Design a strength training program that will improve your health and help you reach your fitness goals. The process isn't difficult, but there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure your workout is both safe and challenging.
Types of Programs
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) identifies three basic designs of strength training programs:
- Full-body workouts
- Alternating upper and lower body workouts
- Routines that split training by specific muscle groups.
When doing a full-body workout, you will work the major muscle groups of both the upper and lower body in one session. This design works for beginner to advanced exercisers and is effective at improving your health and fitness. It serves as a convenient way to work out because you can do cardiovascular exercise one day and strength training the next.
Splitting upper and lower body workouts can serve two purposes: 1) The exerciser can develop the upper or lower body to benefit sports-specific needs, or 2) It can make workouts shorter. While you will need to train most days of the week to meet recommendations, you can make these sessions shorter by doing exercises for the lower body one day and for the upper body the next.
Separating workouts by muscle group is a practice most often used in bodybuilding. It allows you to give each muscle group more attention to develop strength and muscle mass.
The right exercise order is important to ensure that you don’t wear out the smaller muscle groups that assist larger muscle groups. Begin your workout with exercises that target larger muscles and that involve multiple joints. For example, chest press, lat pull-down, and squats should be performed at the beginning of the workout. Then proceed with exercises that target the shoulders, hamstrings, quadriceps, biceps, triceps, and calves. According to general guidelines from the NSCA, when performing a full-body workout, exercises that target the core can be worked in between sets of other exercises.
Days, Sets, and Repetitions
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that adults perform resistance training for all major muscle groups 2-3 days per week. Positive strength gains are seen with 2-4 sets of each exercise, but research shows that new exercisers can improve strength with as little as one set. For general fitness, aim to perform 8-12 repetitions for each set. If muscular endurance is a major goal, you can perform 15-25 repetitions, but the ACSM recommends limiting the number of sets to two.
Progression and Strength Gains
As your muscles grow and you gain strength, you will find that lifting the same amount of weight you started with becomes easy. If you continue to lift this amount, your muscles will no longer be challenged. In order to continue gaining strength, you must progressively increase the resistance. You will know you are at the correct weight for your fitness level when you feel muscle fatigue after lifting 8-12 repetitions of an exercise. This does not need to result in complete exhaustion. If you do feel complete muscle exhaustion, you may be lifting too much weight. If the exercise is so easy that you feel no fatigue, it's time to increase the resistance.