Despite what you may have heard, and hoped, there are no secrets to building strength. This process takes a lot of work and dedication, but it, thankfully, relies on well tested and understood principles. We’ve put together this guide so that you don’t have to go searching all around the internet to find answer to your questions. You’ll find a compilation of some of the greatest resources on the web to help you get started with weightlifting and naturally achieve the success that you want.
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Strength training isn’t just about gaining strength; it’s about become a healthy and happier person overall. If you’re still on the fence about weightlifting, check out this guide from Everyday Health on the additional benefits you can gain: 7 Reasons to Add Strength Training to Your Workout Routine. These 7 reasons include the obvious — gain strength, but also some lesser known benefits such as weight loss, flexibility, and mental health.
Making and Reaching Goals
People who set (and write down) specific goals are far more likely to reach them than those that go at strength training with the vague idea of “becoming stronger.” At Fitness Health 101, they’ve put together one of the best guides to goal setting we’ve seen here at Fitness Weights. Their guide includes explanations of long and short terms goals, guidelines for setting goals, and even a sample goal chart. Use their advice and you’ll find your strength gains will be jumping ahead faster than you could have hoped: Defining and Setting Your Personal Goals.
Rewarding Yourself to Stay Motivated
Setting your goals is one of the biggest steps to take on your journal to a strong and fit body, and your primary rewards will be the feeling of accomplishment you receive as you meet and beat these goals. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with some external motivation. Planning rewards to match your goals can be a great way to keep motivated and on track. Weight Lifting Complete offers this advice on rewards.
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All trainers agree that what you eat matters at least as much as the training you’re doing when it comes to weightlifting. Weightlifters don’t tend to “diet,” instead the concern is getting the proper nutrients in the proper quantities. Unfortunately, exactly what those quantities are is under debate. Protein, carbohydrates, and fats all play an important role in providing your body the necessary materials to gain strength. How Stuff Works offers a simple overview on nutrition that makes some of the dense guides out there a little easier to follow: How to Form an Eating Plan for Weight Lifting.
Strong Lifts offers more suggestions on what types of foods you should be eating for specific meals, but limits the examination of calories.Simple Nutrition Rules to Get Stronger and Build Muscle.
For some in depth examples of calorie intake based on body weight, Muscle and Fitness put together a Hyper Growth Meal Plan that you can check out (make sure you click through the full guide to find the suggested meal breakdowns).
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Now that you understand a little about nutrition and have some idea of how to set goals it’s time to figure out which program and lifting routines will work best for you. Most good programs have similar setups in terms of the lifting and schedules, but there are some variations between them.
Most quality weight lifting programs recommend a 3 day full body split — which means working out three nonconsecutive days a week with full body workouts each time.
Here are three of the best weight training programs that we have seen online.
Strong Lifts: Possibly the best free program available for rapid strength gains. Mehdi, who runs the site, provides an amazing training program and in-depth information on every facet of his program. If you like to understand what you’re doing and enjoy reading this is without a doubt the place to start.
Starting Strength: One of the best books on the market for beginning weightlifters. While not free, this program is easy to understand and provides plenty of information to keep you moving forward and away from plateaus.
A Workout Routine: Another great source of information. This program doesn’t offer quite as much information for free as Strong Lifts, but has some great guides for beginners and advanced lifters, as well as offering a couple downloadable guides for purchase.
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When it comes to the weight room in your gym, just identifying all of the equipment is a hurdle. The folks over at Cody put together a handy little guide to help you know what it is you’re looking at. Fitness 101: A guide to the Weightlifting Room.
If you’re following any of the three programs above and want to set up a home gym there’s only a few pieces of equipment that you’ll really be using regularly: the power rack, Olympic barbell, plates, and your bench. For some recommendations on shopping for your home gym check out this guide from End of Three Fitness: How to Shop for and Buy Good Barbells, Bumper Plates, etc…
Regardless of where you’re lifting you’ll also want to consider your shoes and whether you want to use a belt.
Power Racks: Are the most frequently overlooked tools by beginners and the most valued one by experienced lifters. If you don’t have a power rack you shouldn’t be lifting. Period. First and foremost, they provide safety. Because they allow you to lift safely you can work with greater weights than you otherwise could, which limits the chance of hitting a plateau. They can also be used to train specific problem areas. Your Power Rack Questions Answered.
Olympic Barbell: The Olympic barbell is a 45lbs metal pole. If you’re shopping for a home gym you do want to buy quality here. A cheaply made barbell can bend under greater weight, not provide the right grip, or simple wear poorly over time. Olympic Barbell Review and Shopping Guide.
Plates: If you’re buying an Olympic weight set generally you’re getting the barbell and plates together, though you can opt to buy them separately if you wish. Quality Olympic weights will last well beyond your lifetime and compared to the costs of a gym membership can certainly be viewed as an investment. Olympic Weight Set Review.
Bench: There are a couple important aspects to consider when it comes to benches. Your bench should be versatile to allow you to do several different workouts with it. It should also be stable and able to handle a great deal of weight. If you’re 200lbs and start lifting 200lbs you’re going to start wondering whether your bench with a max weight of 500lbs is going to hold up for you. If you’re in the position to be setting up your home gym, quality and dependability is the way to go. Choosing Between All the Different Weight Lifting Benches.
Shoes: Your shoes matter more than you might believe. You don’t need to go right out and buy a pair of weightlifting shoes, but you do need a flat uncushioned sole. Avoid running shoes at all costs when lifting. Weightlifting Shoes: Why You Need a Pair, What to Look For, and When to Wear Them.
Belts: Weightlifting belts tend to elicit nearly as much debate as nutrition does among weightlifters. Some experts suggest them as a way to avoid injury and push your performance higher, while others have said belts can actually be detrimental. The debate rages on even here at Fitness Weights so we encourage you to read up on potential risks and rewards so that you can make an informed decision.
For: Choosing the Right Belt for Powerlifting.
Weight Lifting Belts: To Wear or Not to Wear.
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We mentioned before that Medhi at StrongLifts provides great free resources on his site and we weren’t kidding. He has written the most detailed descriptions we’ve seen anywhere online for each exercise in his program. For each exercise below we’ve included a link to his guide as well as a video that shows off the proper form and technique. Despite these resources we still encourage that anyone starting a weight training program work with a certified trainer to make certain you are lifting with the proper form and minimizing your risk of injury. All the videos and descriptions in the world don’t make up for the eye of an experienced lifter helping you when you’re starting out.
Squat: If you see a strength training program that doesn’t include squats, skip it. Squats are the core of any good workout. While it does focus primarily on the legs and lower body, it is a great compound exercise that still includes the core, back, and even the arms and chest. Video
Bench press: The most well known strength training technique, and for a reason. Like the squat for the lower body, the bench press is an amazing compound exercise, working multiple muscles in your upper body. Make sure you watch the video and read Medhi’s guide. While a common exercise, many people (even some trainers) do this wrong and are risking injury and pain to the shoulders. Video
Deadlift: Another great compound exercise. The deadlift targets most major muscle groups and along with the squat is a great “real world” exercise, in that it will aid you in many regular activities you perform in your life. Video
Overhead press: While the focus here is on the upper body, the overhead press is still a great leg workout based on balance, stability, and strength. Ultimately though, this exercise will build strong shoulders and arms. Video
Barbell Row: Another great way to target multiple muscle groups. The focus here is on the arms, but this will also build strength in the upper and lower back as well as the hips. Video
Pull-ups: (And chin-ups) work the shoulders and arms, particularly the biceps and triceps. Chin-ups focus on biceps while pull-ups work the biceps more. These are both great exercises that show quick strength gains. Video
Dips: A similar workout to push-ups, the dip though engages the entire body weight, and is easy to add weight to as well. This is an arm targeted exercise, and like the pull-ups tends to make quick early gains. Video
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With the training programs we mentioned working out on nonconsecutive days. The reason for this is to provide at least one full day of rest before weight training workouts. You’ll hear time and again if you stick with weight training — “muscle doesn’t build while you’re training, it builds while you’re resting.” You can read about this process in detail in the next chapter, The Science of Strength. Whether you read about the science or not just know that if you’re not resting your not gaining strength. Breaking Muscle will take you step by step through the recovery process with their guide “How Much Recovery Do You Need?” And Jeff Behar has put together a great article over at BodyBuilding.com to walk you through what overtraining is and how to avoid it: “Rest and Overtraining.”
If you still don’t believe us though here are some common objections to adequate rest:
My friend has been training everyday and he’s lifting more and more.
This is a common occurrence with beginners. Your friend might be lifting more, but that’s not because of muscle growth. Strength training, like anything is a skill. The more you do it the better you’ll be at it. The first gains you make in weightlifting have nothing to do with strength and everything to do with skill. Overdoing it at the start will prevent you from making greater gains in the future.
I don’t feel sore or tired after working out:
Not being tired is fine, but if you’re not sore the next day then you haven’t strained your muscles enough to promote strength gains. Your muscles only gain strength when they’re forced to. That said — don’t jump ahead in your program. The early stages of weight training are about learning how to lift correctly so that when you do go heavier you’re ready for it. Laying a proper foundation at the beginning means you’re less likely to hit plateaus later on, and trust me, slow gains in the beginner are far preferable to later plateaus.
Bodybuilders train everyday and they’re really strong.
Yep, they are. Don’t ever let someone tell you a bodybuilder isn’t strong. But the way they’re training is vastly different from you. Bodybuilders train individual muscles in isolation. Their training regimes include rest days for specific muscle groups because their training allows for this. They also tend to rely on drugs and supplements to increase size and reduce the need for rest between workouts.
I JUST REALLY WANT TO WORKOUT EVERYDAY!
That’s great! Let’s be clear, when we say rest between your workouts here what we’re talking about is resting your muscles between strength training. You can workout on days that you’re not strength training, just make sure you avoid stressing your muscles. Cardio on your off days is fine, as long as you’re taking in enough calories to offset both.
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Building strength started out as a trial and error process, but over the years countless studies have been done that have pulled back the curtains and identified the exact process the body goes through to build strength. Muscle for Life has put together a great guide on the four laws of muscle growth based on these studies. First Law: Muscles grow only if they’re forced to; Second Law: Muscles grow from overload; Third Law: Muscles grow outside of the gym; Fourth Law: Muscles grow only if they’re properly fed. We’ve already covered rest and nutrition in this guide (laws 3 and 4), so we’re most interested in the first two laws for this section.
If your read the muscle for life guide, you know that muscles grow after experiencing micro-tears. For strength training the process that happens is that you lift more weight than your body is used to handling. Your muscles — because they’re not used to this weight — end up being damaged. The body heals this damage but to avoid experiencing this same damage in the future it adds density to the muscle fiber, which makes it stronger. This process is called hypertrophy and it takes a couple days to complete (and must be repeated several times to build any noticeable increase in strength).
This buildup of muscle tissue is why strength training programs continual have you add weight to your lifts. After you’ve built up stronger muscle tissue it won’t need to strain to lift the weight it used to. If it’s not straining it doesn’t have any reason to grow any stronger. For an incredibly detailed academic understanding of hypertrophy check out this guide from Strength and Conditioning Research.