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USDA Strength Training Guidelines

Basics of Strength Training

Knowing the fundamentals will help you get the most out of your strength-training program while preventing injury.

  • How often? Experts recommend strength training two to three days each week, but not all in a row. Muscles need 48 hours to recover, repair, and grow before working again. You can strength train most days if you don't do a full body workout. Just alternate the muscle groups you work: One day work your upper body and the next day your lower body.
  • BreathingTo get the most out of your strength-training routine, be sure to breathe. That may sound obvious, but many people unconsciously hold their breath. Be deliberate about breathing. Exhale at the point of greatest exertion or when you're lifting a weight. Inhale as your muscles relax or you lower a weight. Breathing properly may help keep blood pressure from going too high, and it may decrease your chances of becoming light-headed or dizzy.
  • How many? Repetitions, also known as "reps" in strength-training lingo, refer to the number of times you perform an activity, such as doing lunges, extending stretch bands, or lifting hand weights. A set refers to the number of repetitions you perform in a row before resting. The standard guideline for increasing muscle strength is to do two sets of 10 to 12 reps. If you can't complete 10 reps with the weight you're using, the weight is too heavy. If you can do 15 at the end of your second set, the weight you're using is too light. Remember that you'll need different weights for different exercises. Exercises that involve multiple muscle groups and/or multiple joints, such as a bent-over row, can manage a heavier weight than those that use only a single muscle group or weight, such as a biceps curl. As you get stronger, you can increase the number of reps and sets you do to keep building muscle. That's true for any strength training, whether it's with or without actual weights. No matter how many you do, it should take 4 to 6 seconds to complete one repetition. Be sure to perform each rep slowly and with control.
  • Rest between sets. Muscles need to rest between sets. For instance, if you are instructed to do three sets of 12 lunges, you'll do 12 lunges, rest, do 12 more, rest, and do 12 more. Muscles need time to recover, and that takes about 30 to 60 seconds for the recommended 10 to 12 reps.