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How to Design a Strength Training Program

Design a Strength Training Program

Design a strength training program that will improve your health and help you reach your fitness goals. The process isn't difficult, but there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure your workout is both safe and challenging.

Types of Programs

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) identifies three basic designs of strength training programs: full body workouts, alternating upper and lower body workouts, and routines that split training by specific muscle groups.

When doing a full body workout, you will work the major muscle groups of both the upper and lower body in one session. This design works for beginner to advanced exercisers and is effective at improving your health and fitness. It serves as a convenient way to workout because you can do cardiovascular exercise one day and strength training the next.

Splitting upper and lower body workouts can serve two purposes: 1) The exerciser can develop the upper or lower body to benefit sports-specific needs, or 2) It can make workouts shorter. While you will need to train most days of the week to meet recommendations, you can make these sessions shorter by doing exercises for the lower body one day and for the upper body the next.

Separating workouts by muscle group is a practice most often used in bodybuilding. It allows you to give each muscle group more attention to develop strength and muscle mass.

Exercise Order

The right exercise order is important to ensure that you don’t wear out the smaller muscle groups that assist larger muscle groups in movement. Begin your workout with exercises that target larger muscles and that involve multiple joints. For example, chest press, lat pull-down, and squats should be performed at the beginning of the workout. Then proceed with exercises that target the shoulders, hamstrings, quadriceps, biceps, triceps, and calves. According to general guidelines from the NSCA, when performing a full body workout, exercises that target the core can be worked in between sets during the rest period of other exercises.

Days, Sets and Repetitions

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that adults perform resistance training for all major muscle groups 2 to 3 days per week. Positive strength gains are seen with 2 to 4 sets of each exercise, but research shows that new exercisers can improve strength with as little as 1 set. For general fitness, aim to perform 8 to 12 repetitions for each set. If muscular endurance is a major goal, you can perform 15 to 25 repetitions, but the ACSM recommends limiting the number of sets to 2.

Progression and Strength Gains

As your muscles grow and you gain strength, you will find that lifting the same amount of weight you started with becomes easy. If you continue to lift this amount, your muscles will no longer be challenged. In order to continue gaining strength, you must progressively increase the resistance or weight. You will know you are at the correct weight for your fitness level when you feel muscle fatigue after lifting 8 to 12 repetitions of an exercise. This does not need to result in complete exhaustion. If you do feel complete muscle exhaustion, you may be lifting too much weight. If the exercise is so easy that you feel no fatigue, it’s time to increase the resistance.

Simple Circuit Workout

Don't give up on exercise when you are too busy to get in a full length workout. Even a small amount of activity can reduce stress and improve health. This simple circuit workout can be done in your living room with a set of dumbbells and takes about 10 minutes. It is fast-moving to get your heart rate up and combines both strength exercises and cardio. Do each station for 1 minute and then use 15 seconds to transition to the next exercise. Squeeze in one round and consider doing two or three if you have more time.

March In Place or High Knees

Marching in place will serve as part of your warm up. If you are already warmed up, increase the intensity and jog in place lifting your knees high towards your chest.

Squat with a Side Leg Lift

Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Squat down as if you were going to sit in a chair. Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor, or as close as you can get to this position. As you squat, push your bottom back to help keep your knees behind your toes.

Return to the starting position, and extend your right leg out to the right in a side leg lift. Lift only as high as it takes to feel the contraction in your outer thigh. Return to the starting position, squat and lift the left leg. Continue to squat and alternate side leg lifts.

Jump Rope

A jump rope is optional for this segment. If you don’t have one, mimic the movement by hopping in place. Keep your elbows close to your sides, and rotate your hands and forearms in circular motion as you would if you were swinging the rope. Get creative and hop from side to side or on one foot for a while and then switch.

Hammer Curl with a Shoulder Press

Stand and hold dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing in towards your body. Keep your elbows tucked close to your sides as you bend at the elbow and curl the weights up. Once the weights are up to your shoulders, press them into the air over your head into a shoulder press. Return the weights to shoulder level and release the hammer curl to the starting position. Repeat the exercise performing a hammer curl and a shoulder press for each repetition.

Bicycle Crunch

Lie on your back. Lift your feet off the floor, and pull your knees in towards your chest. Place your hands behind your head with your elbows wide and your fingertips touching behind your ears. Rotate your left shoulder towards your right knee as you extend your left leg out, parallel to the floor. Rotate your torso and move your right shoulder towards your left knee as you extend the left leg out. Repeat, alternating shoulder to knee.

Bridge with a Triceps Press

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms into the air at chest level. Turn your palms to face each other. Raise your lower body into a bridge position by lifting your bottom off the floor so that your body is in a straight line from your knees to your upper back. Hold this position as you slowly bend your arms at the elbows and lower the weights towards your shoulders. Your elbows should be tucked in to your sides. Once lowered to just below a 90-degree angle, press the weights back towards the ceiling, returning to the starting position. Continue to hold the bridge throughout the segment as you continue with the triceps presses (see video explaining triceps press).

Incline Push-Ups

Kneel in front of a stair or a sturdy, low bench. Place your hands on the stair or bench a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Get into push-up position on your toes, or lower to your knees to make the exercise easier. Just like a standard push-up, lower your chest towards the floor until the chin almost touches the bench and push yourself back up to the starting position.

Squat Jumps

Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Sit back into a squat position. Propel yourself upward, jumping into the air. Land in the starting position and repeat.

Warm Up for Your Workout

Warm Up for Your Workout

How the Warm Up Works

A warm up not only reduces your risk for injury. According to the American Council on Exercise, it also helps you burn calories more efficiently due to the increase in your core body temperature. As you gradually ease into movement, your muscles begin to heat up, which increases their elasticity. The blood vessels also dilate, which allows blood to move more freely, delivering oxygen to the heart and the muscles. Increased oxygen flow to the muscles facilitates a better supply of energy for exercise. Instead of experiencing a rapid increase in movement and heart rate, like what occurs when you go from no movement to intense exercise, a warm up allows the body to prepare for the activity, improving exercise performance.

What to Do to Warm Up

As long as it gradually increases your heart rate and gets the muscles moving, any activity can be used as a warm up. For strength training, it can be as simple as pedaling on a stationary bike with little resistance. If you are working out at home, try marching in place. Using the same activity you will do for your workout, but at a lower intensity, can also serve as a warm up. For example, if you are going to run, start the course with a walk or a light jog. If you plan to swim, you can tread water or use a kickboard to take a few slow laps around the pool. Once your body is warm, increase the intensity or resistance and move on to your full workout.

How Long to Warm Up

The length of your warm up can be influenced by the time of day, temperature, and type of exercise. As a general rule, your warm up should last from 5 to 10 minutes. When you are preparing for a high intensity workout, plan to do at least a 10-minute warm up. Your body will benefit from the extra time to work up to a challenging pace. If you exercise first thing in the morning, you may also need a longer warm up to help increase blood flow. This is also true when exercising in cold weather. It may take your muscles longer to warm up and improve elasticity to allow for easy movement. Once your heart rate has increased, you are breathing more heavily, and your muscles feel warm and flexible, move on to your workout.

Ways to Sneak in Exercise

Ways to Sneak in Exercise

While it’s okay to reduce your exercise time during the busy holiday season, completely cutting out your workouts is a big mistake. Not only will you lose the fitness gains you've worked so hard for, exercise helps reduce holiday-related tension and stress.

Add 20 minutes to your day

An effective circuit or high intensity interval workout takes 20 minutes or less. Waking up a few minutes early or delegating some things on your to-do list can open up a window of time that allows you to sneak in a workout.

Never pass up an opportunity to move

Now is the time to recommit to those little things that add activity to your day. Always take the stairs, walk to deliver messages, complete errands on foot, and work in a set of squats while dinner is in the oven. These simple activities may not seem like much, but the short bursts of movement help refresh your energy levels and boost calories burned.

Create outdoor holiday traditions

While extreme weather can hinder outdoor activities, brisk temperatures, even a little snow, shouldn't prevent you from getting outside. Sign up as a family to walk or jog a local Turkey Trot, a Jingle Bell Walk, or a New Years Eve 5K. Toss the football outside after dinner, have a snowman building competition, or bundle up and go for a walk to view holiday decorations. Planning these activities allows you to get in a workout without taking time away from friends and family.

Trade mindless activities

Even on the busiest days, it’s easy to lose minutes to mindless activities like surfing the Internet, updating your social media status, or watching television. While mental breaks are necessary, these minutes can add up and take away from time you could spend exercising. A quick circuit of lunges, push-ups, and crunches will be better for your physical health than 10 unproductive minutes spent on the computer or watching television.

Exercise Your Brain

Exercise Your Brain

The mental fitness of your brain is as important as the physical fitness of your body. Research shows that regular physical and mental exercise improves brain health, slowing cognitive decline and reducing stress that can lead to chronic disease. Here are a few ways to exercise your brain and ensure you are fit from head to toe.

Physical Activity

Research shows that exercise promotes the growth and prolonged survival of new neurons in the area of the brain responsible for long term memory (the hippocampus). Strength training may be especially helpful for brain health. A study from the University of British Columbia found that those who took part in strength training with two 60-minute sessions, two times per week for six months, had better memory than those who walked for exercise or engaged in balance and flexibility exercises. There was a 17 percent increase in the area of the brain responsible for planning and organizing and a 92 percent increase in associative memory, which allows you to put a face to a name when you meet a person.

Mental Games and New Skills

Everything from challenging your brain with puzzles and trivia to learning a new skill, leads to a healthier mind. Research shows that when you develop new skills, such as learning a language, it may slow cognitive decline, which is associated with memory loss and forgetfulness. Challenging yourself with mental games may improve your concentration as well as improve memory, language skills, and your ability to quickly shift your mind from task to task. Simply reading more has also been found to increase concentration, focus, and memory.

Meditation and Relaxation

Research links regular meditation and relaxation exercises to positive, long term changes in the brain. Meditation has been found to change the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain. The amygdala is the area of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response. Weakening these connections may lead to a more thoughtful response to stress as well as a reduction in overall stress and the inflammation linked to chronic disease. Research shows that regular meditation promotes growth in the area of the brain that is responsible for memory and language. It may also help you process information and make decisions more efficiently.

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