Smart Strength Training: Make Your Routine Work For You

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Walk into any gym and you’ll see men groaning as they struggle to hoist a heavy weight, and women daintily swinging a teeny dumbbell, or sitting on a resistance machine pushing and pulling with a little too much ease. Both scenarios are a recipe for disappointment. The men will get stronger, sure. But they are likely to overdo it and hurt their back, or knees or shoulders. The women won’t get much in the way of results.

Smart strength training is crucial for maintaining a strong, firm body–especially as you age. That’s because muscle mass deteriorates from aging, chronic dieting, and the sedentary lifestyle that so many of us slip into with each passing decade. The average 45-year-old has less muscle than he or she did at 25, and that muscle tends to decline faster once you hit your 50s and 60s. As a general rule, if you’re in mid-life or beyond, resistance training should be a key part of your regular workouts.

The key to getting the most benefits from strength training is that, over time, the weight you lift should get heavier, not stay the same. And it’s not about trying to bulk up. It’s about preserving what you’ve got, or trying to recapture what you’ve lost.

At the gym, I notice how often women underestimate their strength. And yet, in their daily lives, they flex their muscles in powerful displays without even thinking about it. If you believe you are a weakling, think about what you carry regularly and you’ll see that you are much stronger than you realize. Consider the average weight of these items:

  • Clunky leather handbag: Up to  12 pounds
  • Big bags of dog food or cat litter: 20 to 30 pounds
  • A full grocery bag: 10 to 12 pounds
  • A gym bag or briefcase: 10 pounds
  • A suitcase: 20 to 30 pounds

Moms may be the mightiest of all. A new mom carries a 5 to 8 pound bundle, about the same size weight as most women pick up in the gym. But mom’s baby weight gets progressively heavier. In just a few weeks, 8 pounds becomes 12, then 15, 20, and so on. Plus, there’s the extra pounds of baby accessories that get carted along with junior. That’s why new moms often have great arms–the weight they lift becomes progressively heavier over time, which is the exact approach that fitness experts recommend.

Weight Lifting 101

The official guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine recommend performing resistance exercises 2-3 days per week, doing 2-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions of each exercise. It’s a good idea to wait 48 hours between workouts that target the same muscle groups to give the muscles time to recover and rejuvenate.

Will I bulk up by lifting heavy weights?

Many women stick with weeny weights because they are afraid to bulk up. Although heavier weights can create bigger muscles, it’s hard to build muscle–which is why bodybuilders spend hours pumping iron and supplementing with muscle-building potions, if not steroids. Even women with a genetic predisposition to be muscular still need to spend hours lifting super-heavy weights to look like a bodybuilder, and they need to eat extra calories to build new muscle to bulk up.

How much weight should I lift?

Every exercise requires a different amount of weight since different moves target different muscle groups, and some muscles are stronger than others. If you’d like to get technical, book a session with an exercise physiologist or certified personal trainer to determine your ‘one repetition maximum’ or 1RM for each exercise. This is the amount of weight that represents 100 percent of your effort. Theoretically you can only lift this amount of weight one time.

For your workout, choose weight that is around 60 to 70 percent of that maximum–you should be able to do 8 to 12 repetitions at this weight. Even without knowing your 1RM, you can experiment: A general rule of thumb is to choose the weight that feels tough by the end of one set of 8 to 12 repetitions of an exercise. (If you can whip through 25 reps, go heavier!)

You can also gauge your efforts using a validated system, known as ‘Rating of Perceived Exertion’ or RPE. At end of each set of an exercise, simply ask yourself to rate the level of difficulty you experienced during the last few reps from a scale of 1 to 10. Ten represents the hardest you could possibly work. For optimal strength training effects, each set should feel like at least a 4 on the scale, or “somewhat hard”, representing around 50% of your RM. Once you’ve developed a base level of strength, you should be challenging yourself. So as you get stronger, aim for a 5, 6, or 7 on the scale. So you should feel like you’re working ‘hard’ or ‘very hard’ when you try to move the weight,, but joints or other body parts should not feel like they are strained. Despite the challenge, you should be able to complete the exercise with good body alignment.

When should I use a heavier weight?

Start with one set of 8-12 reps. After a few weeks, this will feel easy. Add another set and work up to doing 3-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions. Once you can do 3 sets for 2 to 4 weeks, increase the weight by one or two pounds.

Here are some other ways increase the challenge to your muscles: You can decrease the time you spend resting between sets. Instead of waiting 2 minutes to do the next set, start after one. Or choose a different exercise that targets the same muscles.

How much is too much?

Guys, listen up. If your feel strain in a joint, rather than the surrounding muscles, the load is too heavy. If you can’t perform a repetition without using extraneous body parts to tilt and sway to help you lift, it’s too heavy. Overloading defeats the purpose and can add to cumulative stress that leads to injuries.

When it comes to building strength, lifting weights is the most efficient system around. Bodyweight moves such as push-ups or yoga lunges provide some resistance, but when you increase time or add reps, the main benefit is that you improve muscle endurance, not strength.

Martica Heaner PhD is a nutritionist and exercise physiologist and an award-winning health writer with a weekly column on She is a research associate at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and is the co-author of Cross-training for Dummies and Lean Mommy. Follow Dr. Martica on Facebook and Twitter.

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