Contrary to what its name might suggest, strength training isn’t just about building strength. Incorporating weights and weight training into your routine can be just as important for mass, or for aesthetics, as it is for building up strength. In fact, it’s a crucial part of a balanced fitness program and a healthy life, and weight lifting can be a crucial part of any healthy lifestyle because of the importance it plays in overall wellness and longevity. 

To help you get a better handle on the value of strength training, we’re breaking things down to show you how strength training works, how building muscle can improve your own health, and how to get started when you’re a total strength training newb.  

How Does Strength Training Work?

When you strength train, you’re essentially putting your muscles under stress. There’s mechanical stress, which causes microscopic tears in the muscle, as well as stressing of the connective tissue. There are also two kinds of metabolic stress — the depletion of energy sources such as glycogen and ATP, as well as the buildup of waste products such as lactase and creatinine.  

It has traditionally been believed that muscle growth occurs mainly due to those micro-tears in the muscle; the muscle gets damaged, and the muscle gets stronger as it rebuilds. More recent studies, though, have cast doubt on whether muscle damage is actually necessary to building muscle or merely unavoidable.  

What is clear is that strength training activates a series of genetic signaling pathways, most notably mTOR, or mechanical target of rapamycin, which cause muscles to grow.  

Muscle growth happens through hypertrophy, which is an increase in the size of individual cells. Hyperplasia, on the other hand, which is an increase in the number of muscle cells, does not appear to happen to any great degree.  

There are two kinds of muscle hypertrophy. First is myofibrilar hypertrophy, which consists of an increase in the size of the contractile fibers of the muscle and gives you more strength and power. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy increases the volume of the fluid mass of the muscle cell, allowing it to store more energy substrates, increasing strength endurance, or the ability to sustain exercise for longer periods.  

Additionally, all muscles consist of a mix of fiber types: slow-twitch fibers, which have high endurance but low strength, and fast-twitch fibers, which have high strength but low endurance. Fast-twitch fibers have more growth potential, but slow-twitch fibers have extreme endurance, meaning that they can keep moving potentially for hours on end, with enough training.

The Benefits of Building Muscle

While many people think of strength training as more of a specialty training that is reserved for the pros, strength training is at least as important as cardio for overall health. Here are a few of the key reasons that adding strength training to your routine could pay off: 

  1. Strength training makes you stronger (quite the revelation, we know). When it comes to why that’s important for your overall health, strength supports your mobility, meaning that you’ll continue moving and walking with ease even into your old age.

  1. Building muscle speeds up your metabolism and improves insulin sensitivity, which protects you from gaining fat and developing diabetes.    

  1. Strength training makes you live longer, and stay healthier for longer. It reduces the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, providing many of the same benefits as cardio exercises like running. In fact, it improves not just length of life, but also your quality of life as you age.  

  1. Studies have shown that strength training improves mood and could protect against anxiety and depression.  

The Fundamentals: Volume, Intensity, Frequency

Strength training exercises are typically performed in a series of  sets and reps. A rep is one repetition of a given exercise, consisting of moving the weight through the entire range of motion, e.g., taking a barbell from your chest to full arm extension in the bench press. A set, on the other hand,  is a number of reps performed in quick succession before you take a break.  

To determine your ideal strength training program, you must answer the following questions: 

  • Volume: how many sets to do per muscle group per week.
  • Intensity: how heavy of a weight to lift relative to your strength. (High-intensity training means you’re lifting heavy and thus doing fewer reps per set.)
  • Frequency: how often to train a given muscle group.

Note that these fundamentals are set at the level of the individual muscle, not the whole body, because muscle growth is mostly a localized process. It’s somewhat true that training your legs can grow your arms, but you can mostly ignore that and think in terms of individual muscle groups.

Volume should be at least eight sets per muscle group per week for beginners. Research shows that more volume is better for muscle growth at least up to 10 sets per week, so 8–12 is a good starting point. Once you have more experience, 15 sets per muscle per week is even better for gaining mass, though surprisingly more volume doesn’t do much for strength.

Intensity is highly individual. Some people do better with sets of 5–6; others, sets of 15–20. Since doing more sets is the main driver of muscle growth, you can pick whatever intensity level — that is, rep range — you find the least fatiguing.  If you’re unsure, you can stick to the commonly recommended 8–12 rep range to start with, assuming you mainly care about building muscle, losing fat, or overall health.  

If you want to get strong, however, you should train in the 5–8 rep range. Lifting heavy is literally what strength is.  

As for frequency, you should train each muscle 2–3 times a week. How often you train overall depends on how you split things up – if you train your whole body every workout, you’ll train 2–3 days a week. If you have separate upper and lower body workouts, that’s 4–6 workouts a week. Whole-body workouts are ideal if you want to save time.  

Exercise Selection

The best exercises are compound movements, i.e., movements that involve multiple joints and muscles, rather than isolating just one. (Think bench presses rather than triceps extensions, or squats rather than hip thrusts.)  

The best exercises also use free weights rather than machines. Free weights allow you to move more naturally, with greater freedom of movement, and involve more muscles.

Finally, as a starting point you should be doing two exercises for each muscle group. Not two per workout — just two throughout all of your workouts.

Sample Strength Training Routine

Most of these exercises are organized into circuits, which means you’ll alternate exercises, doing a set of exercise A1, then A2, then A1, then A2, then A1, then A2, then on to B1, and so on. Why do it this way? Because circuits allow you to take shorter rests and spend less time in the gym.  

Each of these workouts has 18 sets, and should take you 25–40 minutes.  

First Workout

A1) Dumbbell chest press, 3 sets of 6–10
A2) Dumbbell bent over row, 3 sets of 6–10

B1) Dumbbell Romanian deadlift, 3 sets of 10–15
B2) Goblet squat, 3 sets of 10–15
B3) Front plank, 3 times for as long as you can hold it

C1) Calf raise, 3 sets of 20–30

Second Workout

A1) Dumbbell Arnold press, 3 sets of 6–10
A2) Dumbbell monkey shrugs, 3 sets of 8–12

B1) Bulgarian split squat, 3 sets of 8–12 per leg
B2) Farmer’s walk with dumbbells in each hand, 3 sets of 6–10

C1) Bicycle crunches, 3 sets of as many as possible
C2) Pushups, 3 sets of as many as possible
If you can’t do 5 push-ups, do knee push-ups. If you can do more than 20, elevate your feet on a bench, Swiss ball, or other object.  

Do these workouts three days a week, alternating between them. That means you’ll perform each workout three times per two weeks. After three months, add a couple more exercises to each workout. If you want to do cardio, do it at the end, after your strength training.