Everything you need to know to get you started
Over the last few years, the number of people commencing regular strength training in the gym or at home has increased. This is a great thing! We know it's beneficial for developing muscle mass, increasing bone strength, helping people to manage conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, improving confidence, reducing the risk of injury, improving mental health, and a whole raft of other things. Like any new activity, too much too soon or incorrect technique can lead to injury or overload. A feeling of muscles burning while training is normal, but pain during exercise is not and shouldn't be ignored. Read on to learn how to ensure your new strength training regime doesn't lead to pain and injury.
There are some key variables to consider for any type of training, be it strength training, running, or surfing. These include:
Reps and sets
Number of exercises and exercise selection
Technique is the first thing to focus on before adding any significant load or intensity to the movement. No ones technique is going to be perfect from day one. Like any skill, perfecting your exercise technique takes practice, and coaching can be helpful in the early stages. If you've had an injury in the past that you haven't addressed, or it has left you with an altered movement pattern, I would recommend seeing a physio first to ensure your program addresses any underlying weakness before you start.
If you have never tried strength training before, two sessions a week is a great starting point. If you are a novice gym goer, 2-3 sessions a week is ideal. Unless you are entering a body-building competition or competing in strength sports such as powerlifting, two-three strength training sessions a week that target the whole body will be enough to improve your strength and ability to perform other activities you may enjoy, such as walking/tramping, running, gardening, or keep muscle and strength in your body. Five or more sessions a week may quickly lead to overtraining - leaving you sore, exhausted, and lacking motivation. 2-3 sessions a week will enable you to turn strength training into a habit that continues for years.
A key reason people don't stick to their new program is that it takes up too much time. It doesn't need to!
The ideal training duration when starting is 30-45 minutes. Very few people need to train for longer than 1 hour. Quality over quantity definitely applies here.
Starting out with lifting as much as you possibly can will leave you feeling sore for days afterwards and less inclined to return. Start with a weight that you can lift with low-moderate effort for the first 4-6 weeks so you can focus on good technique and training at the right frequency to see results. This build-in period allows time for your tissues to adapt to the new training style, reducing your risk of injury from lifting too heavy too quickly. As you become more skilled in the gym, you can start training at harder intensities (see progressive overload below).
Reps and sets
Repetitions = how many times you do the exercise in a row
Sets = How many times you will repeat the above
E.g. you may perform 8 squats, take a break, then repeat 2 more rounds of this. This would equate to 3 sets of 8 reps, or 3x8, as it will commonly appear on an exercise plan.
Depending on your general level of fitness, injury history, and health status, 1-2 sets of 8-15 repetitions are a good starting point. It's always easier to start low and build up versus going too hard and hobbling out of the gym, feeling sore and exhausted.
Number of exercises and exercise selection
A common mistake is people trying to do too much in one session. Try choosing 4-5 exercises that work the whole body, e.g. squat, bent over row, dumbbell chest press, glute bridge, side plank. Four-Five exercises completed well will always be better than 10-12 rushed and poorly executed ones.
This will also help you keep your session short and sweet.
Rest between sets is essential so your muscle cells can restore their energy levels in order to perform again. Without rest, you won't be able to sustain the current intensity to make it through the remaining sets, and you won't achieve your goal of building muscle and strength. For the rep ranges suggested above, 30-120 seconds is ideal. Rehabilitation exercises, or an exercise that works in a different area of the body, can be performed during this time to avoid long waiting periods.
The general recommendations are 24-48hrs recovery before loading the same muscle group again. If your cardiovascular fitness and general health are good, then 24-48 hours is good. However, if you don't have a good level of fitness and you have other health conditions, then your recovery will be slower, so I would suggest 48-72 hours of recovery initially until your fitness and health improve.
Sleep is your biggest recovery tool. Ensure you're getting sufficient sleep to support your training efforts. See our other blogs on tips to help with sleep
The exercises you perform for the first 4-6 weeks should be reasonably consistent. Ideally, you have two plans that you can alternate between. This will allow you to focus on movement mastery, building a routine, and increasing the weight or the repetitions you perform (see below for more). The same exercises performed for 4-6 weeks will yield greater results than a program that varies greatly every session. However, variety over time is key as a variation in the stimulus is necessary to keep driving physical adaption. Every 4-6 weeks, look to add a couple of new exercises into the program to keep driving change and prevent boredom.
The other key driver for ongoing change is the concept of progressive overload. This simply means that as we train at a certain intensity and it gets easier, we must increase the weight, reps, or frequency to keep challenging the body. For example, you start out squatting 10kg and perform this for 3x8 reps, 2x/week, for three weeks. Initially, this felt hard, and you may not have got to 8 reps on the last set. But now you can complete all three sets and think you could easily do more. This is a sign you need to increase the weight.
A major error that can lead to injury is increasing the load too rapidly. When starting out, your brain rapidly becomes better at recruiting your muscles and coordinating the movement, making it feel like you gain strength. However, it takes longer for your muscles and tendons to adapt to the exercise physically.
Below is a general guide on how to progress your exercises safely when you're new to strength training:
For lower body
Up to 5kg increase
try progress every 2-3 weeks
For upper body
1-2 kg increase
Try progress every 2-3 weeks
Get your technique checked
Start with no more than 2-3 sessions a week
Aim for the session to be 30-45 minutes long
Choose weights that require low-moderate effort to move to ease yourself into your new style of training.
Choose 4-5 exercises for the session
Rest for 30-120sec between sets, and a good 48hrs between sessions
Keep exercises fairly consistent for 4-6 weeks
Gradually progress the weight you lift every 2-3 weeks
How to get started
Whether you're a young athlete looking to start strength training, a new mum looking to get back into exercise, or your health provider and friends have suggested strength training, but you don't know where to begin - I'm here to help.
An appointment with me would include a detailed assessment of your goals, injury history, and training history, followed by a personalised movement and strength assessment.
From here, I'll create your program, and we'll organise a meeting at a gym to go through it, followed by a review in a week to make any tweaks and ensure you're happy with your new program.
We work closely with Anytime Fitness Tauranga, a fantastic club that offers 1-week free trial, so you can try out your new program here and continue on, or attend another gym that may be more suitable for you.
If you want to start a strength program, contact me at email@example.com, and we can arrange a time to get you started!