Resistance training is a type of exercise whereby your skeletal muscles move against some form of resistance. This is most commonly done using one’s own bodyweight, free weights, machines, elastics or pulleys. Resistance training has a variety of purposes, including building muscle (hypertrophy), strength, endurance, power as well as fitness conditioning.
Your Body’s Response to Resistance Training
Resistance training imposes a stress on your muscles, which adapt to this stress by becoming bigger and/or stronger. This happens through two mechanisms:
- Neural adaptation causes the nerves in your muscles to recruit more muscle fibres, become better coordinated and fire faster.1
- Hormones are released that aid in muscular repair and growth, causing muscle fibres to become bigger and stronger2.
Risks and Benefits of Resistance Training
Risks – Before you begin any exercise program you should fill out a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q) form to determine if you should be cleared by a doctor prior to launching a new fitness regime.3
Aside from that, even if you are healthy and good to go, there is still a risk of injury. This includes soft tissues strains and sprains and also accidents from things like dropping weights on your foot. However, research has shown that most injuries are from the misuse or abuse of equipment.4 This is a good reason to get help from a qualified exercise professional if you are new to resistance training. All things considered, the evidence shows that the risk of injury is quite low in the general population.5
Benefits – The benefits strongly outweigh the risks. As renowned strength coach Mark Rippetoe once said, “Strong people are harder to kill than weak people and more useful in general.” Research bears him out; the benefits from resistance training are enormous. Most obviously it increases muscular size, strength and endurance, which gives life to your years by allowing you to take part in numerous activities while minimizing decrepitude as you age. Not so obviously it also reduces the risk of some chronic illnesses, including arthritis, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart attack and stroke.6
Know Your Sets from Your Reps and Your Bars from Your Bros
Before embarking on a resistance-training program you should know some basic terms:
- Rep – short for repetition; how many times you do the exercise, e.g., 10 reps.
- Set – a cluster of reps; e.g. three sets of 10 reps.
- Rest – how much time you rest between sets and/or exercises while training.
- Volume – the total number of reps, sets and exercises in a session.
- Frequency – the number of training sessions per week.
- Load – how much weight is lifted in a set in pounds or kilograms.
- Intensity – also refers to load but relative to the maximum weight you can lift for one rep expressed as a percentage. For example, 70 percent x eight reps means you are doing eight reps at 70 percent of the most weight you can lift in one rep.
- Unilateral exercise – an exercise done with only one arm or leg at a time, such as a lunge or single arm row.
- Bilateral exercise – an exercise done with both arms or both legs at the same time, such as pushups or squats.
- Isolation exercise – an exercise that involves only one joint such as a bicep curl, which involves just the elbow joint.
- Compound exercise – an exercise that involves multiple joints, such as chin-ups, which involve the elbow and shoulder joints.
How To Get Started
This is where the American College Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) FITT-VP principle comes in.6 Each letter in FITT-VP stands for a variable you need to consider in your program: Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type. VP stands for Volume and Progression. Below are the ACSM’s general guidelines for a novice getting started with resistance training.7
- Frequency – Train each main muscle group two to three days a week on non-consecutive days. Major muscles groups are chest, back, arms, abdominals, quadriceps and hamstrings.
- Intensity – Choose a load that allows you to perform each set to the point where you can no longer perform additional reps with good form. This should fall between eight to 12 reps and would correspond to about 60-70 percent of your one rep max.
- Time – The time it takes to complete eight to 10 exercises that work all the major muscles of the body. Total time should be one hour or less.
- Type – Choose a variety of exercises including unilateral and bilateral, isolation and compound that are appropriate for you based on your experience, preferences and available equipment. This can include machines, free weights, bodyweight, elastics, pulleys or balls. Do your exercises at a slow to moderate speed that you can control well.
- Volume – Do one to two warm-up sets, then one to three sets of eight to 12 reps per exercise.
- Progression – Increase load two to 10 percent when you can do one to two reps more than usual two sessions in a row.
Beyond the Novice Stage
Once you have been training for a while and are comfortably out of the novice stage, you may consider training with a more focused goal or goals in mind. This may be for a particular sport or event. Common goals of resistance training include training for strength, power, muscle growth, muscular endurance and conditioning. However, if you want to maximize these factors you need to be focus on specific training variables:
- To maximize strength gain you need to lift at a higher intensity (even up to 100 percent in some cases) with fewer reps and long rest intervals.
- Power is best done in combination with strength training but also uses moderate loads done at a very fast rep tempo, including throws and jumps.
- Training for muscle size involves high volumes in a variety of rep ranges and speeds with moderate rest intervals.
- Muscular endurance training is best done with light loads for high reps with very short rest intervals.
- Resistance training to boost conditioning is best done as circuit training where you circuit between many exercises at moderate loads and rep ranges, keeping your rest intervals to a minimum.7, 8
Further information can be found by checking out resources from the American College Sports Medicine or by consulting an exercise professional or physiotherapist.
Keeping it Fun and Effective for the Long Run
If you just do the same workout every day your body will quickly adapt, your benefits will plateau and you’ll become bored. The trick to mitigating this is something called progressive overload: continually challenging your body as it adapts to the stress you apply to it. How to do this? It involves varying your program variables such as volume, intensity, rest, frequency and exercise selection in order to maximize performance and training gains.
The simplest most commonly used method to do this is linear periodization. This is where training starts as low intensity and high volume (many light reps) and progresses to higher intensities and lower volumes (fewer heavy reps). This is great for beginner and intermediate resistance trainees.9
Resistance training is a very effective and safe way to train that can benefit you whether you are casual exerciser or a competitive athlete. Make sure to vary your program to keep it enjoyable and beneficial!
1. Sale DG. Neural adaptation to resistance training. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 1988 Oct;20(5 Suppl):S135-45.
2. Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA. Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training. Sports medicine. 2005 Apr 1;35(4):339-61.
3. Powell KE, Heath GW, Kresnow MJ, Sacks JJ, Branche CM. Injury rates from walking, gardening, weightlifting, outdoor bicycling, and aerobics. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 1998 Aug;30(8):1246-9.
4. Jones CS, Christensen C, Young M. Weight training injury trends: a 20-year survey. The physician and sportsmedicine. 2000 Jul 1;28(7):61-72.
5. PAR-Q Forms. [Internet]. Csep.ca. 2016 [cited 23 December 2016]. Available from: http://www.csep.ca/view.asp?ccid=517
6. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2013 Mar 4.
7. Ratamess NA, Alvar BA, Evetoch TK, Housh TJ, Kibler WB, Kraemer WJ. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults [ACSM position stand]. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687-708.
8. Klika B, Jordan C. High-intensity circuit training using body weight: Maximum results with minimal investment. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. 2013 May 1;17(3):8-13.
9. Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA. Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2004 Apr 1;36(4):674-88.