Strength Training Program Essentials
In 2002, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) published a position stand on strength and conditioning variables for active, healthy adults. The position stand provided the recommended quality and quantity of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness and flexibility in healthy adults. Although this statement was based in research and supported by the entire scientific community, as well as being the basis for all professional fitness trainers’ strength programs, it did not consider all the research on strength training over the preceding decade. This early version of the ACSM position stand for exercise recommendations for healthy adults also did not offer any information on how to progress fitness programs. This opened up a lot of opportunity for people to enter the strength training arena with all kinds of opinions and training protocols without collective agreement as to the best methods to achieve overall fitness. You can imagine how confusing all of this information has become. It is no wonder so many women were led astray and consequently left to sift through literally thousands of exercise programs and routines on their own.
Although the 2002 ACSM position stand provided an outstanding framework for the best practices for strength trainers, the ACSM updated the statement in 2009 to reflect the numerous studies on strength training that had taken place since 2002. This updated position stand is for fitness professionals and those other enthusiasts who want to use strength training research for results-based outcomes. Specifically, the updated guidelines make several modifications to the 2002 position stand to better meet the needs of those who are looking for significant muscle development beyond minimal strength gains. The updated ACSM position stand addresses several more variables, as well as the importance of progressive adaptations (i.e., periodization) to increased muscle strength and performance.
The 2009 ACSM document indicates that people looking for increased strength and better health by decreasing fat mass and increasing lean tissue through resistance training should follow strength-specific programs. These should include the use of concentric (muscle shortening), eccentric (muscle lengthening), and isometric muscle actions and bilateral and unilateral, as well as single- and multiple-joint exercises. Programs should also address weight selection, exercise selection and order, the ideal number of sets and repetitions for attaining particular goals, the frequency of exercise, and recovery, all of which are covered next in this
The 2009 ACSM guidelines can help decrease training plateaus and significantly improve performance to achieve a higher level of muscle strength, endurance, and overall fitness. Any woman new to strength training should follow these guidelines. She can then expect to take this information forward into intermediate and advanced training.
The frequency of exercise refers to how often you need to train to see the results you are looking for, without compromising your recovery time between training sessions. Remember that the body needs to go through a process of rebuilding and repairing to replenish the energy reserves that are consumed during exercise. Frequency is actually a balance between providing just enough stress for the body to adapt to the resistance, and allowing just enough time for recovery and repair to occur.
The appropriate frequency between strength workouts depends on the per-iodization phase you are in (this is covered later in this chapter) and the type of workout you are performing. Frequency also has to take into account the training variable known as volume (covered later in this section) because how often you exercise depends on the type of program you are using. In general, though, the recommendation for training frequency is two or three days per week for beginning levels, three or four days per week for intermediate, and four or five days per week for advanced. Your frequency for cardio training can be daily, but you will need to change the intensity of the cardio workouts frequently, particularly as you become more fit. The guideline for cardiorespiratory training is a minimum of three sessions per week, and the guideline for flexibility training is no less than two sessions per week.
Remember that each time you complete a strenuous strength training session (regardless of the body part), you are taxing your body as a whole—including all of the physiological systems and major organs. Keep in mind that your body does not distinguish days of the week. It only understands time between sessions. You may need more recovery between sessions depending on how hard you work, as well as your level of fitness.
Intensity refers to the amount of effort invested in a training program, or in any one training session. The weight you lift should challenge you. It should be heavy enough that you feel muscle exhaustion as you approach your last two repetitions. Exhaustion means that your muscles are so tired that you can’t do another full repetition in good form or without assistance. Many women do not lift heavy enough, or in other words, to exhaustion. This is mostly because they don’t know that they are supposed to! They tend to simply perform the number of repetitions that they think is good, or they choose light weights because of that age-old myth of getting too big as a result of lifting heavy weights.
In resistance training, the workload is the primary measure of intensity. The workload can be determined by any one of the following:
- The amount of weight lifted during an exercise
- The number of repetitions completed for a particular exercise
- The length of time to complete all exercises in a set, or the total training session time
You may choose to increase your workload by lifting heavier weights or by performing more repetitions with the same weight. Another option is to lift the same weight for the same number of repetitions, but decrease the rest time between sets. As a general rule, increase the intensity using only one of the previous three parameters. For example, don’t increase weight and decrease rest time in the same session. This will only serve to prefatigue you and may result in injury.
Also, you should sequence your exercises to optimize intensity. For example, perform large muscle group exercises before small ones, multiple-joint exercises before single-joint ones, and higher-intensity exercises before lower-intensity ones.
Time in this context refers to the length of time of your overall training session. The common consensus for the duration of resistance training sessions is no longer than 60 minutes. Any longer than that can set you up for boredom and burnout. Cardio training should last 30 to 45 minutes, and flexibility training, 20 to 30 minutes. As you become more advanced and your intensity increases, your sessions will become shorter. Particularly grueling strength training sessions should last only 20 to 30 minutes. Regardless of the time frame you need to achieve your goals, you should approach each exercise session with focus and purpose.
Many women fail to take full advantage of their training time. They allow themselves to be distracted and use their time poorly. If you are in the gym to work out, that should be your primary goal. Do not allow anyone or anything to limit you or sidetrack you from accomplishing your goal.
Interval-Based Exercise Training
Interval training is a unique and powerful way to train that is time efficient and burns more total calories than regular training. It involves the performance of higher-intensity exercise followed by recovery periods in a very specific time frame. The purpose of performing short bouts of high-intensity exercise is to reach overload, or uncomfortable intensity levels, throughout your training routines. Obviously, it would be impossible to exercise at such high intensity levels for an entire 30-minute workout. This is why there are built-in rest periods—not enough to allow you to fully recover, but enough to challenge you appropriately during these quick-paced, time-efficient workouts.
The interval training formulas outlined here are based on the body’s energy systems (anaerobic and aerobic) to offer you a scientific approach to interval training. The best ratios are those that are related to the ATP-PC, anaerobic glycolysis, and aerobic energy systems. Because these systems become depleted in very specific time frames, we use ratio intervals to follow their energy depletion and consequent recovery. The work in work-to-restratiois anaerobic; that is, you work until you become breathless or close to it (this uses the ATP-PC, or anaerobic glycolysis, system), and then recover aerobically so you can catch your breath enough to prepare you for the next interval.
Most important with interval training is to remain consistent. If you decide to run on the treadmill at a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio, you need to stay true to the intervals and not decide halfway through that you need more time to rest or can wait another minute. The training benefit comes from the overload that results from the consistency of the ratios. For example, if you decide that the hard part will take two minutes and your recovery will take one minute, stick with that routine during the entire workout to the best of your ability.
You have the flexibility to select any work-to-rest interval range you would like within any of the three heart rate zones. Use the following ratios to determine which works best for you depending on how long you need to work hard and how long you need to recover. Also included are some examples of activities using the ratios. If you understand the work-to-rest ratio design, however, you can devise your own ratios and choose any activity you like (e.g., cycling, outdoor walking, or
1:1 Work-to-Rest Ratio
A 1:1 work-to-rest ratio means that you work and recover for the same amount of time. Following are sample 1:1 work-to-rest ratio activities:
- Treadmill: Alternate five minutes of running (at 5 mph, or 8 km/h, or faster) with five minutes of walking (at 3.5 to 4 mph, or 5.6 to 6.4 km/h) for a total of 30 to 45 minutes.
- Elliptical trainer: Alternate two minutes at a high intensity (as hard as you can work while still maintaining good form, posture, and control) with two minutes at a moderate intensity for a total of 30 to 45 minutes.
2:1 Work-to-Rest Ratio
A 2:1 work-to-rest ratio means that you work for twice as long as you recover. Following are sample 2:1 work-to-rest ratio activities:
- Treadmill: Alternate three minutes of running (5 to 7 mph, or 8 to 11.3 km/h) with 90 seconds of jogging (5 to 5.5 mph, or 8 to 8.9 km/h) for a total of 30 to 45 minutes.
- Elliptical trainer: Alternate 40 seconds at a high intensity (as hard as you can work while still maintaining good form, posture, and control) with 20 seconds at a moderate intensity for a total of 25 to 30 minutes.
3:1 Work-to-Rest Ratio
A 3:1 work-to-rest ratio means that you work three times as long as the recovery. Following are sample 3:1 work-to-rest ratio activities:
- Treadmill: Alternate 15 minutes of running (5 to 6 mph, or 8 to 9.7 km/h) with five minutes of jogging (6 to 7 mph, or 9.7 to 11.3 km/h) for 30 to 45 minutes.
- Elliptical trainer: Alternate nine minutes at a high intensity (as hard as you can work while still maintaining good form, posture, and control) with three minutes at a moderate intensity for 30 to 45 minutes.
Remember, too, that you can change the work-to-rest ratio into a rest-to-work ratio, if you need to. For example, if working hard for two minutes with only one minute of recovery (2:1) is too much for you, simply flip it and use the ratio as a rest-to-work ratio instead—working for one minute and then recovering for two minutes (1:2).
Read more from A Woman’s Guide to Muscle and Strength by Irene Lewis-McCormick.