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A Beginner’s Guide to Building a Resistance Workout

So you got a gym membership — now what? If you feel like a pro on the elliptical but you’re not confident about resistance training (exercises where you work against something that resists your movement, such as weights), read below for tips to get you pumping iron in no time.

I Want to Get in Shape. Isn’t Cardio Enough?

The short answer is no. While cardio has plenty of benefits, resistance training offers many of its own. For starters, it can increase your muscle mass. More muscle means you burn more calories when you’re not exercising. This can help with maintaining or achieving a healthier body weight. Other potential benefits include less lower back pain and abdominal fat and fewer bone fractures later in life. And don’t forget the self-esteem boost that resistance training provides once you own those workouts.

How Do I Create a Resistance Training Plan that Works?

Develop a routine that targets your major muscle groups. These include your arms, chest, shoulders, upper back, lower back, abs, hips/butt, thighs and calves. For best results follow a few important principles:

1. Include a total of eight to 10 exercises that work every major muscle group. Incorporate a variety of resistance exercises using machines, free weights, resistance bands, medicine balls or your own body weight. (You can find examples of exercises here and here.)

Try adding compound exercises that work several major muscle groups at once. For example, step ups work your thighs, butt, and calves. Push-ups work your your chest, arms, back and abs.

2. Start by completing the exercises you selected two to three times per week. Consider two options for structuring your workouts. The first is to complete a full-body workout two to three times per week. Complete eight to 10 exercises in one session and then wait at least 48 hours before repeating.

The second option is to split your exercises into several workouts. For example, do upper body exercises on Tuesdays and Thursdays and lower body exercises on Mondays and Wednesdays. This way, you can pack shorter resistance training sessions into a busy schedule. As long as you aren’t working the same muscle groups on consecutive days, you’re good — giving your body enough time to recover can reduce your risk for injuries.

3. Complete one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions each time you do your exercises. Say you decide to work out your chest and arms by doing bench presses. Start with doing bench presses two to three times per week. Each time, perform eight to 12 repetitions (i.e. lift the weight eight to 12 times). As your fitness level improves, rest for two to three minutes and repeat the repetitions. Each group of repetitions you do is called a “set.” It’s recommended that most adults complete one to three sets of each exercise per workout session.

4. Select the appropriate amount of resistance (weight). The appropriate resistance will challenge you without requiring you to sacrifice good form. Hint: if you notice your form getting worse before the final repetition, reduce the weight. This will reduce your risk of injury.

Don’t hesitate to ask knowledgeable staff at your gym to show you how to do an exercise and ask for feedback after they watch you perform it. It’s not as scary as it sounds — that’s exactly why they’re there!

5. Build progression into your workout plan for continuous improvement. Even though it may not seem like it at first, your muscles will adapt and your workout will get easier. To continue your progress, you’ll need to consistently challenge your muscles. Increase the frequency of your workouts, resistance and the repetitions you perform per set to keep those muscles growing.

You will amaze yourself when you lift a weight that felt impossible last month, but now it’s a breeze. This is the definition of progression!

Final Thoughts

  • See your healthcare provider before making major changes in physical activity. Those of us with chronic conditions need to follow specific safety guidelines when exercising. Adjustments in medications or other treatments might also be needed.
  • Consider getting a baseline fitness assessment before beginning resistance training. This makes it easier to track your progress and might reduce your risk of injury.
  • Track your progress toward getting in shape by ignoring the scale. Instead, start by taking baseline measurements (like waist circumference and body fat percentage). Have a personal trainer at your gym help you with this. Write down your baseline numbers and periodically repeat the measurements. Alternatively, you can pay more attention to how your clothes fit over time.
  • Track your progress with your exercises in a simple log. Include the name of the exercises, date completed, repetitions, sets and anything else you want to monitor. As time goes on, are you lifting more weight? Are you doing three sets now? Have you managed to squeeze in every workout for three weeks? Celebrate!
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