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Southern Orthopaedic Sports Medicine
Where the science of medicine meets the art of living.

Starting A Weight Training Program

By Evan F. Ekman, M.D.

Weight training refers to exercise performed against heavy a resistance, by using barbells, dumbbells (weights), or specialized machines.

Traditionally, weightlifting was a sport in and of itself, contested since the 1800’s. If you were able to lift more weight than your fellow competitors, you were the winner.

In the 1950’s the virtue of weight training to improve athletic performance in other sports began to take hold. In addition to getting stronger, athletes and coaches began to realize that when done correctly, one could also reduce the risk of injury. Today, people train with weights for these reasons and more, including improved athletic performance, rehabilitation after an injury, and sometimes simply to look better. Mental alertness and improved self-esteem are secondary benefits of a weight-training program that people of all ages report.

If you are considering starting a weight training and fitness program, take a few moments to consider why you are making the time (and more than likely, financial) commitment. Know your goals and keep them in mind. As weight-training programs can accomplish many different things, these goals (strength, mass, endurance, rehabilitation, athletic performance, etc.) will dictate how your program is structured. Your goals will also serve as a great motivator to maintain a regular schedule of fitness activity.

After you have figured out what your goals are, it’s time to build a weight-training program. Personal trainers and strength coaches work with six variables when building this program:

Choice of Exercise - What are the muscles important for your sport? What areas of your body would you like to tone? These are the questions which will, in part, dictate your choice of exercises. What about dumbbells, barbells, or machines? This is a complex subject and if you are just starting a weight-training program, a personal trainer or strength coach can help you. Keep in mind that variety in exercises performed not only keeps the workout from getting boring, it also produces better results. Change your exercise periodically.

Resistance and Repetition - Resistance means the amount of weight your will be pushing or pulling. The number of repetitions means how many times you will be doing this in a given “set.” If your primary objective is to get stronger and/or bigger, then you will be doing heavy weights with relatively few (6-8) repetitions in a set. If you want to improve your endurance or develop muscular tone, sets with lighter weight and repetitions (12-15) should be performed.

Number of Sets - A set is a series of continuous repetitions. Doing more sets will work a given muscle group harder, ultimately yielding good results, but at a higher likelihood of soreness, and even injury. When you are just starting out, perform only one or two sets on each exercise. Learn the proper technique and don’t be in a hurry to do too much. Increase the number of sets as you experience and muscular conditioning increase.

Order of Exercises - For every fitness expert asked, this question will produce a new answer. Most will recommend working the big muscles first, then the small ones. In other words, start with the trunk muscles and then do the extremity muscles.

Rest Between Sets - The rest you allow yourself between sets also depends on your weight-training goals. If your goal is improved muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness, allow a short amount of times between sets (30 seconds). If your objective is to increase strength and muscle mass, rest about 90 seconds between sets. Some advances strength training programs will rest for as much as three to five minutes between sets.

Rest Between Workouts - To get stronger, muscles not only need a good workout, they also need time to rest. Most muscles groups need a “recovery time” of 48 to 72 hours. Because of this many people will alternate the muscle groups worked from day to day. For strength purposes, there is no need to work any muscle group every day.

If you are over 30 years old, it is recommended that you consult your physician before starting. If you have had orthopaedic injuries in the past, get them checked out by a physician familiar with fitness and conditioning routines prior to starting. Your doctor can tell you which exercises can help your injured joint and which ones may hurt it. For example, simple modifications of routine shoulder exercises are often necessary if one has had a history of shoulder problems.

Finding time to workout regularly becomes the next challenge. Keep your goals in mind. In addition to achieving them, the secondary benefits, such as improved health, mental alertness, and self-esteem will become apparent. Keep in mind, a weight-training program is just one facet of better health and fitness. The importance of routine cardiovascular conditioning and proper nutrition cannot be overstated. Have fun and good luck!

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