Fitness Training Part 4: Strength Training

ALWAYS check with a medical professional before starting a new fitness program or making major changes to an existing one, especially if you have any risk factors for heart disease, have joint pain or have been very sedentary for a period of time.

See Also:

Fitness Intro
Fitness Training Part 1: The Activity Triad
Fitness Training Part 2: Flexibility
Fitness Training Part 3: Cardiovascular

I find strength training is a favorite part for many on this path. It’s also one that tends to have many misconceptions about it and I hope some are cleared up here.

 I have often seen people insist that lifting is simple, you pick it up, you put it down; add just more reps and/or more weight as you develop. Simple. Often these people, happily giving advice on Facebook, aren’t serious lifters and if they do workout it’s usually a basic routine sold to them at their gym. Strength training, like all training, is a science. At the very core it is about chemical reactions and nervous system responses which we’re not going to get into heavily here but hopefully I will offer enough to help you  understand why certain things work and others don’t, as well as why things might work differently for one person than another. And some of you may wish to explore the science of it for yourselves.

I am not going to give a workout plan here. There is no “one-workout-fits all” program to give. Not only are our bodies all different in how they respond, but it’s also important to keep changing things. What I do hope is that this will do is help you build a program for yourself, or refine one if you’re already lifting, that will help you build strength. And inspire you to keep learning more from other resources.

A common and convoluted misconception is that strength training is very different for women and men. This is one which particularly annoys me, as a woman who trains seriously. Women are often told that we are not able to build muscle “like men” but that we must also train with lighter weights and higher reps to become “toned” rather than bulky “like men.”  This is often told to us by male trainers who themselves are not particularly huge, btw.  Sometimes the training concepts given to women are actually designed to over-train and diminish, that is weaken, muscles to make them smaller. This is not productive!  I hope that women coming to this path realize that you need to build the best strength you can. For some this will mean being bulky, for others…some of us will never get the size we might desire. And that’s just as it is for men, because most men also do  not get “overly bulky.”

The facts are that women have the same muscle structure as men. Women should train the same way as men (keeping in mind we all, everyone of us, is going to be different from every other person). Most people, male or female or fluid, simply do not bulk up hugely. How big someone gets has more to do with genetics that the magic power that so many men want to believe, even when they are not showing evidence themselves, testosterone gives them. And, of course, women have testosterone too and how much does vary among us. Getting real big is hard for the majority of people, that’s why bodybuilders have to work so hard (and, yes, why some resort to steroids ….which is NOT a healthy or safe option…the only reason to take testosterone would be for medical reasons such if one were an AFAB Trans*man).

So, while that might be good news for some who fear muscle, for some of us it can be disappointing.  I’m a hard-gainer and I’d love to look bigger.  But regardless of how much size you show, strength can be developed by anyone who is medically cleared to lift.

The key is to build that strength rather than trying to fit an absurdly, well, narrow, concept of “fitness” as appearance rather than function.  To become more, not less!

A Bit on the Basics

The body has three types of muscle: skeletal, cardiac and smooth organ. Resistance training strengthens the skeletal muscle, while cardiovascular training strengthens the cardiac muscle and overall health maintenance, we hope, helps keep the organ muscles healthy.  Within the skeletal muscle group there are different types of muscle fiber, the number and exact purpose of each being still not conclusively determined. However, when it comes to fitness, there are two basic types that we are aware of: Type I or Slow Twitch which are resistant to fatigue and are most active through low intensity, endurance type activity and Type II or Fast Twitch which are more quickly fatigued and are most active in high intensity, power movement. These do not work exclusively, of course, the body goes through various chemical and energy changes as various fibers kick in throughout any given movement.[1]

Why some people bulk up more than others is due more to whether we tend to have more Type I or Type II muscle. Those with a lot of Type II are going to be gifted with gaining more mass, more easily, but may also not have great endurance as someone who is a “hard gainer” because they have more Type I.  A popular fiction is that certain forms of exercise will give you a certain body type, usually with photos of people who excel in, say, long-distance running and sprinting being compared to each other as if their sports gave them the varied bodies rather than their varied bodies allowing them to excel at their sport.[2] We all have both types and both need to be trained. While strength training is focused mostly on the Fast Twitch and cardio, fight training and some portions of our strength training will be affecting our Slow Twitch we’ll see that our more advanced weigh training will also include higher repetition work along with lower repetition work.  This gets all the muscle fibers in action, over a period of time, creating truly functional strength.

The American College of Sports Medicine’s basic recommendations[3] for a healthy adult resistance program is:

Frequency:  2-3 days a week for each muscle group, with a minimum of 48 hours between sessions. This may, of course, be either 2-3 whole body workouts a week or more days a week splitting up the body for different sessions, as we’ll discuss.

Type:  Multi-joint or compound exercises which affect more than one muscle group. They consider single joint exercises optional.

Volume (repetitions and sets): 8-12 repetitions to failure (which we’ll discuss in detail) are recommended for most muscle groups for healthy adults. They recommend 10-15 for older adults and those who are deconditioned (out of shape to normal people).

The 2010 recommendation for a healthy adult was 2-4 sets per body part, with older and deconditioned adults recommended to do one.  The multi-set debate is currently raging and we’ll discuss that further as well. If you are just beginning, however, one set per body part is a good place to start, you do want to have a place to work up to, after all.

Technique: ACSM recommends everyone receive professional instruction to be sure of proper technique and safety.  Controlled movement in the full range of motion involving concentric (lifting phase) and eccentric (lowering phase).[4]

 Progression/Maintenance: As you gain strength, if you wish to continue to build, then continue to increase weight to continue to do no more than 12 repetitions to fatigue, increase sets for each muscle group and increase number of days you work each muscle group (we’ll discuss why this doesn’t work for everyone. We will shortly discuss how this doesn’t actually mean “just keep doing the same thing over and over, just more” it also involved variation, which I recommend starting in on from the beginning

Developing your program

I recommend using free weights and body weight primarily, as much as possible, with machines and other resistant systems being alternative options. Exactly how each individual will implement these guidelines is going to vary and will be constantly changing. Change, you will see, is a huge key to long-term success.

Starting out

If you are lifting for the first time or just getting back from it after a long period of time, then I recommend starting with one set of exercises for each body part, of mostly multiple joint exercises so that you are working more than one muscle group at a time. You may wish to do the entire body in one day, to begin, or you may start with a basic upper body/lower body split to start. You should start by working the larger muscle groups first, like chest and back, then the smaller ones, arms and shoulders.

For the first couple of weeks do not worry about lifting to failure, focus on form and getting a full range of movement. During this time you are also learning what weights you’ll need when you do begin to lift to failure, for this is really the best and safest way to find this out. Remember, if you have not been lifting you will be progressing with any activity. You may find that, even with the recommendation to lift a bit lighter, in the first few weeks your strength will progress fairly rapidly, as you are going through both neurological and physical changes at this point.

As you become comfortable with the movement, you should continue the one set and lift for 8-10 repetitions to failure. When you are able to lift a weight for 12 repetitions then move up a weight if you can lift it for at least 6, but at this point preferably 8, repetitions to failure. For some muscles you may need to be able to do more repetitions before you find you can move up safely (there will be other exceptions as well, for some individuals, as we’ll see).  It may be best to start with two times a week, but then work up to three as long as you are doing this level and are doing your entire body at one time.

Failure is failure. It means that you absolutely cannot lift it next time, at least without jerking or contorting the body.  And you do not want to contort or jerk your body.

Over your first few weeks, find and learn different exercises for each of the body parts. Change what you do frequently; this will be an important step to keeping both the body and the mind fresh for each workout. Not only can doing the same thing every time bore the mind, it also does “bore” the body. Our muscles adapt and find ways to cheat when they know what to expect each time you go in. .’s Muscle and Exercise Directory can give you some ideas if you are stuck and do not have a trainer or experienced exercise partner to work with (do keep in mind that it is advised that you do get some guidance from a professional if possible).

After a few weeks, you may wish to start some single joint exercises, especially for muscle groups that you may find you wish to focus on more. These may, of course, be areas you want to begin to build up more or they may be areas where you are realizing you need more work to build due to them being less used. Upper arms, both biceps and triceps, are in the first category for many of us, while the back of the shoulders may be in the second.

Progression and Periodization

There is some controversy about adding sets, as studies have shown only a minor increase in improvement in multiple sets vs. single sets, with an increase in injury and a decrease in exerciser adherence. [5]  However, these studies have been with those who were previously untrained, therefore indicating that the above recommendations to start do apply.  I do believe that starting with single sets is far better in the beginning, likely for the first several months and might be enough for some exercisers to maintain depending on goals. It allows the body to have somewhere to go with it for those who want to keep pushing things.  If you start with too many sets to begin with, consider how many more you might eventually have to do. That offers a lot of potential for burn out, both physically and mentally. So start with one set, then work up.

However, as suggested in Roy Stevenson’s “Single vs. Multiple Sets: are extra sets really worth it,” we don’t need to do more sets of the same exercise, but rather start doing multiple exercises for each muscle group. This allows you to start hitting the muscles from different angles or in different ways in one workout. As you started by doing and learning a variety already, you will have learned several to work with by this time. You can continue to change things up each work out, by choosing two or three different exercises and doing things in different order.

Keep in mind that while you need to work all your muscle groups, to keep in balance, this doesn’t always mean you are best off doing the same number of sets for each. This is especially true where there may already be imbalances. We do essentially everything in our day-to-day lives with our arms in front of us, in the frontal plane. In fact, reaching behind us can be a recipe for injury; this is how we are designed. Yet this also means that our pectoral and front deltoid muscles are shorter and stronger than our back muscles and our posterior deltoid muscles. And our often very unhappy rear rotator cuff muscles. All this can lead to back pain and the development of a hunched back, known as kyphosis. Therefore, before injury occurs, you may wish to do more sets of varieties of rows which counter pectoral exercises, as well as doing external rotations. And then, because Sarah, you’re probably want to work on doing chin-ups and other pull-ups, which themselves are important but do not do as much to counter the pectoral muscles. Meanwhile, make extra sure to be stretching those pectoral muscles.

Conversely, for many the lower back tightens and the abdominal muscles may be weak, leading to lordosis, or an extreme curving forward of the lower back and, again, pain. In this case lots of core abdominal work is important, again before there is a real medical issue. Frankly, I do not believe that abdominals can be too strong, we need them for everything we do. Even lying down requires them. As theses are endurance muscles, they do best with lots of repetitions, worked with no weight, continuing to increase repetitions to fatigue.  For many, the lower back muscles may do best with less and very careful training and a lot of proper stretching.

If injury does occur, then get it attended to, including physical therapy and go from there. Even some of us (me) who already felt we were doing a lot more back work than chest work find that we might not have evened the balance enough and end up with injuries which leave us doing very little and very light chest work and a lot more back work. So, listen to what your body needs, if that doesn’t work then listen to your physical therapist.

At this point, as you do increase sets/exercises for each body part, you may want to increase splitting your workouts. This keeps workouts shorter and allows more recovery time between sessions for each body part. It can also keep those who feel that “rest is nonproductive” from too many days with no training, although you need some and some of need more.

That variation has been a start in muscle confusion and muscle confusion is the real key to continued strength gains and injury prevention. Without this variety, we end up plateauing, where all progress stops. The body has learned to adapt and “cheat” once it has gotten used to a routine. Even if we try to do more of the same, it will continue to adapt doesn’t work well for our plans or our safety. Some get frustrated and give up at this point. But if we keep pushing on with just more and more of the same with more sets and heavier weights, we start going backwards, losing conditioning and becoming more easily injured.  We end up overtraining.[6]

As I noted in the cardiovascular segment, athletes often change their training in relationship to their competition, and this is Periodization is also used by those who do strength competitions of all kinds. How athletes might change things up varies between sports but also between individuals. When you are “training for life” you end up with a lot of flexibility in how to change things…and that’s really good.  Because the more changes the better, and you can even keep changing how you change things.

There are several varieties of periodization typically used in strength training. The first is the linear or classic periodization. This is a progressive number of sets and weight increases, with small variations within one to four week microcycles. Each cycle would focus on either strength (working in the  8-10 rep zone), endurance (working 12 or more reps or power (working below 8 reps). Then there is an active rest cycle, usually after th others cycle for 12 weeks. I personally find this works great for those who have great genetics and recover well, but is not enough change for others.

Nonlinear periodization involves making changes throughout a shorter period, such as a week. For example (and these are just common examples of how to change things, not set in stone), one workout for power, second workout for power, third workout for endurance for each body part. Again this is usually 12 weeks, followed by one or two weeks of active rest.

“Unplanned” nonlinear periodization as described by ACSM isn’t actually is a planned set of routines decided upon at each session by the personal trainer based on her or his assessment of the client’s physical and emotional state, with each of the routines checked off.[7]

I like to make this latter a bit more unplanned, actually. Once you have a body of exercises you are familiar and comfortable with, once you have a plan for what body parts you work when and how. You can go into the gym, or your living room, on a given day and assess what your body needs on that day to do that.  If you’re tired do lighter work and less of it. If you’re feeling really gung-ho, up the weight and lower the reps and maybe pull off a few more sets. If you’re bored out of your ever loving mind and really stressed and just hate the idea of doing what you feel you’re supposed to do even though it hasn’t been twelve weeks, do something completely different, maybe kettlebells or a Pilates class.

I also am a fan of changing up power/strength/endurance sets within a workout. Classically this is done with “pyramids,” several sets of the same exercise going either from light/high rep to heavy/low rep or the other way around. However, you can mix this up more too, especially if you are doing different exercises each set. Say, do a set of heavy concentrated curls, then the next bicep set might be a high rep hanging curl…and just mix it up different next time you’re doing biceps.

You can also vary by how you order your exercises. When you begin with the whole body or at least half your body for each session, it was recommended that you start with larger muscle groups then smaller. At this point, you are likely splitting things up so that this may not be an issue. When you combine changing order with different exercise, this adds for even more a variety. Anytime you think “I did such and such last time” do something different.


Absolutely, allow yourself plenty of rest. Rest is actually vital to progress, for it is when our muscles recover that they actually gain the strength.  Train too often, you get into overtraining and the muscles actually weaken and get smaller. How much time between sessions for any given body part is individual, but everyone needs at least 48 hours. Some of us, especially those of us who are hard-gainers, need more. A day off completely, even if you break down your body into many splits, is vital. And, again, many of us need more than that to recover fully.

Remember that between sets you should give your body several minutes, say 2 or 3 if you’re doing a light day, but at least 5 if you’re doing a heavy. You can work another or opposing body part for part of that time. Mediation, socializing if appropriate, spotting for another person, it doesn’t have to be boring. Oh, but remember, the old advice to stretch between strength sets has been thrown out the window, save that for after.

And even if you’re going for that totally unplanned periodization, do plan for periodic active rest periods with no more than 12 weeks in between. Remember that doesn’t mean you don’t do anything at all, it just means you don’t do the program you have been doing. You might even keep lifting, but doing so in a very different and easier way.  Perhaps returning to one set of low weight/high repetition. Or doing kettlebell, Pilates or Yoga. You might want to try out Sarah Connor’s Cell Circuits which I do hope to get up soon (no, really, I mean it this time! although you might be able to figure something similar on your own). You would continue your cardio training, perhaps changing that too, and, of course, stretching.  Again, if your activity levels change due to life, you should consider those changes in planning your active rest. If you are a homesteader and suddenly have a major physical workload to deal with, say in the spring or during harvest, those are great times even if it’s not been 12 weeks. If you’re finding yourself hiking through the Amazon, that’s a great time. If you’re on a business trip and lodged where there is a nice pool and you don’t usually get to swim, then do laps between meetings instead of your usual routine. Even if it’s not been 12 weeks. I discussed the importance of rest more thoroughly in Part 1, The Activity Triad.

Rounding it up

As I noted, there is no way to give a fully detailed plan in the scope of this, there is no one size fits all. You need to do the work, need to find what works for, by doing it, with care and consideration. Remember the difference between good soreness that comes with increased activity and bad pain that requires medical care. Be area of your posture. Consider hiring a personal trainer if you are in a position to do so, even for a short time. It is always best to work with a training partner or in a gym with others who you can count on, especially when you lifting heavy. Spotters can save your life! And if you don’t have them, be well aware of your safety situation, choose dumbbells or even machines over barbells you can get caught under. Stay safe!

You may find’s Exercises and Muscle Directory useful in finding a variety of exercises for all body parts.  For more detail, especially if you are a beginner, you may find Liz Neporent, Suzanne Schlosberg and Shirley Archer, Weight Training for Dummies, 3rd edition, Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2006 (I know there are others of the same title in the series, but I have not read them so I do not know how they compare) and/or Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle, Fitness Weight Training, Human Kinetics, 2014.  Of course, you may also want to delve into material designed for trainers from the American College of Sports Medicine. There are other fitness resources on this page, as well.

[1] American College of Sports Medicine, ACSM’s Resources for the Personal Trainer, Baltimore, MD, USA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2010 pg 142-143

[2] This has become a popular comparison to try to dissuade people from long distance running, especially in the “Paleofitness” realms. This is ironic, given what I have noted about the evidence out ancestors were runners in Part 3: Cardiovascular/Endurance/Aerobic

[3] American College of Sports Medicine, ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription , Baltimore, MD, USA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2010  pg. 168-171

[4] This seems a no-brainer, but from my own experience, I discovered that a fitness company did make a weight machine that they proudly advertised as being better because you lifted the weight but it became weightless as you lowered it. They felt this was safer and more effective, although the eccentric phase is a part of the development of strength. This company’s current weight machines apparently do not include this feature.

[5] Roy Stevenson, “Single vs. Multiple Sets: are extra sets really worth it”, American Fitness Magazine,  Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, March/April 2012

[6] Symptoms of overtraining include decrease in strength, endurance and coordination, sleep disturbances, headaches, symptoms of depression, fatigue, increased susceptibly to illness, increase injuries and a slowing of healing. Andrew C. Fry, Ph.D, “Overtraining with Resistance Exercise” ACSM Current Comment FactSheet.

[7] ACSM, Resources for the Personal Trainer, pg. 346-348

See Also:

Fitness Intro
Fitness Training Part 1: The Activity Triad
Fitness Training Part 2: Flexibility
Fitness Training Part 3: Cardiovascular

Wolf based on Newbigging Leslie stone sketch copyright © 2002 Aaron Miller

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