Workouts designed to maximize your muscles include one key component: strength training exercises. Find out more about what they are, how they work, and what they’re good for.
What Is Strength Training?
Strength training, also known as weight or resistance training, is a type of exercise that focuses on your muscular fitness. Its primary goal is to increase your muscles’ performance, leading to the appropriate amount of muscle mass and good intramuscular coordination, which is when the individual muscle fibers work together efficiently.
In its most traditional form, the goal is to lift the highest possible weight (75-90 percent of your maximum weight) over a few repetitions (1-5 reps). This kind of maximum strength training adapts your central nervous system to perform at its peak: as your training progresses, your brain learns to activate more muscle fibers at the same time – up to their maximum capacity.
This increased performance isn’t always visible from the outside: weightlifters can be relatively slim, while lifting significantly higher weights than a bodybuilder with a broad back and large biceps.
What are the different types of strength training?
The best-known form is powerlifting: athletes compete by attempting their maximum weight in three basic exercises: squat, deadlift, and bench press. Other typical sports include weight lifting and strongman competitions.
Performance-oriented workout methods such as bodyweight workouts or functional training and track and field throwing disciplines like shot put are also part of this kind of training in a broader sense.
In addition to working out, these fitness plans also involve a balanced diet with a healthy supply of protein and carbs. Your muscles need both of these nutrients to be able to perform at their peak and increase their performance.
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What Is the Difference Between Bodybuilding and Strength Training?
Bodybuilding is similar because it’s also a combination of muscle-centric workouts and a goal-oriented diet. For a bodybuilder, however, it’s all about building as much muscle mass as possible. The focus isn’t on increasing performance, but on an idealized physique instead.
Many bodybuilders focus on what’s called hypertrophy training, which increases the thickness of individual muscle fibers, so that their bulk goes up. Hypertrophy uses higher repetition numbers (6-15 reps) and less weight (60-80 percent of maximum weight).
Strength endurance, in contrast, falls more under the heading of general fitness. It involves lower weights (max. 50 percent of maximum) and a high number of repetitions (15-20 repetitions). It’s usually part of health-oriented workouts designed to increase performance and endurance.
Maximum strength, hypertrophy, strength endurance
When people talk about this kind of training in general, they often refer to the three methods of maximum strength, hypertrophy, and strength endurance. All three train your muscles and improve muscle performance, as well as overall fitness. If you want to increase your abilities in one area, consider incorporating the other methods into your workout plan as well, because they all affect each other. If, for example, you want to break your personal record in bench press, it makes sense to train your strength endurance in advance.
Workout plans for building muscles are often organized into cycles: An introductory phase of strength endurance training is followed by hypertrophy workouts, and the end of a cycle is devoted to maximum strength training.
The following overview differentiates between the three types:
|Maximum Strength||Hypertrophy||Strength Endurance|
|Fitness goals||adapting the central nervous system, improvement of intramuscular coordination, increase in strength and muscle||thickening of muscle fibers, increase in muscle mass||adapting the cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system and metabolism, prevention of physical conditions|
|Intensity||75-90% of maximum weight||60-80% of maximum weight||approx. 50% of maximum weight|
|Rest||2-5 min||1-2 min||30-60 sec|
|Speed*||Eccentric Phase: 3-4 sec
Concentric Phase: 1-2 sec
|Eccentric Phase: 3-4 sec
Concentric Phase: 1-2 sec
|Eccentric Phase: 1-2 sec
Concentric Phase: 1-2 sec
* Eccentric means the muscle is lengthening, concentric means it’s contracting.
The values given are average values and may vary depending on your fitness level and goals.
How do you choose the right weight?
Depending on your training focus, begin the first set with a weight, or just your own body weight, that allows you to do 15 (strength endurance), 8 (hypertrophy), or 3 (maximum strength) repetitions cleanly.
If you exceed the upper limit of the recommended reps, increase the weight and start again at your lower limit. If the last two or three reps in each set (or the last repetition for maximum strength training) are difficult, it’s the right weight. A correct, clean execution always takes precedence over more weight!
What Are the Benefits of Strength Training Exercises?
This kind of exercise puts intense strain on your body, when you deadlift with heavy weights or squat with barbells for example.
In order for your body to push through these exercises and continue working efficiently, it must adapt to the training program: Your entire musculoskeletal system, i.e. bones, ligaments, tendons, as well as the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, and metabolism all change with resistance training.
Its most notable effects include:
- It increases your muscle mass so you get stronger.
- Your body learns to involve as many muscle fibers as possible at the same time, improving your performance.
- Your maintenance calories increase because every extra kilo of muscle mass increases your metabolic rate, which may lead to a calorie deficiet and weight loss.
- It increases your testosterone and other growth hormone levels, which promotes the breakdown of fatty tissue.
- Thanks to the controlled and natural movement sequences, you prepare your body, and especially your back, for the stresses and strains of everyday life, such as carrying heavy loads, getting up from a squat, or bending down.
- According to some strength training studies1, it can also reduce the risk of chronic back pain, colon cancer, and diabetes.
What Do Beginners Need to Pay Attention to?
Strength training, like any other sport, needs to be learned. If you’re just starting to get into heavy weights, there are a few principles you should keep in mind.
Continuity: Train regularly
If you want to benefit from the positive effects of resistance training, you should train continuously. It doesn’t help much to go to the gym five days in a row and then take a week’s break. According to a sports science study2, this kind of fitness plan was most effective when divided into two to three units per week. The most important thing is that you stay on track!
Regeneration: Ensure you get enough recovery phases
Muscles don’t grow while you exercise, but in the phases in between your workouts. That’s what makes regeneration one of the most important principles in strength training. The same muscle group should have 36 to 72 hours to recover before you stress it again. If you want to plan in more gym days, organize them into a split plan.
Getting enough sleep is also part of regeneration. During a good night’s sleep, growth hormones are released that support repair work on your muscle fibers.
Variety: Incorporate new things regularly
If you work with the same full-body workout plan for months, you won’t keep making progress. Sooner or later your performance curve will stagnate or even collapse. A well-structured workout plan is essential for improving your performance. The rule of thumb is to switch it up about once every three months – by incorporating new sets and/or other rep and tempo patterns. Within this three-month cycle, increasing your weights can add variety.
Learn more about the basics of a solid workout plan in our article on the 7 principles of exercise.
Strength and cardio: Train strength first, then endurance
Cardio exercise isn’t a no-go for weightlifters, on the contrary: jogging, swimming, and similar types of cardio exercise not only burn calories, they also ensure that the lungs pump more oxygen through your body. As a result, your muscles are better supplied with nutrients and the metabolic waste products they produce can be removed more easily. In addition, cardio is said to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax and improves your sleep, which, in turn, helps your muscles!
But it’s still important to complete both training units separately and to start with strength training. After all, your body needs to be in its best shape to work with heavy weights and keep up the proper form and position.
Strength training nutrition: Eat foods high in protein and carbs
For athletes the right nutrition is the most important thing next to working out. It can account for up to 70 percent of your progress so you should pay at least as much attention to it as to your training plan.
The recommended daily ratios for athletes focusing on muscle performance are 50-65 percent carbohydrates, 15-25 percent protein and 20-30 percent fat.
Carbs are the body’s most important source of energy, which is why it needs carbs to keep going, especially after exercise. 1 gram of carbs gives you 4.1 calories. Make sure you get enough of this macronutrient after your workout by eating something like rolled oats, whole-grain products, or legumes.
High-quality protein sources are the building material for your muscles and include eggs, cottage cheese, poultry, salmon, and mackerel. Plant-based alternatives such as beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, broccoli, and soy products can also be part of a healthy eating plan. The basic guideline is 1.5-2 grams of protein per day per kilogram of body weight.
When you increase your protein intake, it’s also important to drink enough water – at least two liters throughout the day. Since excess protein is excreted via the kidneys, the body needs enough fluid to stay healthy.
In addition, your body needs fat as well as minerals and trace elements to stay in balance, even if your goal is weight loss. Unsaturated fatty acids help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins and build cell membranes, and are found in nuts, avocado, and fish. Seasonal fruit and plenty of vegetables round out your balanced diet.
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Which Exercises are Appropriate for Strength Training?
There are basically two types of exercises in a strength training workout: basic (or compound) and isolation.
If your goal is to increase your general performance, focus on the basics. They form the basis of every training plan and always address several muscle groups at the same time.
The five most important exercises in weight training workouts are:
- Bench press
- Overhead press
Since these are all pretty complex, there are more sources of error, a higher risk of injury, and you have less control over which muscles are engaged. That makes targeted muscle definition more difficult, while still increasing your full-body performance every workout.
If you want to define specific muscles or work on growth, as in a hypertrophy workout, isolation exercises are a useful addition to the basic ones.
Isolation exercises address only one muscle or muscle group by itself which means only one joint moves from the starting position during any given exercise. Don’t have weights at home? Increase the exercise’s difficulty from the bodyweight version with a resistance band!
- Biceps curl
- Triceps curl
- Leg curl
- Leg extensions
A well-structured training plan always contains exercises from both categories. Remember: Train from big to small – so plan your basic ones first, then the isolations.
Check out our free workout plans for muscle building and get your customized strength training program!
- Strength training exercises aim to increase muscle performance.
- It usually refers to maximum strength training with low repetition rates and high weights.
- While bodybuilding is about thickening muscle fibers, this kind of training focuses on improving intramuscular coordination and performance: Bodybuilders want muscle mass, weightlifters want performance.
- In addition to working out, this kind of fitness plan includes a goal-oriented diet with the right amount of carbs and protein.
- Its most important principles are continuity, variety, regeneration, and a balanced diet.
- The most important exercises for building strength are squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, and pull-ups.