Six tips for safe strength training

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Strength training isn't just for bodybuilders. Like aerobic exercise, it's important for everybody, and it should be a part of any comprehensive exercise program. Of course, if you've never trained with weights before, it can seem a little daunting. But as long as you ease into it gradually and take the proper precautions, strength training is safe for most people.

Use the six tips below to help you get the most from your strength workouts.

1. Focus on form, not weight. Good form means aligning your body correctly and moving smoothly through an exercise. Poor form can prompt injuries and slow gains. "I often start people with very light weights because I want them to get their alignment and form right," says master trainer Josie Gardiner. Concentrate on performing slow, smooth lifts and equally controlled descents whenever you learn a new exercise. You can always add weight to challenge your muscles once you know how to move with good form.

2. Tempo, tempo. Control is very important. Tempo helps you stay in control rather than undercut gains through momentum. Sometimes switching speed — for example, taking three counts to lower a weight and one count to lift it, instead of lifting for two and lowering for two — 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 by lifting, pushing, or pulling the weight; inhale as you release.

4. Keep challenging muscles. The "right" weight differs depending on the exercise. Choose a weight that tires the targeted muscles by the last two repetitions 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 per exercise); or working out additional days per week (as long as you rest each muscle group for 48 hours before exercising it again).

5. Practice 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 example, if you're doing split strength workouts, you might do upper body on Monday, lower body on Tuesday, upper body on Wednesday, lower body on Thursday, etc.

For additional advice and tips to help you get the most from your workouts, purchase the Workout Workbook, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.