Archived version! Visit the new (official) website -

YouTube Facebook Twitter

Strength Training

The National Strength and Conditioning Association defines strength training as "the use of progressive resistance methods to increase one's ability to exert or resist force." (16) Strength training often takes second fiddle to aerobics, but aerobic exercise is just for the heart. It is usually insufficient for developing muscular size and shape for that "hard body" look. Sometimes people are disappointed after doing aerobics for a few months when they don't see much change in the way they look. Resistance or strength training is what they need.

First let's clear up some misconceptions:

  1. Weight lifting is dangerous. No, not if done with proper technique and progression.
  2. If you stop, muscles will turn to fat. No, physiologically that is impossible. Muscle cells are muscle cells and fat cells are fat cells. One cannot change into the other. Muscles will shrink and atrophy (lose size and tone). (18) If you continue to eat, those excess calories will be deposited as fat and give the appearance of muscle turning to fat.
  3. Women will get big muscles. First, most women build muscle size much more slowly than men because they produce much less of the male hormone testosterone. Second, it takes years of vigorous training to build "big" muscles; it doesn't happen overnight. (19)
  4. You will get high blood pressure. Strength training does not cause high blood pressure. Holding your breath while you lift weights does increase the blood pressure dramatically during the lift only. Done properly, strength training may even be used in cardiac rehabilitation. (20)
  5. You will become inflexible. No, not if you include flexibility training as part of your overall exercise program. As a matter of fact, if you do not exercise at all you will lose flexibility due to lack of use. (21)
  6. Lifting weights lets me spot reduce a specific area of my body. No, No, No, No! 5000 sit-ups every day will not give you the "wash board" stomach. First, to lose body fat from anywhere on the body, you must burn more calories than you consume. Second, when you lose fat, you lose it from the entire body, not just from one area. You lose it in proportions mostly dictated by genetic and metabolic factors. Third, exercises often done for spot reducing are relatively ineffective for burning fat and calories. (22) Cutting the excess fats from your diet, aerobic exercise, as well as sit-ups will firm you up and flatten your tummy.
  7. I just want to"tone-up." - This term is usually used to describe a change from the flabby look to the "lean and mean" look. A toned muscle is simply a muscle that has been trained, is shapely and has that "hard as stone" look. What really takes place when you perform a proper exercise program and combined it with proper nutritional habits is a loss of body fat and an increase in muscle mass (size). (23) As was mentioned in misconception #2, fat cells are fat cells and muscle cells are muscle cells. When you "tone-up" the fat cells get smaller and the muscle cells get bigger. Many people say, "I just want to tone-up; I don't want to look like a bodybuilder." When you strength train, you will build muscle. As long as you add aerobic exercise and eat properly, you will lose fat. The end result will be a lean but not heavily muscled look. You may notice some body parts get bigger more quickly than others. This is due mostly to genetics. If, for example, your legs are getting bigger than you wish, than just cut back on your leg training. Decrease the number of exercises and sets.


The benefits of strength training are many: increased strength, improved muscle tone, enhanced athletic performance, increased bone, tendon, and ligament strength, injury prevention, and improved body image (self esteem). It may even aid in cardiac rehabilitation (24). For women, one of the most significant benefits of weight training is that it reduces the risk of osteoporosis. Bones need regular resistance to stay strong. Weight training causes the muscles to pull on the bones which will strengthen the bone. (25) This benefit does not occur to the same extent with aerobic exercise!

If your age is making you think twice about starting a weight training routine, think about this. The muscles of older people are just as responsive to weight training as those of younger people. Extensive research has shown great improvement in strength in 80 and 90 year olds! In one study, 80 and 90 year old people were trained with weights over 3-4 months. They were able to increase their strength 3-4 times over this period. (26) This has important consequences for quality of living. It is muscular strength that is necessary to get in and out of a chair, walk up and down stairs, and to lift things. For some inspiration, take a look through the book Growing Old Is Not for Sissies, by Etta Clark. (27)


(1) Reps or repetitions. This is how many times you move the weight up and down. For example, in the squat or deep knee bend, 1 rep would be lowering yourself down and raising back up one time. (2) Sets. This is a grouping of repetitions. For example, 3 sets of ten reps means doing 10 reps, resting, doing 10 reps, resting, and doing 10 reps.


Strength training should be performed at least 2 times per week leaving at least 48-72 hours between workouts. (Note: More advanced weight training may be performed more frequently and with less time between workouts. Discussion of this is beyond the scope of this book). You must pick exercises for each of the body parts: legs (calves, front thigh, rear thigh), abdomen, back, chest, shoulders, arms (biceps, triceps). Don't neglect any body parts - this will lead to imbalances in your body. Buy an anatomy book and learn the names of the muscles and what they do. This will be extremely helpful in learning how to do your exercise properly. See appendix C for an anatomy drawing of the muscles and an explanation of the function of the muscles.


Proper form is critical whether using free weights or machines. Proper form must be learned with the lightest weights possible before adding weight to your exercise. I suggest you use a personal trainer for your first 2-3 workouts. Having a qualified person watch and instruct you is invaluable. In this way, you will prevent injury and get the greatest possible benefits from your training.


Start LIGHT! This means that when you first try an exercise, use the lightest weight possible the very first time you try the exercise. This will give you a baseline. Gradually add weight until you reach a weight with which you are able to do 10 reps comfortably and in strict form. You should not struggle to complete the 10th rep.

Once you have determined the correct weight to use, pick 1 or 2 different exercises per body part and start with 1 to 2 sets of 10 easy reps. Take 1 to 3 minutes between sets. If you are out of breath, just slow down. Always use a light weight for 10 easy reps when performing the first set of a new exercise.


When you are performing a rep, you must control the upward and downward movement of the weight. Always lower the weight slowly and in a controlled manner. You may raise the weight quickly, but you must have full control and strict form. You control the weight; never let it control you. For example, in a bench press you slowly lower the weight to your chest (never bounce it on your chest) and then push up hard with control and strict form. This means that the only part of you body that moves is your arm and chest muscles. The rest of you remains stationary. Never jerk the weights up and down! A quick word about "negatives", i.e. having somebody help you lift the weight so you can slowly lower it. Don't do this in the beginning. They greatly increases your chance of injury and will make you quite sore!

Proper breathing is essential - breathe out when exerting yourself (as in the upward phase of a bench press) and breathe in when recovering. DO NOT HOLD YOUR BREATH! Make sure you have a spotter while weight lifting - someone who knows how to help if you get stuck.


Examples of exercises for each body part are as follows:

  1. Chest - Bench press, Incline bench press, Fly (Butterfly), Decline bench press
  2. Back - Pull down (wide or narrow), Bent over row, Seated Row, Dumbbell row, Pull-up, Chin-up.
  3. Shoulders - Shoulder press, Side raise, Front raise, Rear raise, Upright row, Shrug
  4. Arms - Biceps: there are a multitude of curling exercises
    Triceps: French Press, Push down, Kickback
  5. Midsection - Abdominals: Crunches, twisting crunches. Most abdominal exercises are done improperly and over stress the lower back. Be careful when placing your arms behind your neck as there is a tendency to cheat and jerk the movement. You may want to cross your arms on your chest instead.
  6. Legs - Squat, Leg press, Lunge, Leg extension, Leg curl, Heel raise (calves).
    The order of your exercises should progress from the larger muscles groups(legs, back, chest) to the smaller ones (shoulders, arms, midsection). (28) The larger muscle group exercises require more mental concentration and use the most energy. (For more advanced weight training or sport specific weight training, performing the large muscle group exercises first may not be the most appropriate way to train - the specifics are beyond the scope of this book).


Progression in weight training should be done in a cyclical fashion. The technical term is called periodization. (29) Training is divided into 4-8 week cycles. For example, whether you begin with 2 or 3 workouts per week, your first few weeks should include 1-2 sets of 10 reps per exercise. Work on perfecting your form. Over the next 4-8 weeks, you may wish to increase the number of sets to 3 per exercise. You may elect to add weight in small increments. The weight you choose should allow you to do 8-12 reps. For the first few months, stay in this range. After this time period, you may wish to exercise different muscles on different days.

To make further gains you must stress your muscles beyond the demands of your previous training. This is called the overload principle or progressive resistance training. (30) Milo of Croton demonstrated this principle in 300 B.C. by carrying a calf every day until it grew into a full-grown bull.

After you have been training for several months, vary your training by changing the number of sets and reps, the exercises you perform, and the order of those exercises every 4-8 weeks. This is a very important point and is often overlooked.


Another way to weight train is called circuit training. (31) Many gyms have circuit training areas. A group of machines which exercise all the body parts are used. You perform 1 set of 10-15 reps on each machine. You move from machine to machine with little rest (1-15 seconds) between machines. Circuit training is a good way to become fit. However, you will not increase your strength over the long term as much with circuit training as with free weight/machine training. Whether or not circuit training provides aerobic benefits is still controversial. Perform separate aerobic exercise to attain aerobic benefits.


For those of you out there who want to "tone up", stick with the machines as they are easier to use and are less likely to cause an injury. If you want the Arnold Schwarzenegger or Cory Everson look, free weights are the answer. This requires much more sophisticated lifting technique and thus more practice at light weights than machines. Probably the best way to train is to use a combination of free weights and machines.

If you wish to train at home all you really need is a few pairs of dumbbells (2lb, 5lb, 10lb,) and a bench. See Appendix D for a sample of home weight training exercises and Appendix E for a sample of gym - machine and free weight- exercises.

Weight belts: The function of the weight belt is to prevent injury to the spinal discs, the shock absorbing pads between the spinal bones. The belt does this by spreading out the force around the midsection which decreases the pressure on the discs. A proper belt is 4"-6" wide. Tighten it immediately before your lift and loosen it after the lift is completed. (32) Wear a belt when using free weights. You may want to wear it on certain machines. Check with a qualified trainer. Do not let wearing a belt give you a false sense of security. Proper technique with the correct amount of weight for you is a must.

Definitions of Weightlifting

There are several categories of people who exercise with weights. These categories are often referred to as: weight lifting, weightlifting, Weightlifting, weight training, bodybuilding, powerlifting, lifting, Olympic lifting, Olympic-style weightlifting, strength training and resistance training. Let's clarify the differences.

Weightlifting: Weightlifting, weight lifting and weightlifting all have a "generic" meaning which refers to the activity of lifting weights. To those who are well versed in the use of weights, the word weightlifting has a particular meaning. It refers to the Olympic sport of Weightlifting, which tests strength a power through two methods of lifting a barbell overhead - the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. Weightlifting is the only Olympic sport involving weights, which is why it is sometimes referred to as Olympic lifting or as Olympic-style lifting, or Olympic-style weightlifting.

Weight Training: Weight training refers to any activity which involves the use of weights. The term weight training is commonly used in referring to people who lift weights but not for the purpose of competing in bodybuilding, powerlifting or weightlifting (although many people lift weights as a means for improving their performance in another sport). Many people who lift weights refer to themselves as "lifters" for short.

Resistance Training: Resistance training is an even broader term than weight training because resistance can be supplied by weights, machines, rubber strands and any number of other devices that resist the movement of the exerciser. It is nearly impossible to engage in any vigorous resistance training without getting stronger as a result. However, strength training is a means of training with resistance that is focused on improving strength, as compared with muscle size (although people who train for strength are often seeking increased muscle size as well).

Bodybuilding: Bodybuilding is a sport or activity in which the primary objective is to develop the size of the skeletal muscles. Bodybuilders focus on other areas as well, such as developing all of the muscles proportionally (symmetrically), minimizing body fat and increasing their strength. Because bodybuilders focus on muscular development, that is the main thing they achieve. Strength, for example, tends to take a back seat to size (though many bodybuilders are very strong).

Powerlifting: Powerlifting is a great sport that was conceived as a pure test of strength. And it tests strength about as well as Olympic-style Weightlifting. The sport that consists of three events: squat, bench press and deadlift. Powerlifters are very strong because they focus on developing that capacity exclusively. Overall, the strength of powerlifters very close to that of Olympic-style weightlifters. However, powerlifting is not an Olympic sport and it has multiple "federations" which govern it, so there can be multiple "world champions" each year (Olympic-style Weightlifting has only one international governing body and one world champion per weight class worldwide). Powerlifting is also not practiced as widely as weightlifting. For all these reasons, the level of competition tends not to be as high in powerlifting as it is in weightlifting, which is why competitive Weightlifters, as a group, have earned the right to call themselves the strongest athletes alive. More importantly, no other athletes approach the strength of weightlifters and powerlifters, as the men and women who compete in these sports are totally focused becoming the strongest athletes in the world. Moreover, they compete on measurable events which are standardized worldwide, so that performances can be reasonbly compared. You won't see these athletes flexing their muscles or lifting tree trunks on "pay-per-view", but they are quietly driving the levels of human performance to all time highs.

National Strength and Conditioning Association Position Statement on Youth Resistance Training

  1. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program is safe for children.
  2. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can increase the strength of children.
  3. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help to enhance the motor fitness skills and sports performance of children.
  4. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help to prevent injuries in youth sports and recreational activities.
  5. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help to improve the psychosocial well-being of children.
  6. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can enhance the overall health of children.

Code of Ethics

  1. Strength and conditioning professionals should not practice nor condone discrimination.
  2. Strength and conditioning professionals should not condone, engage in illegal behavior or defend unsportsmanlike conduct or practices.
  3. Strength and conditioning professionals should refrain from using techniques and practices in which repeated acts of negligence would result in injury to an individual.
  4. Strength and conditioning professionals should use care to be truthful and not misleading when stating their education, training, experience, and involvement of NSCA and shall not misrepresent or misuse their affiliation with the NSCA for unwarranted favors-monetary or otherwise.

National Strength and Conditioning Association Position Statement: Youth Resistance Training

American Academy of Pediatrics Position Statement: Strength Training by Children and Adolescents

  1. Strength training programs for preadolescents and adolescents can be safe and effective if proper resistance training techniques and safety precautions are followed.
  2. Preadolescents and adolescents should avoid competitive weight lifting, power lifting, body building, and maximal lifts until they reach physical and skeletal maturity.
  3. When pediatricians are asked to recommend or evaluate strength training programs for children and adolescents, the following issues should be considered:
    1. Before beginning a formal strength training program, a medical evaluation should be performed by a pediatrician. If indicated, a referral may be made to a sports medicine physician who is familiar with various strength training methods as well as risks and benefits in preadolescents and adolescents.
    2. Aerobic conditioning should be coupled with resistance training if general health benefits are the goal.
    3. Strength training programs should include a warm-up and cool-down component.
    4. Specific strength training exercises should be learned initially with no load (resistance). Once the exercise skill has been mastered, incremental loads can be added.
    5. Progressive resistance exercise requires successful completion of 8 to 15 repetitions in good form before increasing weight or resistance.
    6. A general strengthening program should address all major muscle groups and exercise through the complete range of motion.
    7. Any sign of injury or illness from strength training should be evaluated before continuing the exercise in question.

American Academy of Pediatrics Position Statement: Strength Training by Children and Adolescents

Youth Strength Training Guidelines

"Generally speaking, if boys and girls are ready for sports participation they are ready for some type of strength training. Many seven- and eight-year-old children have benefited from strength training. Younger children, also, may participate in strength-building activities if they can perform the exercises correctly and follow directions. However, it is important to remember that no matter how big or strong a child is, adult strength training programs and philosophies should not be imposed on children. The goal of youth strength training programs should be to enhance the musculoskeletal strength of children and teenagers while exposing them to a variety of safe, effective and fun training methods.

Different training programs and many types of equipment—from lightweight medicine balls to child-size weight machines—have proven to be safe and effective. While the optimal combination of sets and repetitions has not yet been determined for children and teenagers, beginning with one set of 10 to 15 repetitions on several upper and lower body exercises is effective. Depending on individual goals and the time available for training, additional sets and exercises can be performed. It must be emphasized that the focus of youth strength training programs should be on learning proper exercise technique and following safe training procedures—not on how much weight can be lifted.

From "Sensible Guidelines for Parents, Teachers and Coaches By Dr. Avery Faigenbaum University of Massachusetts-Boston"

Also see

Strength Training for Children and Teens
"Strength Training for Children and Adolescents: What Can A Physician Recommend?"

Strength Training for Female Athletes

It is the position of the NSCA that:

  1. Proper strength and conditioning exercise programs may increase athletic performance, improve physiological function and reduce the risk of injuries. These effects are as beneficial to female athletes as they are to males.
  2. Due to similar physiological responses, it appears that males and females should train for strength in the same basic way, employing similar methodologies, programs and types of exercises.
  3. In the lower body, the relative strength (strength to lean body mass) of untrained women appears to be approximately equal to men.
  4. Females can hypertrophy their muscles through resistance training, relatively the same as men, but not absolutely the same.
  5. Female athletes appear to have the same fiber-type distribution as men, although the female fibers appear to be smaller in cross sectional area.
  6. There is little research evidence to suggest the onset of a normal menstrual period affects athletic performance.
  7. Female athletes that have gone through the cessation of their cycle have an increased likelihood of developing musculo-skeletal injuries. Athletes experiencing amenorrhea or other menstrual problems should consult their gynecologist.
  8. Resistance training utilizing multi-joint and structural exercises is recommended to induce sufficient stresses on the skeletal system and to enhance calcium storage in the bone.
  9. Little data exist regarding weight training and pregnancy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women may safely weight train during pregnancy, however common sense must be employed when selecting training intensities, and exercises.
  10. Due to the influx of the hormone relaxin, that softens tendons and ligaments in preparation for delivery, caution is warranted in performing heavy multi-joint exercises (squats, deadlifts, snatches and cleans) after the first trimester. Also the potential for increased body temperature in pregnant women warrants the use of precautions in dress and environmental conditions during all types of exercise.
  11. Resistance training has demonstrated favorable changes in body composition with minimal change in body weight.
  12. Because females are, in general, weaker than males in their upper bodies, adult females should be urged to work especially hard on upper body strength training.

Top 10 Reasons Heavy Weights Don’t Bulk Up the Female Athlete

Basic Guidelines for the Resistance Training of Athletes

  1. Progressive overload should be a fundamental characteristic of resistance-training programs directed at the development of neuromuscular capabilities and athletic performance.
  2. Resistance-training programs for athletic performance must adhere to the principle of training specificity in order to match the demands of the sport to the training program developed for a specific athlete.
  3. Resistance-training programs for athletic performance should be periodized in order to optimize the adaptations over long-term training. Periodized training also helps reduce the potential for overtraining.
  4. Multiple-set periodized resistance-training programs are superior to single-set, nonperiodized programs for physical development over long-term training programs.
  5. Care must be taken when developing resistance-training programs for younger and older athletes because the volume of exercise and the intensity may have to be altered to meet the recovery demands of each individual.

Health Aspects of Resistance Exercise and Training

  1. Resistance training may enhance cardiovascular health by mitigating several of the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease by producing such changes as decreases in resting blood pressure, particularly in individuals with elevated pressures; decreases in exercise heart rate, blood pressure, and rate pressure product at a standard workload; modest improvements in the blood lipid profile and; improvements in glucose tolerance and decreases in hemoglobin Alc in patients with diabetes mellitus.
  2. Resistance training may result in improvements in body composition by maintaining or increasing lean body mass and producing modest decreases in the relative percentage of body fat.
  3. Resistance training can produce increases in bone mineral density and may help delay or prevent the development of osteoporosis by reducing the age-associated loss of bone mineral density.
  4. Resistance training may reduce anxiety and depression and may result in improved self-efficacy and overall psychological well being.
  5. Resistance training can reduce the risk of injury during participation in other sports and activities. When performed correctly and properly supervised, it is in itself a safe activity with low injury rates.
  6. Resistance training increases muscular strength and endurance, resulting in an increased ability to perform activated of daily living, and reduces demands on musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and metabolic systems."