The Best Strength Training Workout Is Surprisingly Easy
The number of reps and sets you do is less important than these fundamentals
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 StrongerByScience.com 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.
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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.
A 2017 study found that pushups and bench press produced similar muscle and strength gains when done at a similar load. And a study published in 2016 compared the results of elbow flexion exercises (basically an arm curl) done either with or without weights. (In the condition without weights, participants contracted their muscles as hard as they could throughout the exercise.) Researchers found no differences in muscle gains between the two conditions, though lifting weights did result in greater increases in strength, at least as measured by the dumbbell “one rep maximum” which is the maximum amount of weight that a person can possibly lift for one repetition.
Even bolstering your bones doesn’t require you to stack on the weights. The vast majority of the forces on your bones during strength exercises comes from the muscle contractions themselves, Nuckols says, and “that’s where most of the bone health benefits come from.”
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Pick exercises that target the major muscle groups
You don’t need to do a bunch of different exercises to get stronger. Instead of doing moves like bicep curls and leg extensions that target a few muscles in isolation, you can hit all your major muscle groups with exercises like pushups and squats, which work a lot of muscles at once. This also cuts down the duration of the workout. “Mobility permitting, great beginner exercises include squats, deadlifts, pushups, rows, walking lunges, and bench press,” says Shannon Kim Wagner, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of the Women’s Strength Coalition.
During the pandemic, getting to a gym is extra challenging (and may not be safe), but never fear. Nuckols has a helpful primer, “How to Make Gains Without a Gym,” that lists equipment-free exercises for every major muscle group, along with links to detailed instructions on how to do them. “Body weight exercises are absolutely fantastic for upper body training,” Nuckols says. No matter how strong you are, there’s some variation of pullups, pushups, or dips that can make you stronger.
“Training through a long range of motion will build more muscle per rep than training on a shorter range of motion.”
Once you get really strong in your lower body muscles, it can become a little harder to continue progressing with unweighted exercises, but it’s not impossible. Body weight squats can be surprisingly hard if you do a lot of them, Nuckols says, and moves that require a long range of motion, like strict body weight step-ups and pistol (single leg) squats can also continue to challenge you as you get stronger.
After you’ve selected your exercises, try to execute them through the safest range of motion you can, Nuckols says. That means, for instance, when you’re doing squats, you want to go as low as you comfortably can and return to a full upright on each rep. “Training through a long range of motion will build more muscle per rep than training on a shorter range of motion,” Nuckols says. What’s more, it will also help you to maintain that range of motion and functionality over time.
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Intensity matters more than reps
Whatever exercise you do, intensity is key. The evidence-based recommendations that Steele’s group created calls for doing eight to 12 repetitions to achieve “momentary muscular failure” — the point at which you can’t do another rep without a break. As long as your set of exercises produces this kind of fatigue, it should be enough to evoke adaptations that improve strength. How many reps you’ll need to get to that breaking point will depend on the exercise you’re doing, whether you’re using weights and your level of fitness, but it’s that sense of fatigue that should guide how many you do, not some arbitrary number. It might take you 40 pushups to get to your breaking point, but only eight arm curls if you’re using heavy dumbbells.
You probably just need one set
Unless you’re a strength athlete with specific goals in mind (like benching a certain weight), you can get what you need by doing a single set of each exercise. “Personally, I do single sets of pretty much every exercise I do,” Steele says. The guidelines he helped create also call for just a single set.
“Personally, I do single sets of pretty much every exercise I do.”
Last year, a study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at the question of how the number of sets affects results. The researchers split 34 volunteers into three groups, and all of them performed an eight-week program of the same strength training three times a week. The difference was how many sets of the seven exercises they performed — one group did one set per workout, another did three, and the final group did five sets per session. The results showed that all groups similarly improved their muscle strength and endurance (as measured by one repetition maximum testing on squat and bench press and the number of reps a subject could do of 50% of their bench press one-rep max); doing more sets made the workout take longer, but it didn’t increase the gains.
Keep it regular — even once a week is helpful
Yes, twice a week is better than once, and in a perfect world, that’s a good goal. But once a week is better than nothing, Steele says. You’ll have a lot more success if you do your workouts on a regular basis than if you set an unrealistic goal that you’ll blow and then feel bad about.
Stick with it in the beginning, and the swift progress you make could be self-reinforcing, as you discover that your body is capable of doing much more than you initially imagined, Wagner says. Any newbies, especially women and others who have been “encouraged to stay small and take up as little space as possible,” find that strength training provides a welcome reframe about what and who their body exists for, she says.
Aim to progress
There’s a concept in weight lifting called “progressive overload” — it’s the idea that to achieve gains, you need to progressively increase the strain your workout is placing on your muscles so that they adapt to the increasing loads. “The principle of progressive overload is more like a mindset than a rigid prescription,” Nuckols says. The important thing is to keep track of what you do each workout (Nuckols suggests using a notepad or your phone to keep a training log), and then try to do a little bit each time. That could mean doing one more repetition or adding more weight or resistance.
In this regard, weights can have an advantage over body weight exercises because you can add more weight, and that allows you to measure consistent, measurable progress, Wagner says. “Many new lifters find that their bodies adapt to increased resistance at rates they wouldn’t expect.”
Put it all together
There’s no need to make things unnecessarily complicated. Find a selection of exercises that target your major muscle groups, then do one set of them to failure once or twice per week. It’s really that simple.