High-Intensity Resistance Training for Beginners

High-Intensity Resistance Training for Beginners. Safe and Effective Strength Training

High-Intensity Resistance Training for Beginners. Safe and Effective Strength Training

A member being coached on how to do bicep curls

If you haven’t strength trained for a while — or ever — the thought of trying it may seem intimidating.

What kind of strength training do I do?
How much weight should I be lifting?
How do I know if I’m doing it right?
What if I hurt myself?
What muscles does this machine work?

So many variables. So many unknowns.

And for a lot of us, that can be enough to keep us from ever trying it.

So, if you are brand new to strength training or are looking to get back into it, this article is for you.

Jump to a Topic:
Should I Strength Train?
High-Intensity Resistance Training
What Muscles Am I Working?
Example HIT Workouts

Should I Strength Train?

You might wonder if strength training is appropriate for your specific circumstances. Maybe you have never strength trained before, or lifting weights makes you nervous. Or perhaps you have injuries or limitations that make exercise feel complicated.

Commonly, we find one of the following is what slows people down from getting started in strength training.

Is Strength Training Safe?

Strength training is extremely safe.

Injuries generally come from broken equipment, unstable exercises, or dropped weights (Gray & Finch, 2015).

However, none of these are issues at The Perfect Workout, being that we don’t use broken equipment or unstable equipment, and any free weights are used under the careful guidance of an expert coach.

Even if you have injuries or are not currently fit, strength training can help in making joints stronger and slowly improve your physical condition (Gray & Finch, 2015; Maestroni et al., 2020).

And as long as you maintain good, proper form, the exercise becomes safer as the muscles become more deeply fatigued. In fact, when using slow-motion strength training, the last reps are the most productive reps performed, and they are also the safest since your muscles are physically unable to produce enough force to strain (assuming form is not broken).

Am I “Too Old” To Start Working Out?

Strength training is safe and beneficial…at all ages. There is no such thing as being “too old” to participate. In fact, a study showed strength training is safe and beneficial for men and women between 85 and 97 years of age (Kryger & Andersen, 2007)!

Not only did no injuries occur in that study, but the participants became substantially stronger and gained muscle.

Is Strength Training Worth It?

Do you want to be healthier, happier, or more fit? We’re going to assume that you want at least one of those if not all three. Strength training can provide all of those benefits.

In fact, strength training can:

  • reduce the risk of common chronic diseases (cancer, diabetes, and heart disease)
  • reduce body fat
  • improve sleep quality
  • reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • build muscle and strength
  • enhance joint health, among other benefits (Maestroni et al., 2020).

High-Intensity Resistance Training

“Resistance training” is another phrase for strength training. For the most effective way to strength train, we recommend a unique style of training referred to as “high-intensity resistance training ” (HIT) or “slow-motion strength training.”

High-intensity refers to the relative effort you put forth. HIT offers a unique approach to training that fits people of all ages and adjusts to the individual’s fitness level while being time-efficient.

Traditionally, strength training includes several sets of several exercises. The most common version of this is performing three sets of 10-12 repetitions, for 8-10 exercises. A workout like this requires about 60 minutes, with at least half of that time spent resting between sets. HIT trains the same muscles to similar results, but in a fraction of the time.

Instead of performing three sets per exercise, HIT provides the same benefits with just one set per exercise.

HIT includes selecting a challenging weight (relative to your own strength level), and then performing as many reps as possible until you’re no longer physically able to (hence the “high-intensity” part of the name).

Here are a few other guidelines for how to perform HIT:

  • Pick a challenging weight. As noted, the weight should start at a challenging level and ultimately become impossible to move (when reaching complete fatigue, or “Muscle Success”). On a difficulty scale of 1-10 (1 = easy and 10 = extremely difficult), the weight should start in the 6-8 range.
  • Move in a slow and controlled manner. During each repetition, lift the weight in several seconds and lower the weight in several seconds. Move like a car on cruise control, with a constant speed and no acceleration.
  • Breathe freely. Breathe through your mouth several times on both the lifting phrase and the lowering phase of each repetition. As your muscles become fatigued and you near the end, breathe more frequently (instead of holding your breath).
  • Move quickly between exercises. After performing one set of an exercise to complete fatigue, move quickly to the next exercise. The hustle between exercises raises your heart rate while providing more health and fitness benefits.

What Muscles Am I Working?

Have you ever done an exercise and did not have a clue which part of the body you were working? Or maybe you’ve done an exercise to target your glutes, but felt it in your low back instead.

It’s important to know what areas of the body you’re working and how to target them. Here are some of our tips.

Most weight machines have a “cheat sheet” on the machine itself, showing you the target muscle group on that exercise. To answer the age-old question, “What muscle am I working?” Here is a comprehensive cheat sheet for you!

Updated Corresponding Exercises Chart

If you’re questioning whether or not you’re doing an exercise correctly, or you feel like you might not be, here are some additional tips:

  1. Know which muscle(s) you are working prior to doing an exercise. Use the cheat sheet above if needed.
  2. Practice the movement of the exercise before adding resistance while thinking about the targeted muscle. This will help strengthen your muscle-mind connection.
    Example: Bicep curls – practice the curling motion and intentionally squeeze the biceps throughout the range of motion.
  3. Once you feel like you can engage the correct muscle(s), perform the exercise with the appropriate resistance.

What Muscles Am I Working?

Strength training is safe and fits various fitness levels. HIT is an especially appealing option, being that it’s efficient, effective, and safe. If HIT is an appealing option to you, use the guidelines in the previous section.

A typical HIT workout includes 7-10 exercises and trains all major muscle groups: back, chest, shoulders, glutes, and thighs. Below are a few examples of HIT workouts:

Examples of HIT Workouts

Traditionally, free weights are the go-to tool to maximize strength and muscle growth. But are they proven to be the most effective equipment for reaching these goals? The research isn’t clear.

One study found that the barbell bench press and its machine equivalent, the chest press, were equally effective in activating the muscle fibers in the chest, shoulders, and triceps (McCaw & Friday, 1994).

However, a study comparing a barbell squat with a leg press (on a leg press machine) showed that the squat was more effective for activating muscle fibers in the quadriceps and hamstrings (Escamilla et al., 2001), indicating that the squats might be more effective for producing muscle growth over time.

A recent study dove further into the question of which is best for muscle growth and strength (Schwanbeck et al., 2020). Men and women trained 2-3 times per week with either the free weight or machine version of the same basic movements.

At the end, the researchers measured both groups’ progress. Which type of equipment led to better “gains?” Neither. The free weight and machine groups had similar increases in both strength and muscle size.

Summary

We probably didn’t need to tell you that, yes, you should be doing strength training of some sort. Hopefully, we’ve given you some tools (and a boost of confidence) to add HIT exercise into your routine – or even substitute it for less efficient methods.

Strength training is extremely safe when performed properly. Prioritize form, intensity, and controlled speeds to get the most effective workout.

It’s never too late and you’re never too old to get started with strength training. Check out one of our members in her 80s!

Although you can absolutely train on your own, working with a Personal Trainer has tremendous value. A Trainer’s supervision leads to more effective workouts. It helps us stick with a fitness program, and greatly increases the chances that we’ll reach our health and fitness goals.

To learn more about working with a Trainer at The Perfect Workout, start by finding a studio near you today.

  • Faigenbaum, A. D., Kraemer, W. J., Blimkie, C. J., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L. J., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. W. (2009). Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23, S60-S79.
  • Gray, S.E. & Finch, C.F. (2015). Epidemiology of hospital-treated injuries sustained by fitness participants. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 86, 81-87.
  • Kryger, A. I., & Andersen, J. L. (2007). Resistance training in the oldest old: consequences for muscle strength, fiber types, fiber size, and MHC isoforms. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 17(4), 422-430.
  • Maestroni, L., Read, P., Bishop, C., Papadopoulos, K., Suchomel, T. J., Comfort, P., & Turner, A. (2020). The benefits of strength training on musculoskeletal system health: practical applications for interdisciplinary care. Sports Medicine, 1-20.
  • Waller, M., Miller, J., & Hannon, J. (2011). Resistance circuit training: Its application for the adult population. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 33(1), 16-22.

How Long Does it Take to Build Muscle?

How Long Does it Take to Build Muscle?

How long does it take to build muscle, before and after photo

“When will I see results?”

This is one of the most commonly-asked questions when someone starts The Perfect Workout. It’s also one of the most challenging questions to answer.

The answer is complex because it’s based on many factors. Also, “results” could mean many different things: fat loss, added strength, more energy, better sleep, or visible muscle growth.

It’s safe to say most people want to be able to see some muscle definition. So, in this article, we will discuss what the research says on when you should start noticing muscle growth, what are not signs of muscle growth, and how that timeline can be expedited.

Why We ALL Want Muscle

Before we deep dive into all things muscle growth, it’s important to keep this in mind – strength training is not just for growing bigger muscles. In fact, strength training does so much more for your overall health and longevity than simply looking toned and muscular.

  • Here are some good reasons to build muscle:
  • Avoid muscle loss
  • Avoid metabolic rate reduction
  • Increase muscle mass
  • Increase metabolic rate
  • Reduce body fat
  • Increase bone mineral density
  • Improve glucose metabolism
  • Increase gastrointestinal transit speed
  • Reduce resting blood pressure
  • Improve blood lipid levels
  • Reduce low back pain
  • Reduce arthritic pain
  • Reduce depression

As you can see from all those benefits, building muscle isn’t just for looks. But if you are concerned about getting “big and bulky” or want more information on how strength training affects men vs women, this might be the article for you.

Muscle soreness from muscle building on a woman's quads

Misleading Signs of Muscle Growth

Muscle growth starts almost immediately when strength training begins. However, gaining a noticeable amount of muscle takes a little longer. Before discussing a timeline, let’s talk about what are NOT indicators of growing muscles.

Muscle soreness

“I like being sore the next day because I know I did something.”

Most of us have said or felt this way after a workout.

Soreness, although gratifying for some, is not a sign of whether or not you stimulated your muscles to grow. Read that again.

Sore muscles simply indicate that you did something new or unusual for your muscles.

Walking 20 miles in a day would likely cause most of us to have sore leg muscles, but it won’t help to grow your muscles.

Early strength gains

Being able to lift increasingly heavy weights is typically a sign that your muscle cells are becoming larger. The exception to this is at the start of a new training program or regimen while your body learns to lift weights efficiently.

For the first few weeks, people gain strength due to neurological adaptations. In other words, the nervous system becomes more efficient and effective at stimulating coordinated movement on the exercises. This makes the movement [lifting heavy weights] more automatic and seemingly easier.

After a few weeks, gaining strength is primarily a result of muscle growth and less due to deceptive neurological adaptations.

The post-workout muscle “pump”

One of our favorite parts of the strength training experience is having swollen muscles following the workout.

Why?

It’s aesthetically pleasing (and we’re all a little guilty of checking ourselves out in the mirror once or twice after the workout). This effect, known as “transient hypertrophy,” is due to a short-term increase of blood plasma in and around muscle cells. It gives the muscles a temporary appearance of looking larger and more shapely … aka, the “pump.”

The pump only lasts a few hours and isn’t a direct indicator of muscle growth.

Before and after photos of muscle growth

How Long Does It Take to Build Muscle?

Building muscle takes time and most people begin to notice physical results, or “noticing their muscles” after about 3-5 weeks. However, muscles begin getting stronger within the first week of strength training and continue to get stronger with consistent workouts.

Now that we know muscle soreness and a post-workout mirror check aren’t reliable ways to gauge muscle growth, how do we know when we’re building muscle? And how long does it all take?

The muscle growth timeline was studied by researchers at the University of Oklahoma. CT scans were conducted weekly on men who started a strength training program. Similar to The Perfect Workout, the participants in this study trained twice a week.

After just one week, muscle fibers became 3.5% thicker.

  • Muscles grew steadily after that point:
  • 4.5% larger at the end of week 2
  • 6% at the end of week 3
  • 6.7% at the end of week 4
  • 8% at the end of week 5
    Finished at 9.6% larger at the end of the study (eight weeks)

The conclusions are that muscle growth starts immediately and steadily continues after that point.

You might be thinking, but when will I be able to see more muscle definition? When is it noticeable?

Researchers noted that about 7-8% growth is the point when this change can be seen. According to the study, this should take about 3-5 weeks to start noticing muscle growth. And according to exercise researcher Dr. Ellington Darden, “Genetically gifted men can probably reach their maximum size in 24 months.” (Read: not the norm.)

How can people notice initial changes in muscle size?

Common ways to see this is clothes fitting differently, pants feeling tighter in the thigh or hip area, or “new” muscle lines appearing in the thighs or arms.

How to Build Muscle Faster

The timeline of 3-5 weeks is when you could start to see muscle growth. That timeline could be longer. Part of that timeline and how much muscle you grow in general, is largely determined by your training habits, other complementary habits, and genetics.

Genetics and biology do play a role in your potential for muscle growth, as discussed in our article about the differences between male and female muscle growth. In Dr. Ellington Darden’s book, The New High Intensity Training, he discusses genetic potential for muscle growth.

In short, the length of major muscles determine genetic potential for muscle growth because longer muscles can be wider and wider muscles lead to more volume. So you can’t do much about those sorts of things. But there are three key things you can do.

Here are three factors in your control that impact how much muscle you grow and how quickly you notice it.

1. Exercise consistency and frequency

How much exercise you do is a big factor in determining the amount of muscle growth. Training three times per week will likely increase muscle growth quicker than training once or twice per week.

Of course, you can plan to train three times per week, but if you are frequently missing sessions, those plans won’t convert to actual results.

It’s also important to know that training three times a week would only be beneficial if you’re trying to get bigger-sized muscles and that strength for longevity and better health is separate and sufficient with 1-2 workouts a week.

2. Full range of motion exercises.

The most common strength training error we see in gyms is a lack of full movement. For example, you might see this in a dumbbell curl where the person only lowers the weight halfway down before starting the next rep.

The vast majority of studies comparing full movement to partial movement show that lifting the full movement enhances muscle growth.

3. Eating enough protein.

Protein is broken down by the body into amino acids, which are used to repair and rebuild muscle tissue following workouts. The amount of protein you consume is critical to your rate of muscle growth.

Your daily intake in grams should be equal to or greater than your weight (lbs.) multiplied by 0.75.

For example, if you weigh 150 lbs., you should eat at least 113 grams of protein each day (150 x 0.75 = 113). If you weigh 200 lbs, eat at least 150 grams per day (200 x 0.75 = 150).

Summary

You might start seeing changes in your muscles around one month in. To gain more muscle immediately and in general, train frequently, consistently, use a full range of movement, and eat ample amounts of protein daily.

Whether you see the muscle changes, know that your body is changing in a positive manner after just one week. Your muscles are growing, you are gaining strength, and your health is improving in several ways that you may or may not notice.

If you want more information on how to incorporate slow-motion strength training into your workout routine, we have a free introductory session. If you’d like to know more about how to work with a trainer online, get a free consultation call with a Personal Trainer.

DeFreitas, J.M., Beck, T.W., Stock, M.S., Dillon, M.A., & Kasishke, P.R. (2011). An examination of the time course of training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy. European Journal of Applied Physiology. DOI 10.1007/s0042-011-1905-4.

Deldicque, L. (2020). Protein intake and exercise-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy: an update.

Lemon, P. W. (2000). Beyond the zone: protein needs of active individuals. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 19(sup5), 513S-521S.

Schoenfeld, B.J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2018). Resistance training volume enhances muscle hypertrophy but not strength in trained men. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Schoenfeld, B.J. & Grgic, J. (2020). Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: a systematic review. SAGE Open. 

Schoenfeld, B.J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J.W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training in muscle mass: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(11), 1073-1082.

Campbell, W.,Crim, M., Young,V. and Evans,W. (1994). Increased energy requirements and changes in body composition with resistance training in older adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 60: 167-175. 

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Hurley, B. (1994). Does strength training improve health status? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 16: 7-13. 

Hurley, B., Hagberg, J., Goldberg, A., et al. (1988). Resistance training can reduce coronary risk factors without altering VO2 max or percent body fat. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 20: 150-154. 

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Koffler, K., Menkes, A. Redmond, W. et al. (1992). Strength training accelerates gastrointestinal transit in middle-aged and older men. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 24: 415-419. 

Menkes, A., Mazel, S., Redmond, R. et al. (1993). Strength training increases regional bone mineral density and bone remodeling in middle-aged and older men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 74: 2478-2484. 

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Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., C.S.C.S, is Fitness Research Director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is strength training consultant for numerous national organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise, the American Senior Fitness Association, and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, and editorial advisor for many publications, including Prevention, Shape, and Club Industry magazines. 

He is also author of 20 fitness books including the new releases, No More Cellulite, Building Strength and Stamina, Strength Training Past 50, Strength Training for Seniors, Complete Conditioning for Golf, and Strength and Power for Young Athletes

Muscle and Strength Gains for Beginners

muscle and strength gains for beginners

During your first session at The Perfect Workout, you may have asked your trainer the following question: “How much muscle (or strength) should I expect to gain during my first few weeks?”

Based on your trainer’s experience, he or she may have offered an educated guess. However, the truth is we have no idea how much strength or muscle you, as an individual, will gain during your first few weeks. No one does. There is just too much variability between separate people. Sure, we can offer averages based on previous results, but results vary and outliers do exist.

This point is illustrated well by a 2005 study that involved 9 schools across the US and one in Dublin, Ireland [1]. This large study showed that you’re almost guaranteed to gain strength and muscle from a proper strength training program, but as far as how much you’ll improve is very hard to predict. The study’s researchers followed 585 men and women, 18 to 40 years old, for 12 weeks of upper arm training. The collaboration of 10 schools enabled a large sample size of participants, and this is important because large sample sizes provide better representations of the universal response.

The training featured four exercises, two for the biceps and two for the triceps. Each exercise was performed for three sets to the fatigue point of “muscle success” and the weight loads were increased throughout the training. Before and after the 12 weeks, one-repetition maximum tests and MRIs were conducted to measure arm strength and muscle size.

The researchers predicted a wide range of muscle and strength changes…and they were correct. Women and men ranged from 0 to 250% and 0 to 150% stronger, respectively. Average strength gains were 64% and 40%. Muscle size changes ranged from –3% to 56% and –2% to 59% in women and men. Average muscle size changes were 18% and 20%.

As mentioned, there were outliers. Outliers, in research terms, are considered two standard deviations away from the mean and usually make up less than 5% of any sample. In terms of strength, since no participants lost strength, outliers basically didn’t exist on the low end. On the high end, 2% of women and 3% of men were outliers. In terms of increasing muscle tissue, thirty-six people gained less than 5% and 10 people gained more than 40%.

The previously mentioned ranges included everyone in the study. Ignoring the outliers and near-outliers, participants mostly gained from 5% to 30% more muscle and also gained between 5% and 95% in strength.

The researchers listed gender, age, current physical activity level, previous training, and hormone status as as some of the factors affecting how much people will gain from strength training. The researchers did not allow people who had been weight training during the previous year to participate in the study. Hormone levels, such as testosterone, were not tested. The correlation between age and muscle size was extremely weak, so age did not predict muscle growth in this study. And physical activity outside of the study’s training was not recommended.

That leaves us with gender. While gender could explain the disparities in average strength and muscle mass gained in women versus men, it obviously doesn’t explain differences within each gender. For example, one woman gained no strength whereas another became 250% stronger. Apparently even more additional factors than the researchers listed (such as the amount of muscle fibers a person is born with, muscle fiber type ratio, length of the muscle bellies and tendons, etc.) allow some people’s bodies to better respond to strength training (and some people’s bodies have less responsiveness).

There are two observations I’ll make regarding this study. First, the trainees were given strict orders to make no dietary changes. If allowed to consume more protein in their diets (especially immediately following workouts for better post workout recovery) it’s likely that the improvements would’ve been higher across the board. Second, there are ranges for strength and muscle mass that include the vast majority, but predicting the right numbers for a specific individual’s muscle and strength gains is unlikely. A more constructive approach is to observe the gains made in the initial sessions and then perpetually work to improve those values.

  1. Hubal, M. J. (2005). Variability in muscle size and strength gain after unilateral resistance training. Medicine, Science, Sports & Exercise, 37(6), 964-72.