What is strength training?

Strength training involves the repeated generation of a muscle force against a resistance. This form of training increases muscle strength and endurance, and over time results in an increase in muscle size, called hypertrophy. This may involve working against gravity (e.g. weights, squatting exercises) or elastic/hydraulic resistance. To achieve improvements, our muscles must to be progressively ‘overloaded’, as the muscles become stronger. The process of overload then stimulates adaptive processes that increase the strength of the muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage that slow down the aging process.

Strength training is primarily anaerobic activity, however by undertaking a series of resistance training activities with only short periods of rest between them, so the exercise heart rate is kept high, may also result in increased aerobic fitness. This is called circuit weight training.

Exercise principles for strength training

Strength training programs are designed to apply resistance to specific muscles using an exercise that is continued until muscle fatigue ensues.  When starting a strength training program, resistance applied is varied so that the exercise can only be repeated 6 to 12 times. This corresponds to at 65-85% of maximal capacity (often referred to as the one repetition maximum or 1RM). This is called a ‘set’ of repetitions.

Generally, three sets of each exercise, with a 60 to 90 second recovery period between each set, are required to provide the best stimulus to increase muscle strength.

A strength program would generally consist of 8 -10 exercises, that stress the major muscles of the legs, upper back, chest, shoulders and arms and importantly the trunk or core muscles of the abdominal wall.

As the body adapts to its training load, training is progressively increased by increasing the applied resistance or load, the number of sets, by reducing the time between sets or changing the sequence of exercises, so the muscle is blitzed by exercises that apply similar stresses.

Strength training should be conducted at least 2-3 times/week, on alternate days so the muscles have a chance to regenerate and become stronger as a result of repeated sessions. If strength training is to be conducted every day, it is advisable to split the program into two segments (i.e. upper and lower body), so each muscle has 48 hours to recover between each session.

Common misconceptions about strength training

Weight training causes women to bulk up and look masculine. As women have only one tenth the level of testosterone like men, women undertaking weight training do not ‘bulk up’ like men and look masculine. However, women undertaking weight training can obtain significant strength gains and improve their overall body shape – all very desirable benefits.

Weight training will make you gain weight. As muscle is more dense than fat, increasing your muscle mass may make you weigh more (according to the scales). But it is more common to lose weight as abdominal fat stores decline and body composition and shape changes. Skinfold callipers can easily assess if change in body weight is due to a change in muscle or fat mass.

Weight training will convert fat into muscle. The energy requirements of resistance exercise will burn fat stores, and reduce body fat stores. Muscle mass will increase as a result of strength training but fat is not ‘converted’ into muscle.

Last Reviewed 02/Mar/2014

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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals