I see the funniest things in the gym. Going to the gym guarantees that I will see at least one person performing a possibly dangerous movement, and several people doing things that seem to be a waste of time. It’s hard to blame them. The gym is full of all sorts of different devices and machines for working out, and popular culture barrages us with lots of conflicting information about working out. I’m going to try to clear up some of the confusion and cover the basics here today.
Exercise science is still a young science, so there are some more specific questions we just don’t have the answers to yet. But fortunately, we do have good answers for most of the basic questions about how to set up a strength training program. I’ll also include some recommended books about strength training and a few scientific reference papers you can look up if you’re interested.
Load: the critical factor
The most important element of a strength training program is the load, or the weight/resistance level you are working against. More than anything else, this will determine your success or failure at building strength. The reference point for determining load is the “1RM”, or one repetition-maximum. This is the load at which you can do one full repetition of a given exercise, but not a second repetition. Luckily, you don’t have to actually find your 1RM – you can use lighter weights and find a 3 or 6 or 10 RM, and predict your 1RM from that, using one of many tables and calculators available on the web or in reference books. Once you have determined your 1RM, you then use a percentage of that to determine your load for a given exercise. You should use a load of between 70% and 85% of your 1RM to build strength. For example, let’s say your 1RM in the bench press is 100lbs – you should use a load of between 70 and 85 lbs for that exercise. You can also use the information about sets and reps to see if you are using the proper load
Sets, Reps, and Pacing
We previously discussed the importance of using the proper load for your exercise. A load of between 70% and 85% of your 1RM produces a set of between 4 and 12 repetitions. More than 12 or less than 4 repetitions means you are using too light or too heavy of a resistance level. There is some controversy in the field of strength and conditioning regarding the importance of using single sets or multiple sets – and believe me, these can be some pretty fierce disagreements! Generally speaking, I recommend one or two sets for beginners and three to five for those experienced in resistance training. Often beginners have limited time and comfort with resistance training, so performing fewer sets in the early stages will still build strength and allow them to get comfortable with resistance training.
The New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle. Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove.
The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess. Lou Schuler, Cassandra Forsyth, and Alwyn Cosgrove.