Resistance Training 101

What is Resistance Training?

Resistance training is a popular form of weight-bearing exercise that involves using various forms of loading on the skeletal muscles to produce positive health benefits. Some examples of resistance training include weightlifting, bodybuilding, bodyweight training, and power lifting.

Currently, resistance training is becoming mainstream as the scientific evidence mounts supporting the many benefits if this form of exercise; not only for athletes and competitive lifters, but for the general population.

The primary goals of resistance training for the average trainee are to build and maintain a healthy amount of lean body mass, in order to be able to effectively perform all the activities of daily living, prevent or recover from injury, reduce body fat, and improve risk markers of the common cardio-metabolic diseases.

Who Does Resistance Training Benefit?

The primary roles of resistance training are to increase skeletal muscle size, strength and power, muscular endurance, and to improve balance, coordination, and performance of functional or athletic activities.

This can be applicable for everyone – from children developing their sport skills, to athletes looking to jump higher or run faster, to the middle-aged office worker with lower back pain, all the way to an older woman looking to maintain her bone mineral density or to have the strength and balance to do the grocery shopping independently.

To this point, resistance training is recommended alongside aerobic exercise as an activity for the general population to undertake on a regular basis to receive the many benefits to one’s health and fitness. The American College of Sports Medicine, the American Heart Association, and many other health governing bodies have published position statements on resistance training as part of a physically active lifestyle.

For example, the U.S government recommends muscle strengthening activities on two to three days per week for everyone including children and adolescents, adults, older individuals, and those with chronic health conditions and disabilities – provided they receive the appropriate support from a qualified professional, of course.

Next we’ll explain the three primary goals of resistance training; how the body responds to these different ways of training, and how to focus your exercise to achieve each of these outcomes.

Increasing Strength

From struggling to open a jar at home to pulling airplanes in a strongman competition, one of the main goals of resistance training is increasing your maximal strength.

Resistance training improves strength by enabling the nervous system’s ability to activate the muscles. The nervous system adapts to training by increasing the rate of force development and improving the coordination between relevant muscles. Most of the strength gains one experiences in the early stages of resistance training comes from these neural adaptations.

Training to improve maximal strength involves lifting weights at a high percentage of your one-repetition maximum, or 1RM. A 100% 1RM is the amount of weight you can lift in a given exercise one time, unable to achieve a second lift. Strength workouts can involve training with loads between 50-90% of your 1RM weight, usually for one to six repetitions.

Training for strength requires full recovery between sets, allowing you to train with maximum force production. Rest intervals of three to five minutes allow the nervous system to recover most of this capacity to permit a greater number of repetitions over multiple sets.

Muscle Growth

The next goal of resistance training is muscle growth, or hypertrophy. Whether it’s to feel more confident at the beach or winning the next Mr. Olympia title, most people would like to have a more toned physique.

In basic terms, muscle hypertrophy is an increase in the number and size of the contractile proteins that make up muscle tissue, expanding the diameter and cross-sectional area of the muscle.

This adding and maintenance of lean muscle mass is important, because our muscle tissue does not undergo significant replacement over the lifespan like many other tissues do, such as blood, skin and hair. Instead, the tissue is in a constant balance of breakdown and repair. When the rate of repair is higher than the breakdown, muscle hypertrophy occurs.

Resistance training causes muscle growth in three ways: by placing mechanical tension on the muscles, creating muscle damage, and by causing metabolic stress to the muscle. A program with the major motive of muscle growth should use six to 12 repetitions, resting for 60-90 seconds between sets to create the ideal mix of these three factors, stimulating the body to respond by building more muscle to cope with these stressors.

Muscular Endurance

Climbing the stairs at work or participating in the local fun run are not only dependent on your cardiovascular fitness. Our muscles get fatigued, too, which can inhibit us even if our heart and lungs can handle the workload.

Localised muscle endurance is also a desired outcome for some people undergoing a resistance training regime. The energy processes that create repeated muscle contractions cause a buildup of waste products in the muscle, including lactic acid and hydrogen ions, and others. These are what create that ‘burning’ feeling in your muscles during a hard workout.

Over time and with the right training stimulus, your muscles will become conditioned to better adapt to these metabolites and to resist fatigue for longer, increasing your endurance. These responses are achieved to the greatest extent by training with lighter weights, for 15 or more repetitions, and with short, 30 second rest breaks to avoid too much recovery.

Be aware that training is best periodised into different phases if you would like to achieve more than one of these goals; it is difficult to significantly improve all of these parameters at once. For example, if you picture an olympic weightlifter next to a marathon runner, the adaptations of their musculature to their specific training methods becomes clear.

Now we know the different ways to train our muscles, let’s take a look at which exercises are best for each major muscle group.

Types of Resistance Training Exercises

Resistance training exercises are categorised into two main types: compound exercises and isolation exercises. Compound exercises, or multi-joint movements, are those ‘bang-for-your-buck’ moves that recruit many muscle groups simultaneously to perform the most amount of work possible.

These exercises, such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, shoulder press, pull-ups, and many more, dynamically recruit large, prime mover muscles, while also engaging many supporting muscles to stabilise the body during the movement. Compound exercises produce greater increases in many of the neural and hormonal responses to resistance training that result in improvements. However, certain dominant muscle groups may take over in these exercises, which can create imbalances and lead to injury.

Enter isolation exercises, or single-joint movements. These exercises, such as bicep curls, leg extensions, calf raises, and many more, can selectively target underdeveloped muscles or weak points, creating a greater symmetry in muscle and strength development. Isolation exercises are also often simpler to learn and require less weight to stimulate results, making them more beginner-friendly than some of the advanced technical lifts.

Another consideration for which exercises to include in your program is how to split your workouts up over the week. Options include full body workouts, with exercises for each muscle group; or splitting up your routine, for example into upper and lower body sessions, or even a five day split focusing on one muscle group each time.

These options all have their benefits depending on variables like your goals, experience, time available to train, and accessibility.

So with some exercises in mind, we’ll move on to the different types of equipment (or lack thereof) commonly used to do resistance training.

Resistance Training Equipment

There is a wide range of equipment available for resistance training. Here we’ll divide the options into those which you’ll find in most commercial gyms, followed by things you can use at home.

Your local gym will most likely have access to an array of resistance training machines. These are a great option as they simplify and guide the movement, and modifying the resistance is often as simple as moving the pin into the desired load. These machines are adjustable for different body types, and often have instructions for the exercise printed right on the machine.

Another type of machine in the gym is the cable machine. These come with an array of different handle attachments, and can be height adjusted to perform many different exercises. Cable machines allow a freer range of motion, but also take a little more technique to master.

Next are the free weights – in the gym these may include a range of heavy barbells, plate weights, dumbbells and kettle bells. A well-equipped gym will have a whole array of weights able to be tailored to your ability.

Of course, you may want to invest in your own set of weights that you can use at home. One pair of adjustable dumbbells is enough to perform exercises for the whole body. Another home option includes therabands, which come in different thicknesses to provide more resistance.

If you don’t want to invest in a gym membership or home equipment, you’ll be pleased to know that you already possess all the resistance you need to get a great workout – your own body! Bodyweight exercises, known as calisthenics, are a popular method of training. Classic exercises such as push ups, abdominal crunches, and air squats are all very effective and have many variations which can be used to focus on strength, muscle growth, or endurance.

Finally, we’ll go over some of the precautions you’ll need to be aware of with resistance training, before providing you with a couple of beginner workout programs you can use to get started!

Precautions to take with Resistance Training

The first thing to be aware of when resistance training is that you’ll need to properly warm up the muscles before commencing your workout. This will involve some whole body cardiovascular exercise and some light warm up sets to increase blood flow to the muscles, increase body temperature and make the joints and connective tissues more pliable and less prone to injury.

Another common phenomenon in resistance training is delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. This occurs 24-48 hours after a training session in which the muscles receive a shock from a new stimulus. This is part of the adaptation process and a little muscle soreness is distinguishable from actual pain or injury.

It is a good idea to see resistance training as one piece of the puzzle when pursuing your goals; often training is accompanied by good nutrition and adequate rest and recovery to avoid overtraining – topics for another article.

Finally, if you need help in getting started with resistance training, don’t hesitate to contact a health or fitness professional to show you the ropes – you might just get hooked!

Example Beginner Resistance Training Program

Here is a simple beginner program you can perform three days per week to get started. The exercises use some basic equipment; alternatively there are bodyweight options for each move. Video instructions for each exercise can be found online. Be sure to perform a five minute warm up, for example marching on the spot or jumping jacks. Enjoy!

Exercises Sets x Reps Instructions Bodyweight Alternative
Dumbbell Squats 3 x 15 30-60 seconds rest Hold weights at shouldersSit hips backBend knees down to 90 degreesDrive through heels to stand up Air Squats
Chest Press 3 x 15 30-60 seconds rest Lie on floor or benchHold weights either side of chestPress up until elbows straightSlowly lower to start Push Ups
Bent Rows 3 x 15 30-60 seconds rest Feet shoulder width apartBend forward at the hips, back straightHold weights in front of the kneesKeep elbows tucked as you pull weights up to ribsSlowly lower to start Supermans
Overhead Press 3 x 15 30-60 seconds rest Hold weights at shouldersSqueeze tummy and buttPush weights straight upSlowly return to start Pike Push Ups
Band Crunch 3 x 15 30-60 seconds rest Secure band in top of doorKneel facing door, hold band behind head with both handsPoint elbows to floorCurl down, aiming elbows to kneesControl up to start Sit Ups

We hope this article has helped explain how resistance training works, all the benefits to be gained from including it as part of a healthy lifestyle, and how to get started.

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