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General Fitness>>Strength Training: What you need to know - 1/6/2007

Strength Training: How to get started and what you need to know

By Kevin Lockette PT

Developing and starting a strength training program is a rewarding experience. Strength training is a general term used to apply to muscle development through the use of free weights, variable resistance, isokentics and isometrics. Strength training is commonly used in sports specific training, recreational fitness, and medical related rehabilitation programs, especially following orthopedic surgeries.

Your Body's Response

The purpose of addressing the physiological effects of strength training is to give you a better understanding of how your body will react to a strength program that you design for yourself. Understanding the cause and effects will allow you to better design and modify your exercise program to meet your needs and goals.

The human body has a remarkable ability to adapt to the stresses placed on it. When the body is attacked by an infection, the immune system reacts by producing antibodies to counteract the infection. The muscles function in a similar way. When the muscle fibers and the anaerobic energy system are stressed by weightlifting or resistive training, they adapt. With appropriate stress on these systems, rest and recuperation, the muscle will become stronger as a positive adaptation to the stress put on it.

True physiological changes in the muscle itself generally occur 4 to 6 weeks following the start of a strength program. Initial gains in strength are most likely due to both effects on the muscles and the nervous system. The nervous system stimulates and controls the muscles. During the initial training phase, the nervous system basically learns the skill of the movements (exercises) and learns how to efficiently recruit the muscle fibers to have the best coordination for those desired motions. This initial phase where you will experience gains in strength or gains in the amount of resistance/weight you can lift with actual changes in the muscle itself, such a the muscle becoming bigger (hypertrophy), is called neuro-adaptation.

Following the first 2-4 weeks of weight training, gains in strength or jumps in the amount of weight you can lift will taper off and be more modest. These modest gains will are the result of physiological changes of the muscle itself. The most obvious change is when the muscle fibers increase in size (hypertrophy). Increases in strength are not always accompanied by muscle hypertrophy. Whereas in the early stages of muscular changes significant muscular hypertrophy can occur, after a certain improvement in strength, further increases in strength can occur with little or no gains in muscle size.


Progressive Resistive Exercise (PRE)

As a muscle adapts to applied stresses, resistance must gradually be increased for further positive changes to occur- thus the term progressive resistive exercise. Large increases in resistance should be avoided; if the stress is too great, you could injure your muscle, tendons. If your increase in resistance results in poor technique, then it is too much weight.

Order of Exercises

The order in which you perform exercises is important in maximizing your workout. Multi-joint exercises should be the core of your program and should be performed prior to working of isolating a single joint as in a bicep curl. Single-joint exercises may pre-exhaust the smaller working muscles and limit the performance of the multi-joint exercises.

Your muscle groups need an appropriate amount of rest between sets for recuperation. This can easily be achieved by working on one muscle group while the opposing muscle groups rest. You can use the push-pull strategy. If you perform a push exercise, such as the bench press, then choose a pull exercise for your next set, such as backward rows, to work the opposite muscle group. This will not only aid in getting appropriate rest and recovery between sets, but will also aid in a balanced program to decrease risk of injury.

Muscle Balance

Proper muscle balance is an important goal in all exercise routines because it is essential for maintaining good posture and avoiding over-use injuries. Choosing balanced exercises around the joint can help you avoid sport and exercise related injuries associated with muscle imbalances, such as rotator cuff injuries or shoulder impingement.

Training Load

The appropriate training load or the amount of resistance used relates to your fitness level and goals. If you have been very inactive and are deconditioned, you will benefit from training at a very low workload. Actually low work loads are recommended for all beginners to prepare the body for greater stress as the program progresses. Starting with a low workload also gives you the opportunity to learn proper technique. Health professionals know that the once popular, "No Pain, No Gain" motto is insane! Trying to lift too much weight can promote injury. It is important that you start slow and work within your own body limits and not concern yourself with what the other guys is lifting.

Remember, to avoid injuries, not only the muscles but also the tendons and ligaments need to be strengthened gradually before using higher loads.

Sets and Repetitions

With use of the appropriate training load, the number of sets and repetitions govern the goal and outcome of the exercise program. Sets and repetitions can be set up for muscular endurance, muscular strength, and muscular power routines. Core muscles such as the scapular and pelvic girdle musculature are best trained via a muscular endurance routine since they are more endurance and postural muscles. Other muscles groups can follow any of the above mentioned routines based on specific goals and activities required for sport or activities of daily living. Below is a table with general recommendations for the three routines.


Volume (reps/sets)

Intensity (training load)

Muscular Endurance

8-20 reps/3-5 sets

Low to Medium


3-9 reps/3-5 sets

Medium to High



1-3 reps/ 3-5 sets


Very High

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