Strength training is moderate to high intensity resistance exercise that increases muscle fitness and bone strength. Resistance can be achieved with handheld or machine-type weights, calisthenics or your own body weight.
Adults should do muscle-strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups on two or more days a week. Perform at least one set of 8-12 repetitions for each muscle group. Use enough resistance so it’s difficult to finish the 12th repetition.
Major muscle groups:
Regardless of the type of weight resistance, use slow controlled movements throughout the entire range of motion in each exercise and be sure to work both left and right sides as well as the front and back of each limb.
- Chest: push-ups (on the floor or against a wall or table).
- Upper back: push-ups, pull-ups, “rowing”.
- Shoulders: push-ups, pull-ups, “shrugging” (shoulders to ears with resistance).
- Biceps: palms-up curls (hold upper arms till and curl hand to should with resistance).
- Triceps: palms-down extensions (hold upper arms still at sides, bend and extend at the elbow).
- Abdomen: plain old bent knee sit-ups or curl ups are very effective.
- Thighs: front (quadriceps): start with knee bent, straighten leg out to the front with resistance, lower slowly.
- Back (hamstrings): start with knee straight and pull heel to buttocks with resistance (a weight or stretch band).
- Hips: leg lifts out to the side, and out the back against resistance.
- Calves: standing toe-raises (lift heels off floor, shift weight onto the balls of the feet and hold, lower slowly.)
The weight of your own body and limbs can be a very effective resistance tool. You can use your torso as the weight or resistance for sit-ups, your body weight for toe raises, and you can use your leg weight as resistance for leg lifts to the side to strengthen your hips. In fact, it’s a good idea to learn new strengthening exercises without any added weights or resistance. Once you’re proficient, you can add weight. Two very popular and effective types of strength training – Pilates and Yoga – need no added weight or resistance.
Be creative, try some of these common items as weights, just remember to start light (one to five pounds) to avoid injury:
- Soup cans: canned foods come in weights from 6 ounces through 3 or more pounds.
- Sand bags.
- Stretch (or resistance) bands can be made from surgical tubing, therapy bands, wide elastic, or large rubber bands.
- Rocks (put a few in an old tube sock and tie a knot – just don’t hit anything with it!)
Free weights and resistance machines:
Muscle isolating machines (like Cybex), barbells with weight plates and hand-held dumbbells are the most common tools used for strength training in schools and fitness gyms. Check with your local high school or gym for an orientation or training session where you can learn how to strength train under the supervision of a trained coach. Once you learn the exercises, you can continue strength training at home.
Reviewed in 2019