Strength Training 101

All the basics needed to create an effective strength training program

So you want to start a strength training routine? You heard that among other excellent advantages, lifting weights is a great way to reduce body fat, lower your risk for heart disease and decrease your blood pressure and cholesterol levels; only you’re unsure about exactly where to start.

Maybe you’re current routine involves busting out a few sets of bicep curls every Tuesday, which is fine. But if you really want to build muscle and burn more fat you’ll have to come up with a more structured plan.

The most essential part of any strength training routine involves defining a specific goal like, gaining a certain amount of muscle mass, being able to complete a certain amount of push-ups, or reducing your body fat percentage by a certain percentage.

Whatever your aim is, make sure you define it in a quantifiable way. Once you know exactly what you’d like to achieve then you can start to create a plan that will help you reach your goal. Keep in mind that a plan for someone who is trying to build muscle mass might look much different than a plan designed for someone who’s goal it is to improve muscular endurance.

Regardless of what your goals are though, all of the following factors will need to be considered when creating an effective strength training plan.

Each workout should include:

  • 8 to 10 exercises
  • 3 to 20 repetitions of each exercise, depending on the amount of weight you’re working with and  your goals (see guidelines below)
  • 1 to 3 sets of each exercise, again, depending on the amount of weight you’re working with and your goals (see guidelines below)

A few figures to keep in mind: ACSM says that exercisers aiming to improve strength and power should perform exercises for 8-12 repetitions. If you’re goal is to improve muscular endurance, perform 10-15 reps of each exercise using a lighter weight.

For optimal energy recovery, ASCM suggests resting for 2 to 3 minutes between sets, however rest periods can also be altered (lengthened or shortened) depending on your goals, the complexity of an exercise and the amount of weight being lifted.

ACSM recommends that adults train each major muscle group using a variety of exercises and equipment 2 to 3 times per week. If you’re strength training more than two times each week, it’s best to split your workouts up between different muscle groups instead of repeating total-body workouts over and over again.

This will ensure that your muscles will have adequate time to rest between workouts.  Aim to wait at least 48 hours before exercising the same muscle group again.

There are a few effective strategies that are commonly used when it comes to organizing workouts based on what muscles you will train. Examples include:

  • Pairing complementary muscle groups, like back and biceps or chest and triceps
  • Alternating between push and pull movements (or focusing  solely on one or the other)
  • Alternating between anterior (front) and posterior (back) muscle groups (or focusing solely on one or the other)

Regardless of your muscle grouping strategy, in order to gain strength you’ll need to make sure you’re workouts follow a progression that includes variety. In other words, you’ll want to make sure that you’re not constantly performing the same exact exercises with the same amount of weight.

This method of training is known as “progressive overload” and is important for those aiming to build strength and power because increasing exercise intensity is important for building muscle strength.

There are a number of different ways that you can progress your strength training program including diversifying variables like exercise volume, intensity and frequency.

An example of increasing strength training intensity would be an increase in the amount of weight used for a specific exercise based on your 1 rep max, or the amount of weight you can lift for one repetition of that exercise.

According to research by ACSM, volume and intensity are the two best variables to alter for improvements in muscular fitness. (To learn more about how to increase volume, intensity and frequency, and the benefits of each, visit

Once you’ve considered the above factors, the final aspect you’ll need to consider when constructing an effective weight training program is periodization. This involves planning the specific progression for the amount of weight and reps you will perform for each exercise in your program over a certain period of time.

Below is a list of the different types of periodization models.

  • Linear
  • Reverse Linear
  • Undulating (or non-linear)
  • Random Order

Each has different benefits (which you can read more about on, so as mentioned earlier, you will need to clearly define your goals and then select the model that will best accommodate them.

See also: Strength Training 101: A Beginner's Guide to Sets, Reps and Rest Periods

Of course, you will also need to learn about and choose what types of exercises to include in your routines. For beginners we recommend working with a personal trainer (even if just for a few weeks) to learn the ropes about basic exercises and proper form.

You can also browse exercise libraries online or check out some of the movements featured in one of our own strength workouts listed below.

6 Exercise Progressions for Increasing Intensity

How to Use Common Machines at the Gym

Upgrade Everyday Strength Exercises

4 Bridge Exercises for Stronger Glutes

6 Highly Effective Crunch-Free Ab Exercises

P.S. Be sure to avoid the common mistakes mentioned in the links below:

9 Common Strength Training Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)

Never Make These 10 Mistakes at the Gym

The Most Common Strength Training Injury (And How to Avoid It)

Soucre: ACSM's Resources for the Personal Trainer; Third Edition