Training 101: The Answers to Most-Asked Questions About Lifting
By Adam Campbell
April 27, 2010
Now that Adam Campbell, fitness director of Women's Health and author of The Women's Health Big Book of Exercises,has given you 20 reasons to start lifting weights, he's answering your next question: How do I start training?
Learn enough about fitness, and you'll probably decide that the answer to just about every workout question should start with the same two words: "It depends." After all, every person and situation is unique, and there's more than one way to achieve most goals. That's why The Women's Health Big Book of Exercises provides you with basic principles and general guidelines, not unbreakable commandments. I've simply tackled the questions I'm asked most frequently, and given you my take based on what I've learned over the years. Think of it as the CliffsNotes for my version of Training 101. The best part: I only use the word "caveat" once.
What's the difference between a repetition and a set? Simple: If someone tells you to do 10 push-ups, they're telling you to do 10 repetitions of the push-up. If you go ahead and do the 10 push-ups, it means you will have done one set of 10 repetitions. If you rest a minute and do another 10 repetitions, you will have done two sets of the push-up.
How many repetitions should I do? When it comes to your workout, this is always the first question you should ask. Why? Because it forces you to decide what your main goal is. For instance, do you want lose fat faster or build more muscle? The answer will determine the number of reps you do. Just make your choice, then use the guidelines that follow to find the rep range you need.
If you want to lose fat faster: This one's easy: All the top trainers I know have found that doing 8 to 15 repetitions works the best for fat loss. And perhaps it's no wonder, since research shows that performing sets in that same range stimulates the greatest increase in fat-burning hormones, compared with doing a greater or fewer number of repetitions. Of course, 8 to 15 reps is a fairly broad recommendation. So you'll need to break it down further. A good approach: Use three smaller rep ranges to vary your workouts while staying between 8 to 15 repetitions. Examples:
12 to 15 reps
10 to 12 reps
8 to 10 reps
All of these rep ranges are effective for burning fat. So choose one—12 to 15 reps is a great place to start, especially for beginners—and then switch to another every two to four weeks.
What if you want to build more muscle?If you want to build more muscle: There's a popular gym notion that doing 8 to 12 reps is the best way to build muscle. However, the origin of this recommendation might surprise you: It's from an English surgeon and competitive bodybuilder named Dr. Ian MacQueen, who published a scientific paper in which he recommended a moderately high number of reps for muscle growth. The year? 1954. Now this approach most certainly works. But we've learned a lot about muscle science in the last half-century. And it makes more sense that using a variety of repetition ranges—low, medium and high—will lead to even better muscle growth. For the best results, you can switch up your rep ranges every two to four weeks, or even every workout.
I like this simple, three-day-a-week, total body scheme I learned from strength coach Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., a longtime fitness adviser to Men's Health:
Monday: 5 reps
Wednesday: 15 reps
Friday: 10 reps
And after all, this approach is supported by 21st-century science. Case in point: Arizona State University researchers discovered that people who alternated their repetition ranges in each of three weekly training sessions—;a technique called "undulating periodization"—gained twice as much strength as those who performed the same number of repetitions every workout.
How much weight should I use? This question pops up a lot in my email. Now, I used to reply: "How should I know? I can't tell how strong you are over the Internet!" But I've come up with a much better answer: Choose the heaviest weight that allows you to complete all of the prescribed repetitions. That is, the lower the repetitions, the heavier the weight you should use. And vice versa. For instance, if you can lift a weight 15 times, it's not going to do your muscles much good to lift it only five times. And if you select a weight that's difficult to lift five times, there's no way you can pump out 15 repetitions.
So how do you figure out the right amount? Trial and error. You just have to make an educated guess and experiment. This is second nature for experienced lifters, but if you're new to training, don't stress over it; you'll catch on fast. The key is to get in there and start lifting. If you choose a weight that's too heavy or too light, just adjust it accordingly in your next set.
Of course, you'll realize pretty quickly if you're using a weight that's too heavy for your rep range. After all, you won't be able to complete all the reps. But gauging if a weight is too light is a little trickier. One simple way: Note the point at which you "start to struggle."
Let's say you're doing 10 repetitions. If all 10 seem easy, then the weight you're using is too light. However, if you start to struggle on your 10th repetition, you've chosen the correct poundage. What does "start to struggle" mean? It's when the speed at which you lift the weight slows significantly. Although you can push on for another rep or two, the struggle indicates that your muscles have just about had it. This is also the point when most people start to "cheat" by changing their body posture to help them lift the weight.
Remember, the idea to complete all the repetitions in each set with perfect form, while challenging your muscles to work as hard as they can. Using the "start-to-struggle" approach will help you do this. Go hard, and when you start to struggle, you've completed the set. This is also a great strategy to use when you're directed to do as many repetitions as possible on bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, chin-ups and hip raises.
How long should my workout last?How long should my workout last? Only as long as it needs to, of course. The best way to gauge this is by the total number of sets you do. I first learned this years ago from famed Australian strength coach Ian King, and I find it still holds true today. The advice: Do 12 to 25 sets per workout. That is, add up the sets you perform for each exercise and the total should fall within this range. (Not including your warm-up.) So if you're using lengthy rest periods, your workout will take longer, and if you're using shorter rest periods, you'll finish faster. Beginners will probably find that 12 sets are plenty, while experienced lifters may be able to handle the upper end of the range. This total-set rule isn't set in stone, of course, but it works very well for building muscle and losing fat. For most people, doing more work than this in a single workout results in rapidly diminishing returns on their time investment. It also increases the time your muscles need to recover between your bouts of exercise. If you ignore this important factor, you can wind up overstressing your body, which slows your results.
How many sets of an exercise should I do? A good rule of thumb: Do as many sets as you need to perform at least 25 repetitions for a muscle group. So if you're planning to do five repetitions of an exercise, you'd do five sets of that movement. If you're doing 15 reps, you'd only need to do two sets. In other words, the more reps you do of an exercise, the fewer sets you need to perform. And vice versa. This helps keep your muscles under tension for an appropriate amount of time, no matter what rep range you're using.
If you're in good enough shape, you can certainly do more than 25 reps per muscle group, but cap your output at 50. For example, a common bodybuilding recommendation is to do three sets of 10 of three or four different exercises for one muscle group. Do the math, and you'll find that's up to 120 total reps for the working muscles. Trouble is, if you can perform even close to 100 repetitions for any muscle group, you're not working hard enough. Think of it this way: The harder you train, the less time you'll be able to sustain that level of effort. For example, many people can run for an hour if they jog slowly, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who could do high-intensity sprints—without a major decrease in performance—for that period of time. And once performance starts to decline, you've achieved most of the benefits you can for that muscle group. So why waste your time?
How many days a week should I lift?How many days a week should I lift? At least two. This amount has been shown to provide many of the health benefits attributed to resistance training. So consider that the minimum. Ideally, though, you'll want to hit the weights three or four days a week, with either total-body workouts or an "upper-lower split" approach. I'll explain each. Total-body workouts are just what they sound like. You work your entire body each workout. Then you rest a day, and repeat. There's a scientific rationale for this. In multiple studies over the past decade, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston have reported that muscle protein synthesis—a marker of muscle repair—is elevated for up to 48 hours after a resistance training session. So if you work out on Monday at 7 p.m., your body is in muscle-growth mode until Wednesday at 7. p.m. After 48 hours, though, the biological stimulus for your body to build new muscle returns to normal. That means it's time for another workout.
Turns out, this 48-hour period is also similar to the duration your metabolism is elevated after a heavy lifting workout. As a result, total-body training is highly effective whether you're trying to build muscle or lose fat. In fact, I'm convinced it's the single best way to burn blubber. That's because the more muscle you work, the more calories you burn—both during and after your workout.
The other strategy works well is an upper-lower split. This is mainly used for adding muscle size and strength and for improving sports performance. In this method, you work your upper body and lower body on separate days. The reason: It allows you to train the muscle groups of both halves harder than you could in a total-body routine. However, it also means that you need to give your muscles a little extra time to fully recover. For instance, you might do a four-day-a-week plan in which you do a lower-body workout on Monday, an upper-body workout on Tuesday, and then rest for a day or two, before repeating (on Thursday and Friday perhaps). That'd give you two to three full days of rest between each type of workout. Or you could alternate between lower body and upper body workouts every other day, three days a week. Keep in mind, there's no reason to use a split routine if you're gaining muscle and strength with total-body training. But if you reach a point when you can't fit all of the sets you want to do into a total-body workout, it's likely time to make the switch. Or you may simply want to experiment with different methods, to determine what works best for your muscles and for your lifestyle. You'll find there are plenty of workouts in this book to keep you busy.
How many exercises should I do per muscle group?How many exercises should I do per muscle group? One. It's an approach that's simple and effective. The reason is that you obtain most of the benefits of weight lifting from the first exercise you do, when your muscles are fresh. For instance, let's say you complete three sets of each of the dumbbell bench press, the incline dumbbell bench press and the dumbbell fly. By the time you reach the last exercise, the amount of weight you can handle is far lower than had you done that movement first. You can see for yourself by trying the routine in reverse order. You'll find that you'll be able to lift far less than usual for the dumbbell bench press—a weight you'd normally consider too light. So the benefit to your muscles has vastly diminished. That's why most of the time, sticking with one exercise per muscle group makes the most sense, especially if you have a limited amount of time to work out.
Now it's okay to break the one-exercise rule if there's a good reason to it. For example, if a muscle group has been lagging, you may want to work it a little harder for a four-week period by doubling the total number of sets you do for that area. This is called "prioritizing" a muscle group. So instead of doing all of your sets with one exercise, you might use two or three different exercises, as in the example of the dumbbell bench press, incline dumbbell bench press and dumbbell fly. While you won't be able to use as much weight in the second two exercises as would if you had done them when your muscles were fresh, you will increase the total amount of work the muscle group has to perform. This can help you break through plateaus and spark new muscle growth.
One caveat: If you try this method and find you're getting weaker, the workload is too high for you. Dial it back so that your muscles can better recover between workouts. What's more, prioritizing one muscle group may mean you have to cut back a little on other muscle groups. That's because the total-set per workout recommendation still applies. (See "How long should my workout last?")