Lifting weights. Heavier reps. Getting swole. Yep, we’re talking about strength training.
Strength training is one of the fastest-growing fitness trends. You’ve probably seen your favorite fitness influencers posting their workouts from the weight room and have been curious about trying it out for yourself. While seeing this content can inspire you to hit the weights, there is no denying that the weight room can be pretty intimidating, especially when a lot of the content we see is from bodybuilders, powerlifters, or personal trainers. But let me be clear: Strength training is for EVERYONE. Whether you have a goal of deadlifting 300 lbs or you just want to maintain good health as you age, strength training is for you.
From general Strength Training knowledge to tips, our favorite studios & instructors have come together to write a guide on all things Strength Training. A special thanks to Amy Potter of Ladies Who Lift, Veronica Marchetti of powHERhouse Fitness Studio, Tim Cohen of Ethos Training Systems, & Ryan Thomas of Better Butt & Body Lab for sharing their knowledge and expertise on all things Strength Training 101 for this article! Read below to learn more!
WHAT IS STRENGTH TRAINING?
Strength Training, which can also be called resistance training, involves any physical exercises that are designed to improve both strength and endurance. What most people don’t realize is that even though strength training usually involves weights, it doesn’t always have to. Common tools of external resistance include equipment like dumbbells, barbells, cable machines, medicine balls, and resistance bands. You can also use your own body weight for strength training.
Tim Cohen of Ethos Training writes, “Most importantly, strength training requires training with LOAD. Training with body weight can be considered load, but most often and for best long-term results, a piece of strength training equipment will be required. Strength training impacts also depend on the amount of time we spend moving that load. Based on scientific principles of strength training, we can manipulate any strength training exercise program to have a specific impact on our body. Whether it be lowering our body fat percentage, or squatting our body weight for 10 repetitions, strength training is the exercise modality everyone should be using.”
Whereas cardio exercises will burn more immediate calories, strength training elevates your metabolism for longer, and is better for building muscle (which burns more calories in the long run). Many people don’t realize that incorporating strength training into their routine is just as, if not more important than cardiovascular work, especially because our bodies naturally lose muscle as we age.
Veronica Marchetti, owner and head-trainer at female-centered PowerHerHouse Fitness says “I often hear a lot of women saying how they’re afraid to lift weights because they don’t want to bulk up. However, that’s a myth. Unless you are continuing to increase your weight set intentionally and consuming above-average volumes of protein, you aren’t going to bulk. Instead, you are going to achieve stronger muscles, a stronger heart, and be able to perform more effective workouts for longer. If you’re trying to lose weight or fat, incorporating strength training will also get you there faster.”
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WHY IS STRENGTH TRAINING IMPORTANT?
Ladies Who Lift Coach Amy Potter says, “Did you know that the World Health Organization, CDC, American Heart Association, US Dept of Health and Human Services, and American Cancer Society (along with many other health and disease prevention organizations) ALL recommend strength training for adults at least twice / week? Each of these organizations agrees that the evidence is clear.” Strength training at least twice per week is as good of a magic pill as you can get for improving and maintaining health and fitness for adults of all ages and health statuses. Evidence has shown that strength training helps to build, maintain, and preserve muscle mass and bone density (both critical for health as we age), boost metabolism, manage and improve symptoms of chronic conditions, improve brain health and cognitive functioning, improve mental health and improve quality of life. If there was a pill that could do all of that, it would be flying off the shelves.
THE MYTHS OF STRENGTH TRAINING
Now that you've learned why strength training is important, let's address some misconceptions with Coach Ryan Thomas from Better Butt Lab. These myths often cloud our understanding of strength training's benefits and may hold us back from achieving our fitness goals.
Myth #1: Lifting heavy can make you bulky
Ryan writes “This isn't necessarily true. Becoming bulky from lifting heavy weights regularly requires consistent effort over many years, along with factors like genetics, diet, and sometimes performance-enhancing substances. It's essential to recognize that bodybuilders and powerlifters use strength training to achieve size and strength, but athletes and models also incorporate it into their routines to enhance performance and appearance. It's not just about what you do; it's about how you do it and in what quantities.”
Myth #2: You can hurt yourself
While there is a risk of injury, following a safe and gradually progressive, well-designed training program can minimize this risk. Avoid generic internet workouts that are meant for a broad audience. Instead, prioritize working on your form and technique first. Focus on aspects like alignment, posture, mobility, and coordination while using your body weight and lighter weights. This foundation will prepare you for success when you eventually lift heavier weights.
Myth #3: You don't like how it feels
Change can be uncomfortable. If you aspire to transform your appearance or increase your strength, you might have to step out of your comfort zone and try things you're not accustomed to. It's important to remember that discomfort is a natural part of progress. The good news is that your body and mind will adapt relatively quickly, and the discomfort will diminish over time as you become more accustomed to your new routine.
Lifting heavier weights can be intimidating due to various misconceptions, but understanding the facts can help you embrace this approach. It's not about getting bulky, but rather about how you approach strength training, emphasizing safe progression, and gradually adapting to changes. Over time, the initial discomfort will fade as you become more accustomed to your new fitness journey.
HOW DOES STRENGTH TRAINING WORK?
In order to understand how strength training works, we need to understand Progressive Overload. Ladies Who Lift Coach Amy Potter goes into depth about all things Progressive Overload!
Progressive overload is the principle of gradually increasing your workout stimulus over time to force your body to adapt and grow. If we progressively overload our muscles with more challenging stimuli (such as increasing resistance or weights) our bodies adapt to that increased stimuli by building muscle and increasing strength. Consistency and repetition is key here.
What does Progressive Overload look like in a training program?
While adding weight is one of the most common forms of progressive overload, there are numerous ways to make your training more challenging:
More work in less time
Greater ranges of motion
More time under tension
It’s important to note that progressive overload isn’t necessarily going to be a linear process. Stay patient!
Think about Progressive Overload like learning math in school.
When you’re 8, you don’t start out with calculus. You start with simple addition and subtraction. At first, it’s a hard concept to grasp but then you learn and practice it and it starts to feel easy. The following year you learn multiplication and division. That also feels hard at first, then you practice and learn it and it feels easy. This continues year after year, the content you are learning gets progressively more complex, but YOU also get smarter in response to this progressively challenging stimulus.
It’s the same for weightlifting. We progressively increase the training stimulus over time as your body adapts and gets stronger.
Let’s Practice Progressive Overload:
Pick up a dumbbell that you know you could comfortably use for 10 squats. Perform 10 reps with that weight.
Now for your second set, pick up a heavier weight and do 6 reps with it. Keep using this weight for your following sets, adding a rep or two each time, until you can do 10 reps with that heavier weight.
Next week, pick up an even heavier weight and do 6 reps with it. Keep using this weight, adding a rep or two each time, until you can do 10 reps with that heavier weight.
If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter, your body may take longer to adapt to new training stimuli, or your increases may need to be smaller. Instead of going up 10 lbs, maybe you’re increasing 2.5 lbs. Instead of increasing each set or each week, maybe it happens every other week. Maybe it happens a month into your program. The goal here is to try and make sure it happens EVENTUALLY. So have patience. As long as you are truly pushing and working towards progressive overload then your body will progress with you to build muscle and increase strength.
Learn more about Volume & Intensity with Tim Cohen from Ethos Training
Strength training can have different impacts on the body depending on how it is used. Ultimately this impact comes down to two key concepts, Volume and Intensity. Typically, volume and intensity work in an inverse relationship and have different hormonal effects aka different body-altering impacts.
Volume generally refers to the amount of time doing a specific exercise or exercise. The more repetitions and sets completed, the higher the volume. Intensity generally refers to the load (weight) involved in a given exercise. If the load is not very challenging, it is likely a load of low intensity. For intensity to be considered high, the load must be difficult to complete for many repetitions (usually anything more than 8-10 reps)
Based on how the parameters of Volume and Intensity are used, there will be a different hormonal stimulus sent to the endocrine system that will impact the physiological response that training has on the body.
High volume = higher metabolic impact. High intensity = higher nervous system impact.
For someone who is looking to lose weight and change body composition, they should generally start with a higher volume strength training program. Again, using a higher volume (more repetitions) program will ensure that more metabolic demand is placed on the body during the training session and will therefore increase the need for the body to burn calories. This would be considered an effective training plan for people looking to lose weight.
On the flip side, someone who is looking to increase muscle mass should generally venture toward a higher-intensity training program. Higher-intensity training sessions will force more neural fiber recruitment during the session and place a demand on the hormonal system that signals the body to lay down more muscle tissue to support these demands long-term.
As always in strength training, everything depends on the trainee. For example, a 3x10 program might be considered high-intensity training for someone who has never lifted a barbell before. However, for someone who has been strength training for 5 years, this may be a program that may be considered high volume (30 reps total). This more experienced trainee may need a more complex training program to create a high-intensity stimulus. For example, a program that may utilize a more complex rep scheme like 5,5,3,3,1,1 (18 reps total).
Below are example programs that would generally satisfy the parameters for a volume-based program and an intensity-based program.
A1. BB shoulder Press 4x12 (4010)
A2. TRX row 4x12 (3011)
B1. DB flat bench press 3x15 (3010)
B2. Single arm row 3x15e (2011)
A1. BB Shoulder Press 5x5 (4010)
A2. Chin-Up 5x5 (4010)
Rest 2 min
B1. DB Flat Bench Press 4x8 (3010)
B2. Seated Cable Row 4x8 (3011)
HOW TO GET STARTED WITH STRENGTH TRAINING?
PowHERhouse Owner Veronica Marchetti writes, “It’s important not to be intimidated by the idea of strength training, and to not start off too heavy. If you’re in the gym, you’ll likely witness plenty of people lifting heavy weights, but steady progression, not heavy lifting, is a key tip to remember.”
If you are new, Ladies Who Lift Coach Amy Potter highly recommends working with a coach or personal trainer to master form first. Getting familiar with basic movement patterns and feeling confident in your form is the best investment you can make because you’ll be able to use that skill for years and years. Having good form makes your workouts more effective, and efficient and prevents injury from improper technique. Many traditional strength training exercises follow similar movement patterns (Push, pull, hinge, squat, lunge, rotation + anti-rotation), so focus on learning the basics first.
If you’re not interested in long-term training, you can make it clear to your coach that you want to use time to learn as much as you can, master form, and get comfortable in the gym so you can train on your own.
Remember that every Strength Training studio or trainer can vary in onboarding. Make sure to read up on your studio’s site to learn more about how your workout will be set up and what you can expect during your first session!
STRENGTH TRAINING TIPS
Preparing for your first Strength Training session is very important. Before you try any Strength Training workouts, powHERhouse Fitness Studio Owner, Veronica Marchetti, & Ethos Training Owner, Tim Cohen, are here to help you with crucial tips so that you are one step closer to being fully prepared and set up for success. You got this!
Set your goals. Do you want to get stronger? Build more visible muscle? Increase your endurance? Lose weight? Knowing what you’re trying to achieve will help inform the type of strength training that will be most effective for you. For example, working up to heavier weights will be key for building strength and muscle, versus doing more sets with lower weights works just as well for building endurance and cardiovascular health.
Start light and work your way up. Starting with light weights, even 3lbs or 1lb ankle weights, can be effective and give you results. “You don’t want to sacrifice your form because you’re trying to lift heavier” Veronica continues. “Increasing your reps and sets with lighter weights will still give you a deep muscle burnout. When you notice your body can handle heavier weights to achieve the same amount of exertion, then you can increase the lbs.”
Track your progress. It’s helpful to keep track of how many repetitions and sets you do and with what weight. This way, you can track your progression over time. For example, you can keep a log on your phone, that could look something like: Weight: 5 lbs, Sets: 3, Reps: 10. Over time, you can increase any of those amounts, though it’s recommended to increase in small increments, and only increasing one of those three items at a time (your weight, sets, or repetitions). Also, remember that depending on your goals, these numbers will look different (higher weight and lower reps for building strength, lower weight and higher reps for endurance).
Find a class that incorporates strength training. Veronica says, “Our POWER class is 80% strength, 20% cardio. It’s a full-body strength-focused class with blasts of cardio to get your body sweating and building muscle. During the class, you rotate to 5 different stations, each with a range of weights and equipment to keep it fun and challenging.”
Tim also encourages you to find a gym facility that knows what they are doing. Check their website. Look at the coach's credentials. Listen to how they respond to your questions when you are speaking with them. Do your research and don’t be scared to ask questions!
PROGRAMS TO TRY
Learn from the best! Here are some programs we recommend from our blog's contributors.
At PowHERHouse Fitness studio, there are both in-person and virtual options that can get you started on your strength training journey.
“With our virtual workouts, you can do strength training at home with little to no equipment. However, for continued progression, it’s helpful to have some weights on hand. 3lbs, 5lbs, and 8lbs are convenient weights to start with, and you can work your way up. Or, try one of our POWER classes at the studio. The group energy makes the class fly by, and we’ll be able to offer tips and modifications if you’re just getting started”
Check out PowHerHouse Fitness studio in Park Ridge: https://powherhousefitness.com/
Ladies Who Lift
Ladies Who Lift online training provides a supportive coaching experience for women to get their strongest, healthiest and most confident both inside and outside the gym. Our LWL coaches construct custom and non-custom training programs designed to meet women where they’re currently at in their fitness journey, and help reach their individual goals.
Our strength training programs emphasize progressive overload, repetition, and great lifting technique, while providing all members with suggested cardio routines to supplement along the way. Programs can all be completed at a gym, or in the comfort of your home depending on what equipment is available to you. When you become a Ladies Who Lift member you will get access to our Members Only Portal where you’ll find our full nutritional guidebook, healthy recipes, great workouts for when you are on the go, a library of cardio and mobility workouts, as well as exclusive promotions from our partners.
This will give you a step-by-step guide of what to do and how to do it, including how to use equipment: https://www.ladies-who-lift.com/online-personal-training
Ethos Training Systems
Ethos mission is to cultivate a confident and caring community with individuals who believe anything is possible with a plan and the will to work hard. We believe your character shows up at the door first, before your skills and strengths ever do.
Check out Ethos Training Systems programs offered: https://ethostrainingchi.com/classes
Better Butt & Body Lab
Elevate your fitness journey with personalized training at The Better Butt & Body Lab in Chicago's River North. Whether you prefer Small Group Training led by Coach Ryan Thomas for tailored workouts and community support, or private 1-on-1 training to achieve your goals quickly, our programs are designed to help you succeed. Join us, work with Coach Ryan, and transform your body in just 4-12 weeks – it's the ideal choice for injury recovery or post-physical therapy transition.
Let’s answer some frequently answered questions!
How many days a week should I do strength training?
Everyone should be doing some form of strength training 2x/week. If you have specific goals, you may want to increase the number of days you are training or balance it with other forms of exercise, like cardiovascular conditioning or other active hobbies you enjoy.
How often should I be increasing weights if I’m trying to implement progressive overload?
There is no strict formula for this. Rates of strength gains will vary based on many factors, so there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to how frequently you should increase weights.
If you are a beginner and you have mastered your form, you will experience what we call “newbie gains.” You will probably be able to increase your weight every week. This is more so due to neurological adaptations & learning to recruit the muscle fibers that you already have. This is one of the reasons why we describe strength training as a skill.
Do I need to lift heavy weights?
You should be challenging yourself and applying the principles of progressive overload to get stronger, but if your goal is to just be healthy and fit as you age, you don’t necessarily need to be training like a powerlifter. Your training should be a reflection of your goals. A variety of equipment and styles of strength training, ranging from light bands + body weight all the way up to heavy barbells, can be used as tools to reach your goals.
If I’m a runner, should I strength train too or will that make me slow?
A common misconception is that lifting weights will cause runners to get too bulky or slow. Strength training won’t slow you down. In fact, strength training can make you a better runner by improving coordination and running economy, increasing endurance capacity and power, and preventing injuries. This will help your runs feel better, keep you going longer, and reduce the risk of common overuse injuries.
Strength training has been shown to improve performance, reduce risk of injuries, increase type 2 muscle fibers, increase power, increase endurance capacity, and increase lactate threshold, all making you a better, stronger, faster runner.
Should I train full body or split it up by muscle group?
Your workout regimen depends on how often you workout.
If you workout irregularly, or less than 3x/week I often recommend a total body workout. This ensures you’re hitting all major muscle groups twice per week.
If you work out 4-6 days/week, I usually recommend a split schedule. The split schedule is nice because you focus on one movement pattern or group of muscles one day then the next day you are working on a different muscle group/movement so if you are sore in one part of your body, it doesn't inhibit you from working out because you are working on a completely different group of muscles. A common example of this is an Upper/Lower split where you have two upper-body training days and two lower-body training days each week.
How do I know if I’m lifting heavy enough?
Many people believe they are engaging in "strength training," but in reality, they may not be. Just because something "feels" heavy doesn't necessarily mean it's truly heavy; it might just be heavier than what you're used to. If most of your training involves light weights or no weight at all, anything heavier than your usual may "feel" heavy, leading you to believe you're lifting heavy when you might not be.
Ryan from Better Butt Lab says “Let’s get something straight before we move on. An untrained individual will be able to get stronger just by working out. However, once you’re past the early stages of training you are going to want to push yourself to lift heavier weights if you want to continue receiving the benefits that strength training provides.”
So, how can you know if you're lifting heavy enough? Ryan encourages you to use this helpful rule of thumb! If you can complete more than 8-10 repetitions of an exercise with proper form, it's not considered "heavy" in terms of scientific standards, regardless of how it subjectively feels.
Let's put this principle to the test with an example. Take the chest press exercise, for instance. Add enough weight so that attempting an 11th repetition is absolutely impossible. Stop at rep 9 or 10 to avoid injury. What you've just discovered can be considered "heavy enough for most people," but it technically isn't the heaviest weight.
Now, continue the experiment. When you perform the chest press again, ideally in 3-4 days, select a weight that allows you to complete only 5 or 6 repetitions without compromising form or risking injury. This weight can be genuinely classified as heavy. We haven't reached the absolute heaviest weight, but that's not necessary.
You might be thinking, "That's too heavy!" However, it's not; you're simply not accustomed to it. As you adapt to this heavier load, you'll find it more manageable and see even more progress in your strength training.
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