Many of us already know that we need to exercise but few of us know how to be the strongest or why we should even want to be the strongest?
And that’s where our beginners guide to building strength comes in.
Firstly, we’ll take a look at exercise and what component most adults are missing from their workout routine. Then we’ll look at ways that you can build a home routine cheaply and easily that it’s easy to incorporate into your daily life.That will include guidance on how to carry out each exercise.
Then, finally, we’ll look at what else you can do to support your exercise regime to stay strong.
Why Should You Want To Be Stronger?
You can’t walk past a TV today without being encouraged to get out and exercise.
Yet, they never mention the fact that you need to do resistance training (strength building, if you like) to be truly healthy.
In fact, every adult should do at least two resistance training workouts a week but only 6% or so actually do this.
Why It Matters
Resistance training helps you: boost your metabolism, reduce the overall levels of fat in your body and it has been demonstrated, categorically, that it can help you avoid early death and disability.
Now, it’s fair to say that you don’t have to be the strongest person on earth to get the best out of resistance training, nor do you need to aim to become them. (Though, obviously, you can).
The Ins And Outs Of Resistance Training
OK, so, let’s dig a bit deeper into resistance training and the important (and often relatively immediate) benefits that you can expect from this.
We Lose Muscle As We Get Older
When we’re young, we spend a lot of time gaining muscle.
We walk, we cycle (and you might want to check out these bike computers if you’re big on cycling), we run, we swim, we climb, we work, etc. and these exertions build muscle.
But then, we get to our 30s and things start to go downhill.
We lose a little muscle mass in our 30s but then it speeds up and by the time we reach our 40s, we’re going to start losing around 8% of our muscle mass every ten years.
Now that’s 1/12th of your muscle and that represents a serious loss.
And once you hit your 60s?
It gets worse.
We lose muscle even more quickly.
Why Does This Matter?
You probably have visions of little old ladies and are thinking, well that doesn’t sound so bad – it happens to everyone, right?
Well, those little old ladies are the lucky ones that survived the loss of muscle.
Not everyone does.
Many different studies have concluded that muscle loss leads to early death and causes a loss of mobility as well as making us sick.
And, there’s another problem.
That’s a fancy term for bone wasting.
When you lose muscle mass, you also lose bone mass.
And that causes brittle bones, which will break easily.
There’s nothing more miserable than broken bones in your senior years and, in particular, a broken hip can kill.
The Sum Total Of The Problem: Muscle Loss And Bone Loss
Losing bone and losing muscle are absolutely co-dependent and that means you increase your chances of getting:
- Back problems
- Bone breaks and fractures
- And general physical frailty
Doesn’t sound like much fun does it?
The Good News: It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way
There is good news though.
It doesn’t have to be like this – the folks at the Buck Institute have shown that not only can we improve our health through two bouts of resistance training weekly but we can also reverse damage that has already been done at the cellular level!
Live Longer: The Muscle Index
UCLA researchers spent a decade studying men and women who had reached the age of 55 and they found one conclusive thing from this.
The more muscle mass someone had – the longer they were likely to live.
They worked this out by applying a “muscle index” to each person.
That is they took the ratio between someone’s muscle mass and their height (squared).
And here’s the really interesting thing – this was true even among people with other more traditional health concerns.
In fact, it turns out that someone’s muscle index position is more important in determining their longevity than whether or not they are obese!
And Don’t Just Live Longer: Heart, Body And Insulin Health
You can build strength in a myriad of ways from using compact home gyms to just working with pull up bars and it’s worth it because:
- It gives your cardiovascular system a boost and improves the health of that system. It pushes more blood through your muscles and that means it keeps your blood pressure down too. If you want to get a feel for the current performance of your heart – you might want to invest in one of these heart rate monitors.
- Your muscles help to regulate the use of blood sugar. That means it can help to prevent diabetes and it may help manage the symptoms if you already have diabetes.In turn, it may even make your muscles “insulin sensitive” and thus reverse the progress of the condition.
- It improves your cardiorespiratory system too. When you work out to build strength, you improve your VO2max and that should improve the health of your body as a whole and, in particular, of your heart.
Gaining Muscle Burns Fat: And That Fat Stays Off
Middle age is something of a trade-off.
As we’ve already seen – we’ll be losing about 8% of our muscle mass each decade from 40 onwards.
But nature has a present for us to add to our weight if we don’t watch out – 1 lbs. of fat every year of our middle years.
So, we start to change shape.
It’s like we melt. Slowly.
The muscle falls off and is replaced by much less-defined fat.
And fat makes it harder for our metabolism to perform and we start to feel worse.
Resisting The Change
But if we cut back on our calories and do a little resistance training – we can keep that fat off and drastically reduce the amount of muscle loss.
A study in the over 60s showed that if you cut 300 calories a day out of your diet and do resistance training over a period of time, you lose weight and better still, that weight is nearly all fat and not muscle!
There have been other research studies which have seen similar results too – that means a combination of det and resistance training is the best way to burn fat while keeping your muscle tissue.
A Simple Home Strength Workout
OK, so, now we have a simple, science based, workout that you can use at home and we’ll follow up on it with one that can be used in a gym, where you have more equipment available to you.
You won’t need much in the way of equipment for these workouts and apart from a resistance band (which won’t cost much – we’ve linked one at the end of this section) you don’t need to buy anything but you might choose to to make things a bit more comfortable.
How Much Work Do You Need To Do?
The objective is to work up to a point where you can do three sets of each of these exercises and repeat the exercise from 8 to 15 times in each set.
You then want to run the work out twice a week.
However, we’d like to stress – you work up to that gradually and you begin by doing what you can and slowly increasing on it over time.
There isn’t a huge amount of difference between push ups for men and those for women but there is a little – which is why we’ve included two sets of video training here the first for men, the second for women.
It’s worth noting that if you want to get into strength training in a deeper fashion – there are specialist guides such as Delavier’s Women’s Strength Training Anatomy Workouts that can help women make use of their unique physiology to get better results.
Push Ups For Men
Push Ups For Women
Resistance Band Rows
There’s no real difference here and resistance band rows are the same for both sexes. Amada from Queen of Lean offers her insights on how to do these:
Resistance Band Shoulder Press
We’ll let Compound Body walk you through the shoulder press technique:
Squats And Then Resistance Squats
We’d recommend starting with plain squats but once you’ve got the hang of them – you can increase the challenge by incorporating your resistance bands into your squats.
Resistance Band Squats
Then it’s on to the reverse lunge which can be a little tricky to master at first.
We’ve selected Fitness Magazine to coach you through it.
The Glute Bridge
This is quite challenging at first but it’s super good for building strength.
Check out Well+Good’s tutorial:
Learning to do the plank means giving your core a real boost in strength.
Roberta’s Gym can show you how:
And our final component of our home-based routine is the Side Bridge and we turn to the Uncaged Fighter to show you how it’s done:
You can find an OMORC resistance bands set online.
A Simple Gym Strength Building Routine
If you want to build strength in a gym then we have a slightly more complex routine for you.
It runs for 3 days a week.
There are just 5 exercises on each day.
The aim is to do 8-15 repetitions of each.
Or alternatively, and possibly better, you can opt to grab a moderately challenging weight and then keep lifting it until that muscle becomes fatigued (see a bit farther on in the article to understand “fatigue” in this sense).
One thing we want to emphasize here is that gym equipment can be dangerous when used incorrectly.
If you’ve never done any gym work – it pays to ask a member of staff for advice or better still, hire a personal trainer (at least to begin with) to give you instructions on each exercise.
The Push Day Plan (Conduct 3 Sets Of 8-15 Repetitions Of Each Exercise)
There are 5 simple exercise to do on push day:
Dumbell Chest Press
Seated Dumbell Press
The Pull Day Plan (Conduct 3 Sets Of 8-15 Repetitions Of Each Exercise)
Then 5 more on pull day:
Seated Cable Row
The Leg Day Plan (Conduct 3 Sets Of 8-15 Repetitions Of Each Exercise)
And we finish the week with 5 more exercises:
Standing Calf Raises
Lunges With Weights
Leg Press Machine
Lying Leg Curls
Once you’re happy with your workout and finding it easy, you might want to try one of these great bodybuilding books to increase your workout regime.
Equipment That You Might Want To Buy To Exercise At Home
If you want a sort of half-way stop between the gym and just a resistance band there are a couple of things that you can buy to increase your work out depth at home.
Our top pick for these are the Bowflex SelectTech 552 One Adjustable Dumbbells.
They’re super easy to adjust and you can subtly increase the weight with them, whenever you need to.
We’d like them to be a bit easier to load and unload with weight but we don’t think that’s a deal breaker at all.
You can find the Bowflex SelectTech 552 One Adjustable Dumbbells online.
KHTO KettleBells – Competition Kettlebell is our choice of kettlebell and you can choose from a wide-selection of weights to get the perfect workout companion.
They’re very well made and you can see that they’re designed to last.
You can find the KHTO Kettle Bells – Competition Kettlebell online.
Let’s Talk The Frequency Of Your Exercise Routine For Strength Training
There are two things that matter when it comes to strength training how many repetitions you do (and here the important thing is muscle fatigue – “lifting to fail”) and the number of times a week you do that routine.
Let’s take a look at both of them.
The objective of resistance training is simple: reach muscle fatigue.
Yes, you’re meant to feel exhausted by this exercise and if you don’t – you won’t see big benefits from it.
That means you need to work out how much weight to lift in each exercise.
You’ve got two options for this.
Firstly, you need to know your “1 repetition maximum”. That is the heaviest weight that you can lift without injuring or straining yourself and which you cannot lift a second time after lifting it once.
- You do 8 to 12 repetitions with 80% of the weight that your “1 repetition maximum” is. So, if your “1 rep max” is 80Kg, you do 64 Kg or as close as you can get to it.
- Or you do 25 repetitions with 30-50% of the “1 rep max”. That is, 80K is reduced to 24 Kg – 40 Kg.
Scientists say there’s no difference in the benefits that you get from either approach.
Note: The number of repetitions does not need to be exact. What you must do is get to a point of “momentary failure” that is, you reach a point where you can’t lift that weight any more.
A Minimum Of Two Sessions A Week
All the studies, and indeed government advice, insist on this – you need to do resistance training at least twice a week to get the benefits.
Just 10 weeks of two sessions a week will show real improvements in blood pressure, muscle strength, and even lower body fat.
However, it has to be resistance training.
There’s nothing wrong with yoga or Tai Chi but they aren’t resistance training and they won’t have the impact you want.
You can still do these things, mind you, but in addition to rather than instead of your resistance training.
You Should Keep An Eye On Your Progress
If you want your strength training to be of the most benefit, it’s important to track your progress because this allows you to see the benefits of what you are doing and remain motivated for even bigger wins.
Before You Begin: Assessing Your Current Fitness Level
The best way to measure your progress on your new fitness program is not to keep jumping on the scales and waiting for the weight to fall off.
In fact, if you start building muscle there are going to be times when your weight goes up (because muscle weighs more than fat – though it takes up less space).
So, it’s better to measure your performance before you begin then every 1-2 weeks with some fitness tests.
We’re recommend using these 3 tests:
- The push up test: See how many push ups you can do without stopping, then compare to other people of your own age (and gender). Use this online test to do that.
- The sit-up test: make sure you’re doing sit ups that are healthy for your gender and then see how many you can do in 60 seconds. Use this online test to help compare your results.
- The YMCA bench press test: Take a barbell and a bench. Ladies use 35 lbs. for their barbell and men use 80 lbs. Get on the bench and see how many full repetitions you can do with the barbell. Compare your results with this online test.
Finally, you can also check whether your legs are strong enough using this test:
Place a bench about 1 foot behind you. Put your weight on your left leg and lift your right leg out in front of you, keep the leg in the air and sit down on the bench. Do three repetitions. Then do the same thing again but with the legs reversed.
If you can do this without any problems – well done, your legs are in great shape. If not? There’s room for improvement.
Working Out Your Fitness Age
Your fitness age uses a combination of your measurements to calculate how long you are likely to live based on your current state.
The lower your fitness age is when compared to your actual age – the longer you are likely to live.
You can calculate your fitness age here.
Once you’ve done a full 12 weeks (3 months) of resistance training 2-3 times a week, do it again and you should find that there’s a real improvement.
You should also find that your VO2Max improves over the 12 weeks too.
Yes, though this isn’t aerobic exercise, per se, it has similar benefits to aerobic exercise.
What Do You Do About Sore Muscles?
After a good strength training workout, you’ll find that your muscles are sore.
There is good news here – you can do things to reduce that soreness:
- Active Recovery: this is free and it works very well. “Active recovery” is the simple action of improving blood flow to your sore areas. If your legs hurt, go for a walk. If your arms ache, swing them about a bit during the day. If you intend to go for a walk why not use one of these fitness trackers to see the benefits you are getting?
- Massage: Massage is great for relieving muscular soreness and yes, it’s been shown to be effective in a recent meta-analysis of studies. So, you’re following the science when you book that soothing post-workout rub down.
- Foam rolling: the evidence is weak but real for using a foam roller for about 20 minutes on your muscles following a workout.
What Should You Avoid When Your Muscles Are Sore?
There are things that a lot of people do to try and ease sore muscles that don’t seem to work, despite the persistent belief in them:
- Cold therapy (cryo-therapy): There’s no evidence that cooling your muscles with water or ice packs works to relieve soreness. We note that there’s no evidence that it doesn’t work, either but without conclusive evidence, we’d avoid it for something proven to be effective.
- Anti-inflammatories and painkillers: There’s no evidence that these have a lasting benefit on soreness and there is some research that suggests that anti-inflammatories are capable of disrupting your body’s muscular repair routines. Probably best to skip them.
- Stretching: Yes, there’s no end of people insisting that we need to stretch before and after our workouts. Sadly, though, there’s no evidence at all that it helps and there is some evidence that shows it has no impact at all.
- Arnica: Yes, we know that a lot of people swear by it but this is homeopathy and for that there is conclusive evidence that it doesn’t work at all.
What Diet For Resistance Training? How To Build Muscle
There’s a simple rule of thumb if you want to build muscle – you have to consume enough protein each day to support muscle training.
The human body cannot create protein effectively, so it must be eaten to keep us healthy.
How much protein do you need every day?
There’s a simple formula for this and all you need to know is your target weight (e.g. how much do you want to weigh?).
Then you multiply that number (in pounds) by 0.8 grams.
So, let’s say you want to be 180 lbs.
You multiply that by 0.8 to get 144 grams of protein.
That’s how much protein you need to eat every day.
No Other Restrictions
The rest of your diet is “up to you”.
You need to consume enough calories to reach your target weight on average.
But as long as you get your protein you can go keto, carnivore, vegan, full omnivore, etc. and still reach your muscle gain targets.
Please note though that vegan protein is a challenge for our bodies to process.
You need to carefully examine the balance of proteins in a vegan diet to get all the amino acids that you need.
Do I Need Supplements For This?
As a rule of thumb, as long as you are eating a balanced diet with enough protein in it each day – supplements are definitely not a mandatory requirement.
And while it is true that many supplements claim huge benefits for strength training the right word for these claims, at least for now, is unsubstantiated.
However, there may be two supplements that stand out of the pack that may come in useful when you’re looking to develop muscle mass and strength:
- Creatine – our bodies produce creatine anyway. It is used as a transport chemical in the body to provide the muscles with energy. Some studies have shown that if you supplement it there can be a boost to your overall strength and thus, muscle gain. Thus, if you are doing high-intensity strength training, creatine can help. The good news? It has no side-effects and you can get vegan creatine supplements if you don’t eat meat or fish (the usual sources of dietary creatine).
- Protein powders – in general, it’s best to get your protein from the food that you eat. Meat, fish, chicken are the best sources of protein but a well-designed vegan diet can provide plenty of protein too. However, if you’re too busy or just don’t want to change up your diet too much and don’t want to pack in extra calories – protein powder is a decent replacement for dietary protein. It tends to be made of whey as standard. That’s a milk by-product and if you’re vegan, you’ll need to look for vegan protein powder which does exist. Whey protein is absorbed very well by the body.
If you’d like to explore other supplements and how they may be able to improve your training – we’ve got some great probiotic options here.
Conclusion: And A Word On Mental Toughness
So, that’s it for our how to be the strongest: beginners guide to building strength, we hope that you’ve found it useful and have decided to start some resistance training.
If you are worried that you’ll start training but might not be able to stick to it – you may need some mental toughness training too.