There is an endless array of strength training programs and
theories out there, much of it geared toward bodybuilders and advanced exercisers. If
youre just getting started, its quite easy to become totally confused by all
of the anatomical terms and gym jargon. Wed like to fill in the gap by giving you
the foundation of any safe and effective strength training routine. Youll learn the
names of the major muscle groups and the exercises that target them, the difference
between sets and reps, the elements of proper form, and the basics of frequency and
The Major Muscle Groups
When selecting exercises for your strength routine, its important to choose at
least one exercise for each major muscle group. This prevents muscle imbalances that can
lead to injury. Lets take a look at the major muscle groups and a few of the
exercises that target them:
This group of muscles (often referred to as
glutes) includes the gluteus maximus, which is the big muscle covering your
butt. Common exercises are the squat and the leg press machine. The glutes also come into
play during lunges, tall box step ups, and plyometric jumps.
This group of muscles makes up the front of the thigh.
Exercises include squats, lunges, leg extension machine, and leg press machine.
These muscles make up the back of the thigh. Exercises include
squats, lunges, leg press machine, and leg curl machine
Hip abductors and adductors
These are the muscles of the inner and
outer thigh. The abductors are on the outside and move the leg away from the body.
The adductors are on the inside and pull the leg across the centerline of the body.
These muscles can be worked with a variety of side-lying leg lifts, standing cable pulls,
and multi-hip machines.
The calf muscles are on the back or the lower leg. They
include the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is what gives the calf
its strong rounded shape. The soleus is a flat muscle running under the gastrocnemius.
Standing calf raises give the gastrocnemius a good workout, while seated or bent knee calf
raises place special emphasis on the soleus. These small muscles can handle a relatively
large amount of weight.
These muscles include the rectus abdominus, a large flat
muscle running the length of the abdomen, and the external obliques, which run down the
sides and front of the abdomen. Exercises such as standard crunches and curls target the
rectus abdominus. Reverse curls and crunches (where the hips are lifted instead of the
head and shoulders) target the lower portion of this muscle. Crunches involving a rotation
or twist work the external obliques.
Pectoralis major Large fan shaped muscle that covers the front of
the upper chest. Exercises include push-ups, pull-ups, regular and incline bench press,
and the pec deck machine.
Upper portion of the back, sometimes referred to as
traps. The upper trapezius is the muscle running from the back of the neck to
the shoulder. Exercises include upright rows, and shoulder shrugs with resistance.
Large muscles of the mid-back. When properly
trained they give the back a nice V shape, making the waist appear smaller. Exercises
include pull-ups, chin-ups, one arm bent rows, dips on parallel bars, and the lat
The cap of the shoulder. This muscle has three parts,
anterior deltoid (the front), medial deltoid (the middle), and posterior deltoid (the
rear). Different movements target the different heads. The anterior deltoid is worked with
push-ups, bench press, and front dumbbell raises. Standing lateral (side) dumbbell raises
target the medial deltoid. Rear dumbbell raises (done while seated and bent at the waist,
or lying face down on a flat bench) target the posterior deltoid.
The front of the upper arm. The best moves are biceps curls.
They can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, or a machine. Other pulling movements like
chin-ups and upright rows also involve the biceps.
The back of the upper arm. Exercises include pushing
movements like push-ups, dips, triceps extensions, triceps kick-backs, and overhead
(French) presses. The triceps also come into play during the bench press and military
Sequence and Speed
When doing a series of exercises, youll generally want to start with the larger
muscle groups and compound movements and work toward the smaller muscle groups and
isolation movements. This allows you to do the most demanding moves when youre the
least fatigued. For example, youre less likely to lose your balance during a lunge
if you do the lunges before exhausting the muscles of quads and hamstrings with machine
exercises. Youll use better form on your push-ups if you do them before fatiguing
the triceps with presses or kick-backs.
The speed of the movement is also an important element of each exercise. A reasonable
training pace is one to two seconds for the lifting (concentric) portion of the exercise
and three to four seconds for the lowering (eccentric) portion of the move. Fast, jerky
movements should be avoided. They place undue stress on the muscle and connective tissue
at the beginning of the movement, substantially increasing the likelihood of an injury.
Fast lifting also cheats you out of some of the strength benefits. When lifting at a fast
pace, momentum (not the muscle) is doing a good deal of the work.
Sets and Reps
A set is a group of successive repetitions performed without resting. A rep or
repetition is the number of times you repeat the move in each set. Therefore, if your
instructions were to do 3 sets of 12 (3 x 12) biceps curls, you would curl the weight 12
times in a row to complete the first set. Then youd put the weight down, rest a
moment and do 12 more in a row to complete the second set, and so on until youve
finished the prescribed number of sets for that exercise.
There have been studies showing similar strength gains from one, two, or three sets.
Single set exercises are usually done to the point of failure, meaning to the point where
you cant complete another full repetition. This is commonly referred to as
high-intensity training or HIT. Multiple set exercises are usually done with one to three
minutes of rest between each set. An advantage of single set training is that it requires
less time in the gym. An advantage of multiple set training is that the longer training
session can result in higher calorie expenditure.
Resistance and Range
The number of repetitions chosen for each exercise depends on the amount of resistance
(weight) youre using. Maximum resistance is the most weight you can lift with proper
form one time. In general, most people can complete 6 repetitions with 85% of their
maximum resistance, 8 repetitions with 80% of maximum resistance, 10 repetitions with 75%
of maximum resistance, 12 repetitions with 70% of maximum resistance and 14 repetitions
with 65% of maximum resistance. Training with more than 85% of your maximum resistance
increases the risk of injury, and training with less than 65 percent of maximum resistance
decreases strength gains. So, a safe and productive training recommendation would be 8-12
repetitions using 70% to 80% of maximum resistance.
Full range of motion is an important component of proper form. Each exercise should be
taken through the complete range of joint movement in a slow controlled manner, with
emphasis placed on the completely contracted position. If a weight is so heavy that you
have to jerk, bounce or swing to get it to the top of the movement, its too heavy.
Your form is compromised. Full-range of motion movements contract and strengthen the
muscle youre working (the prime mover) and stretch the opposing (antagonist) muscle.
This contributes to both muscle strength and joint flexibility.
Progression and Frequency
Progressive resistance is the key to any well designed strength program. This means
that as your muscles adapt to a given exercise, you need to gradually increase the
resistance or the repetitions to promote further gains. You should start out with a weight
that allows you to do at least 8 repetitions of a particular exercise. Once you can
complete 12 repetitions with that weight, you increase the weight by about 5 percent. Now,
youre doing 8 repetitions with the slightly heavier weight. Once youve worked
up to 12 repetitions with the heavier weight, you increase it by another 5 percent (or no
more than 10%) and go back to doing 8 repetitions. The idea is to keep alternately
increasing repetitions and resistance, so that you continue to see results.
Increases in muscle size and strength dont occur while youre training, they
occur during the rest period between workouts. This is when your muscles recover and
rebuild, gradually becoming bigger and stronger. The recovery process takes at least 48
hours. For this reason, strength training sessions should be scheduled no more frequently
than every other day. If you prefer to train more often, you should avoid hitting the same
muscle group on consecutive days.
Getting and Staying Active