Strength training is good for you, and not just for increasing muscle mass. It increases bone density and even improves cardiovascular health. But a lot of people have trouble making weightlifting part of their routines. I blame the mantra “No pain, no gain.” That idea is just wrong. And it’s one of the top reasons people stop exercising.
How far to push depends on where you’re starting out. Maybe you haven’t exercised in a few weeks, months, or even years. A friend tells you about a new class she’s taking, or you see Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s workout in the movie “RBG,” and you say to yourself, “I’ll do a plank for two minutes! Thirty squats every morning!”
Getting stronger is not that simple. Muscles react to the demands placed on them, and when they are required to work harder than usual they respond by growing stronger — up to a point. So, yes, it’s true that in order to build strength you must take your muscles beyond their comfort zone. But the question is, how much?
A good strength-training regimen includes exercises for the major muscle groups of the arms, legs, and core. The resistance can be as simple as your own body weight, hand or ankle weights, elastic bands, medicine balls, or kettle bells. Traditional wisdom has beginners start with one set of about 8 to 15 repetitions for each move. Experienced strength trainers add a second set or even a third.
Deciding how much weight to use and how many reps to do is all about the art of pushing your limits gently, without going too far.
You should have the sensation of fatigue for the last one or two repetitions, while still maintaining good form. You might feel tightness, warmth (the infamous “burn”), shaking, or the feeling that it is becoming more difficult to complete the motion. These sensations should be felt in the muscles, not the joints. Joint pain may indicate injury or arthritis — that’s something that you do not want to push through.
The point is to find your own threshold for fatigue with each exercise you do. Learn to listen to your body to know when to stop. Do not get fixated on doing 10 or 15 reps for everything. If you are truly fatigued after doing four squats, stop there.
Notice how you feel the day after your strength work. It’s okay to have mild muscle soreness after working out, although that shouldn’t be your goal. If the soreness persists for more than 48 hours and limits your regular activity, then you overdid it. If that’s the case, scale back your workout by about one-third at the next session.
Believe it or not, the other thing that you need to gain strength is rest or recovery. When you work muscles to the point of fatigue, they need time to rebuild in order to get stronger. This takes at least 48 hours. That’s why it’s recommended that you limit weightlifting to two or three times per week on nonconsecutive days. Again, listen to your body. Some people need more recovery time than others.
What’s most rewarding about strength training comes gradually. With continuity, you’ll notice your limit will change. Now you add a little more weight or a couple more repetitions. It is far better to work consistently than to go all out every once in a while. Progress, slow but steady, is how getting stronger really works.
If you have questions about your ability to exercise, consult your health care provide before beginning a new routine. And forget about “no pain, no gain” — exercise does not need to hurt to work.