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Weight Training Basics Part 2: A Sample Program

Bryant Stamford, PhD


This is the second of two Exercise Advisers on weight training. The first, on equipment and facility options, appeared in February.

Weight training can be tailored to fit everyone's needs. But many adults need a basic regimen that works all the major muscle groups, as in the following program. Before you lift, though, ask your doctor if your body can safely tolerate the program.

Overload Information

It's also important to understand basic concepts before starting.

The key to increasing strength is the overload principle—making a muscle do more than normal. This doesn't mean that more is better or that you have to pop veins to get results. Weight training is a gradual process. Also, overloading is relative. An inactive older person may overload with 5 pounds, whereas a young athlete may need to heft 300.

As your strength builds, you need to increase the overload. But once you have achieved the strength you want, there is no need to continue overloading. You can shift to a less demanding, maintenance approach. Once- or twice-weekly exercise with the resistance you have mastered will sustain your gains.

One Basic Program

The DeLorme method works well for beginners. For each of the exercises performed, first establish how much weight you can lift 10 times. (Each lift is called a "repetition," or "rep," and each group of 10 reps is called a "set.") Begin the process by lifting an obviously light weight 10 times. Rest a few minutes, then add weight and try again. A weight you can lift 10 times only is your 10 RM (repetition maximum).

Once you've determined your 10 RM, you'll do three sets of each exercise: one at 50% of your 10 RM, one at 75%, and one at 100%. For example, if 100 pounds is your 10 RM, you'd do your sets at 50, 75, and 100 pounds. The first two sets serve as a progressive warm-up, and the final set represents the overload.

Strive each session to do more than 10 reps with your 10 RM. When you can perform 15 reps, it's time to add weight. Never add more than 10% per week.

Specific Lifts

A well-rounded program challenges the major muscle groups safely (see "Training Tips," below). The following six exercises are described for use with common machines, but they can be done with other machines or with dumbbells and barbells. Adding exercises for the hamstrings, abdominals, back extensors, neck, and forearms would be a good next step.

Note that when lowering the weights in the exercises described, it's best to keep the moving weights from touching the weight stack.

Bench press. Works: chest (pectoral) and rear arm (triceps) muscles, with help from the shoulder (anterior deltoid) muscles. Technique: Lie face up on the bench, feet flat on the floor, with your head, shoulders, and buttocks pressed down firmly (figure 1). Use an overhand grip (palms facing away from your head) about shoulder width or slightly wider. Push the bar to arm's length, pause momentarily, then lower slowly and repeat.

Overhead military press. Works: shoulder (deltoid) and triceps muscles. Technique: Sit erect with your back flat (figure 2). An upright bench (similar to a reinforced chair) can be used to support your back. Grasp the bar in front of your neck with an overhand grip, your hands shoulder width apart, and your elbows out to the sides. Place your feet on the floor or wedged against the rungs of the seat. Press the bar to arm's length, pause, slowly lower it, then repeat.

Row. Works: large upper-back muscles (latissimus dorsi, or "lats"). Technique: Sit erect, with your chest against the chest pad (adjusted for complete arm extension, figure 3). Roll your shoulders forward and grasp the handles with a thumbs-up grip. Straighten your shoulders and raise the weights into the starting position. Concentrate on pulling with your upper-back muscles rather than your biceps, which will assist a bit. Lower slowly and repeat.

Biceps curl. Works: front arm muscles (biceps). Technique: Sit erect with your chest against the pad (figure 4). Your arms should rest on the top of the bench, with your arms completely extended and elbows lower than your shoulders. Grasp the bar with your palms up, hands slightly less than shoulder width apart. Curl the bar up to your chin, pause, lower slowly, and repeat. Keep your biceps tensed when the arms are extending to reduce elbow stress, and don't "lock" your elbows.

Leg press. Works: large thigh (quadriceps) muscles and hip extensors (gluteus maximus and hamstrings). Technique: Adjust the chair to allow your legs to extend completely (figure 5). Sit erect, with your buttocks and lower back firmly against the chair. Start with your knees bent 90° and your feet parallel and flat on the pedals. Grasp the chair handles and push the pedals until your knees are straight but not locked. Pause, tensing the muscles, then lower slowly and repeat.


Calf raise. Works: lower-leg muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus). Technique: Sit as shown (figure 6) or stand. Sitting isolates the calves better and promotes better form. Adjust the seat to allow a 90° knee bend with the resistance pad slightly above your knees. Allow complete ankle motion. Place your toes and the ball of each foot on the foot pad. Push with your calves, raising your knees as high as possible, which raises the stack of weights. Tense, lower slowly, and repeat.


Training Tips

  • Warm up thoroughly with a brisk walk or light jog, followed by stretching. Hanging from a bar loosens shoulder muscles.
  • Perform exercises through the full range of motion.
  • Use good form and posture always. Bending forward or backward works the wrong muscles and can cause injury.
  • Use slow, steady motions for all exercises.
  • Resist gravity. Don't allow the weight to accelerate as it descends.
  • Don't hold your breath. Breathe out during the difficult parts and in during the more relaxed phase.
  • Concentrate on the muscles that lift the weight.
  • Keep your eyes open to aid balance. Watch your motion in a mirror, or focus on a distant object.
  • Rest at least a day between workouts. Most people should not work a muscle group more than three times a week.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Stamford is director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center and professor of exercise physiology in the School of Education at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He is also an editorial board member of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.




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