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Building Muscle

What Is Resistance Training? A Comprehensive Guide

While it’s only gained mainstream popularity over the past few decades, resistance training has actually been around since the 19th century.  It’s gained broader appeal, in recent years, due to the numerous benefits that have come to be associated with it.

From strengthening your muscles and bones to reducing the risk factors of metabolic syndrome, resistance training can help to support your overall health in multiple ways.  

While there are several benefits to be had, figuring out the right training approach can be somewhat daunting if you’re just getting started.  That’s why we’re going over everything you need to know about resistance training. From what it is and how it works to what kinds of exercises you should do, we’ll be covering all the essentials.  

What Is Resistance Training?

The term resistance training refers to any form of physical exercise in which you are moving your body against some form of resistance.  The added resistance, in turn, makes the movement more difficult to perform. 

Resistance can be created with your own body weight using exercises like push-ups and pull-ups but more commonly, it’s added with gym equipment such as dumbells, barbells, kettlebells, and cable pulley machines, which is also known as weight training.  

How Does it Work?

Resistance exercises work at a cellular level by causing damage to your muscle tissues.  When you lift weights, it actually causes microscopic tears in your muscles, which themselves are made up of proteins. 

When some of these proteins become damaged, a complicated signaling process occurs within your body to replace them with new ones -- this general process is known as Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS).(1)

It’s through the process of MPS that your muscles grow stronger and/or larger.  In addition to breaking down muscle proteins, resistance training also helps to keep your levels of MPS elevated for over 24 hours following a single workout, which in turn, helps to increase your body’s ability to repair and rebuild. (2)

In combination with a well-balanced diet, all of the degradation and regrowth that occurs within your muscles after an intense bout of exercise ultimately leads to an increase in the size and/or strength of your muscle fibers over time.

What Kinds of Exercises Does Resistance Training Involve?

While there are all kinds of different resistance exercises, one of the easiest ways to categorize them is based on how many different muscle groups they recruit.  In one category you have compound movements, which are exercises that engage multiple muscle groups across multiple joints.  

A good example of a compound exercise would be the bench press, which most people are likely familiar with.  During the movement, your pectoral muscles work together with your triceps and shoulders in order to move the bar both towards and away from your chest.

Compound movements can be performed using a variety of different types of gym equipment, including both free weights -- -i.e. dumbbells and barbells -- and cable pulley machines.  They can also be performed using only your body weight.     

In the other category, you have Isolation movements, which can also be performed using all kinds of different equipment. However, unlike compound movements, isolation exercises primarily only engage one muscle group.  The barbell/dumbbell curl is a well-known example of an isolation exercise, where you’re predominantly targeting your biceps and nothing else.

Because you’re only recruiting one muscle group with isolation movements, you won’t be able to lift as much weight as you can with compound exercises.  

Are There Different Forms to Resistance Training?

When it comes to how resistance training affects your body, it all depends on the method you use.  From crafting a lean physique after weight loss to increasing the size of your muscle, there are several different approaches, and each of which is designed to produce a different result.  

A number of factors including the intensity of your workout, as well as the number of sets and reps you do, ultimately affect the ways in which your body responds to your training.  In this section, we’ll be going over some of the different approaches to resistance training as well as what sets them apart from one another.

Strength Training

One common application for resistance training is to strengthen your muscles.  Also known as strength training, this approach can itself come in multiple forms -- Olympic lifting and powerlifting are probably the most popular.   

Although you may be able to increase the size of your muscles to some degree with strength training, the primary goal is to develop your strength, which doesn't always equate to substantial gains in lean muscle mass. Instead, the primary goal is simply to improve your strength on a handful of different exercises.   

What Exercises Should You Do?

In general, a strength-based training program is oriented around a few primary weight lifting exercises -- the bench press, squat, deadlift, and sometimes also the overhead press and row.  Together, these exercises engage all of the major muscle groups, allowing you to develop strength all throughout your body. 

In addition to the major lifts, most strength training programs also include assistance exercises, which are designed to help improve your strength on the main lifts.  While there are lots of different assistance exercises at your disposal, some of the most common ones are:

  • Close grip bench press
  • Pause bench press
  • Tricep extensions
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Deficit deadlift
  • Bent over row
  • Front squat
  • Pause squat  
  • Bulgarian split squats

How Intense Should Your Workout Be?

One of the main things that sets strength training apart from other forms of resistance training is the intensity of the exercises you’re performing.  With strength training, you’ll be lifting heavy weights, which ultimately means that you’ll be working at high intensities throughout your training.  

Most strength training programs will have you lifting at or above 65% or your 1 Rep Max (1RM).  Your 1RM is the maximum amount of weight you can lift on a given exercise for exactly one repetition.  

So for example, if you can bench press 150 pounds for exactly 1 rep, that would be the maximum amount of weight you can successfully lift on that exercise.  Because working out at such a high intensity can be quite taxing on your body, you’ll rarely be working at your true one-rep max. Instead, with most strength training programs, you’ll be working with percentages of your 1RM.  

Take the 5:3:1 strength training program for example.  With this method, you’ll be going as high as 95% of your 1 rep max, but that only happens once a month. The other 3 weeks, you’ll still be lifting challenging weights, but the intensity will be a little lower.   Here’s what 4 weeks looks like with 5:3:1:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Set #1 65% 1RM x 5 70% 1RM x 3 75% 1RM x 5 40% 1RM x 5
Set #2 75% 1RM x 5 80% 1RM x 3 85% 1RM x 3 50% 1RM x 5
Set #3 85% 1RM x 5+ 90% 1RM x 3+ 95% 1RM x 1+ 60% 1RM x 5

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do?

As you can see with 5:3:1, as with most other strength training program, you won’t be doing a crazy amount of sets or reps on your main exercises.  That’s because working at high intensities can be extremely challenging to your central nervous system, which is why you’re only able to work at or near your body’s limit for a relatively short period of time.  

While there are literally dozens of different approaches to strength-based resistance training, with most programs, you’ll be doing as little as 3-5 working sets and you’ll rarely go above 5 reps per set on any of your primary exercises.

How Often Should You Train?

Your exercises will generally be broken up across 3 to 4 days, with each of your main lifts (and accompanying assistance exercises) being performed on separate days.  While it may be tempting to work out more often, in order to build strength, your body needs an ample amount of time to recover.    

Hypertrophy Training

Hypertrophy-based weightlifting is another popular form of resistance training.  While you’ll likely build some strength with hypertrophy training, the primary objective is to increase the size of your muscles, which is why it’s the main training approach used by bodybuilders.  

Unlike strength training which is mostly oriented around the use of free weights, hypertrophy training generally incorporates a wider range of exercise equipment.  While most hypertrophy training programs utilize free weights, many also make use of cable pulley machines and even bodyweight exercises as well.  

What Exercises Should You Do?

Most hypertrophy-based training programs are composed of both compound and isolation movements.  Typically, you’ll start off your workout with heavier compound movements like the bench press, squat, and row and then move on to lighter isolation movements like bicep curls, calf raises, and tricep extensions.  

In addition to combining compound and isolation movements, many hypertrophy-focused training regimens also utilize both free weights and machines; some even include bodyweight exercises.    

How Intense Should Your Workout Be?

One of the main factors that sets Hypertrophy-based training apart from strength training is that the exercises you’ll be doing will usually be performed at lower intensities.  With most hypertrophy programs, you’ll be working somewhere in the range of 50 - 75% of your one-rep max on most exercises.  

Although you won’t be working as close to your 1 rep max, that doesn’t mean that hypertrophy training can’t be intense.  Increasing things like your muscles’ time under tension -- think lowering the bar more slowly to your chest on the bench press -- can ultimately make the exercise seriously challenging, even if you’re using relatively light weight.  

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do?

Compared to strength training you’ll be working at more moderate intensities, which ultimately means you’ll be doing more sets and reps with hypertrophy training.  

While there’s no one-size-fits-all regimen, with most programs, your workout will consist of between 10 - 20 working sets, split across multiple exercises.  In each set, you’ll generally be doing 8 - 12 repetitions.  

One of the basic principles embedded in most muscle-building programs is known as progressive overload, which is the idea that in order to maximize your muscle-building potential, your training volume needs to increase over time.  In other words, the amount of weight you’re capable of lifting and/or the number of sets you’re able to perform should increase over the course of your training. 

For example, let’s say you’re able to squat 175 pounds for 8 reps at the beginning of your training.  Once you’re able to do the same amount of weight for 12 reps, you’d increase the weight and repeat the process.  

Or, you can also focus on increasing the total number of sets you’re able to perform during your workout.  Let’s pretend that during your leg training day you started off being able to perform 10 working sets. Over the course of your training, you’d want to increase your output so that you’re able to lift the same amount of weight but for more sets than when you began.  

How Often Should You Train?

With most hypertrophy-based training programs, you’ll be targeting between 1-2 major muscle groups per training session -- there are 6 major muscle groups in total.  

Most inexperienced lifters can expect to see positive results from as little as 2-3 training sessions per week while more seasoned individuals may find 5-6 training sessions per week to be more beneficial.     

Sample Hypertrophy Training Program 

Day 1: Chest/shoulders/triceps

Exercise 1: Bench Press: 3 sets 8-12 reps

Exercise 2: Dumbbell flys 3 sets 8 - 12 reps

Exercise 3: Lateral shoulder raises 3 sets 8 - 12 reps

Exercise 4: Dumbbell tricep extensions 3 sets 8 - 12 reps

Day 2: Back/biceps

Exercise 1: Bentover row 3 sets 8 -12 reps

Exercise 2: Lat pulldowns 3 sets 8 -12 reps

Exercise 3: Reverse dumbbell flys 3 sets 8 - 12 reps

Exercise 4: Bicep curls 3 sets 8 - 12 reps

Day 3: Quads/hamstrings/calfs

Exercise 1: Squats 3 sets 8 - 12 reps

Exercise 2: Quad Extensions 3 sets 8 - 12 reps

Exercise 3: Hamstring curls 3 sets 8 - 12 reps

Exercise 4: Calf raises 3 sets 8 - 12 reps

Can You Combine Strength and Hypertrophy Training?

The short answer is yes, you can totally combine the two approaches.  In fact, there are a number of different hybrid training programs designed to build both size and strength.  

Most of these programs will start out with your main strength-building lifts, such as the bench press and squat, and then move on to isolation movements or other compound movements where you’ll be working at lower intensities with more sets and reps.  

You’ll usually want to hit the heavier compound lifts first before your strength becomes depleted later on in your workout.  Doing them first also helps to boost hormonal responses in your body that are critical to the development of both size and strength.

What Other Benefits Are Associated With Resistance Training?

In addition to increasing the size and strength of your muscles, there are several other reasons resistance training can be advantageous to your overall health.  From preventing muscle loss during a weight loss diet to lowering your blood pressure, people from all walks of life can benefit from adding regular resistance exercise into their normal routine.  

Prevent Muscle Loss 

One of the biggest benefits associated with resistance training has to do with its preventative effects on muscle loss, especially during a weight loss diet.  

While you will burn off some body fat when your calories are restricted, your muscles also become increasingly vulnerable when your body turns to itself in order to meet its energy demands.  The big problem here is that when most people say they want to lose weight what they really mean is that they want to lose body fat, not lean muscle mass.  

However, numerous studies have demonstrated that in combination with an adequate intake of dietary protein, resistance training helps to attenuate muscle loss during a hypocaloric diet, helping you to more exclusively target body fat.  Compared to dieting alone, research shows that those who also participated in a resistance training program saw significantly greater improvements in body composition. (3)(4)(5)

On top of weight loss, your risk of losing muscle mass also increases as you age, which is why many health professions recommend resistance training to all healthy adults over the age of 30.  That’s because numerous studies have demonstrated that resistance training can help to prevent or even reverse age-related muscle loss.(6)(7)(8)

Protect Against Osteoporosis

On top of losing muscle mass as you age, you’re also more prone to a condition known as osteoporosis, which is characterized by bone mineral loss.  It’s a debilitating disease that ultimately increases your risk of bone fractures.   

Several studies, however, have demonstrated that resistance training can help to reverse the effects of osteoporosis, strengthen your bones and reducing the risk of injury and immobility.(9)(10)(11)(12)

Reduce Risk Factors of Metabolic Syndrome

Resistance training has also been shown to reduce some of the factors related to metabolic syndrome, which is a group of health conditions that can raise your risk of type 2 diabetes as well as heart disease. 

Research illustrates that resistance training helps to improve your Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) levels -- HbA1c is an oxygen-carrying agent found in glucose and high levels can be a sign of type 2 diabetes. (13)(14)

On top of that, other studies have also demonstrated that resistance training helps to lower your systolic blood pressure, which is a measurement of how much pressure is in your arteries when your heart is contracting.(15)(16)

Wrap Up

There are numerous resistance training methods and choosing the right one for you largely depends on your goals.  Strength training is an effective approach for increasing the strength of your muscles and it’s characterized by a higher intensity and lower number of sets and reps.  

On the flipside, hypertrophy training is oriented around increasing the size of your muscles, more than your strength.  It’s performed at a lower intensity compared to strength training and involves more sets and reps.  

Strength and hypertrophy training are not mutually exclusive and can be combined to create a hybrid program geared towards developing both the size and strength of your muscles.  

In addition to that, there are several other benefits associated with resistance training.  From improving your blood pressure to attenuating muscle loss during a hypocaloric diet, resistance training can help to improve your overall health in several ways.  

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