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USDA Exercise Guidelines

Types of Strength Training

Strength-training activities are not sustained over a period of time. Instead, they are activities such as weight lifting, yoga, and calisthenics, that require short bursts of effort. Strength training burns calories, though not as many as aerobic activity. More importantly, these activities build and strengthen muscle, increasing your muscle-to-fat ratio. Remember, the more muscle mass you have, the faster your metabolism idles, burning more calories even at rest.

Benefits of Strength Training

Strength training offers many additional benefits. It
  • increases bone density

  • strengthens joints

  • improves your balance and stability

  • increases your ability to do everyday tasks and with less fatigue

  • improves posture

  • reduces low back pain in some people

  • makes your body appear slimmer, more toned, and younger
What strength training does not do, however, is make fat leave any particular spot on your body. Fat gets used up throughout the body when you burn more calories than you consume -- it's the calorie-balance story. But you can tone the muscles that lie beneath the fat stores. Then as the fat diminishes, the toned muscles are revealed and you look trimmer. Building or toning muscles occurs when your muscles work against a load (weight) or a resistance. The load can be the weight of your own body, when you do push-ups, leg lifts, abdominal crunches, and squats.

Or you can use actual weights as a load, such as small hand weights, dumbbells, weight machines, resistance bands, or medicine balls. The muscle cells adapt to the extra workload in ways that first make you stronger and then, after regular strength training for some time, increase muscle size. Don't worry about getting bulky; the moderate strength training discussed here won't bulk you up.

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.

  • Breathing. To 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.
Strength Training Equipment

Some strengthening equipment is portable, while others are not. Here's the lowdown on what's available to tone and develop your muscles.

Stretch Bands. Stretch bands, also called resistance bands, look like giant rubber bands. Buy them in the sporting goods section of a variety store or purchase about four feet of surgical tubing and tie a large loop in each end.

Here are some ways to use them to strengthen your muscles:
  • Seated Row: In seated position, wrap band around bottom of feet, holding either end. Pull band back, bending your elbows and pulling to either side of body so the shoulder blades squeeze together. Do not let shoulders creep up. This movement is like rowing a boat and works back muscles.

  • Single leg press: Loop band around just one foot. Bend leg at the knee and lift leg slightly off floor. Press foot into band, straightening at the knee, a little like stomping the accelerator. Continue to bend and straighten, keeping the leg suspended off the floor, until you're finished with the set.

  • Triceps overhead press. Hold the band in one hand, then raise that arm up over your head as if to scratch the back of your neck. Put your other hand behind your back and grab the loose end of the band. Now holding the lower hand in place, extend your other hand over your head to stretch the band up high. (This gets rid of those floppy underarms!)

  • Seated arm curls. Loop the band under your feet, as in the seated row. With your palms up, keep elbows at your side while you do the curls.
Your Body. You can't get simpler or more convenient than this! Put your body to work, making it the weight that your muscles need to resist. Here's how:
  • Do modified push-ups, resting on your knees.

  • Do standing push-ups, facing a wall.

  • Slowly lower into a sitting position while leaning against a wall.

  • Do repetitions of abdominal crunches (modified sit-ups), side-lying leg lifts, and squats.

  • Do different kinds of lunges; they're great for building large muscle groups in the lower body. Support yourself with one hand on a chair or wall. Place your right leg about three feet or two strides in front of your left. Keeping your back straight and placing your free hand on your hips, slowly lower your body, keeping your weight evenly distributed between your legs and making sure your right knee doesn't extend beyond your ankle. Push back up into a standing position. Repeat four times and switch legs. You can build up to 10 to 15 lunges on each side.
Medicine Ball. A medicine ball is a training tool that serves as a weight. Typically made of synthetic rubber, it is almost like a soccer ball filled with heavy sand. Medicine balls range in weight from 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) to 8 kilograms. They can be used for a complete body workout, providing resistance through a full range of motion. A medicine ball is especially good if you're training for a particular sport and want to practice the pattern of movement in your chosen sport to strengthen the muscles involved. You can do many different types of movements with a medicine ball either standing, sitting, or lying down. From straight-arm throws and torso twists to abdominal curls and double-leg kicks, a 30-minute workout can exercise all your muscle groups. Books on strength conditioning with medicine balls will give you the details you need to safely use this tool.

Expert Advice. You'll get the most from strength training if you get some expert advice. A personal trainer can teach you proper form and provide a personalized training program. Even an hour session will go a long way toward improving your technique and maximizing your workout. A low-cost alternative, though not as helpful, is to rent or buy some fitness videos. They will demonstrate proper form, and they'll show you an array of moves that will keep your strength-training workout fresh and ensure that you train all your muscle groups most effectively.

In the next section, we will cover another important part of daily exercise: stretching properly!

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.