What Is Strength Training and What Are the Best Exercises to Try?

female working on exercises on mat

Strength training is the use of weights or resistance to target muscles in the body. This type of training increases your efficiency and your ability to push or pull increasing amounts of weight. The tone and definition of your muscles will depend on the intensity and duration of your training. Strength training should be a part of everyone’s exercise routine, regardless of age, gender, or fitness goals. Training your muscles is associated with a slew of health benefits, including better cardiovascular health, reduced cancer risk, improved flexibility and mobility, reduced chance of developing osteoporosis, lower chance of injury, and better body weight management. 

Even if your goal is simply to lose weight, building muscle increases metabolism, burns more calories than fat, and can support your cardio workouts. Not only will you shed pounds faster, but you’ll keep them off longer.

There are three major areas of your body: upper, lower, and core. Most strength training routines combine upper and core body workouts, and work the lower body separately. 

As a general rule, you should target these areas on alternating days to promote muscle recuperation. Overworking your muscles can set back your progress and result in injury. You can also do full-body workouts, which may be longer and more intense and will still require a day between routines for rest.

Before starting your workout, you should warm up for five to 10 minutes to loosen up your body and help prevent injuries. It’s also important to watch your breathing. You should breathe out as you’re lifting the weight or pushing against the resistance, and take a deep breath in as you lower the weight. You should also never bounce your body – maintaining proper form is essential.

Each of the exercises below should be performed for 10 to 15 reps for three sets.

Upper Body Strength Training

The major upper body muscles are the upper back muscles (trapezius and rhomboids), the shoulder muscles (deltoids and rotator cuffs), chest muscles (pectorals), and arm muscles (biceps, triceps, and forearm muscles). While many people only consider the arms and chest in upper body strength training, the back and shoulder muscles are equally important for good posture and injury prevention.

Best upper body strength exercises to try:

1. Pushups

The standard pushup is a classic for a reason. It requires no equipment and targets the chest, shoulders, triceps, and even the abdominal muscles, which are part of your core muscle group. 

Place your hands a little wider than shoulder length apart. If you have wrist pain, you can use pushup handles or bars. Place your feet at a width that is comfortable for you. Your main goal here is to maintain balance and keep your posture straight.

Bend your arms to lower your body in a controlled movement, keeping your elbows pointing directly behind you. If you are not strong enough, you can bring your knees to the ground and cross your legs behind you.

Keep your focus slightly ahead of you as you lower yourself to the ground. Your arms should be tucked against your armpits and not away from your torso. Once you are almost touching the ground, raise yourself up with the same slow, controlled movement for one rep.

2. Bench Press 

This exercise targets the chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and back muscles.

To start, lie flat on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Your legs should stay stationary throughout the movement. Place your hands on the bar, a little wider than the span of your shoulders. Push up and out to remove the bar from the holding station.

As you lower the bar, make sure to keep your elbows underneath your wrists. You want to lower in a slow and controlled manner just above your chest line and until your elbows are just a little lower than the bench. Raise back up with a slight arc. You want to come back up in line with your shoulders and not directly above your face. 

Once you’ve completed all of your reps, slowly and carefully make sure the bar is placed securely in the holder where you started.

3. Bent-Over Lateral Raise

This exercise is particularly good for targeting the shoulder and back muscles but can also target your arm muscles. You will be using two dumbbells for this exercise.

With dumbbells in hand, begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly, then bend at the waist until your torso is nearly parallel to the ground. Your back should only have a slight, natural curve, and your arms should be below your shoulders with a slight bend at the elbow.

Making sure to keep your core tight and your back flat, raise the dumbbells to the sides away from your torso until your elbows are in line with your shoulders. Your pinky should be slightly higher than your thumb, as if pouring water from a cup.

Slowly bring your arms back down to the starting position for one rep.

Core Body Strength Training

Your core muscles include the sides of your abs (transverse abdominis), your main stomach area (rectus abdominis), your sides (obliques), and spine area (multifidus and erector spinae). These muscles help with posture and coordinate the other muscle groups in your upper and lower body.

Best core body strength exercises to try:

1. Plank 

A plank requires no equipment and essentially works all of your major core muscles.

To properly perform a plank, get in position like you are about to do a pushup. Hold the pose, making sure your back doesn’t dip and your legs and arms stay strong. You should focus on a spot on the ground about a foot in front of you to help keep your form in a straight line. 

Unlike the other exercises, you must count minutes held instead of reps during plank, and you should aim to hold it as long as you can without compromising your form. Aim for around 20 to 60 seconds for a set of three.

2. Decline Oblique Crunches

You can do this exercise with a free weight or cable weight. It targets your obliques specifically but also provides a workout for the rest of your core.

Secure your legs at the end of a decline bench then slowly lower your body back until you are lying on the bench. Put one hand on your head, elbow extending out, and the other on your thigh. 

Raise your body slowly, while curling toward the leg where your hand is. Come all the way up until the elbow by your head touches the opposite knee. Hold here for one count, keeping your abs tight. Slowly release and lower back down to the starting position for one rep.

Switch the position of your hands to complete your reps on the other side.

3. Leg Raise 

Another exercise that requires no equipment, the leg raise targets your rectus abdominis and obliques. 

Lie on your back with your palms facing down next to your hips and your legs straight out and together. Raise your legs in a controlled motion toward the ceiling until your butt comes off the ground. 

Use your arms to stabilize yourself, but don’t push too hard into them because that will diminish the effectiveness of the exercise. Slowly lower your legs until they are about six inches from the floor and hold for one count for a rep.

Lower-Body Strength Training

The major muscle groups in the lower body are glutes (your butt), quadriceps (the upper leg), hamstrings (the back of the upper leg), and calves (the back of the lower leg).

Best lower body strength exercises to try:

1. Jump Squat 

Thanks to its compound movement, this exercise works your entire leg. 

Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. You can extend your arms out in front of you or clasp your hands together at your chest, whichever helps your balance most. 

Pretend like you’re lowering yourself to sit in a chair by moving back and down, allowing your back to arch slightly as you lower. 

Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor and your knees are above your ankles. Engage your core and spring upward into a jump, lifting your feet off the ground. Land softly and resume a squat position for a single rep.

2. Walking Lunge 

male doing lunges with kettleball

This exercise targets most of your major lower body muscles. 

Start by standing with your feet about hip-width apart, with your hands on your hips and a straight back. Step forward with your right foot and allow your left knee to lower to the ground. Your right knee should form a 90-degree angle. 

Slowly return to your starting position, then put your right leg behind you and reverse the movement so that your right leg meets the floor and your left knee creates a 90-degree angle. Move back to the center again for one rep. 

You will need to switch the foot you lead with to complete reps for both sides.

3. Weighted Calf Raise 

This exercise works your whole leg with an emphasis on your calf. You will use two dumbells (one in each hand) and a platform that’s about three to six inches high. A stair or weight plate can also be used.

Stand straight with your dumbells in either hand by your sides. Place the balls of your feet on the platform with your heels to the floor. Slowly raise your heels off the floor, keeping your calves contracted. Slowly lower to the starting position for one rep.

Remember, it’s important to stay hydrated and eat a well-balanced diet in addition to allowing your muscles time to recuperate between workouts!