Try these six tips for safer, more effective strength training.
1. Focus on form, not weight. Good form means aligning your body correctly and moving smoothly through an exercise. Poor form can cause injuries and slow gains because you aren't isolating muscles properly. "I often start people with very light weights because I want them to get their alignment and form right," says master trainer Josie Gardiner. "It's good to start off using light to moderate weight when learning an exercise routine." Concentrate on slow, smooth lifts and equally controlled descents.
2. Tempo, tempo. Control is very important. Tempo helps you stay in control rather than undercut gains by relying on momentum. Sometimes varying the speed of your exercises — for example, lowering for three counts, lifting for one count — is a useful technique for enhancing power.
3. Breathe. Blood pressure rises if you hold your breath while performing strength exercises. Exhale as you work against gravity when lifting, pushing, or pulling; inhale as you release.
4. Keep challenging muscles. The right weight differs depending on the exercise. Choose a weight that tires the targeted muscle or muscles by the last two reps while still allowing you to maintain good form. If you can't do the last two reps, choose a lighter weight. When it feels too easy to complete all the reps, challenge your muscles again by adding weight (roughly 1 to 2 pounds for arms, 2 to 5 pounds for legs); adding a set to your workout (up to three sets); or working out additional days per week (as long as you rest muscle groups 48 hours between strength workouts).
5. Do your routine regularly. Performing a complete upper- and lower-body strength workout two or three times a week is ideal.
6. Give muscles time off. Strenuous exercise like strength training causes tiny tears in muscle tissue. Muscles grow stronger as the tears knit up. Always allow at least 48 hours between sessions for muscles to recover.
For additional advice on getting the most from your workouts, buy Workout Workbook, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.