Congratulations on your decision to begin strength training. It is an essential part of any exercise program - the other elements are aerobic exercise for cardiovascular fitness and weight control, plus stretching to promote flexibility. If you're not already doing some aerobic exercise, I recommend a brisk walk, at least 15-20 minutes a day, working up to five times a week. In addition, you should stretch daily and hold each stretch for a minimum of 15 seconds.
A strength or resistance training program using free weights (or weight machines if you work out in a gym) can strengthen and tone your muscles, burn calories and increase the density of your bones.
I asked fitness expert, Dan Bornstein to provide some advice to start you on the right track. First of all, Dan suggests engaging a personal trainer to come to the house or gym for a couple of sessions. Proper technique is essential in order to avoid injuries and make sure you're using your muscles correctly for each exercise you do. Hiring a trainer can be expensive but will pay off in the long run, if only by saving you from injury.
Dan also says that you'll have to invest about $100 for the equipment you'll need: an exercise ball and some hand weights. If you're new to strength training, he recommends buying 3, 5 and 8 pound weights; if you've done strength training before and consider yourself relatively strong, he suggests buying 8, 12 and 15 pound weights. (Dan says weights generally cost about $1 per pound.)
The object of strength training is to exercise your body's major muscle groups. Here are the exercises recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine:
- Upper body: Bicep curls, tricep extensions (for the arms); shoulder press, bench press and bent-over row.
- Torso: Abdominal curls (arms folded across your chest); positioning yourself on your hands and knees, lift the opposite arm and leg for five to 10 repetitions, then do the opposite arm/leg.
- Legs: Squats or lunges and heel raises.
If any of these exercises are unfamiliar to you, you'll definitely need a trainer at first. Start out using light weights and do sets of 15-20 repetitions for every exercise. Dan says it will take a couple of weeks to get used to the movements and become comfortable using light weights. After that, you can advance to heavier weights. Your routine should include two to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions each for every exercise.
When working with weights, keep in mind these tips from the ACSM:
- Always exhale with the effort you're making and inhale during the easier phase of the movement.
- Be sure to control your movements. Don't swing the weights or let momentum move them, a sure set up for injury.
- Never use your back when lifting weights from the floor - use your legs instead.
Best of luck. Lifting weights is a great way to increase your strength and improve your fitness.
Andrew Weil, M.D.