An illustration of a free weight on a monthly calendar.
Illustration: Maria Chimishkyan


The Best Strength Training Workout Is Surprisingly Easy

The number of reps and sets you do is less important than these fundamentals

Christie Aschwanden
Published in
7 min readSep 2, 2020

As a fitness columnist, I get lots of questions about the best way to work out. Many of these queries are about strength training: How many workouts per week are necessary? Do I need to lift weights, or are body weight exercises like pushups and lunges enough? Is it better to do a few repetitions of heavy weights or more reps with lighter ones? How many sets are optimal?

The reality is: Unless you’re a bodybuilder or training for powerlifting, those details aren’t all that important. If you’re doing strength training to increase your fitness, get stronger, and improve your health, “The most important thing is to just do something,” says Greg Nuckols, founder of and a powerlifter who’s held three world records. “The number one principle is to start doing it and continue doing it — that’s probably where 80% of the health benefits come from.”

The most effective program is one that you’ll stick with.

Weights are great, but not necessary

There’s a misperception out there that resistance training needs to involve complex routines and special equipment, but that’s simply not true, says James Steele, PhD, a scientist at U.K. Active and assistant professor of sport and exercise science at Solent University in Southampton, U.K.

In 2011, Steele and his colleagues published a set of evidence-based resistance training recommendations based on strength-training research. They concluded that free weights, resistance machines, and body weight exercises (like pushups and lunges) could all increase strength, “with no significant difference between them.” Strength training can be done at home with minimal or even zero equipment, Steele says, adding that he trains in his backyard with a pullup bar and some cheap dumbbells.



Christie Aschwanden

Author of GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery (Norton, 2019). Twitter: @CragCrest