A good level of relative strength is a key component of health and fitness. That is why it forms one leg of my 4 Legs of Fitness concept. In this article I provide answers to the question "what is resistance training?" including its benefits, different types, and how to get started.
Resistance training — also referred to as strength training — is a physical activity designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a specific muscle or muscle group against external resistance. This external resistance can be achieved in many ways as I will describe later in this article. People who use resistance training typically chase one or more of the following fitness goals:
- Build more muscle mass
- Become stronger
- Improve physique (also known as body recomposition)
But the benefits with respect to health go far beyond that.
Benefits of Resistance and Strength Training
There is a wide range of proven health benefits of exercising in general and strength training in particular. Regular exercise has positive effects on stress reduction, weight loss, blood pressure, and bone density, and hence contributes significantly to our overall well-being.
In particular, resistance training offers benefits such as:
- Increased muscular strength. Relative strength is a feature that is useful for everyone in all areas of life — not just for sports. It's essential for health, especially when we get older.
- Increased resting metabolic rate (you start to burn more calories while not exercising which reduces body fat and improves body composition) and lower heart rate.
- Improved balance, coordination, and posture (due to composition of your muscles).
- Counteracts bone and muscle loss (especially at higher age).
- Improves overall happiness because exercise supports the release of chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, or dopamine which have a positive impact on our mood.
Different Types of Resistance Training
There are various different types of weight training and resistance exercises. We can classify them into two groups: exercises with additional tools and exercises where we purely use our own bodyweight to leverage resistance for building muscle.
Free Weights: Dumbbells and Barbells
The most common type of resistance training is using free weights such as dumbbells or barbells. This is the most accessible type of tool-based training. Most gyms have a set of free weights. There’s a large variety of exercises to target different muscle groups in different ways. A full range of motion can be achieved while moving weights freely in space. There is no mechanical limitation as with machines. It’s especially important for large movements that involve many body parts and joints (also referred to as compound movements) like deadlifts, back squats, or bench presses.
Weight machines typically restrict the range of motion and mechanically limit how we can move weights in space. This makes them ideal to focus on a specific muscle. This is useful for isolation exercises where you want to focus on developing a particular body part.
Kettlebells have an unusual shape which challenges your body in different, unbalanced ways compared to traditional dumbbells or barbells. The center of gravity is different, so you need to constantly counterbalance the weight. Kettlebell-based training can be an excellent addition to your exercise routine to improve strength, power, balance, coordination, and mobility.
A resistance band is a band made of rubber that comes in many different shapes and forms. Due to its elasticity it can be used to create resistance for strength training and many different exercises. The bands are often used for lower intensity prehab or rehab exercises.
Other Equipment-Based Strength Training
There are lots of other tools that can be used for strength training such as medicine balls, TRX suspension training straps, weighted vests, Indian clubs, Bulgarian bags, and many more. All have their pros and cons and it typically comes down to personal preference and accessibility.
Bodyweight exercises are the most accessible type of resistance training. Everybody has a body they can use to train and build strength pretty much anytime and anywhere. Typical bodyweight exercises include pushups, situps, or pullups. Check out this free bodyweight exercise program to get started today.
Calisthenics are exercises that also only rely on our bodyweight and are closely related to gymnastics. Some sort of rack (like a pullup bar as a minimum) is typically required for calisthenics. One of the most famous calisthenics movements is the human flag.
How To Create a Strength Training Program
The nature of your strength training program depends on your fitness goals. Typical outcomes include:
- Increased strength
- Improved power
- Increased hypertrophy (muscle mass)
- Improved endurance
The nature of these goals is very different and consequently requires a different training plan. Different variables are used to create such a program including volume, intensity, frequency, and rest.
Volume is defined as the number of repetitions times the number of sets (reps x sets) that you execute per training session.
Intensity is a certain percentage of your 1RM. 1RM stands for 1 rep max and represents the maximum weight you can theoretically lift for one time. The percentage you choose depends whether you train for strength, power, hypertrophy, or endurance. The table below lists the percentage ranges accordingly.
Frequency is how often you train a certain muscle group within a certain time period (typically one week).
Finally, rest is the break you give your body or certain muscle groups between sets or between training sessions.
The following table is reproduced from the book “Supertraining” and provides recommendations for different variables related to the expected outcomes.
You can use this table to create your own strength training program. First you decide your intended training outcome: strength, power, hypertrophy, or endurance. Then you simply navigate through the corresponding column and pick values from the ranges provided in each row.
Let’s assume you want to improve your strength and choose the barbell back squat as one of the exercises. Let’s assume your 1RM of the back squat is 100 kg.
Your training program could look as follows: You lift 80 kg (80% of your 1RM) for five reps and repeat that five times (sets). Between sets you take a four-minute rest. You move the bar up and down with 70% of your maximum speed (which is fairly quick). You train the back squat on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (three times per week).
Important Principles of an Effective Training Program
The following essential principles should be incorporated in every resistance training program to be effective:
- To reduce risk of injury, every session should include a warm up and cool down routine. Include dynamic and static stretching and specific body part preparation depending on what you’ll be focusing on in your workout.
- The exact form of resistance training in your program and the tools you use depends on your goal and your individual situation and condition.
- In order to not let your body adapt, you constantly need to increase the stimulus. This is referred to as progressive overload, which is achieved by increasing weight, reps, or sets, or by reducing the rest time between sets.
- Monitor your progress so you know what volume you achieved the last time and continue to progressively overload.
- As outlined above there are many types of resistance training exercises leveraging other tools or simply your own bodyweight. The choice is yours. It must work for you. You must like what you do, otherwise you will not be able to stick to it long term.
- You will not see any considerable results before a minimum of three months (more realistic is probably six months). Hence, consistency is key. I recommend you stick to a program for six months at least. This is an investment. But I promise it will pay off.
- The key philosophy of my 4 Legs of Fitness concept is that outstanding health and fitness resides on four pillars. Strength is only one of those. Depending on your goals, it needs to be balanced with cardio, nutrition, and recovery.
Resistance Training Is Essential for Health and Fitness
Relative strength is important for our health, fitness, and well-being. The main benefits next to increased muscle strength include improved health metrics such as blood pressure, body fat, and bone density.
There are many methods of resistance training to improve strength and build muscle. For more details, take a look at my online fitness course
Understand and Leverage the Key Areas of Fitness to Improve Your Performance.
If you want to leverage one of my custom training programs that not only cover strength but all areas of health and fitness, then sign up for the premium membership of the Build Bullet-Proof Health program. This program includes a detailed assessment of your situation and goals. I’ll devise a targeted approach meant just for you.
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