Strengthening exercises, free weights, seated machines, and resistance bands are safe and effective for adults of all ages, including those not in perfect health. People with health concerns, including heart disease and osteoarthritis, often benefit the most from lifting weights a few times each week. An active lifestyle that includes both weight training and aerobic exercise can profoundly impact your physical and mental health. Physical activity preserves bone mineral density and improves glucose control, quality of sleep, and overall quality of life (CDC, 2011). For those interested in adopting a strength training routine, this article provides basic guidelines for improving both upper and lower body muscle endurance and strength.

If you are a beginner, exercising with lighter weights or less resistance allows your body to properly learn the movements as you build muscle endurance. Initial gains in strength for the first few weeks can be attributed to an increased efficiency of the central nervous system as you establish new neural connections that stimulate your muscles to contract. Beginners should select a weight that allows them to complete between 8-15 repetitions of an exercise while maintaining good posture. For individuals with intermediate to advanced strength training experience, choose a heavier weight that allows you to complete 8-12 repetitions, with the eventual goal of moving even heavier weights in the 1-6 repetition range (ACSM, 2009).

Strength and endurance exist on opposite ends of a continuum and cannot be optimally developed at the same time. Endurance, which is trained with less weight and more repetitions, allows you to increase your repetitions or duration of exercise. Beginners should train for muscle endurance before strength, which takes much longer to develop. Muscle strength, which is gained at low repetitions with heavier weight, allows us to increase the intensity of our workout. As your muscle endurance develops and you need more intensity to keep your workouts challenging, begin strength training by increasing the weight and decreasing the amount of repetitions you perform.

Remember to maintain a normal breathing pattern while you are lifting weights. Resist the urge to hold your breath as you contract your muscles, and try to synchronize your breathing with the tempo, or speed, of your repetitions. The goal is to maintain constant tension in your muscles as you move the weight through four phases of movement. The first phase of any exercise is the eccentric or lowering phase; the second is the bottom of the movement; the third is the concentric or lifting phase; and the fourth is the isometric hold, or “squeeze”, at the top of the movement. A “4-0-1-2” second tempo is great for building muscle and maximizing power output (Pryor, 2011). Using the dumbbell bicep curl for example, lower the dumbbell over four seconds until your arm is in full extension. Without pausing at the bottom, contract your muscle to lift the weight up over one second. Squeeze your bicep at the top of the movement for two seconds before lowering the weight again.

The most efficient workouts should work one large muscle group (legs, chest, back, for example) combined with one or two smaller muscle groups (biceps, triceps, abs, shoulders, calves) in one session. Choose 2-3 exercises per body part and aim to perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions. Training large muscle groups with multi-joint exercises first will improve general coordination and strength, while training small muscle groups with single-joint exercises will help to target specific muscle weaknesses (Balsamo, et al. 2013). For a beginner exercising two days a week, a typical workout may look something like this:

Upper Body Workout

3- 4 sets x 8- 12 repetitions per exercise

  • Bench Press
  • Seated Row
  • Triceps Extension
  • Bicep Curl

Lower Body Workout

3- 4 sets x 8- 12 repetitions per exercise

  • Squats
  • Quadriceps Extension
  • Hamstring Curl
  • Calf Raise

For a beginner, it is recommended that you train 2-3 days a week to allow your body adequate time to recover. Intermediate training can be done 3-4 days per week, while advanced lifters should aim for 4-5 days a week. A balanced workout, regardless of your fitness level, should be completed in less than 60 minutes. These general guidelines should be taken in context, and applied based upon your target goals, physical capacity, and current level of training (ACSM, 2009).

Sarah Dalton is the founder of Able Mind Able Body, a Las Vegas based company offering motivational lifestyle coaching and personal training services. She takes a holistic approach to healthy living, and educates others on the benefits of nutrition, exercise, and emotional health. Visit for more info.