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strength training for dummies

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Old 03-27-2012, 10:18 PM   #1
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Default strength training for dummies

Okay, so this has probably been posted a million times, BUT..I seriously have no idea where to get started. I really want to strength train, but I just don't know how to go about it. I have some little weights (2 lbs and 5 lbs), but I don't know what to do with them! You could tell me a list of basic exercises to do, but chances are I'll have no idea how to do them. I'd particularly like to work on my arms, and building my butt muscles (not really to "tighten" it, but to make the muscle bigger so my butt will look bigger ). Can someone maybe give me some beginner steps? I'm curious about other things, too. Like how often should I strength train? How often should I up the weight? Also, I'm doing this all at home -____- so I don't have access to barbells and weight machines and such, which will probably make things more difficult. I'm really clueless here. Thanks!

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Old 03-27-2012, 11:02 PM   #2
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Here is the website where I got a lot of the answers to the questions you are asking


It's run by a woman who has been weight training for many years. She takes care to debunk a lot of myths, share a lot of information and recommend a lot of books.

One of the most popular books here on Three Fat Chicks seems to be the New Rules of Weight Lifting for Women (NRRLW), but I can't recommend it personally because I have not yet tried it (though I intend to!).
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Old 03-28-2012, 10:12 PM   #3
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My suggestion would be to purchase THE NEW RULES OF LIFTING FOR WOMEN book as soon as possible. It will be your at-home personal trainer. I'm almost done with the program and loved what it did for me. It will be a game changer, for sure. I was where you are now seven months ago and now I feel like I do know a thing or two about weight lifting.
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Old 03-28-2012, 11:31 PM   #4
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Both of the recommendations above are pretty good. I've referred people to stumptuous a number of times. I'm not the biggest fan of NROL but the programs in them are better than a lot of other ones you're going to find on the mainstream.

Mark Rippetoe's books like Practical Programming and Starting Strength are excellent resources.

I'll also share something that I wrote elsewhere a long time ago. It's a little long, but it was a full fledged article that I think will help shine some light on some of the basics. Some of my ideas have changed slightly, but the whole is still relevant:

Realize that when I throw specific routines out there, they're not set in stone. They're simply a baseline of what I consider optimal. Optimal is a spectrum. You can slide to the left or right and still be in the optimal range. What's optimal is simply doing things in a way that covers the fundamental, foundational principles that are inherent in all quality "programs."

Nowadays people are too caught up in the program mentality - they never stop and think, "What principles are behind this routine and do they make sense for my needs?" They simply see it as a selection of magical exercises promising super results.

A list of these foundational factors might look something like:

- BALANCE - we want to be sure to maintain an optimal balance of the bodies muscles. Often times people will train the muscles they see "harder" than the muscles they don't. In doing so, the chest, shoulders, biceps, abs and quads get overworked while the back, glutes and hamstrings get under-worked. This can cause some problems. A good way of fixing this problem is always balancing out pushing with pulling movements for upper and lower body. Or if you're already relatively unbalanced, which can be identified starting with a static assessment, you might overweight your pulling movements in relation to your pushing movements.

- OVERLOAD - We have to force the muscles into getting stronger and bigger. Simply working them isn't enough. You need to work them *enough*. The load must be above what it's ordinarily accustomed to (overload). If it's not, you're not providing your body with a reason to positively adapt.

- PROGRESSION - What's an overload today won't be an overload next week, month or year. We adapt to overload by getting stronger. If 100 lbs is an overload now and you use it sufficiently, your body will adapt to better handle said 100 lbs in the future. Once it's adapted, 100 lbs will be the new maintaining load rather than an overload. This is known as accommodation. Therefore, to elicit further change, you have to progress the overload - and this is a term many have heard before, progressive overload.

How quickly your body adapts and thus how frequently you have to progress depends on many factors such as training age (how long you've been training), nutritional status, type of exercise, other modes of exercise, stress, how proximal you are to your genetic potential, etc.

- INTENSITY -This is tied in with overload. There is a certain threshold that's required if muscle is going to grow (during sufficient calories) or maintain itself (during dieting). This is the whole concept of "giving your body a reason to hold onto the muscle while dieting by lifting sufficiently heavy weights." It's a good idea to have a loose definition of intensity. Many people confuse it with "working hard." That's not intensity though... that's intensiveness.

Intensity, as defined by most strength coaches is simply the percentage of maximal strength. Take the squat for example. If you're maximum effort allows you to squat 100 lbs, training with loads in the 65-95% range of your max effort is more than likely going to be a stimulating or maintaining load.

Anything below that is more than likely under this threshold and while it can burn calories and prompt some adaptations in the metabolic/oxidative qualities of the muscle, it isn't necessarily going to trigger the specific adaptations you're hoping for from your resistance training.

Many of today's mainstream resistance programs have people lifting loads that are far below the 65% intensity realm and that's really going to be insufficient for most people in terms of building or keeping muscle. This is why the whole "pump and tone" mentality is something I've spoken out against in many instances on the web. Granted, there ARE some instances where the high rep, low weight pump and tone mentality actually fits but it seems that this is all anyone knows and uses and that's flawed.

- VOLUME - Not only do you need to be above a threshold to get stronger/bigger muscles, you also need to do enough work above this threshold. Using the above example of squats, obviously 100 lbs is providing an overload since it's your max effort ability in the squat. So going in and doing one set of one rep would essentially overload the neuromuscular system. However, you have to take the total amount of work into consideration. Overload is primary, but you also need enough work at said overload if that makes sense.

Without getting too in depth, something like 20-60 reps per muscle done each time you train is probably about right in terms of providing adequate work. Remember, that's 20-60 reps using loads that are providing sufficient intensity.

So say it's 30 reps... that can come using 6x5, 5x6, 3x10, 10x3, etc. It's important to note that when you're dieting and the goal is muscle maintenance, recovery ability is actually hindered. With that in mind, the ability to handle volume is reduced. The optimal volume range for weight training while dieing, for most, would be 10 -20 reps per muscle each time you train.

- FREQUENCY - Our muscles respond to the stress of training by first decreasing its "state." It's like when someone is sick. Their state declines. Then their body responds by fighting off the sickness. More often than not, before all is said and done, their state actually reaches a point above and beyond what it was prior to their sickness. And this is the general stress-response mechanism of the body. Our bodies handle all stress (physical/mental/etc) similarly.

I liken it to a wave (see below).


Now every factor of the body really responds on its own separate wave. What we're concerned about most in terms of muscle's response to training though tends to come back to baseline 2-3 days after you train. That's why the normal body building splits where you're hitting each muscle once per week are sort of silly. We want to build on top of what we already did previously, which would mean hitting that muscle again somewhere along the line where we're supercompensating above baseline. There are many different ways to structure "routines" to fit that time line.

But this is the rational behind my normal recommendations of training each part and/or movement 2-3 times a week with the basic exercises, focusing on something between 5 and 12 reps for 3-5 sets per exercise, and striving to improve your weights over time (not necessarily every workout).

It's pretty hard to go wrong with anything that falls into that realm. And as if I didn't say it enough already... this isn't necessarily applicable to everyone. If you've got 50+ lbs to lose, focusing on a different "type" of resistance training is probably called for... at least part of the time.

What you don't see here as foundational, necessary principles for all programming are things like muscle confusion, toning with high reps, training a muscle to concentric failure, etc. Though these sorts of things are passed around all the time as Very Important... it's simply not the case. People who don't understand exercise physiology say a lot of things that sound rational and people grab onto it passing it around like wild fire in high winds.

Understand the basics. If you don't - ask someone who does to clarify it until you do. If one is going to confidently navigate his or her way through training in the long term, you need to understand these short-term fundamentals I mention above.

Beyond these fundamentals, there are longer term factors that come into play. We're mainly talking about short-term (acute) adaptation to training above. When you start factoring in the long-term (chronic) and couple it with the individual training needs, that's when you get into periodization which entails altering stress over time in relation to your body. That's a different topic for a different day.

Suffice it to say, throw out the BS that extends beyond the basics I mention above. Armed with that information you can start seeing what's behind each and every "program" and you'll be able to decipher the ones worth trying or paying attention to from the ones that are garbage.

It should be mentioned, too, that a critical thought process as well as tools of logical reasoning are things I consider far more important than any particular training knowledge or style or program.

People are too quick to pigeonhole "types" of training. The body doesn't care what you call your workout - it "cares" about (in the sense of, 'responds to') what's happening to it.

Same goes for programs. So many people consider "the program" to be a fundamental "unit" of exercise. A program is just somebody's expression of underlying principles. In itself, it's meaningless, but people make it into such a rigid thing.

When I'm designing a "program" I take into account the individual. His or her goals, her current level of body fat and muscle, her experience, equipment availability, nutritional status, etc.

So when other people read something like this, it's probably a good idea to stop and ask yourself, "Does the person for whom this workout was attended share similar 'qualities' as me?"

If not, it's probably smart to take what you can from the program but also fit it into a model that better fits you.

With a woman who isn't carrying a lot of fat, is interested in losing a bit more, and likes the idea of some muscle/definition... some basic ideas come to mind:

* The template will almost always be based on 2-4 strength sessions a week

* The strength sessions are always oriented around limited volume and economy of training.

* Emphasis on basic exercises, with some accessory isolation-type work thrown in as individual needs dictate. This means your squat variations, hip hinge variations, pulling variations, and pressing variations are mainstays.

* Focus on using heavy loads, which means typically the use of reps in the 5-12 range. Sometimes heavier, sometimes lighter, but again as a generic baseline that's where to put your foundation.

* Metabolic type training is thrown in as assistance work after the muscle-preserving workouts are handled. (most get this backwards)

* Accessory exercises can be thrown in as follow-ups in a single session or on a different day; this is also where I'd throw in your metabolic work.

* The key factor to me in a dieting individual is stress management. Recovery is at a premium on lowered calories, and this only becomes more pronounced as you become leaner and have to further reduce calories.

Metabolic work is simply your basic conditioning/cardio type work. This can include, steady state cardio, tempo running, interval training, low intensity circuit training, complexes, etc. If you aren't familiar with some of them, don't worry about it now.

Where relatively lean people trying to get leaner (especially women) tend to go wrong is, metabolic work is, at best, an accessory to dieting. It works as a calorie sink... meaning it allows you to eat a bit more food. Granted, there are other benefits associated with it such as improved work capacity and possibly some positive influences on body composition which are always good things, but they're not the make or break it factors in terms of getting lean.

"Dosage" of metabolic work really depends on the individual. Someone who has problems with dietary compliance more often then not needs more metabolic work (or a swift kick in the arse ). Someone who doesn't handle a lot of volume well b/c their recovery ability just stinks will typically do better with less metabolic work, especially the higher intensity stuff like HIIT.

3-6 sessions per week is a general guideline. Your mileage may vary.

Accessory stuff, as mentioned above, is simply the smaller, non-economical resistance training exercises people often times have problems giving up. This would include the likes of bicep curls, tricep extensions, crunches, calf raises and you could even lump shrugs in there. Is accessory stuff stupid and pointless? No, not at all. If it's going to be part of a "program" though, it should be limited and certainly not be a focus.

Often times you'll see folks who claim they understand the fact they can't spot-reduce fat in specific regions of their body go against what they claim they know. They'll focus much of their resistance training on the accessory stuff - a classic example would be someone with fat on the backs of their arms. They'll do loads of tricep exercises (accessory stuff) as if working the muscle underneath the fat is actually going to do something magical in terms of making the fat disappear.

Diet will rule above all else for losing fat. Weight training applied as I laid out will preserve muscle mass. Limited cardio will help skew where calories are coming from and going to (in terms of fat and muscle) in a somewhat positive way. The rest is all up to diet and your genetic tendencies towards fat and muscle losses.

So with all the above in mind let's look at ONE WAY of setting up a weight lifting routine to match your goals. Keep in mind, which should be obvious by now, that this is merely one slice of a much larger pie... the pie being the total, optimal approach to losing fat and keeping/adding muscle.

In essence, you could get away with doing something as simple as:

Squat - 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps
Bench - 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps
Row - 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps

You could do that 2-3 times per week and be golden. It's plain. It's simple. And when applied using the above... it'll work in terms of increasing strength and preserving muscle.

Granted, many would get bored with it pretty fast. That's why I'll typically add some variety. This could be accomplished by merely changing up the exercises each day you train. You could do something like an A program and a B program and alternate the two. You could extend that to an A, B, and C program if you'd like.

For instance, using the A/B template you could do:

Template A

Squat - 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps
Bench - 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps
Row - 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps

Template B

Deadlift - 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps
Overhead Press - 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps
Chinup - 3-5 sets x 5-10 reps

And that could work well for a long while.

Personally, I like to vary the intensity and volume over the course of a week though, which the above is not doing. I find my clients like this better too, and to be honest, it's probably a good idea to avoid stagnation and work the muscle using a variety of loading parameters.

With that in mind, I might do something like:

Template A

Squat - 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps
Bench - 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps
Row - 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps

Template B

Deadlift - 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps
Overhead Press - 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps
Chinup - 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps

So that would be the core of the "program" for the time being. I'm going through this to *sort of* show you the steps that go through my mind when I'm thinking of this, assuming you're interested in that, lol.

Once the core is established you can add in accessory stuff which might make it look something like:

Template A

5-min jog on treadmill
Foam rolling and dynamic mobility stuff
Squat - 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps
Bench - 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps
Row - 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps
Single Leg DB Romanian Deadlifts - 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Bicep Curls - 2 sets of 10-12
Planks - 2-3 sets of 30-60 seconds

Template B

5-min jog on treadmill
Foam rolling and dynamic mobility stuff
Deadlift - 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps
Overhead Press - 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps
Chinup - 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps
Single Leg Squats - 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Tricep Extensions - 2 sets of 10-12 reps
Pallof Presses - 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps

Are you starting to see the rationale here?

To fit this into a weekly format, you could do something like:

Monday: Template A
Tuesday: Metabolic Work
Wednesday: Template B
Thursday: Metabolic Work
Friday: Template A
Saturday: Metabolic Work
Sunday: Off

The following week everything would be the same, however the resistance training would be BAB instead of ABA.

And this is only a suggestion - again not written in stone at all! You might need more or less metabolic work. You may do more high intensity metabolic work in which case you'd likely want to group sessions of high intensity stuff on the same day to allow for more recovery. You may want to make an ABC template rather than an ABA-BAB template. The list goes on and on.

You could ride this out until you stop making gains, are burned out, mentally bored, etc. At that point, you could back off the weight lifted in each exercise which would let some fatigue dissipate, than start back at it focusing on progressing from that point. Or you could change your exercise selection, rep/set selection a bit, etc, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Keep in mind there's really no point in changing things up as frequently as I see a lot of people doing. In fact, I'd argue that's counterproductive. I suppose it's a product of this muscle confusion principle that's floating around nowadays but you need some structure that you can progressively build upon in order to force adaptation. Without it, you're merely shooting in the dark. For some, they get lucky and realize change. I'd highlight the importance of understanding correlation is NOT causation.

Hopefully you're starting to see the point here.

A follow up question was asked after I posted this article elsewhere and it was a good question as it exemplifies what I mean by foundational principles.

The question was:

"In the article you put ROW as an exercise. I have always done the classic seated row on the cable machine. Is that the exercise you would do for a row? I know there are a lot of variations of that exercise and just wanted to know which one is the best."

The magic isn't in the exercise. Your body doesn't know if you're doing a seated cable row, a standing barbell row, or some other variation. Granted, there are minor differences in each, but that's why I like to say no "program" is etched in stone as far as exercise selection goes.

Simply put, exercise selection isn't one of the foundational principles one needs to concern him or herself with. Sure, we should choose economical movements - meaning movements that call on the highest number of muscles/joints to execute. But a row is a row is a row.

Typically one way to move past a sticking point in progressive overload once one arises (which it assuredly will) is by changing up some of the exercise selections.

I mentioned in one of my previous posts that if/when you hit a plateau in strength, a good idea is to back off the weight a little bit which will, in turn, allow some fatigue to dissipate. Well, by switching exercise selection slightly, you're indirectly forcing yourself to back off the weight a little bit since you're aren't going to be able to go right into a brand new exercise full throttle.

Make some sense?

With that in mind, it should be obvious that one row isn't superior over the other. They each have their own positives and negatives. Vary your exercise selection when the time is right which doesn't mean every single week like so many are akin to do.

I personally use cable rows (at various widths), basic standing barbell rows, what's commonly called pendley rows, dumbbell rows, inverted rows, head supported rows, etc.

I'll add to this that if it helps, ditch the idea of specific exercises and think along the lines of planes of motion. For instance:

Template A


Template B

Overhead Press

These two templates can be viewed similarly as follows:

Template A

Squat pattern
Horizontal Pressing
Horizontal Pulling

Template B

Hip Hinge pattern
Vertical Pressing
Vertical Pulling

Any compound exercises that "fit the bill" of each given movement plane will suffice. Which are right? Depends on the invididual, skill level, injuries, what you've been doing, equipment availability, etc, etc.
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Old 03-29-2012, 10:21 AM   #5
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thanks steve, that was very informative! and i'll be sure to check out NRRLW, i've been hearing loads about it on here
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Old 03-29-2012, 12:23 PM   #6
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I'd also recommend checking out NROL for Abs. It's not just for abs--it's a full body program--and it reflects research that has come out since NROLW was published. It's a bit gentler and includes dynamic warmups (which is a really good thing).
"Losing weight is easy; I've done it dozens of times."

(with apologies to Mark Twain).

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Old 03-29-2012, 10:34 PM   #7
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You're welcome.
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Old 03-31-2012, 09:43 AM   #8
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In addition to the stumptuous website, check out Oxygen Magazine's website. Lots of strength training tips and training programs. I wasn't crazy about the weight-training book everyone's recommending....start off with the websites first and you'll find what you need.

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Old 04-09-2012, 05:05 PM   #9
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I used to recommend NROL4W, but I've found I really prefer Starting Strength. Search YouTube for videos from Mark Rippetoe. They've really helped me get a handle on my form.
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MET 5%: 256.5, BMI Under 35: 249.9, 10%: 243.0, 15%: 229.5, Pre-Baby #2: 225.4, 20%: 216.0, BMI Under 30: 214.7, Pre-Baby #1: 212.0, 25%: 202.5, Under 200!: 199.9, 30%: 189.0
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Old 04-12-2012, 04:31 PM   #10
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I much prefer Rippetoe's books over the NROL series as well. For most people anyhow.
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