Weightlifting 101

2011-07-11 by . 0 comments

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Weightlifting is one of the most popular tags on Fitness and Nutrition Stack Exchange. We all know that weight training involves moving chunks of metal around, but beyond that it can get confusing. One reason for this is that information about training can be based in science or based in anecdotal evidence (personal experience). In this article, I will summarize basic, scientifically-established weight-training advice. That said, I’m not saying you shouldn’t try other things: sometimes athletes get ahead by taking a chance on an anecdotal technique, and it ends up giving them an edge. This usually piques interest in the scientific community, leading to studies which may provide more legitimate support for the technique.

The information in this article is based on the American College of Sports Medicine’s position statement on resistance training for healthy adults, unless otherwise stated. As such, this advice only applies to healthy adults (This questionnaire can help you assess if you’re ready for a typical exercise program). Different sources often recommend slightly different numbers, but the numbers I provide will give you a basic overview of different types of programs.

In order to see improvements in a weight training program, you have to push a muscle to its limit. This can be achieved by increasing resistance, repetitions, or speed, or decreasing rest periods. Your muscles will adapt to handle the specific type stress you put on them, and this means two things:

  1. As your muscle function improves you need to increase stress on it. This principle is known as progressive overload. Once you can do 1-2 repetitions more than the desired number (in good form!), you should increase your resistance by 2-10%. Be careful though, if you increase resistance too quickly, you’ll get injured.
  2. Your body doesn’t waste energy adapting to things you don’t subject it to. The muscles you train will only adapt to the extent that you challenge their strength, speed, range of motion, and endurance. For example, if you only do the top half a bicep curl, you will only gain strength within that range of motion. So if you’re wondering “Can I skip out on certain exercises?” it depends on what you want to be able to do with your muscles. This is known as the principle of specificity.

Because of specificity, resistance training can help achieve a number of goals, from “How can I get deltoids as big as my head?” as one of my clients asked me, or “How can I tone my muscles and not start to look like the hulk?” Different results can be attained by varying intensity (amount of weight you’re lifting), reps (the number of times in a row you perform an exercise), and sets (the number of times you do a given number of reps. For example, if you did ten reps, then took a 1 minute break, then did ten more reps, that would make two sets total). How many reps and sets should you do exactly? The table below summarizes the recommendations for different types of programs.

You may notice that intensity (how much weight you should be lifting) is missing from this table. As a rule of thumb, lift as much as you can (in good form), given the number of reps and sets you’re doing. The ASCM defines intensity in terms of %1RM (percentage of one-rep max: the amount of weight you can lift in one all out attempt), so if you’re interested, check out their position stand. However, the numbers end up being pretty much the same if you use the rule of thumb (ExRx).

Goal reps rep speed sets rest between sets sessions per week

rest between workouts

muscle actions

exercise type

Muscular endurance 10-25 slow for lower reps; moderate to fast for higher reps 1-3 * <1-2 min 2-6 48 hrs moving, stationary unilateral, bilateral multiple- and single-joint
Hypertrophy & strength** 8-12

slow to moderate

1-6 1-2 min 2-6 moving, stationary Unilateral, bilateral, single- and multiple-joint (but focus on multi-joint)
Maximum strength & power (prerequisite: 6 months resistance training experience) 3-6 similar speed to activity you’re training for 3-6 high intensity lower speed; (along with 1-3 low intensity high speed to train power) 2-3 min 2-5

mostly moving

mostly multiple-joint


*Advanced weightlifters may benefit from a periodized program (multiple stages) that combines the above recommendations for hypertrophy and maximum strength (see ACSM position statement for more details).

**American Council on Exercise (2003). ACE Personal Trainer Manual (3rd ed.). San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise.

In resistance training terms, “bulking up” is referred to as hypertrophy, so if that is your goal, you should follow the second program. If you want to tone, without adding a lot of bulk you should follow the first or last program, depending on whether you want to increase muscle endurance or increase muscle strength and power (useful in many sports).

You may notice a discrepancy in the table above. How long should you rest your muscles between workouts? 48 hours. So how could you possibly do 6 workouts a week? If you’re training more than 3 times per week, you may need to split up your routine. For example, you could work your upper body muscles one day and your lower body muscles the next day so that you’d never work the same muscles on consecutive days. You can also split up your routine by muscle group, but to do this effectively, you have to have some understanding about which muscles groups generally work together.

Now it’s just a matter of choosing some exercises. Some muscle groups work directly opposite each other, and if you work one but not the other you end up with imbalances in your body. Here is a list of opposing muscles groups (source: ShapeFit); if you exercise one, make sure you exercise the other:

  • Biceps & Triceps
  • Deltoids & Latissimus Dorsi
  • Pectoralis Major & Trapezius/Rhomboids
  • Rectus Abdominis & Erector Spinae
  • Iliopsoas & Gluteus Maximus
  • Quadriceps & Hamstrings
  • Hip Adductor & Gluteus Medius
  • Tibialis Anterior & Gastrocnemius

If you hit all these muscle groups, you’ll have a pretty complete whole-body workout. If the the muscle names are all greek to you, ExRx is an amazing resource for information about muscles, exercises and stretches. This site can also give you more information about how to target specific muscles.

To sequence your exercises during your workout, some rules of thumb are to do large before small muscle group exercises, multiple-joint exercises before single-joint exercises, and higher-intensity before lower-intensity exercises. Also, exercise performed for a muscle group should be followed by an exercise for the opposing muscle group (although, this isn’t possible in some split routines).

Maintain good form, remember to breathe, and enjoy your workout!

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