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If you’re a beginner, you should be doing full-body workouts that involve compound lifts for two to three times per week with at least one day of rest in between.
As you advance, continue doing the same compound lifts but add additional weight as feels comfortable. You can also add more exercises like jerks and glute ham raises.
Numerous scientific studies show that regular strength training can be a huge benefit to your health long-term by improving cognitive function, emotional and mental well-being, and mobility by reducing muscle loss as you grow older.
This article was medically reviewed by Joey Thurman, CSCS, CPT, FNS, a Chicago-based fitness expert and MYX Fitness coach.
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Strength training exercises are vital to our health. But knowing when and how often to train can be confusing whether you’re just starting out or are advanced.
To reap the benefits without risking injury or excessive fatigue, it’s essential to find a balance between enough lifting to see results, and enough rest for proper recovery.
Insider spoke to Nicholas Rizzo, personal trainer and fitness research director for RunRepeat.Com about how to start strength training as well as the benefits you can reap by sticking to a consistent strength training plan.
How to begin strength training
To start, get familiar with compound lifts. Compound lifts are exercises that are known in the fitness world to be the best bang for your buck since they recruit multiple muscles at a time.
“When beginning strength training, you should be focused on doing full-body workouts consisting of the main compound lifts. This requires at least one day off in-between workouts, meaning you should only be lifting 2-3 times per week,” says Rizzo.
There are many compound movements, but the most common “big five” are as follows:
Hip hinge or deadlift with a bar, dumbbells, or machine.
Squat with bodyweight, dumbbells, bar, or leg press.
Bench press on a machine, with a bar or dumbbells, or do pushups, instead.
Overhead barbell shoulder press with dumbbells, machine, or kettlebell. If you’re a beginner be careful when trying overhead press as you may not have enough mobility yet and may injure yourself.
Barbell row or horizontal row with a bar, machine, dumbbells, or cable.
If you are working with weights, it is important to make sure that you are using the right amount. For muscle definition, choose a weight that has you fatigued by the end of six to 12 repetitions. This may take some trial and error. Keeping track of the weights you used will help you know what to choose for your next training session. Once you can do 12 repetitions with the same weight, it’s time to progress to a heavier load.
Good practice, says Rizzo, is to keep a log of your workouts, including how you felt during the workout and how you feel on your days off. A record like this will help provide valuable insights into how you are recovering and whether you should adjust your training.
How to advance your strength training routine
As you advance, training frequency becomes a matter of individual preference and training styles. Maintaining the two-to-three-days-a-week regimen is acceptable for most people. It’s a matter of listening to your body and testing to see what works best for you while using a log of your workouts, of course.
Advanced lifters should continue to perform the same compound lifts that they started out doing while increasing the number of sets, reps, or resistance. To challenge themselves, advanced lifters can add on some more complex exercises to their routines if desired.
“The main exercises don’t change from beginners to advanced, except there are a few more options you can add for variety,” says Rizzo. He suggests trying your hand at these more advanced exercises:
How to know how much is too much strength training
Sticking to the recommended two to three lifting sessions per week should help you avoid overtraining, but it is also important to always listen to your body. “What is too much for one individual is not the same for another. Some of us recover much slower and react to different stimuli differently,” says Rizzo.
Some guidelines for knowing how much is too much are:
If you are consistently showing up to workouts sore and tired.
You’re experiencing strength plateaus in your lifts for more than one week in a row, especially in your first six months.
On your “off-days” you are too exhausted, lethargic, or run-down to the point it is getting in the way of your day-to-day life.
If this sounds like you, back off the intensity, duration, or frequency of your workout session, and remember to listen to your body.
How strength training can improve your health
Performing full body workouts with compound lifts two to three times per week will provide you with a ton of benefits to your physique and health.
“Beginners can expect to see incredible gains in strength over the first three months that continue for most of the first year,” says Rizzo. The most muscle gain will occur during the early stages of training as your body adapts to stimulus. You’ll experience an increase in metabolism and improved daily performance with tasks like carrying groceries or running to catch the bus.
But strength and physique improvement are not the only benefits to strength training. “Outside of the gym, most people experience improvements in confidence and work ethic. You can physically feel and see the progress you are making,” says Rizzo. Indeed, physical activity of any kind has been shown to improve self-esteem.
When comparing older adults who have been lifting for 15 years or more with beginners, research shows that long-time lifters:
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