Strength Training 101

Heavy Lifting Builds Strength

Black man bench presses
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You should be well-acquainted with weight training principles and practices and have at least three to six months of conditioning under your belt, with a program similar to the Basic Strength and Muscle program, before you attempt this program.

Note that this is a generic program designed to provide a template for building strength. You should always consider utilizing the services of a personal trainer or strength coach to individualize a program based on your goals, existing fitness level, access to resources, and time available for training.

What Does Basic Strength Achieve?

Basic Strength is a weight training program designed to prioritize strength, rather than muscle size and definition (bodybuilding) or muscle endurance. Even so, a program such as this will build some muscle size and endurance because of the amount of work done.​​

Who Can Benefit from the Basic Strength Program?

This weight training program is for anyone who wants to get strong for functional purposes, personal development, weightlifting, sports, or for activities in which strength is a priority. An individualized program written specifically for you by a competent gym instructor or strength coach in the discipline of your choice is the best way to move to the next level, which may include serious competition.

Feel free to customize this workout plan to suit your goals while adhering to the basic principles of strength development—heavier weights, fewer repetitions, and more rest between sets. For example, a workout could look somewhat different for a 50-year-old woman wanting to build strength compared to a 20-year-old football player getting ready for the season ahead. Nevertheless, the basic principles would be the same—just the details of the training program would differ. The older person may feel more functional doing squats with dumbbells rather than a bar and plates, for example.

Basic Principles

Strength is developed by lifting relatively heavier weights with a longer rest period in between sets. This differs from bodybuilding and strength endurance programs, which tend to utilize lighter weights with less rest in between sets. It’s all relative, of course, and many bodybuilders do indeed lift heavy weights compared to those who train less. Lifting heavy weights rather than light weights enhances the response of the nervous system and its stimulation of nerve fibers.

The Program Outline

This strength program is deliberately simple in design to accommodate the widest range of possible users. Be aware that strength training is hard work because of the higher-intensity workload. If you are used to doing strength endurance training or toning with light weights and higher repetitions, then strength training can come as a shock. Work up to this with the Basic Strength and Muscle program of three sets of 12 repetitions maximum (RM) repetitions.

Number of exercise sessions: 20; two or three each week, to suit.

Exercises included: Squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, lat pulldown, seated cable row, triceps kickback, biceps arm curl. The first six exercises are basic strength-building compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups. The last two are isolation exercises included to target arm muscle groups important in the performance of the compound exercises and for all-around, balanced development. The legs need no extra work other than the squats and deadlifts included in the program, provided that good form is practiced.

Repetition maximum: You need to calculate, by trial and error, a weight for each exercise that will allow you to do five repetitions maximum (RM). This is the stage at which you can’t do another repetition without resting. You need to be able to continue for five sets. Exercises such as squats and deadlifts are very taxing with heavy weights, so don’t expect too much too early. Try to pick a weight that allows you to complete all five sets and repetitions.

Sets and repetitions: In contrast to the basic strength and muscle program of three sets of 12RM repetitions, this strength program uses five sets of 5RM repetitions followed by three sets of 5RM repetitions in any consecutive session. This applies if you do two or three sessions each week. Just alternate how much you lift in each session to give your body a break. On the lighter day, you can add an extra 20 minutes of cardio to round-out the session, if you wish.

Recovery: You need adequate recovery to get the most from a strength program. After eight sessions, do only one session in the next week and the same after the next eight sessions to allow your body to recover. Depending on how you adjust to the burden of heavy squatting and deadlifting, it is an option to adjust the number of sets down to less than five to assist with recovery at any time.

Rest period: Rest for at least two minutes between sets, if possible.

Exercises in the Program

Eight exercises are included in this program. All major muscle groups are worked with compound and isolation exercises.

Squat: Mainly works the quads (thigh) and gluteal (butt) muscles; the hamstrings and inner thigh muscles are involved, depending on form and feet position. Feel free to use fixed barbells, plates, or dumbbells. Dumbbells can be positioned hanging at your sides or held at your shoulders. Barbells can rest on your shoulders behind your head (back squat) or in front, though the back squat is the standard. The basic squat form is similar for all methods used, with minor adjustments for the position of the bar or dumbbells. The most important form reminders are:

  • Don't lean forward or get too far onto the front of your foot; keep your knees beyond the line of your toes.
  • Keep the spine straight, not curved over, as you go down and up.

Bench press: Works the triceps (back of arm) and chest pectoral muscles. A dumbbell press on an adjustable bench can be substituted for the more formal bench press with rack, although you will need to go to the rack for lifting heavier weights. Use a spotter, if necessary. As you move an adjustable bench more to the upright position, the deltoid shoulder muscles become more involved.

Deadlift: Works the hamstrings, quads, back, neck, gluteals, arms, and abdominal muscles with varied intensity. Deadlifts are a great all-round bulking-up exercise, but they require very hard work. You can do complete lifts from the floor and then back down again under control, resting for a few seconds and repeating. Or, you can lower the weights to shin level without release, then repeat. A straight back is key to the safety of this lift, and you must work up to the 5X5 using light weights. An adequate warm-up is mandatory for each session. This is usually done with very light weights or even a bar without weights.

Overhead press: Works the shoulder and triceps muscles. Done properly, it also involves the abdominal muscles as you brace for the lift. This exercise can be done with a barbell or dumbbells, sitting on a bench or standing, or with a shoulder press machine.

Lat pulldown machine: Works the mid to lower back muscles, biceps, and lower-arm muscles.

Seated cable row machine: Works the mid to upper back muscles, as well as the rear shoulder muscle. Varying the width of grip can emphasize different individual muscles for this exercise and the lat pulldown.

Triceps kickback: Works the triceps muscles at the rear of the upper arm.

Arm curl: Works the biceps and lower front arm muscles.

Summary of Weight Training Programs

This 20-session program is designed to fit into a larger cycle of weight training and should not be done prior to the preparatory Basic Strength and Muscle program, or something similar. These preparatory programs get the body used to the stresses, strains, and processes of weight training. Once you have completed a preparatory program, decide what suits your goals best.

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.