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Strength Training

You've put in so much time on the Stairmaster, they've started to issue you frequent climber miles. And yet you haven't seen the results you were hoping for. What gives?

Many of us who work out regularly sooner or later discover that aerobic exercise by itself isn't enough. If that's your situation, you might want to consider adding some strength training to your routine.

Strength training, also known as weight training or resistance training, is the use of resistance to challenge and exhaust your muscles. Over time, strength training increases both strength and muscle mass. Greater muscle mass drives your metabolism up and makes your workouts more effective.

It's not the same as bodybuilding

When you think of lifting weights, do you picture tanned and oiled bodybuilders strutting their stuff on a stage?

Bodybuilding is only the most extreme form of strength training. These professionals do a tremendous number of repetitions with massive weights, and learn to isolate and work even the smallest muscle groups. A bodybuilder may expend considerable mental and physical energy in pursuit of fine points — accenting the separation between the tricep and the deltoid, for example.

Most of us, though, aren't after such precision. For better or for worse, moderate strength training won't give us the overbuilt look sported by pro bodybuilders.

The benefits of strength training

Strength training is an effective adjunct to cardio workouts, and its effects are equally rewarding. Here is what regular strength training can do:

  • Increase bone density, helping to prevent osteoporosis
  • Raise metabolism to lose fat faster
  • Reverse the loss of muscle mass associated with aging
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Help prevent injuries
  • Improve posture
  • Reduce depression, anxiety, anger, and fatigue

Choose your technique

There's more than one way to strength-train. The different techniques vary somewhat in what they have to offer, but most people make a choice based on convenience and personal preference.

  • Free weights (also called dumbbells) are the most basic type of weight-training equipment. Free weights force you to stabilize your body by engaging your abdominals, back, and other muscles. Getting your technique right with free weights can be tricky, but free weights are less expensive to use at home, and more portable than weight machines.
  • Weight machines, such as those by Nautilus and Soloflex, are easier and more convenient for some people. Weight machines allow a set range of motions, and the weights can usually be adjusted in increments of five pounds or less.
  • Other methods of creating resistance include elastic bands (such as Therabands or Resistabands) and exercises in which you work against your own body weight (such as squats, lunges, push-ups, and pull-ups).
Apart from technique, the number and type of weight-training moves you should do are fairly standard. Here's what experts at the American College of Sports Medicine recommend:

  • Perform a total of at least eight to 10 exercises, two or three times a week
  • Choose exercises that work each of the major muscle groups (back, chest, legs, arms, shoulders, and abdominals)
  • Do at least one set of each exercise (although trainers usually recommend two or three)
  • Each set should include eight to 12 repetitions ("reps")
People over 50 are more susceptible to injury, so the ACSM suggests they opt for ten to 15 reps using lighter weights.

Some rules of thumb before you get started

If you're just starting out, it's a good idea to arrange for at least one lesson with a qualified trainer who can teach you exercises designed to work each major muscle group. Trainers' fees may seem steep — averaging around $50 an hour — but a few sessions of their expertise can be well worth the expense.

In the meantime, these basic rules can help you get the most from strength training while avoiding injury:

  • Use a weight that's heavy enough — but not too heavy. Your goal is to exhaust your muscles just as you get to the last rep of a set. Most of the benefit of an exercise comes in the last few reps, when you're working the hardest. When it's a real effort to lift a weight, tiny fibers in your muscles tear. After a day of rest, that muscle is stronger than it was before. You don't want to lift a weight so heavy that you injure yourself, but a weight that is too light won't be enough of a challenge to increase your strength much.
  • Put the exercises that work several muscles at once at the beginning of your workout. A squat, for example, is a complex movement that works three muscle groups simultaneously: the quadriceps, the glutes, and the hamstrings. If you've already exhausted one group — say your glutes — you can't do your squats correctly. You'll get less benefit from them, and you might even injure yourself. Save the exercises that use fewer muscles — such as leg extensions and hamstring curls — for later in your workout.
  • Exercise opposing muscle groups in the same workout. Working opposing muscle groups — chest and back, for example — keeps your body balanced and helps prevent injuries. Other pairs of opposing muscle groups include triceps and biceps, quads and hamstrings, and abs and lower back.
  • Keep your movements slow and deliberate. Stay in control as you lift and lower weights. This helps you isolate the muscle you're targeting. And if your movements are fast, momentum will do more of the work for you and you won't get all the benefit you should from the exercise.
  • Don't rest too long between sets. Up to a minute is fine.
  • Don't work the same muscle group two days in a row. Give muscles a chance to repair for at least one day in between workouts. For example, you might work your upper body on Mondays and Thursdays, and your lower body on Tuesdays and Fridays. Those tiny muscle fibers that tear when you lift weights need this time to heal before you use them again.
  • Challenge yourself as you get stronger. Increase the weight you use as your muscles gain strength. Now and then vary your routine by changing the order of the exercises you do, or by trying new ones. This will keep you from getting bored and help prevent injury.

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