How to use the weight room wisely

Along with cardio and flexibility work, a good strength-training program is essential for a healthy daily life. If you want to safely lug groceries, pick up kids or swing a golf club, strong muscles are key, especially as we age. Studies have shown that strength training also reduces the risk of osteoporosis.

But building muscle isn't just about grabbing a dumbbell and heaving. Proper technique is necessary to avoid injury and make progress. Lift too little and you won't gain much. Lift too much and you risk getting hurt. Here's what our experts say to consider when it comes to a basic, strength-training program.

Don't lift too heavy. You'll want to select a weight that produces fatigue when you do two to three sets of 10-12 repetitions (a rep is one lifting and lowering of a weight) with excellent form and control. (Beginners can start with two sets.) If you can't control the weight, or you need momentum to lift it, or if you're arching your back or lifting your hips or shoulders off a bench or seat to force the weight up, the weight's too heavy, says Neal Pire, a New Jersey-based fitness educator and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Don't lift too light. If you're able to easily do 15 or more reps, then you're emphasizing muscular endurance more than strength, Pire says. Endurance builds some strength, but it's more about allowing you to repeat a task for a prolonged duration, such as pedaling a bike.

Avoid bad form. This can be caused by lifting excessive weight (see above), using a strength machine incorrectly, stressing joints because you're not moving the weights in the proper path or not standing correctly. It adds up to a big risk of injury and a really inefficient use of your time in the weight room. With each machine, read the fine print and look at the little diagram. Adjust the seat and other parts for a proper fit (machines are often too big for small women and kids, no matter how much adjusting you do) and select a proper weight — not just leaving it where the last person had it. With free weights (dumbbells and barbells), make sure your body's in the correct position for each exercise. Use a good strength-training book with photos or diagrams and your gym's mirror to make sure form is correct, or work with a trainer until you have mastered each exercise.

Progress for more strength. If you lift the same weight over and over (whether on a machine or with free weights), your body will eventually adapt to the stress and not get any stronger. You need to overload your body systematically to strengthen it. When two to three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions of an exercise is no longer challenging, increase resistance about 5 to 10 percent.

Work opposing muscles. You're only as strong as your weakest link, Pire says, so if one muscle group is strong and the opposite group isn't, you risk injury, posture issues and other problems in daily life. If you strengthen your back but neglect your abs, back muscles can get stiff and tight while abs will get weak. If you bench press a lot but ignore the upper back and shoulders, the result can be rounded shoulders and neck pain, Pire says. Work triceps and biceps; abs and lower back; chest and upper back/shoulders; and quadriceps and hamstrings.

Work the major muscle groups. For an excellent basic workout, you need to work all the major muscle groups, which can be done with eight to 12 exercises, says Dr. Henry Williford, department head of physical education and exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery. Be sure to work quadriceps and hamstrings, abdominals and lower back, upper back/shoulders and chest, arms and calves. "A lot of times beginners just want to do the showy muscles — biceps, for example — and end up neglecting the rest of the body," Williford warns. Be sure to give each muscle at least 48 hours before challenging it again. Recovery, not during a workout, is when your muscles repair themselves and you grow stronger.

Have a structured program. If you don't know much about strength training, it's worth hiring a trainer for at least a few sessions to determine where you should start, help you develop goals and set up a progressive program. A trainer can also help ensure that your technique is correct.

Don't lift too fast. Whether on a machine or with dumbbells, your movements should be slow and controlled, Williford says. "General guidelines say you should take two seconds to raise the weight and two seconds to lower it. This also allows you to make sure you're breathing throughout rather than holding your breath." Lifting slowly also gives you time to concentrate on correct form and technique.

6 to 8: Weeks of lifting before you start to see much of a change in your muscles, Williford says.

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