Basic Strength Training Principles to Build Muscle

A bicep curl exercise.
A bicep curl exercise. Christopher Futcher/Getty Images

Exercise trends come and go but these four principles remain the foundation for an efficient and productive strength training routine.  

1. Strength Exercise Selection

What exercises you choose to do are the starting point for creating an optimal workout. You have to make wise selections that make the most of each exercise. For example, choosing multi-joint exercises, like squat, rather than single joint movements, like a leg extension, will give you far more return on your exercise investment.

Why? For one, you are working multiple muscles in a squat. Single joint exercises tend to isolate a muscle. Using the leg extension example, only your quadriceps — the front muscle in your thigh — are doing the work, which can lead to muscle imbalances and possibly injury. Additionally, multi-joint exercises are much more likely to simulate real life, or real sports, movements. In real life, we use many muscles and joints in very rapid succession to move. Keep this in mind when you select your exercises during training.

You'll also want to keep the number of exercises manageable. Three to five high-intensity exercises is about right. Don't think you can do 15 strength exercises in one session and still get a high-intensity workout. With too many exercises, you tend to fatigue before you finish or lower your overall output and get a lesser quality workout.

The optimal time for a full strength training workout at high intensity is about 30 minutes.

2. Frequency of Strength Training

The two factors the determine your strength gains are the intensity of the exercise performed, which is dictated by force put on the muscles, and allowing an appropriate rest and recovery period after the workout. For this reason, most strength workouts are built around the concept of short, high-intensity weight workouts followed by one to two days of rest to let the muscles rebuild and become stronger.

Research shows that muscles continue to build fibers and become stronger for up to a week after a workout that takes a muscle to failure. This underscores the importance of alternating a high training intensity with adequate rest periods in order to build muscle.

4. One Set Versus Multiple

There is a lot of discussion about how many sets of an exercise to do. The bottom line is if you can do one set to exhaustion, that is probably enough. The reason many people need to do multiple sets is that they didn't perform the first one at maximum intensity.

There are other reasons to perform multiple sets and the biggest one is safety. Performing one set of maximum effort can increase your risk of injury if you haven't thoroughly warmed up or if you don't use perfect lifting technique. Sometimes it's smart to use a set to make sure you don't over-lift (lift more than you are capable of lifting in a safe manner).

Research backs up the idea that one set training produces the same strength gains as multiple sets and it does this in less time. If you are experienced and skilled at weightlifting, go ahead and perform the first set at max effort and work to failure, but make sure that you have warmed up your muscles first, either with a dynamic warm-up or by lifting a lighter weight for a few reps.

5. Number of Repetitions Performed per Set

There are a lot of different recommendations regarding how many reps to perform during weight training. How many you should do depend on your training goals and current level of fitness. Keep in mind that strength training promotes increases in both functional strength (how much you can lift) and muscle hypertrophy (how big your muscles grow).​

Higher repetition during weightlifting sessions stimulate the slow twitch muscle fibers and promote muscle endurance. Lower repetitions during weight training (with heavier weights) activate the fast twitch muscle fibers and increase strength and muscle size.

One simple way to get the best of both of these training methods is to vary your training repetitions. Because both are important for overall athletic conditioning, many strength training experts will recommend varying the number of repetitions through an 8-10 week training cycle. Keep in mind that performing high-intensity lifts is still necessary even if you are performing 50 repetitions. The weight must be heavy enough that you reach fatigue at the last repetition in order to promote functional muscle growth.

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