Strength Training: What is it and why should you do it?
What are strength training exercises?
Strength training is the process of lifting heavy weights at low reps, with the specific aim of getting stronger and building denser muscles. Strength training is a type of resistance training, but with the specific goal of boosting your strength and ability to (for example) lift heavier weights.
Salma Rouf, Personal Trainer at PureGym Leeds City Centre North describes how strength training works: “it requires a much larger stimuli than muscle growth or endurance-based lifting. This puts more stress on your muscles, and causes tiny micro-tears within them. These micro-tears are necessary for your muscles to get stronger but require adequate rest (and nutrition) for your body to repair and rebuild your muscle fibres.”
Salma provided us with the following workout plan, as an example of strength training exercises you could try:
Standing Barbell Military Press. 3 sets of 5 reps. 2-5 minute rest.
Load the barbell in the squat rack, so that the bar is positioned at about upper-chest height. Position yourself onto the bench, keeping your feet firmly on the floor. Set your shoulder and take hold of the bar at about shoulder width, with palms facing outward. Unrack the weight, keeping your abs tight and back straight, but not hyper extended. Press the weight up in a controlled manner, exhaling as you press, and inhaling as you lower. Try to keep the rest of your body still and allow the shoulders to handle the weight. Press the weight from your upper chest. Don’t press it behind your head as this increases your risk of injury.
Barbell Back Squat: 5 sets of 5 reps. 2-5 minute rest
Stand with feet shoulder width apart and the bar on your upper back. Look straight ahead, take a deep breath in and tighten your ab muscles. Then bend your knees and sink your hips back while lowering your hips towards the floor until it sinks just below the knees. Pause. Drive your hips up to return to the starting position.
To get the most out of your barbell squats, Liam recommends that you:
- Keep elbows tucked
- Keep head neutral throughout (don’t look up!)
- Bend the knees and sit back into the squat
- Keep the knees strong, and don’t let them buckle inwards
- The aim is to achieve a full range of motion, but this can look different from person to person based on lever lengths and flexibility, so consider hiring a personal trainer to optimise your form
Deadlift. 3 sets of 5 reps. 2-5 minute rest.
Place feet in line with your hips. Bend the knees, hinge at the hip and keep the back straight. Grip the bar, keeping the arms shoulder width apart. Engage yours lats (upper back muscles), and drive your legs back up into a standing position. Keeping the bar close to your body at all times, slowly lower the bar back to the floor.
Flat Barbell Bench Press. 3 sets of 5 reps. 2-5 minute rest.
Grab the bar your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
Position yourself with your upper back and hips on the bench, your feet firmly on the floor, and a slight arch in your lower back. Think about pulling your shoulder blades back and down, pushing into the bench. Flex your lats and abs, and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you gently breathe in and bring the bar towards your sternum, being sure to not bounce the bar out of the bottom of the movement.
Salma says: “The aim is for your hands to be in line with your elbows at the bottom of the movement, which helps with generating force to help drive the bar up. Breathe out as you drive up and press the bar back to your starting position.”
Tips and Advice for Strength Training
- Preparation: it’s really important to warm up before strength training and to cool down afterwards. You’re putting your muscles under a lot of strain so preparing them in the right way will help to prevent injury. Your warm up should be tailored to you and the workout you're doing but as a general guideline, you can try some dynamic stretches before lifting to warm up, and include some stretches to cool down afterwards.
- Intensity: Build up your weights gradually – if you start on a really heavy weight straight away, you could very easily strain yourself and cause injury, which would prevent you from carrying on your training. Make sure to include some warm up sets before attempting any PRs.
- Regularity: how often you train can really be up to you – for a basic strength program, around three to four days a week should be plenty.
- Recovery: it’s really important to give your muscles time to rebuild, so it’s recommended that you don’t focus on the same muscle groups two days in a row and give ample time for your body to rest in between workouts. Your recovery time will depend on your genetic and also several other lifestyle factors such as sleep and diet, so it's important to make sure to you take these into your account when training.
- Soreness: you can definitely expect to feel some soreness, especially at first and particularly a couple of days after your workout (called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness - DOMS). Foam muscle rollers and some light stretching can be a way to release tension and increase circulation in the muscles and ease DOMS.
- Form: although getting strong does in some senses require lifting heavy, it is important to master the form first. Before adding lots of weight, make sure you have nailed down the movement pattern. This will help to make sure you are recruiting the right muscles, and are lifting safely and controlled - in order to benefit properly from the exercise.
- Breathing technique: When lifting heavy, for many, it comes as a natural instinct to hold your breathe momentarily. If you watch professional lifters, you'll see that just before they perform a heavy lift, they breathe deeply into their belly and hold their breath throughout a repetition, exhaling when they've completed a rep. This is to create intra-abdominal pressure to help support the spine and keep the body stable when performing heavy lifts. Try to focus on proper breathing technique and practice with lighter weights beforehand.
For advice on how to approach your strength training, it could be worth some one-to-one sessions with a personal trainer – they’ll be able to guide you on the best form and weights to use to see the best results.