Strong muscles improve quality of life. They’re particularly important for athletic performance. And if you aren’t an athlete, it’s still wonderful to be able to tote heavy bags of groceries with ease, stow a suitcase in the overhead bin on a train or plane, or carry a child. Little-used muscles weaken, potentially leading to injuries, falls, and disability, especially in older people.
The way to keep muscles strong is to use them, of course—and, in particular, to work them to their limit periodically. That means doing some sort of strength training with weights (dumbbells and barbells), exercise machines, or other resistance devices. A balanced strength-training program is good not only for your muscles, but also for your bones, back, balance, and aging brain.
One of the nice things about strength training is that you can do a lot by yourself at home. Still, access to good equipment at a gym and a trainer, at least initially, is an advantage. Some basic knowledge helps too.
Here are some questions and answers about strength training to help you get started or improve your current workouts.
How much weight should you lift?
It depends on your ability and goals. Start with light weights, then increase gradually. Work up to a weight you can lift only eight to twelve times in a row—this is known as a set—with the last two lifts (or reps) being difficult enough that the muscles are tired at the end of the set.
Lighter weights may not adequately stress muscles. If the weight is too heavy, you won’t be able to do enough reps and you can injure yourself. You may not know until the next day that you have done too much. A little soreness can be a good sign, but not so much that you are in pain.
How many sets should you do?
Dozens of studies about single versus multiple sets have been done, and the debate continues. The standard number of sets is three for each exercise. Trained lifters often do five or six sets.
Most studies show that multiple sets are best. But some suggest that a single high-intensity set using heavier weights, sometimes at slower speed, can be just as good. No studies show that single sets are better than multiple sets. Leg muscles may respond better to multiple sets, while upper-body muscles may do as well with single sets (the muscles differ in their type of fibers and hormone receptors).
Don’t try to overload your muscles with single sets unless you are well-conditioned or at least well-supervised. Doing single sets would save time, of course, which you could spend doing other exercises. You can also do five or six sets with somewhat lighter weights, which would enhance muscle endurance more.
Should you rest between sets?
Yes. Muscles need time to replenish some of their energy supply and make training adaptations.
So rest one to three minutes between sets. Shorter rests are better for building endurance than for strength, however, and help keep your heart rate up, thus providing something of a cardiovascular workout.
Is it okay to do strength training every day?
This varies from person to person. But muscles generally need to rest for at least 48 hours, during which they fully replenish their energy stores (glycogen) and increase protein synthesis, thus growing in size and strength. This recovery period also helps reduce the risk of injury and excessive soreness.
Most people need to train just two or three times a week, in any case. If you want to work out on consecutive days, you can do upper-body training one day and lower-body the next.
Should you exercise muscles in any particular order?
It’s usually best to exercise large muscle groups (such as thighs, chest, and back) first, since they require more effort—but routines vary.
You may also want to exercise the muscles most important in your goals first—for instance, “core” muscles in your torso, if you’re trying to strengthen your back and/or tighten your abdominals.
Can you stick with the same routine week after week?
Not if you want to continue to gain strength, since muscles adapt quickly to a given exercise at a given stress level. You can vary your routine by increasing the number of reps or sets. Or increase the weight so you can cut back on the number of reps and/or sets. You can alternate “heavy” days (heavier weights, with fewer reps and/or sets) with “lighter” ones.
You can also vary the types of exercises you do and use different machines to focus on other muscles or to work the same muscles from different angles. Other good strength-building options are special elastic bands, medicine balls, and kettlebells, as well as calisthenics, such as push-ups and sit-ups.