This page was last updated on 5/1/2018.
You need to follow time-tested and evidence-based strength training guidelines if you want to build strength and muscle mass efficiently.
The most important strength training guideline is progressive resistance. All other rules are subservient to this rule: To gain strength and muscle mass, you must gradually progress the resistance or loads you use in your training.
Muscular strength is simply defined as the ability to exert force. The body increases muscle mass when increased mass is required to produce greater amounts of force. Strength and muscle grow only if you subject your muscles to ever-increasing demands for force production.
This means you must design your training so that you can gradually increase the force you can exert, which means gradually increasing the amount of resistance you can handle for specified time periods.
This fact leads many people to focus only on increasing the number of repetitions they can perform, or the total amount of weight they can lift in an exercise, at the expense of proper exercise form. This is counterproductive. You can't achieve true progression of resistance without standardizing exercise form. You have to implement the other strength training guidelines below in order to ensure that you are making genuine progress.
A well-balanced strength training routine must include training for all major muscle groups of the body and cover the main planes of movement.
Your training routine must include movements for both the upper and lower body. The upper body portion must include equal proportions of both pulling movements that train the upper back, biceps and forearms, and pushing movements that train the chest, shoulders and triceps. The lower body training must include movements for the lower back, hips, hamstrings, front thighs and calves.
Upper body movements should also cover the full range of shoulder motion. The two main planes of movement for pulling and pushing are upward/downward and forward/backward, usually referred to as vertical and horizontal. Barring injuries limiting range of motion, you should include at least one movement that covers each of the following planes of motion:
The lower body can be trained with squatting (including lunges), back extensions, leg curls, straight leg deadlifts, and rise on toes
Thus the minimum program consists of eight movements:
A beginner can train all muscles of the body with a very limited program of 6-9 exercises per session. Please read the strength training guidelines below to learn how to perform these exercises safely and effectively.
Resistance training exercises can be divided into single joint and multi-joint varieties.
Examples of single-joint or “isolation” movements include: rise on toes, elbow flexion (curls), elbow extension, abdominal crunches, neck extension, neck flexion, wrist flexion, wrist extension, machine leg extension, machine or band leg curls
Examples of multi-joint movements include: squats, straight-leg deadlifts, chin ups, pull ups, presses, handstands, rows, push ups, front lever, back lever, half lever
Handstands and levers belong in the multi-joint category because, although it may look like movement is occurring around only one joint, in fact these movements require strong muscular tension across multiple joints. They are full body movements.
Your routine should be primarily composed of multi-joint movements because these train multiple muscle groups concurrently, reducing the amount of time you need to devote to training compared to a full-body balanced routine composed of single-joint movements. Moreover, multi-joint movements have the strongest impact on the body to stimulate overall athletic improvement.
However, it is also necessary to include some single-joint movements to adequately train some muscles that are not adequately trained by multi-joint movements, namely calves and neck at a minimum. Most people can also benefit from direct forearm training (wrist extension and flexion), and some people will benefit from including direct upper arm training.
To get maximum benefits from strength training you must perform your repetitions properly so that you load the target muscles efficiently. If you want to ensure that you are actually progressing in strength, you need to standardize your exercise form. Here's why:
Let's say you can do 8 full range pull ups with your bodyweight, and each repetition is performed as follows:
You decide to add ten pounds around your waist at your next training session. You perform 8 repetitions. You might think it goes without saying that you have progressed. However, upon analysis, in this session you performed the pull ups as follows:
On this second session, you have increased the resistance, but you have changed your pull up performance in a way that makes each repetition much easier. Therefore, it is unclear whether you have actually progressed or imposed greater demands on your upper back, biceps and forearms.
Proper form is one of the most important strength training rules. Proper form includes 1) using a full range of motion, 2) controlling the turn-arounds at the ends of the range of motion, 3) using a proper movement speed, and 4) using an effective level of effort.
In strength training, you are not using your muscles to do something to the resistance (whether bodyweight or external weights), your are using the resistance to do something to your muscles – namely, stimulate them to grow stronger and larger. Therefore, you must make progression of resistance or difficulty subordinate to maintenance of consistent form.
On every movement, you should use the fullest possible range of motion given your anatomical structure and limitations. Strength only develops in trained ranges of motion, so you have to train the full range of motion to get full range strength. Also, full ranges of motion improve flexibility whereas using artificially limited ranges of motion limits your mobility.
Performance of any exercise can involve up to three different types of muscle activity:
When performing a movement, you should always control turn-arounds, because most injuries occur when moving into or out of end ranges of motion. Ease into the stretched range of motion, and briefly pause there to dissipate elastic forces so that you use strength, not elastic rebound, to move the resistance, and also to avoid damaging the joint tissues with impact forces. Also, you should pause for a moment in the contracted range of motion, where we tend to be weak.
Exercise form includes repetition velocity: how fast you perform each repetition or phase of the movement. Research suggests that repetition durations ranging from 0.5 to 8.0 s produce similar muscle growth, but moving deliberately slowly so that repetitions take 10 s or more may be inferior [1, 2].
Proper movement speed depends on your level of training. A novice should use a purposefully slow movement to learn how to properly perform the movement with the target musculature. This requires taking about 3 seconds to lift the weight (concentric phase) and 3 seconds to lower the weight (eccentric phase).
After 6 months or more of practicing such purposefully slow controlled motion and establishing a mind-muscle connection, an experienced trainee should move like a novice during the first 2-3 repetitions, to build a warm-up into the set, and to avoid injury when muscles are fresh and can produce high forces. After this, for the remaining repetitions the speed should be determined by the load or resistance, i.e. you should attempt to move as fast as possible, although due to the load and fatigue you will not be able to move very fast at all.
Here’s how you determine the optimum repetition speed for any movement:
For most exercises that start from the bottom position such as overhead presses and chin ups, start the first 2-3 repetitions of a set by gradually producing enough force to initiate movement. From there, continue to apply adequate force to maintain the speed of movement without acceleration.
Once you reach the top end of the range of motion, pause very briefly - one second or less - and reduce your force production to allow the weight to reverse direction. Now reduce your force production to allow a controlled descent of the load. Ease into the bottom and pause briefly to dissipate elastic forces (i.e. no bouncing out of the bottom), then repeat the process for the next repetition.
For most exercises that start from the top position such as dips and squats, start the first 2-3 repetitions of a set by smoothly and slowly unlocking the joints to initiate movement, producing sufficient force against the load to maintain a controlled descent into the bottom. Ease into the bottom, most difficult position, and pause for 1-2 seconds to dissipate elastic forces. Next, start upward by producing as much force as you can to get the load moving upward. At the top pause briefly to allow kinetic energy to dissipate, and then repeat the process for the next repetition.
After the first 2-3 repetitions, as you fatigue, you can move as fast as possible on the concentric phase, but because of fatigue produced by the first half of the set, you will not be able to move quickly. You should continue to use a controlled speed on eccentric phases and ease into the stretched position in order to avoid using elastic rebound and impact forces on the joints in the vulnerable position.
This method of performance makes the muscles work much harder on each repetition. Most importantly, it minimizes the risk of injury due to impact forces caused by sudden acceleration and deceleration at the end ranges of motion.
Harder is better. If you perform exercises this way, generally your repetitions for major upper or lower body movements will be 4 to 6 seconds in duration, although the time will vary from individual to individual due to differences in limb length. Movements with very short strokes such as rise on toes, wrist extension or flexion, or neck extension or flexion will have shorter repetition duration, and movements with longer strokes such as chin ups or deep squats will have longer repetition duration.
Remember this: In training your goal is to make your body work hard in order to stimulate adaptation. Thus, you should make the exercises as difficult as possible by maintaining strict form. Relaxing form to achieve more time under load, more repetitions or more resistance will reduce stimulation and thus hinder true progress. If you thoroughly stimulate the muscles and provide adequate rest and recovery the progression of time under load or resistance will take care of itself.
The effective level of effort means doing as many repetitions as possible (AMRAP) on every set without losing proper form, including proper speed. This does not mean training to failure. It means performing repetitions until you sense that you will not be able to complete the next repetition. It is not necessary to train to failure to obtain strength and mass gains [3,4] and training to failure increases the amount of time required for recovery after training [5,6]. In sets with high loads (≥70% 1RM) all motor units are activated before muscular failure, and in sets with low loads and high repetitions, all motor units are activated 3-5 repetitions before muscular failure .
To adequately train muscles to stimulate gains in strength and muscle mass, you must use an appropriate load or resistance.
Novices should use loads approximating 60-65% of 1 repetition maximum (RM). This translates to a load with which you can perform 10-20 controlled repetitions.
Experienced trainees should use loads in the range of 75-80% of 1 RM on most work sets. This generally translates to a load with which you can perform 6-12 repetitions using the form guidelines above. However, due to individual variations in muscle fiber type proportions, people with higher proportions of type 1 fatigue-tolerant fibers will be able to perform 12-20 repetitions with 75-80% of 1 RM. Generally this applies to people who have a natural gift for greater muscular endurance but are not very strong or naturally muscular. Many women fall into this category. You will have to experiment to find out what repetition range feels best and produces the best gains in strength and mass for you.
Volume refers to the amount of exercise you perform. Volume and intensity of effort are always inversely related. The more force you
exert, the less time you can sustain it. You can run hard and fast, or
you can run for a long time, but you can't run hard and fast for a long
time. This is a simple physiological fact.
Volume of exercise is important for both development of strength and muscle mass, and for obtaining health benefits from resistance training [8, 9, 10, 11, 12].
Accumulating research indicates that performing multiple sets of exercise for a muscle group in each training session will result in greater post-training protein synthesis and subsequent gains in strength and mass [13, 14]. This suggests that, for any given muscle
group, 3 sets of exercise is more anabolic than 1 set and may over time
lead to greater muscle hypertrophy.
Kumar et al found no difference in muscle protein synthesis activity following either 3 or 6 sets of resistance exercise . This suggests that it may be unnecessary to perform more than 3 sets of exercises for any one muscle group in any single training session.
Thus, one should perform 1-3 sets of exercise for each muscle group in each training session, and 3-9 sets per muscle group per week, spread over 2-3 training sessions.
Novices can start with 1-2 sets and progress to 3 sets per muscle group. Experienced trainees can perform 3-5 sets per muscle group in each session.
These totals can be achieved by performing 1-3 sets per exercise, or by performing multiple exercises. For example, a training session containing 3 sets for the upper back could take several forms:
3 sets of chin ups
2 sets of chin ups and 1 set of rowing (or vice versa)
1 set each of chin ups, rows, and front lever
In general, performing multiple exercises results in a more thorough stimulation of the target muscle group due to differences in range of motion and body position. Also, it is generally beneficial to include some unilateral or independent limb training if your base exercises are bilateral limb training; for example, if you are doing barbell squats you should also include one-leg squats, or if you are doing push ups on floor (bilateral dependent limb movements) you should also include ring push ups, dumbbell bench presses, or archer push ups (independent limb movements).
Therefore I recommend generally using two or three exercises, each done for 1-2 sets rather than 3 sets of just one exercise. For example, here are a few examples of 3-set thigh and hip training sessions:
1 set barbell squats, 1 set split squats, 1 set Cossack squats
However, for some muscle groups there is little or no point in using multiple exercises because there is not sufficient difference between different exercises (e.g. rise on toes, overhead press, bench press), or one exercise is so superior to all others that there is no point in doing others (e.g. barbell press is safer and easier to load than dumbbell press).
If performing multiple sets of one exercise and doing AMRAP, you should either rest 3-5 minutes between sets so that you can repeat the same or very close to the same number of repetitions with the chosen load, or, better yet, start with the highest load you can handle for the target range of repetitions, then reduce resistance on each set so that you can maintain the same repetition range, a method known as the Oxford method .
Excess volume is a negative factor in that it takes time and energy to perform greater volumes of exercise, which reduces the amount of time and energy you have available for other life activities. It is only rational to limit the amount of exercise you do to the least amount that will provide the desired results.
Strength training is most effective with adequate inter-set rest intervals. Rushing from one exercise to the next turns a strength training session into a metabolic training session.
Novices are generally using lighter weights and have not yet learned to tap the full strength of their muscles during sets. They can rest 30-60 seconds between sets.
Experienced trainees achieve a deep level of fatigue in a single set. They need to rest 1-3 minutes or longer, up to 5 minutes between sets to be able to exert adequate effort in each set; longer interset rest periods appear likely to improve strength and mass gains by enabling a trainee to perform a higher volume of training using heavier loads [17, 18].
Frequency refers to how often you train. As with volume, frequency is inversely related to effort. The more effort you put into training, the less frequently you can tolerate the effort.
Resistance training research generally indicates that muscle protein synthesis is elevated for about 36 hours after a resistance training session . This suggests that for most beginning and novice trainees, local muscle recovery is generally completed within 48 hours. Thus, the optimal training frequency for most people is no more frequently than once every 48 hours. Assuming each session trains the whole body, this permits a training schedule of thrice weekly on alternating days.
Current research indicates that regardless of training experience, you should train each muscle group 2-3 times per week, with little difference in outcomes between 2 and 3 days weekly.
This is most easily achieved with full-body training sessions. If you train your full body two or three times weekly you leave 4 or 5 days for recovery and other activities. In fact, some research suggests that full body routines are more effective that so-called split routines [20, 21].
Full body routines allow you to train the whole body with maximum tolerable frequency while also allowing you maximum rest days. If you use a full body routine three times weekly, you load every body part thrice weekly while allowing yourself 4 days to rest from strength training. Full body training twice weekly gives you 2 training and 5 rest days each week.
However, if you have low recovery ability, or find a full body routine too draining, you may need to split the routine into two, alternating training for upper and lower body as follows, for example:
Monday: Upper body training
Wednesday: Legs and abdominal training
Friday: Upper body training
Monday: Legs and abdominal training
Wednesday: Upper body training
Friday: Legs and abdominal training
Also, as you advance in strength and development it can become difficult to complete a full body training session due to the demands, particularly for leg training. Doing heavy leg training first in a session can drain energy reserves so much that it becomes difficult to put adequate effort into upper body training, or vice versa. In this case you may want to use a schedule like this so that you can train each muscle group twice weekly without doing everything all in one session:
Monday and Thursday: Legs and abdominal training
Tuesday and Friday: Upper body training
Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday: Rest
Strength training makes demands on your recovery ability. While your potential recovery ability is most likely genetically determined, several factors determine whether you realize your full potential for recovery from intense exercise. To realize your full recovery capacity you can do the following:
To succeed in strength training, you need to incorporate periods of reduced effort into your schedule to allow the body to recover from the intense efforts. On page 181 of Building the Gymnastic Body, Christopher Sommer explains:
"By constantly attempting to improve from workout to workout; more weight, more reps, more volume, more speed, etc. over and extended period of time, the athlete will eventually, usually within an eight week time frame, come up against their [sic] current physical limitation. Continued attempt to try to force the body to blast thru these very real physical limitations are fruitless as the body's schedule of regeneration and adaptation is set and cannot be exceeded.
"All that will be accomplished by continually struggling to exceed these biological limitations are a plethora of over-training issues, among these being: joint pain, muscle strains, lack of energy, decrease in coordination, lack of explosiveness, connective tissue issues and mental fatigue. In addition, continuing to push in the fact of these over-training issues will often result in a short-term injury, which could easily have been resolved through reduced training or rest, becoming a chronic or permanent physical impairment."
The mind has limitless desires, but the body has natural limits. Improvements in your body are accomplished by biochemical reactions that take definite amounts of time. It is impossible to increase the rate at which your body can build muscle, bone, or connective tissue. You can provide the stimulus for change, but you have to allow the body to change at its own rate. As the European proverb goes, you can't push the river.
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