more, or to carry out more repetitions.3,4
Here are some expert tips for beginning a program of strength training:
- First, Speak With Your Doctor: Know your fitness level, weight, and range of motion before beginning a strength training program. Listen to your doctor’s advice on hydration, warming up and cooling down, and follow any physical activity guidelines they provide.
- Understand Your Aims: Bodybuilders aim to look stronger by appearing bigger, but size and strength don’t correlate quite so closely in practice. Strength training builds strength, not necessarily size. Begin with a realistic sense of how you might look, but more importantly, how you’ll feel, after one, three, and six months of training.
- Understand Your Muscles: Strength training works best when it emphasizes those muscle groups that aren’t usually called on to perform at a high level. This is why walking and cycling don’t count as strength training; they exercise muscles you use all the time.
- Use Your Body: Before buying a gym membership or expensive equipment, remember you can use your own body weight as a form of resistance. Push-ups, squats and pull-ups all get your muscles working against your own mass.5
- Use Free Weights: Gym rats generally find that free weights offer more long-term benefits than weight machines.6 Dumbbells and kettlebells are available at a modest cost – perfect for weight training.
- Exercise To The Point Of Fatigue: The maximum hypertrophic benefit comes from working out until you begin to fail. Don’t push beyond this point, but make sure that you reach it.7
- Understand Isolated vs Compound Moves: A bicep curl is an isolated exercise; it works on a single skeletal muscle group, independent of the others. But compound moves require multiple muscle groups to fire together. As a result, they elicit a greater hormonal response. Dead lifts, reverse lunges, squats, and planks are all great compound exercises, emphasizing several major muscle groups at once.8
- Include Some Aerobic Exercise: This should be something different to the usual miles on a treadmill or exercise bike. Go for more demanding options, like hill sprints, the farmer’s walk, and sled pushes and pulls.9
Building Muscle Through Exercise: Perfecting ‘The Big Four’
If you’re trying strength training for the first time, establishing good form and proper technique will be all-important. If you’re more experienced, see if these tips can help you fine-tune your workout posture for maximum strength gains. In either case, it’s best to do these valuable, multi-joint workouts at the beginning of your session:
Squat: Begin with your hips pushed all the way back. Arch your lower back, and feel for the stretch throughout your hamstrings. Then, bend your knees and squat good and low; this will help you lift more weight in the squat position. Targets: Glutes, quads, and calves. 10
Deadlift: Begin with your feet roughly hip distance apart, and with your toes under the bar. Drive your hips back, keeping a firm core and a flat back, with your shoulders directly over your knees. Push through your heels as you lift, and then finish by standing tall, with your glutes squeezed. Hinge at your hips to return the bar to the floor. Targets: Back muscles, hamstrings, core, glutes, lats, forearms. 11
Bench Press: Keep a tight grip on the bar, with your chest pressed up, elbows tucked in (not flared out), and shoulder blades squeezed together. Drive down through your feet to reverse the movement. Targets: Back muscles, hips, glutes, legs.12
Shoulder Press: Beginners can start with two dumbbells, and then graduate to a barbell. Bring your elbows forward as you lift. Try shoulder presses in both seated and standing positions.13,14 Targets: Chest, shoulders, arms, upper back. 15
Strength Training: Support A Stronger, Leaner, Healthier Body
As your program progresses, you’ll need to reassess the weight, intensity and frequency of your workouts.
- A little math helps at the outset. Figure out the heaviest weight you can possibly lift for a single rep; this is called your RM-1, and it’s used to calculate the appropriate loading for your workout. Try lifting 80% of this weight at first, aiming for 4-8 reps and building toward 8-12. Then, divide your lifts into sets, with a break between each set. Eventually, aim for heavier weights, perhaps 90% of your RM-1 or more.
- Stick with multi-joint exercises, like bench presses, rowing (with a machine or, much less expensively, just a resistance band), the overhead press, and deadlifts. Depending on several joints at once lets you move more weight. And multi-joint movements tend to tax the core muscles, from your abs through to your glutes, yielding a greater calorie burn and body fat loss.16
- Periodization is a system for varying your workouts so that you avoid three big obstacles to success: long-term fatigue, injury and boredom.17 A personal trainer or sports medicine specialist can help you design a varied program which doesn’t place undue emphasis on one muscle group or style of exercise, and includes lighter weeks to allow muscle recovery. This also helps avoid arriving at a ‘training plateau’, a time when improvements in muscle mass might seem very slight, and progress depressingly minimal.18
- The tempo of your lifting is something you’ll decide as you go, but don’t feel the need to count seconds or force yourself to obey a given beat. Respond to what your body needs, rather than imposing an arbitrary tempo on your workout.19
- Log your workouts so you can strive to beat your past performance. Use this data to plan for periodization and variety, and to track your overall fitness.
Rest Days For Building Muscle And Strength
Despite what you may think, a huge part of muscle building is rest. For example, you could begin by working out three days a week — with at least one rest day between each.20 There’s no need to over-exert yourself. In fact, overdoing your workouts may be a fast track to injury, with all its attendant doubts and delays. Consistency is key, as in so many areas of life. It’s better to do three workouts a week, every week, for a year, than to occasionally grind out six a week, but then do nothing for a month.21,22 And of course, always consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine.
To aid consistency, log your workouts or use a fitness app. Recruit friends and colleagues to work out with you, and consider joining a group or class; it’s great to make friends with those who are sharing your fitness journey.
By being realistic about your aims, choosing the right exercises, and carefully pacing yourself by introducing rest days and variety, you can create a program that’s both effective and enjoyable.