Why Strength Train?

Lose weight and gain muscle with simple exercises you can do at home.


Strength training not only tones muscles, it reduces fat, speeds metabolism, increases endurance, improves posture, strengthens bones, and cuts your risk of injury. And you're never too old or too out of shape to benefit. Consider:

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  • Tufts University put a group of elderly nursing-home residents on a strength-training regimen. They all more than doubled their strength. Four people traded in their walkers for canes after 10 weeks.
  • In another Tufts study, a group of postmenopausal women on a twice-weekly strength-training routine performed at levels comparable to women 15 to 20 years younger. They pumped up their muscle power 35 to 76 percent and, as a result, burned 442 more calories each week while at rest.
  • A Brigham Young University study found that 30 women who did nine basic strength-training exercises three times a week for 12 weeks cut their daily fat intake to 30 percent of total calories. The control group of women that stretched instead of strengthening made no improvements, according to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Getting Started

Even if you don't want to exercise in public or spend the money to join a gym, you can build strength at home. A set of handheld dumbbells at 1, 2, 5, 8, and 10 pounds can cost as little as $50, says James M. Rippe, M.D., author of Fit over Forty (Quill, 1996).

The principle behind weight training is to add resistance to your body's natural movements so muscles get stronger. Inexpensive bands, cables, and exercise balls -- even soup cans, paperbacks, sand-filled socks, or water-filled jugs -- can do the job. A pint is a pound, so a quart would be 2 pounds, a half-gallon 4 pounds, and a gallon 8 pounds.

Below are some recommended exercises you can do at home.

According the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the nonprofit organization that sets standards for certification of fitness trainers, one set of 8-12 repetitions, working the muscle to the point of fatigue, is usually sufficient to begin with. When you are able to perform 12 repetitions of an exercise correctly (without cheating), you may increase the amount of resistance by 5 percent to 10 percent to continue safe progress. Conditioned individuals may want to increase the weight, number of sets, or the frequency or duration of their workouts to increase muscle mass.

1. Bent row. Place right hand and knee on a bench so that your back is parallel to the floor. Grasp a dumbbell with your left hand and pull straight to your chest. Lower dumbbell. Repeat and switch sides. Keep hips level, back straight, and elbow close to your body. Works the opposing muscles: upper back, biceps, and rear shoulders.

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2. Dumbbell bench press. Lie face up on a bench, holding a weight directly above each shoulder. Slowly lift upward and return. Repeat. Avoid locking elbows and don't rotate wrists. Works chest, triceps, and front shoulders.

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3. Dumbbell squat. Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder width. With weights in each hand by your hips, slowly lower your body until thighs are about parallel to the floor -- never further. Return to standing. Keep back and head erect and feet flat on floor, and don't lock your knees. Works front and rear thighs (quadriceps and hamstrings) and butt muscles (gluteals).

4. Shoulder press. Stand with feet about shoulder-width apart. Lift dumbbells to shoulders. Press the left one overhead and lower slowly to shoulder. Repeat, alternating sides. Keep back straight and movements steady. Works shoulders and triceps.

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5. Trunk curl. (This exercise uses no weights.) Lie on a mat with your knees bent. Pull in your stomach, imagining your belly button glued to your spine. As you slowly curl your head and shoulders off the mat, exhale. Inhale as you lower. Don't strain your neck or raise hips. Works the dreaded belly.

Safety Tips

Certain safety tips apply for all strength training, say experts. If you're over 30, consult your doctor before starting. Always wear shoes with good support and traction, and keep your training area tidy so you don't trip.

Also, seek guidance from a certified personal trainer or how-to books, such as Westcott's Building Strength and Stamina, Human Kinetics, 1996). For a list of recommended trainers in your area, call the American Council on Exercise at 800-529-8227.

Here are some other tips to remember:

  • Begin each session with a warm-up of more than five minutes walking, followed by five minutes of stretching. End with another five to 10 minutes of stretches.
  • Start with small weights you can easily control, perhaps 2- to 10-pound dumbbells. You should be able to do 12 repetitions before becoming too tired to lift them with proper form.
  • Imbalance leads to injury, so always exercise each of the body's major muscle groups: front of the thigh, rear thigh, lower back, abdominals, chest, upper back, shoulders, and front and back of the upper arms.
  • Don't work the same muscles two days in a row. Body parts need a day off to recover since muscles are strengthened by being torn down and then repaired.
  • Strong muscles are less likely to get injured, but if you hurt, stop. Ice the throbbing muscle, elevate it, and take a few days to rest it.
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