Resistance training is based on the principle that muscles of the body will work to overcome a resistance force when required to do so. Health benefits of resistance training include improved muscle strength and tone, healthy weight, increased bone density and strength.
Resistance training (also called strength training or weight training) is the use of resistance to muscular contraction to build the strength, anaerobic endurance and size of skeletal muscles.
Resistance training is based on the principle that muscles of the body will work to overcome a resistance force when they are required to do so. When you do resistance training repeatedly and consistently, your muscles become stronger.
A well-rounded fitness program includes strength training to improve bone, joint function, bone density, muscle, tendon and ligament strength, as well as aerobic exercise to improve your heart and lung fitness.
If you vary your resistance training program through the number of repetitions and sets performed, exercises undertaken and weights used, you will maintain any strength gains you make.
Examples of resistance training
There are many ways you can strengthen your muscles, whether at home or the gym.
Different types of resistance training include:
- Free weights – classic strength training tools such as dumbbells or barbells
- Weight machines – devices that have adjustable seats with handles attached either to weights or hydraulics
- Resistance bands – like giant rubber bands – these provide resistance when stretched. They are portable and can be adapted to most workouts. The bands provide continuous resistance throughout a movement
- Your own body weight – can be used to do bent-knee sit-ups or abdominal curls, squats, push-ups and chin-ups. Using your own body weight is convenient and free.
Health benefits of resistance training
Physical and mental health benefits that can be achieved through resistance training include:
- Improved muscle strength and tone – to protect your joints from injury. It also helps you maintain flexibility and balance and helps you remain independent as you age
- Weight management and increased muscle-to-fat ratio – as you gain muscle, your body burns more kilojoules when at rest
- Greater stamina – as you grow stronger, you won’t get tired as easily
- Prevention or control of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, back pain, depression and obesity
- Pain management
- Improved mobility and balance
- Improved posture
- Decreased risk of injury
- Increased bone density and strength and reduced risk of osteoporosis
- Reduced body fat
- Improved sense of wellbeing – resistance training can boost your self-confidence, improve your body image and reduce the risk of depression
- A better night’s sleep and avoidance of insomnia
- Increased self-esteem
- Enhanced performance of everyday tasks.
Basic principles of resistance training
Resistance training consists of various components. Basic principles include:
- Program – your overall fitness program is composed of various exercise types such as aerobic training, flexibility training and strength training
- Weight – different weights, for example a 3 kg hand weight or fixed weight, will be used for different exercises during your strength training session
- Exercise – a particular movement, for example a calf-raise, is designed to strengthen a particular muscle or group of muscles
- Repetitions or ‘reps’ – the number of times you repeat each exercise in a set
- Set – a group of repetitions performed without resting, for example two sets of abdominal crunches with 15 reps would mean you do 15 crunches then rest or stretch the abdominal muscles before doing another 15 crunches
- Rest – you need to rest between sets. If your goal is muscle size or endurance, rest for about two minutes
- Variety – switching around your workout routine, such as regularly introducing new exercises, challenges your muscles and forces them to adapt with increased size and strength
- Overload principle – to gain benefits, strength training activities need to be done to the point where it’s hard for you to do another repetition. The aim is to use an appropriate weight or resistant force that will work the target muscles to fatigue levels. Also make regular adjustments to the training variables such as frequency, duration, exercises for each muscle group, number of exercise for each muscle group, sets and repetitions
- Recovery – muscle needs time to repair and grow after a workout. A good rule of thumb is to rest the muscle group for at least 24 hours before working the same muscle group again.
Resistance training for beginners
See your doctor before you start any new exercise program, particularly if you are overweight, aged over 40, have a pre-existing medical condition or haven’t exercised in a long time.
Pre-exercise screening is used to identify people with medical conditions that may put them at a higher risk of experiencing a health problem during physical activity. It is a filter or safety net to help decide if the potential benefits of exercise outweigh the risks for you.
It is recommended that you do things to strengthen your muscles at least two days a week. These activities should work all the major muscle groups of your body (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms).
Starting resistance training
It is important to pay attention to safety and good form to reduce the risk of injury. A registered fitness professional can help you develop a safe, effective program.
To start, a typical beginner’s strength training program involves:
- Eight to 10 exercises that work the major muscle groups of the body and are performed two to three times every week
- Beginning with one set of each exercise, comprising as few as five repetitions (reps), no more than twice a week.
Your aim is to gradually increase to one set for each exercise – comprising eight to 12 reps, every second or third day. Once you can comfortably do 12 reps of an exercise you should look at progressing further.
Warming up before resistance training
Before doing your strength training exercises, you need to warm up. Stretching and light aerobic exercise for about five minutes are a good way to warm up.
Advanced resistance training
To get the most gain from resistance training, you need to progressively increase the intensity of your training, according to your experience and training goals. This may mean increasing the weight, changing the duration of the contraction, reducing rest time or increasing the volume of training.
Once you’ve been doing resistance training regularly for several months, you can progressively increase the intensity of your training as your muscles adapt.
Repetitive maximum (RM) and resistance training
The best way to develop muscle strength is for the muscle to contract to its maximum potential at any given time – maximal voluntary contraction (MVC). In resistance training, MVC is measured by the term XRM, where RM is the maximum number of repetitions that can be completed with a given resistance or weight. X is the number of times a certain weight can be lifted before the muscle fatigues. It is the RM range that determines what type of improvements the muscles will make. The optimal range for improving muscle strength is 8–12 RM for a beginner and 2–6 RM for the more advanced.
For example, the formula 7RM means the person can lift the weight (let’s say 50 kg) seven times before the muscles are too fatigued to continue. Higher weights mean lower RM – for example, the same person could possibly lift a 65 kg weight only three times. Lower weights typically result in a higher RM – for example, the same person could lift a 35 kg weight about 12 times before muscle fatigue sets in. MVC principles can help you gain the most benefit from your workouts.
Applying MVC to meet advanced resistance training goals
The principles of strength training involve a manipulation of the number of repetitions (reps), sets, tempo, exercises and force to overload a group of muscles and produce the desired change in strength, endurance, size or shape.
Specific combinations of reps, sets, exercises, resistance and force will determine the type of muscle development you achieve. General guidelines, using the RM range, include:
- Muscle power – one to six RM per set, performed as quickly as possible
- Muscle strength/power – six to 12 RM per set
- Muscle strength/size – six or eight to 12 RM per set
- Muscle endurance – 10 to 15 or more RM per set.
Muscle recovery during advanced resistance training
Muscle needs time to repair and grow after a workout. Neglecting to give your muscles enough time to recover means they will not get bigger or stronger. A good rule of thumb is to rest the muscle group for at least 48 to 72 hours.
Once you have sufficient experience in resistance training, and with the support of a qualified health professional, you might like to consider a split program. For example, you could work your upper body on Mondays and Fridays and your lower body on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Gaining strength from advanced resistance training
Most beginners experience a rapid increase in strength, followed by a plateau or levelling-out of strength improvements. After that, gains in muscle strength and size are hard earned.
When you start resistance training most of your initial increase in strength is due to a phenomenon called ‘neural adaptation’. This means that the nerves servicing the muscles change their behaviour. The nerves are thought to ‘fire’ more frequently (prompting increased muscle contraction) and more motor units are recruited to perform the contraction (a motor unit is the nerve cell and its associated muscle fibres). This means you become stronger but the muscles remain the same size – you’ve hit the plateau.
In time, muscle cells respond to continuous resistance training by increasing in size (hypertrophy), so don’t be discouraged by reaching the plateau – it is actually an encouraging sign that gains in muscle size are soon to follow. Various techniques may help you shorten the plateau period.
Varying your workouts can help you push past a plateau. The theory of variation is that you can coax growth and strength from your muscles by surprising them with a range of different stresses. The muscles will respond in size and strength as they are forced to adapt.
Be guided by your gym instructor or personal trainer, but suggestions include:
- Increase the number of repetitions.
- Increase your workout by 10 or 15 minutes.
- Increase the frequency of workouts, keeping in mind that each muscle needs at least 48 to 72 hours of recovery time. You may like to consider a three-way split over the week – for example, chest, shoulders and triceps in session one; back, biceps and abdominal muscles in session two; legs in session three.
- Switch to different exercises – for example, use barbell curls instead of dumbbell curls to work your biceps.
- Increase the weight by about five to 10 per cent.
- Cross-train with other activities such as swimming or running.
- Change your workout about every four to eight weeks to keep your muscles guessing.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Your local council
- Local gymnasium or qualified trainer
- Qualified gym instructor
- Qualified personal trainer
- ESSA – Exercise & Sports Science Australia Tel. (07) 3862 4122 to find an accredited exercise physiologist
- Smartplay Tel. (03) 9674 8777
Things to remember
- Resistance training increases muscle strength by making your muscles work against a weight or force.
- Different forms of resistance training include free weights, weight machines, resistance bands and your own body weight.
- A beginner needs to train two or three times per week to gain the maximum benefit.
- Consult with professionals, such as your doctor or physiotherapist, before you start a new fitness program.
- Rest each muscle group for at least 48 to 72 hours to maximise gains in strength and size.
- Varying your workouts can help you push past a training plateau.
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