Muscle-building exercises — usually referred to as “resistance training” or “strength training” or “lifting weights” — are becoming more and more recognized for overall health and longevity.
Maybe you are curious to try it, but simply don’t know where to start. How many reps do you do? What exercises are best? Is it going to make you too bulky? Or perhaps you may simply find resistance training dull or boring, compared to running or other types of exercise.
You may find the concept of going to the gym to lift weights scary. Perhaps you worry about looking silly in front of everyone. Perhaps hiring a personal trainer is too expensive. Perhaps you’re keen to start at home, but are worried you may hurt yourself by performing the exercises incorrectly.
All of these are understandable and common reasons to avoid resistance training. However, they can all be overcome with different ways...
- Understand that everyone starts somewhere. Many people in the gym don’t actually know what they’re doing. If you feel self conscious, remember most people in there are too busy concentrating on their own workout to notice anyone else, let alone think negatively about anyone else.
- Whether you start at home, or start at the gym, always practice and learn a movement pattern without any weight to begin. Then start slowly. You can (and will) gradually increase the weight as you go. In the big picture it really doesn’t matter how light the weight was, as long as you stay consistent
- The fitness industry is a noisy, confusing place, with far too many companies and “influencers” trying to sell you the latest trend. In actual fact, the tried and tested basics are what continue to work the best: squats, hinges, presses and pulls. It is quite simple. We’ve created workout programs you can follow to ensure you’re making progress and avoiding unhelpful distractions of the latest shiny thing.
- If you find resistance training boring, unfortunately this doesn’t change the fact that its an important form of exercise, but there are many approaches you can try to make it slightly more stimulating:
- Workout to music
- Join a strength class
- Find a workout buddy
- Quantify your progress by recording things like max push-ups and PRs (personal records)
- Use supersets or circuits instead of straight sets and reps to increase intensity and variation
- Have a strong “why” so you can persist with the practice until your find your flow (it will come!)
So we know resistance training is important. How much should you do? The American Heart Association recommends:
“Add moderate-to-high intensity muscle-strengthening activity (such as resistance or weights) on at least 2 days per week.”
However you do it, the evidence is clear: adding moderate to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity into your weekly routine, at least twice a week, is highly recommended and beneficial.
Muscle, Joints and Bone Health
Due to a process known as age-related sarcopenia, we can expect to lose muscle tissue at a slow but gradual rate of around 3-5% per decade starting around age 30. This is not great for health or longevity, but there is some good news: by simply adding some resistance or weight training into your routine at least twice a week, you can not only prevent this from even happening, you can even build new muscle tissue. No matter your age or current muscle mass, it’s never too late to start!
Aside from avoiding sarcopenia, muscle tissue should be protected for a variety of reasons. We dive into each of these in detail in the Muscle and Strength guide, but here are some of the top benefits of having adequate muscle mass... ***
- Increased insulin sensitivity
- Increased longevity
- Increased functionality
- Support your joints
- Maintain an effective immune system
- Prevent or reduce lower back pain
- Improve sports performance
- Increase libido
- Reduce anxiety, depression or low self-esteem
- Strength the central nervous system (CNS)
- Maintain mobility and flexibility, especially as we age
- Increase bone strength, bone mineral density and prevent bone loss
- Improve metabolism and fat burning potential
Whatever your chosen program or approach, new muscle tissue can only be sustainably built and maintained by following the principle of progressive overload. Progressive overload is the gradual but consistent increase in intensity upon the CNS and musculoskeletal system over time.
Put simply: each week, or each time you repeat the same workout, try to increase the intensity just a little over the previous workout. This is typically achieved by adding weight or reps, and that should be enough to see progress. However, once increasing sets, reps and weights start to provide diminishing returns, there are many other variables to manipulate. If this sounds like you, it could be time to look at periodization of your programming, something that is covered in our Muscle Building guide or can be discussed with your coach.
For the purposes of this guide, and most certainly when beginning, keep things simple, balanced and consistent.
A balanced exercise program will focus on the following areas. Most areas will be addressed equally, but if needed, imbalances can be address by a coach or self analysis.
Knee Dominant Exercises
- Lunges (split squats)
- Leg Press (machine)
Hip Dominant Exercises
- Overhead Press
- Pike Push-Ups
- Shoulder Press (machine)
- Bench / Chest Press
- Chest Press (machine)
- Lat Pulldowns
- Barbell Rows
- Seated Rows (machine)
- Inverted Rows
Full Spectrum Core
Your “core” is far more than just your “abs.” It includes the muscles that support the lumbar (lower) spine too. Core stability - which is the aspect of core training you should be most concerned with for health - refers to your “ability to create extremity movement without compensatory movements of the spine or pelvis”. The major muscles involved in core stability include the pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominis, lumbar multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis and erector spinae.
Doing direct core exercises are excellent additions to a well rounded exercise program. However, it’s worth mentioning that most compound movements (movements that involve the use of multiple joints) will help you develop core stability too. For example, deadlifts and squats require a high level of core stability to perform them correctly. While your legs are pushing the weight, your torso must be held upright while doing so. Exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, sled pulls, battleropes and standing shoulder presses are great non-conventional ways to improve core strength too, and can be done in addition to the more core-specific movements below.
- Hollow Body Hold
- Paloff Press
- Hanging Leg Raises
- Cable Crunches
- Back Extensions
Compound Movements, Isolation Exercises & Isometric Holds
Compound movements are movements or lifts which involve the use of multiple joints. For example, a squat or leg press involves flexion and extension of the ankles, knees and hips all at once. A push-up, chest press or shoulder press involves flexion and extension of the elbows and shoulders. A bent-over row has you flexing at the hips and holding fast as your elbows and shoulders move. Your program will be predominantly made up of compound movements. In fact, many good programs are only made up of compound movements. If time is of the essence, and no serious imbalances exist, you should prioritize compound movements over anything else. They provide the most bang for your buck in terms of muscle building and metabolic stimulation.
Isolation exercises are exercises that target one muscle group. A leg extension targets the quadriceps muscles covering the front of your thigh. A biceps curl targets the biceps brachii, brachialis and brachioradialis. These generally act as accessory movements to your compound work. For example, rows or pull-ups primarily target the latissimus dorsi muscles in your upper back, but the biceps are involved in “pulling” too. To further target them, you may add some biceps curls into your program.
Isometric holds involve muscle engagement without movement. A plank may be the most famous example, and they have a wide range of uses but are often underutilized. They can be performed on their own (like a plank) or they can be part of a lift, such as a pause squat: squat down and hold for a time before standing back up. They can build muscle and strength, especially in weaker areas. They also help perfect your form, rehabilitate after an injury and increase or rebuild mobility.
Bringing it back to the AHA’s guidance, a minimum of 2 days of resistance training a week is a good place to start. 3-4 days a week would be optimal for most people. 5-6 days a week has many benefits too, but more intricate programming is required to control intensity, allow for any other exercise activity in your life and make sure you're recovering adequately.
Data shows that the ideal workload per muscle group per week is between 9-18 sets with 6-20 reps per set. For most people, the lower ranges would suffice, and working to your Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) is what you generally should aim to do.
What you can handle and what is optimal for your health and muscle growth are often very different. Spend some time establishing your MEV, then gradually apply progressive overload to grow from there.
Here are some rules to know you are meeting your MEV:
- You experienced moderate to high tension in the intended muscle(s) during the workout
- You experienced a moderate amount of fatigue in the targeted muscle(s) during/after your workout
- You experienced blood rushing to the affected muscle(s) resulting in a swelling/pumped up feeling
- You were stiff a few hours after the workout and/or sore the next day or two but it didn’t sustain
- Level: beginner to intermediate
- Frequency: 3/week
- Split: 3 x Full Body
- Level: intermediate
- Frequency: 3/week
- Split: 3 x Full Body
Where to Begin?
We have resistance training programs available in Gyroscope, and will be continuing to update the selection. At the moment, we have 2 programs:
Dumbbell Strength 1.0
Gym Strength 1.0
We’ve favored full body workouts, as when training 3/week this will hit all muscle groups equally and frequently. It also increases the metabolic effect (calorie burn) by training multiple muscle groups in the same session.
If you are just beginning, then we suggest starting with Dumbbell Strength 1.0 and following that program for at least 3 months. We recommend this whether you are training at home or in the gym, as these exercises will set you up well for some of the more advanced movements we cover in Gym Strength 1.0.
The ideal progression would be to train Dumbbell Strength 1.0 for 3 months, then move on to Gym Strength 1.0. However, we will be creating a more advanced dumbbell-only program soon too for those of you who would like to stick to that.
3 workouts a week is optimal. But, if 3 days a week sounds like too much, simply choose your favorite 2 workouts and do them, twice a week consistently, building that habit. As they’re all balanced, full-body workouts, don’t overthink which ones you choose, just choose the ones you like the most. Over time, you can find a way to increase that suits you. Remember, even 1 a week is better than none — it is not all or nothing.
If you have some experience with resistance training, and are confident in your execution of squats, deadlifts, rows and presses, then Gym Strength 1.0 would be perfect for you.
However, if you only have a set of dumbbells and want to train at home, whether beginner or intermediate, Dumbbell Strength 1.0 will still build significant strength and muscle if followed with the right amount of progressive overload and intensity.
As you age, starting resistance training is one of the best things you can do for you health. You could train just twice a week, or more often. You could use one of our programs or follow your own. The most important thing is to just get started!