Thursday, March 21, 2013

Where to Start

So a few folks have asked me about getting started with strength training. Unlike my normal material the following is not sport-specific.

This is just about getting started with strength training. For those who have little or no experience with the topic.

First of all: Strength training is exercises hard enough that you can only do 12 in a row or fewer. Or, with isometric exercises, something you can only hold for less than 30 seconds.
Otherwise what you are doing is endurance training. Which is not the same thing.

Primarily, it's not about which exercises you do, it's about the intensity at which you do them. Bodyweight squats are an endurance activity for most folks because they can do 15 or 20 or more. But if you did the exact same exercise while holding weights - enough weight that you could not do more than 12 - then the exercise would be strength training instead.

If I were to recommend a set of dumbbell exercises (since adjustable dumbbells are cheap, readily available and useable at home) I'd suggest the following:
1. Squats
2. Split squats
3. Straig
ht leg deadlifts
4. Hip thrust/bridge with weight (you can start this with dumbbells in your lap. You need to put your back up against something sturdy. I push a chair up against the wall).
5. Bench press (can be done on the floor, a bench isn't necessary)
6. Bent-over row
7. Shoulder/overhead press
(do this standing not seated)
8. Pull-ups (a pull-up bar can be gotten that works in almost any apartment and doesn't require tools to install). Here's a primer on doing pull-ups if you can't yet.
9. Crunches with weight (I prefer to hold the weight by my shoulders)
10. Side bends

This set of ten covers every major muscle group in the body and works them in all the major planes of motion. So it is very nearly complete.

The amount of weight you are looking for is something that will develop strength, which means higher weights and lower reps.
Start at 12-15 RM - Repetition Maximum - the number that you can do before you cannot do another with good form.

Start easy on the exercises to develop your form. In the long run good form is much more important that increasing weight quickly.

For each week pick an intensity level. Do all of your exercises at that level. Every 2-4 weeks you can increase the intensity level.

Intensity levels:
12-15 RM
10-12 RM
8-10 RM
6-8 RM
I wouldn't go higher than that without a spotter though.

Do the workout at least twice a week and each session has a rest day in-between another session. So not more than three times per week.

Aim for multiple sets of each exercise. 2-3 sets is a reasonable workout.
But if you only have time to do one of each then start there.

You need to rest between each set to get the most out of it.
12-15RM - rest 60+ sec.
8-12RM - rest 90+ sec.
7 RM and heavier - rest 2-4 minutes

You can shorten the rest periods if you alternate exercises between different muscle groups e.g. push/pull or upper/lower. But you'll still need rest between sets. This sort of plan can be done on "light" days.

For strength training you should also have a "heavy" day where you don't alternate like this and you take appropriate rest periods.


  1. Thank you for this! I'm gonna get my butt/back/abs/etc in gear and get on this. :)

  2. I have some questions.

    1. The de-escalating set lengths (12-15 -> 10-12 -> 8-10 etc.), are those supposed to be de-escalating with each successive set (so you do 12-15 first set, then 10-12 second set, 8-10 third set, etc.) or are you supposed to 12-15 week 1, then 10-12 (but with more weight) week 2, then 8-10 week 3 (with yet more weight) until you get down to 6-8, at which point you either maintain and continue to add weight or you go to whichever weight your stronger self can now do 12-15 of and then add weight/drop sets again?

    2. What is a good target for number of sets per exercise?

    3. Would it be possible to categorize or label these in a way that someone not so anatomically inclined (like myself) could separate them in different days for different areas without overloading and hitting the same area on back-to-back days?

    4. In the split squats section there are two other types of squats listed as "then statements". Are all three exercises supposed to be done one after the other are we slowly working out way up to the point at which we can do single-leg squats?

    Thanks in advance and thank you for putting this up. I'm trying to get myself ready so that when my circumstances allow me get back into classes I'll be much fitter and better able to handle them.

    1. I apologize for how long it took for me to get back to answering your questions.

      1. The number of reps to max (RM) is done for each set in a particular day's workout.

      2. 2-3 sets per exercise is a good target. This allows you to fine tune your weight for the day so that your last set you hit the RM precisely.

      3. The workout described hits all of the muscles. So don't do this workout on consecutive days. On the days in between your strength training days you can do conditioning work.

      A split routine where you have back to back workout days is an advanced approach to strength training and not an appropriate starting point.

      4. I removed the advanced single-leg exercises from the basic routine.

      I've updated the article itself to reflect the comments I've made.