Experts agree: strength training not only makes you strong, it also promotes health. Learn the basics for healthy and effective muscle building. Plus: Tips for your training plan and the right diet.
You have long known that you don’t have to be or have to become a bodybuilder to do strength training. In the meantime, more and more fitness beginners and athletes – whether young or old, woman or man – are discovering pull-up bars, barbells and the like for themselves.
Weight training is experiencing a huge hype. No wonder!
We explain the most important principles of strength training, dispel prejudices and reveal the basics for healthy and effective muscle building.
Not every strength athlete is automatically a bodybuilder. Strength training isn’t necessarily about more muscle mass. You can lose weight through regular workouts and even prevent back pain or osteoporosis.
As a strength athlete, you don’t necessarily have to lift weights in the dark “dumbbell corner”. There is a huge selection of equipment – in the gym or for your training at home – and muscle building training is possible even without equipment.
Before you start strength training, you should clearly define your goal. This largely depends on what your training plan looks like:
- With endurance training you increase your general fitness.
- With hypertrophy training you build muscle mass.
- With maximum strength training you will achieve an increase in strength.
Each of these three focuses has its own “rules” in terms of weight, repetitions, speed and breaks.
Important to know: The training plan, your diet and your general lifestyle as well as your genetic requirements determine what you can achieve with strength training.
Hips that are naturally narrow remain narrow. And for a visible six-pack, your body fat percentage has to be right. The nutrition in the muscle definition is the alpha and omega!
What happens in strength training?
In strength training, you expose your body to stress – for example by lifting your own body weight on the pull-up bar or holding weights while doing squats.
It goes without saying that your body has to adapt accordingly: Your musculoskeletal system, i.e. bones, ligaments and tendons, the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system and the metabolism change so that your muscles can withstand the stimuli and (continue) working as effectively as possible.
If your focus is on endurance training, you activate your muscles, increase blood flow and prepare the muscles for further loads.
Hypertrophy training particularly improves intramuscular coordination. This means that more muscle fibers are active within a muscle at the same time – with the result that the muscle cross-section increases, so your muscles gain in size.
With maximum strength training, you in turn promote intermuscular coordination – the cooperation between the muscles runs more smoothly and you increase your maximum strength ability.
Positive effects of strength training
It is obvious that strength training promotes muscle building and makes you stronger. But there are more advantages that might surprise you:
You lose weight through strength training
According to experts, you can save yourself a treadmill, cross trainer and the like in the gym if your goal is to lose weight. Additional cardio training will get you there faster, but strength training alone is enough to sustainably reduce fat.
As with any physical activity, your body needs energy during strength training and thus burns calories. The more intense the workout, the greater the calorie consumption.
The afterburn effect sets in immediately after training. Your body continues to convert fat and carbohydrates into energy. We owe this “afterburn” to the mitochondria. Every single muscle cell in our body has a “power plant” that is responsible for generating energy.
The more muscle cells we have, the greater the number of mitochondria. The result: strength training increases your basal metabolic rate, i.e. the number of calories that your body burns when it is completely at rest. You can caluclate your basal metabolic rate below.
In addition, strength training leads to an increase in testosterone and other growth hormones, which in turn promote the breakdown of adipose tissue.
You prevent back problems and illnesses
Weight training also has health benefits. If done correctly, the risk of injury is extremely low compared to other sports.
Strength training is there to eliminate these weak points and counteract them.
The movement sequences are controlled and natural, you prepare your body optimally for the stresses and strains of everyday life – such as heavy carrying, bending over or getting up from a crouch.
According to a study, machine-assisted strength training can reduce chronic back pain by 38 percent.
Other benefits for your health: According to a US study, strength training is said to reduce the risk of developing colon cancer by 25 percent. Researchers have also found that regular weight training sessions could reduce the risk of diabetes.
“For protection against cardiovascular diseases, but also diseases of the bone system such as osteoporosis, strength training has long since emerged as an important prevention factor.”
No wonder that studies have shown that strength training inhibits the aging process. So not only do you stay healthy, you also keep yourself young.
The most important principles in strength training
If you not only want to cut a good figure with strength training, but also want to see real progress, you can of course get the support of a personal trainer. An expert will facilitate your way to more strength and coordination in the shortest possible time.
But you can also achieve a lot on your own, as long as you stick to these three basic principles:
As with other sports, anyone who wants to benefit from the positive effects of strength training should stay on the ball. The optimal training volume in weight training, both for beginners and for experienced athletes, is two to three times a week.
Muscles grow at rest, which is why regeneration is essential for strength athletes. For hypertrophy and maximum strength training, 36 to 72 hours should be between two units. 24 to 48 hours are sufficient for endurance training.
To reduce break times, many athletes work on a split training plan.
Constantly exposing your body to new training stimuli is just as important as continuity and regeneration. The body has to be easily overwhelmed so that it improves and the muscles grow. “
Therefore, adjust your training plan every 4 to 8 weeks. If you train more than three times a week, you can work with a split training plan.
Strength endurance, hypertrophy, maximum strength - that's how it works!
Depending on your focus, you can use strength training to control muscle growth (hypertrophy training) or strengthening (maximum strength training), whereby the muscle fibers become stronger, but not necessarily thicker. Of course, the prerequisite is always that you adjust your diet accordingly.
Strength endurance training as a further variant is only recommended in the first few weeks for starting strength training. For most athletes, a healthy mix then makes sense.
Strength endurance training
Goal: You train your cardiovascular system, prepare your body for greater loads, your musculoskeletal system and your metabolism adapt.
Intensity: You train at around 50 percent of your maximum strength.
Repetitions: 15 to 20 repetitions of 3 to 6 sets
Break between exercises: approx. 30 to 60 seconds
Tempo: The eccentric phase – your muscles give way – and the concentric phase – your muscles contract – are of the same length (approx. 2 seconds).
Goal: Thicken your muscle fibers and your muscle cross-section increases. You gain muscle mass.
Intensity: You train at 60 to 80 percent of your maximum strength.
Repetitions: 6 to 12 repetitions of 3 to 6 sets
Break between exercises: approx. 60 to 120 seconds
Tempo: The concentric movement phase is short (1 to 2 seconds), the eccentric phase is long (3 to 4 seconds).
Maximum strength training
Goal: You train the central nervous system, mobilize as many muscle fibers as possible, the cooperation between the muscles improves. You increase their maximum strength ability.
Intensity: You train at 85 to 95 percent of your maximum strength.
Repetitions: 1 to 3 repetitions of 3 to 5 sets
Break between exercises: break about 2 to 5 minutes
Tempo: The concentric movement phase is short (1 to 2 seconds), the eccentric phase is long (3 to 4 seconds).
Tips for your workout
Intensity, repetitions, breaks and pace form the pillars of your strength training. Depending on your training focus, you choose a weight at the start with which you can manage 15 (strength endurance), 8 (hypertrophy) or 3 (maximum strength) repetitions.
If you exceed the upper limit of the recommended repetitions, you can easily perform more. You increase the weight and start again at your lower limit.
If the last two to three reps are difficult for you, you’ve picked the right weight.
The higher the load, the longer the breaks. One study found that taking longer breaks promotes muscle growth. You shouldn’t do without it under any circumstances!
The most important exercises in strength training
In strength training, a distinction is made between isolation and basic exercises (or: compound exercises). If you want strong biceps, you can progress with isolated exercises for the upper arms. If you want to strengthen the entire body and burn fat at the same time, rely on compound exercises.
Important: Train from big to small – first basic exercises, then isolation exercises!
In most cases, a mix of different exercises from both areas makes sense.
Basic exercises strengthen the entire body
In basic or compound exercises, several muscle groups are involved; the entire body works with them.
The five most important basic exercises in strength training are:
- Shoulder press
- Bench press
Advantage: You save time, address many muscle fibers with a single exercise and burn even more energy.
Disadvantage: There are more sources of error and you have less control over which muscles work how much – if one muscle group is already weak, others have to step in. Targeted muscle definition is made more difficult.
Isolation exercises for targeted muscle definition
Isolation exercises only address one muscle or a single muscle group in isolation; you usually only move one joint.
Example exercises are biceps and tricpeps curls or front raises, but also crunches and sit-ups as well as most of the exercises in classic equipment training in the gym.
Advantage: You cannot do so much wrong and concentrate on one muscle group, i.e. strengthen it specifically.
Disadvantage: You need longer to train your whole body and you don’t strengthen the cooperation of the muscles.
Strength training with and without equipment
For classic strength training you need aids to gradually increase the intensity and thus the load on the body. On the one hand, these can be classic devices in the gym, such as power racks, cable pulls and TRX, but also free weights such as dumbbells, barbell, kettlebell and medicine ball.
You can also do weight training without any equipment. With bodyweight training, muscle building is possible, even if you should allow a little more time to see success.
You increase the intensity of the workout with your own body weight through the number of repetitions, the speed or through variations such as jumps.
Tip: Apps like Freeletics help you build muscle without any equipment.
If muscle definition is your goal, every calorie burned counts and of course endurance sports such as jogging, swimming or cycling also help.
Cardio training also ensures that the lungs pumps more oxygen through the body. The muscles are better supplied and disposed of – because various metabolic products are generated around the clock that belong in the “garbage”.
In addition to strengthening the heart and circulation, endurance training has a positive effect on hormone production and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is all relaxing. You sleep better and it is in this deep sleep phase that a large part of the muscle growth takes place.
If you want to get the maximum out of strength training and pulling and the maximum out of endurance training, these units have to be separated – strength training in the morning, endurance training in the evening – always cardio after strength!