Shape Up: Three Keys To Success – Strength Training

    In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we discussed the importance of nutrition and cardiovascular activity.  It’s now time to complete the “healthy trinity” with the final key ingredient for cooking up your new physique:  strength training.   Whether your goal is to bulk up or slim down, strength training should be […]



In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we discussed the importance of nutrition and cardiovascular activity.  It’s now time to complete the “healthy trinity” with the final key ingredient for cooking up your new physique:  strength training.


Whether your goal is to bulk up or slim down, strength training should be a part of your routine.  Those of you who are simply looking to lose weight may have just groaned, but before you click that little red x in the top corner of this screen, let me speak directly to you for a moment.


Yes, we all have a friend or a relative who has lost a ton of weight through cardio or dieting alone.  These key ingredients all work individually, but combining all three methods will help make the transformation to your new body even smoother.  Increased muscle mass boosts your metabolism.  That will in turn help burn fat much faster than a new diet or cardio routine can on its own. 


Total body strength is also important for making it through the hustle and bustle of your daily grind. Whether it’s picking up the kids or carrying that bag of groceries up the stairs, you’re going to need some basic strength to function. Last but not least, it’s just a better look. What’s the fun in slimming down if you’re still going to end up having flabby arms and love handles? Why not make the full transformation?


Before I continue explaining how to put together your own basic routine, please allow me to debunk one last myth first.  Ladies, just because we’re talking about building muscle, you’re not going to automatically end up with arms the size of a bodybuilder. That type of physique is developed through years of specialized training, so incorporating weights into your routine will not instantly make you bulky. Instead, you will see gradual changes to your body and will be able to make adjustments in your routine as you progress towards the look you’re trying to achieve or maintain.


With that said, it’s time for a brief anatomy lesson… don’t worry, I’ll keep all of the nerd terminology to myself, this is going to be really simple.


Your body is divided into several layers. Starting from your skeleton, you have a layer of connector ligaments and muscle, a layer of fat and a layer of skin. The less fat that is in between the layers of muscle and skin, the more definition you’ll see on your body. You always hear people saying that they want to “tone up.” In reality, what they really mean is that they want to develop their muscles and eliminate the amount of fat that’s hiding them. This illustrates why it’s important that you utilize all three of the key ingredients we’ve discussed so far. 


So where to begin? Well, let’s continue the anatomy lesson by dividing your body into the major muscle groups.  These would be your chest, back, legs, abs, shoulders, biceps (the front of your arm) and triceps (the back of your arm).  Of course there are a few sub-divisions to each of these muscle groups, but there’s no need to over-complicate this yet. Generally speaking, these are the muscle groups that provide the blueprint for your body’s construction.


Your challenge is to make sure that you’ve trained each of these muscle groups at least once per week. There are some athletes or specific muscle groups that may require working more often, however you want to make sure that you do everything at least once. With that said, realistically consider how many days you can commit to working out. Then consider what your goals or problem areas are. These are the two main answers you’ll need in order to begin designing your program. 


If you’re just looking to stay in shape and can only commit one day to working out, then your program should be fairly simple to figure out – you’ll need to do everything on that one day.  Those who can commit to more days (ideally at least two or three) will have more options.  For example, if you’re able to commit twp days, you can do your upper body on the first day and your lower body on the second.  You can essentially train as many or as few muscle groups each time that you go, so long as you have worked out your entire body by the end of the week. 


If you have a specific problem area that needs some work, you may want to make sure to give it extra attention by training it twice per week. Just be sure that your focus on this problem area doesn’t cause you to ignore the rest of your body. For example, many guys want big arms so they constantly skip their leg workouts and end up with huge upper bodies on chicken legs.  So with that said, try to keep your routine balanced and proportionate.


These are the initial steps that personal trainers take when designing a program for a new client.  It really is that simple.  There are a few general guidelines that you need to keep in mind.


1.  For maximum growth and recovery, you should not train the same muscle group on back-to-back days.  Ideally you’ll want to allow two days rest for each specific muscle group. If you train your chest and your triceps on Monday for example, you should not train them again until Thursday. Instead, choose from the other muscle groups and train one of them during those two days.


Some new lifters think that by working on their chest every single day will make it grow faster.  This is called overtraining, and actually has the opposite effect on your body. Each time your muscles are challenged, your body is forced to adapt and make them bigger and stronger. This is why you need a recovery period. If you’re constantly challenging the muscle over and over again, your body will never have time to make the changes so your physique will remain the same. 


Muscle groups such as abs and calves can be trained more often since they recover faster due to their amount of daily usage. There is also room for occasionally training other muscle groups more frequently under specific short term training routines, but for the most part you’ll want to allow for two days rest between muscle groups. 


2. When selecting how to divide your muscle groups throughout the week, always be sure to train the larger muscle first.  If you’re training your back and your biceps on the same day, your back routine should be done first (or simultaneously in specialized training situations).


3.  You’ll typically want to perform two or three exercises for each muscle group that you train. If you’re a beginner, you can start off by reading the machines at your gym. Most have labels that explain which muscle group you’re working. Then start paying attention to what other people are doing in the gym to see if they are performing exercises that appear to work similar areas that you’re looking to train.  Make sure this person is someone knowledgeable or works at the gym, as you don’t want to follow someone even more lost than yourself!  Magazines, books and websites are also great resources for exercise ideas.


4.  Depending on your fitness goals, you will most likely want to perform each exercise 8-12 repetitions to develop muscle strength. That’s what is referred to as a set. Beginners can start off with 1 set, but as you get stronger, you’ll want to aim for two or three sets. If you’re training for muscle endurance, you can ignore counting out repetitions and just focus on performing the exercise for a specified amount of time or until you can’t any longer.


5.  Be sure to drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated during your workout. Gatorade and sports drinks are pretty to look at, but they’re also high in sugar, so unless you’re an elite athlete with an extreme physically demanding workout, you probably don’t need to waste your money…or calories.


6.  If you’re new to working out, or depending on how you’re training, there may be times that you’re going to end up with sore feelings…literally.  You’re going to be using muscles that haven’t been worked before, so that’s definitely going to tire your body out a bit. The way to eliminate or at least reduce the effects is to stretch yourself out, especially after your workout.  Massaging the area and applying heat via a bath, shower, sauna or gel will help as well. 


7.  Don’t forget to breathe!  I know, this sounds like basic information, but once you’re performing a challenging exercise, it’s easy to forget this basic life function. Holding your breath inhibits the flow of oxygen to your muscle during the exercise and will have a negative effect on your performance. In general, you’ll want to exhale out of your mouth as your push or pull the weight. As you balance the weight to bring it back to the starting position of the exercise, you’ll want to inhale to prepare to do it again. 


8.  Make sure to use proper form. It’s often helpful to have a partner pay attention to your technique for you, but if you’re by yourself, try to utilize the mirrors and check for yourself.  Another way to tell if your form is off is by mentally asking yourself if you can feel where the exercise is training.  If your goal is to work your biceps but your lower back is in pain for example, odds are you are doing something wrong.


9.  When performing an exercise for the first time, always start with a lighter weight to avoid injury.  After performing a few repetitions with your “test weight” you can adjust the amount accordingly.


10.  After you’ve come up with your workout routine, it’s important to change it every few months.  As I stated at the end of the cardio section, you can’t do the same routine in the same order every time and expect to see continued improvement.  If your goal was to be a brilliant mathematician, you couldn’t expect to get smarter by doing the same 10 problems every day could you? Think about the first time you drove to a new location. You had to really concentrate and focus to make sure that you made all of the turns correctly. After driving to that same location 10 or 15 times though, it’s a different story right?  By trip 15 you’re playing with the radio, talking on the phone and hardly paying attention to street names.  It’s no longer a challenge for you. 


That’s the same way that your body adapts to a stale workout routine.  You have to change the order, the number of sets, the repetitions or the exercises themselves to take your body off of cruise control. This is why many women who go to circuit training gyms such as Curves only see results for the first few months.  For those who are unfamiliar, Curves offers a group of exercise machines that are performed in the same order every visit. It’s great for beginners because it will give you the basics of exercise – and at least it’s healthier than sitting on the couch eating Doritos all day. After the workouts are no longer a challenge due to familiarity though, it may be time to move on.


By combining the nutritional, cardiovascular and strength training techniques that were outlined in this three-part series, you should have a solid foundation to begin building your new physique.  Don’t be discouraged if your body weight remains the same, because muscle weighs more than fat does. Therefore, it’s physically possible for you to be slimmer and in much greater shape but still technically weigh the same. Body fat percentage and the way your clothing fits is far more important than your body weight alone so try not to obsess over the scale too much.


I know this is a lot of information to digest but don’t worry, you’re not in this alone. Feel free to post any questions that you might have and I’ll address as many as possible in upcoming editions of this column. 


Until next time be good…or be good at it.



Here is the MP3 soundtrack to go along with this edition’s topic:


“Push it to the Limit” – Rick Ross

“Flex” – Mad Cobra

“Big Things Poppin” – T.I.


Darrell W. Butler is a certified personal trainer and strength coach with the American Council on Exercise (ACE).  He is the founder of Industrial Strength & Performance (I.S.P Fitness) and has trained at facilities throughout the nation. You can find out more about his work at