What You Should Know About Strength Training

Part Two

These days, men and women are showing an increased interest in lifting weights because they realize that strength training is a good way to improve the body's shape and get stronger.

Whatever the type of strength training program you are following, whether you just want firmer and shapelier muscles or you want to get stronger to improve your athletic performance, there are underlying fitness principles that need to be followed to make your program more effective and time-efficient as well as prevent injury.

Exercise Selection
For muscle balance, it is important to select at least one exercise (done for at least one set) for each major muscle group. These muscles are the quadriceps and hamstrings (front and back of thighs), gastrocnemius and tibialis anterior (calf and shin), hip abductors and adductors (hip and inner thigh), low back, abdominals, pectoralis major (chest), latissimus dorsi (sides of back), deltoids (shoulders), biceps and triceps (front and back of arms).

You can do more exercises and sets for areas of the body that you consider to be "problem" areas but do at least one set for all the major parts.

Concentrating on only a few areas can lead to muscle imbalance, injuries, and undesirable body symmetry. Consider the man who works only his chest and not his back muscles. He ends up with the "gorilla" look - a big chest and rounded shoulders with the palms facing backwards. What about the guy who works only his upper body and forgets his legs? He develops the "lollipop" or "drumstick" look.

Exercise Sequence
The smaller muscle groups like the biceps and triceps act as assistants or stabilizers for the larger muscles like the lats (sides of the back) or the pecs (chest). Therefore, it is advisable to start with exercises for the larger muscles of the legs, chest, and back, then proceed to the smaller muscles of the torso, shoulders and arms. This sequence will prevent early fatigue in the smaller muscles and allow you to concentrate all your energy on the larger groups.

Exercise Speed
There is an inverse relationship between the speed of a movement and the force generated by the muscle. The faster the speed, the less muscle force is needed. The slower the speed, the harder the muscle has to work.

Lifting with too much momentum places a lot of stress on the muscles and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments). A slower pace of lifting places a more even application of muscle force throughout the movement.

A set is a number of successive repetitions done without resting. Traditionally, three sets is the standard. Research indicates the number of sets you need is dependent on your goal and personal preference. For the average person wants a hard, firm, and strong body that looks "normal" with the minimum amount of time put in to achieve and maintain the results, one set does just as well as three sets as long as changes are made to the program every six to eight weeks. What those changes are will be the topic of next week's column. If you have the time and inclination, multi-sets will give you the advantage of additional calorie burning from the longer exercise session.

One set doesn't necessarily mean only one exercise per muscle group. A multiple exercise-one set program can be both time-efficient and challenging.

The one-set or one-exercise approach does not apply to you if you are trying to become a male or female Hulk because studies show that anabolic androgenic hormones (male hormones that influence muscle growth) are not significantly increased by single sets, therefore, for maximum size, you need multiple sets with shorter rest periods in between.

The one-set program is also not appropriate if you are a competitive weight lifter or power lifter.

The heavier the resistance, the less repetitions you can do. The lighter the resistance, the more repetitions are possible before the muscle experiences fatigue.

Traditional advice has always been to carry a weight light enough to finish 12 to 15 repetitions if you want to tone, define, and harden a muscle without causing it to bulk up. Carry a weight heavy enough to only be able to do 8 to 12 repetitions if you want bigger muscle mass. Research indicates that this is still true.

The key to developing strength safely and effectively is through progressive resistance, with emphasis on the word "progressive". If you want to get stronger without getting injured, the weight you are carrying has to be gradually increased.

An increase in resistance should be accompanied by a decrease in the number of repetitions. This is called a double progressive program. Let's say you can lift 50 pounds for 12 repetitions. After increasing the weight by five pounds, you now lift 55 pounds for eight repetitions, building up strength until you can lift it for 12 repetitions. Then, it will be safe to add more weight. Though each person is different, it is not advisable to increase the resistance by more than 10 percent between training sessions.

You need ample rest time between training sessions especially if you are engaging in high-intensity strength training. It is during this recovery period of at least 48 hours that a muscle rebuilds itself to get stronger.

If you are doing a complete body workout, this means exercising every other day. If you are doing a split routine, workouts can be scheduled 4, 5, or 6 times a week. An example of a split routine is doing the upper body muscles on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and the lower body on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. This way, the respective muscle groups have the recommended 48 hours rest.

The more intense the workout (higher resistance, more sets, and many exercises per muscle group) the longer the rest period required, sometimes as long as 72 hours between workouts.

Warm-up and stretching
Like any other fitness activity, warm ups and cool downs are vital to avoid injuries. Many people skip these pre- and post-exercise activities because they want to save time and because they don't think they are not that important. The advice of fitness experts all over the world? Don't!

If you are always running out of time, try stretching after working each muscle group. For example, after strengthening your hamstrings, stretch them before moving on to the next exercise.

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