What strength training exercises should I do?

When looking to do strength training you want to make sure you target the whole body and not leave anything out. Now depending how many days you are going to workout will depend on what you will need to do. Typically working out 3 days a week most people will do a full body workout. Doing 4 days a week people will do a split of upper body one day and lower body the next. Now when you get into 5 or more days you can start targeting muscle groups for each day. Of course your goals and what you want to achieve will determine what you need to do as well.

The exercises that you should do will depend upon your current fitness level, your prior exercise experience, your goals and the equipment that is available for you to use.

I like a total body workout, starting with a 30 minute session for a beginner, working up to an hour, for a more experienced fitness enthusiast.  I like to make sure that the larger muscles are worked first (legs, back, chest and shoulder).  The smaller muscles (biceps, triceps, inner/outer thighs) will be helping on these exercises, and will get a workout even if they aren't directly worked.  I like to play with balance so that the core is working throughout the exercise session, rather than just working on abs. 

Some excellent body weight exercises for the legs are lunges and squats.  Pushups are great for the chest/triceps and shoulders and pullups (if you can find a secure place to hang) will work your biceps and back. I like planks for ab work. More specifics again, will depend on what equipment is available to you.

Before I design a workout program for anyone we discuss goals, fitness level, previous injuries, etc.  All exercises should be functional in nature.  If you work your muscles in dysfunctional ways, you will most certainly injure yourself somewhere along the line.  No matter what your goal, you should always begin with core strengthening exercises.  Prone ISO abs, pushups, walking lunges with medicine ball rotations are all good forms of core exercises.  Of course there is always the crunch as well.

Full body exercises is the best way to maximize time and muscle group utilization to improve strength. You will want to work the larger muscle groups first, then move to the smaller groups to maximize power potential and exertion.  If your goal is to bulk up, then isolating muscle groups on different days is the way to go.  An example of isolating muscle groups is to work back and biceps one day, chest, triceps and shoulders another day, legs on another day.  It really does boil down to what your goal is.

The strength training exercises that you should do depend on your level of fitness and how long you have been actively working out. If you are a beginner and have never worked out before then you should start with some beginner type bodyweight exercises. First you want to strengthen your core. Your core consists of your abdominal and lower back muscles. These are the muscles that help keep your body stable.

The basic types of exercises used for core consists of:

  • floor bridge
  • bird dog
  • mountain climbers
  • squats
  • lunges

These are just to name a few. Even these basic movements can be advanced as your body becomes more accustomed to exercise. You want to advance the movements as you get used to the basic movement so that you continue to strengthen your body.

Aloha! The short answer to what strength training exercises you should be doing is, "what is or are your goal(s)?" There are many alternatives, i.e. strength specific exercises, power specific exercises, functional exercises, speed specific exercises, etc. Outside of that answer, I suggest full body exercises to maximize time and muscle group utilization. Furthermore, work the larger muscle groups first, then move to the smaller groups to maximize power potential and exertion - if deciding to work outside full body exercises. Hope the answer, answers your question. Mahalo.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
To strengthen your muscles, the first seven of these exercises are the ones you should do first. They will strengthen your core. After a month of these first seven, add the other seven, too. These exercises can be done on machines or with free weights or with exercise (resistance) bands. . Many other exercises will strengthen the same muscles, I just list the ones I know, teach, and do. You want to choose a weight or a resistance band strength that allows you to do each exercise 8 to 12 times; after you have completed one set (gone thru the 7 or 14 you are doing that day), repeat the set in full. And remember to exhale on the most strenuous part of the exercise.

  • Bent-over back row
  • Lunges -- most important (you can do them every other day)
  • Squats
  • One-leg calf lift
  • Abdominal crunches
  • Oblique crunches
  • Arm and leg lifts

You can start doing the next seven exercises after you've mastered the first seven for at least two weeks, although it would be preferable to start the second seven after full month of doing the first seven every other day.

  • Chest press
  • Biceps curl
  • Triceps (behind head) extension
  • Standing side lift (use light weights to start this, as the deltoid is a weak muscle.)
  • Rotator-cuff rotation (use very light weights -- 1 or 2 pounds or ½ to 1 kg weights at first.)
  • Overhead press
  • Lateral deltoid lift (use light weights to start, as the deltoid is a very weak muscle.)

Doing these fourteen exercises is a joy, as you will strengthen all the different muscle groups. But do not do these exercises by yourself at first. Always learn with a trained partner or, preferably, a professional trainer. After three training sessions, ask the partner or trainer if he or she feels you are ready to continue on your own.

I strongly recommend adding a NASM OPT level-stability and muscle endurance & core strengthening program, about 4 to 6 weeks, as an introduction to your strength training program. You will want to ensure that you can demonstrate and have the strength and flexibility to maintain a good and healthy posture. Also the stability and muscle endurance level will allow the connective tissues to be strengthened and in condition to handle your strength training program.

You can also recycle into one to two weeks stabilization and endurance phase periodically during the course of a year as a recovery or break from the strength training and to recondition your connective tissues.

Your strength training program should be based on your fitness goals, health history, training experience and the amount you can dedicate to training. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Are you looking to maintain your current level of fitness?
  • Do you want to increase your maximal strength or focus on muscle endurance?
  • Are you rehabing an injury?
  • Are you training for a sport?
  • How many days a week can you dedicate to training?
  • What equipment do you have access to?

Once you have answered these questions you can begin to design your training program. If you just jump into a strength training program you aren't going to be training as efficiently and effectively as you should. Your workout split, number of sets and reps, weight ranges, rest periods and workout format all depend on your answers.

Although your strength training program should be tailored based on your answers, every program should include the following:

  • A light, dynamic warm up. Don't just hop on the treadmill and walk for 3 minutes. Ideally you should be breaking a light sweat before you officially start strength training. During your warm up you want to increase your heart rate, get your blood flow going, increase the temperature of your muscles and loosen up joints, tendons and ligaments. Short changing yourself during warm up will only increase your risk for injury and 'waste' your first few exercises because your body is still in the process of 'waking up'.
  • Make sure you are working out the entire body within a cycle of your program. Don't skip legs just because they are hard. Training legs is highly beneficial, regardless of your goals. Plus, if you aren't training opposing muscle groups (quads and hamstrings, chest and back, etc) properly, you are going to develop, or further exacerbate, joint problems due to muscle imbalances.
  • If you have access to a foam roller, make sure you are dedicating some time to it. Self-myofacial release is one of the best things you can do to keep muscles healthy.
  • Depending on your goals and abilities, be sure to include balance/reactive training, and plyometrics.
  • Cool down after your workout. Nothing fancy, just allow your body to come down from its heightened state.
  • Lastly, make sure that the program you start today isn't the same program you are doing 3 months from now. Nobody likes to plateau. You have to change the variables within your program in order to keep seeing results!
Any strength training program should be first started by asking yourself a couple of questions:
  1. How fit am I?
  2. What is my goal (bodybuilding, overall health, power lifting)
  3. What equipment do I have access to?
  4. How much time do I have to committ to strength training each day?
Answering these questions honestly will give you starting point.

There are many different routines to choose from. Spilt or full body exercise, barbells, dumbells, machines, balance balls, kettlebells, medicine balls. Which you choose should be dictated by your time constraint, equipment, starting point, and overall health.

Once you have chosen and decided where to start then the fun begins!

Be sure to include a warm-up, stretching, core exercises, balance exercises, resistance exercises, cool down. There are many schools of thought that cardio should be down AFTER strength training so take that into consideration.
Any strength training program should include a good warm up of five to ten minutes. This warm up can include high knees, skipping, hopping, back pedaling, grapevine and bounding. Following the warm up it is advisable to include core strength. Planks, chops, pulls and sit-ups on a stability ball are all excellent exercises to address core strength. Following a core set I recommend a total of six exercises broken down into three sets of two paired exercises. Exercises should include multi-joint movements that simulate the run motion. For example, the following workout is a sound training plan for an endurance runner: push up/row, single leg dead lift. Slide board leg curl, lat pull down. Lunge, bicep curl, overhead press. Tube walking also an excellent workout to address hamstring and glute strength. Finally, alternating opposite arm opposite leg quadruped is a key exercise for back health. Here’s how to do it: position yourself on all-fours, with your knees directly below your hips and your wrists below your elbows. Your back should be in a neutral/flat position, your eyes should focus on the floor in order to keep your neck straight and in-line with your spine. On an inhale lift your right arm and left leg up without changing the level of your hips or shoulders, hold for 10 seconds and then lower and switch sides. Repeat 5 times on each side. If you feel this affecting your low back, be sure you are pulling your navel in towards your spine to activate the abdominals and to take the pressure off of the low back area.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.