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Strength training basics

What is strength training and why is it important?

A trainer assisting an older woman lift weights

Strength training challenges your muscles with resistance, such as pushing against the floor, lifting a dumbbell or pulling on a resistance band. Using progressively heavier weights or increasing resistance makes your muscles stronger. The current national guidelines for physical activity recommend muscle and bone strengthening activities for all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and arms) at least two days per week.

What’s so great about strength training?

The benefits of strength training are major. It helps strengthen bones and build muscle (including your heart). “When your muscles are stronger, there is less stress on the joints, posture can be improved and pain lessened,” says Heather Robinson, certified athletic therapist and registered kinesiologist at Women’s College Hospital. In addition, strength training will help you avoid injury and assist in other workouts or day-to-day functions like lifting heavy bags, playing with children or vacuuming.

Seven pointers for safety and success

How can you incorporate strength training into your physical activity routine or start from scratch? Here are seven tips from the experts.

  1. Define your strength training goal. “Ask yourself, ‘why am I doing this?’ Is your goal to become stronger or to comfortably play with your children or grandchildren or to just get healthier overall? Having a goal will help motivate you for your workout and keep you on track,” says Céleste Corkery, a physiotherapist at the Toronto Academic Pain Medicine Institute at Women’s College Hospital.

  2. Warm up and cool down. Warming up prepares your body for exercise by gently getting the heart and lungs to work harder and dilating the blood vessels, which allows for improved oxygen delivery to the muscles and around the body. “A warm up will also raise your body temperature, allowing muscles to perform better with less tension, pain and a reduced likelihood of injury,” says Robinson.

    A cool down eases your body back into regular functioning. Your body temperature and heart rate will lower, and blood vessels will slowly contract. According to Robinson, cooling down after exercise will help prevent feelings of dizziness, nausea or light headedness. Try walking before your strength training session and cooling down with some static stretching.

  3. Start low and go slow. Too much too soon can lead to risk of injury or pain, and a higher likelihood that you’ll stop exercising all together. Test movements and see how you feel afterward. Focus on your form, not how much weight you’re lifting or how many repetitions you’re completing – the faster you move, the less time your muscles are under tension and the less effective the exercise is. Also, Poor form can lead to injuries. “At least at the beginning, get instruction or have someone supervise you,” says Robinson.

  4. Breathing is key. Exhale against the resistance (when you’re lifting, pushing or pulling); inhale on the release. While the impulse may be to hold your breath, this can cause fatigue, increase your blood pressure and may even cause disk herniation in your neck or back.

  5. Listen to your body. “A little bit of discomfort is okay, but you shouldn’t have to pay for your workout afterward,” says Corkery. If your pain is persistent or debilitating, seek assistance from your primary care provider. Also, give yourself permission to take breaks. Rest days are important: “Muscles get stronger during recovery,” says Robinson.

  6. Drink fluids before, during and after your workout. In addition, hydrate yourself throughout the day, not only when you’re active.

  7. Move for joy. “You will be more successful in your fitness goals if you do activities you truly enjoy,” says Corkery. So, if lifting weights at the gym isn’t your thing, try a group exercise class, swimming or bike riding, which are also forms of strength training. Robinson adds: “Staying active in any form will provide many benefits to overall health, including stress reduction, improved mood and sleep, ease of movement and potentially less pain.”

Strength training by the numbers

2 The number of strength training sessions per week to maintain strength
3 The number of strength training sessions per week to increase strength
8-12 The number of reps (repetitions of a movement; eight squats, for example)
2-3 The number of sets (doing those eight squats, two times)

Céleste Corkery, physiotherapist, Toronto Academic Pain Medicine Institute, Women’s College Hospital

Heather Robinson, certified athletic therapist and registered kinesiologist, Women’s College Hospital

This information is provided by Women's College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: November 1, 2019.

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