Strength Training FAQs with Joan Pagano

The following was originally posted on Joan Pagano’s blog, Aging Gracefully.

Strength training is the most challenging aspect of a well-rounded fitness program. Most of us can figure out the cardio part and learn a few stretches, however lifting weights can be intimidating. People are concerned about how to get started, avoid “bulking up” or getting injured, especially as we get older.

Technically, resistance training – also referred to as weight training or weight lifting – is the technique of applying resistance to the muscles to stimulate growth of the muscle fibers and increase circulation to them.  In the same movement, the pull of the muscle on the bone creates bone deposition at the site of the stress. So, resistance training causes a “parallel hypertrophy” of muscle and bone, improving muscular fitness and preserving bone density. The resistance may be free weights, weight machines, stretch bands or bodyweight.

Depending on the training method used, you can develop both strength and endurance in the muscles.  Strength is measured by the amount of force produced with one all-out effort, and endurance by the number of times you can sustain a muscular contraction before fatigue sets in. Strength allows you to lift a heavy roasting pan out of the oven; while endurance allows you to carry your grocery bags home from the store.

How do I know whether I should do strength training or endurance training? If you are just beginning to exercise, or are starting again after a long absence, it is best to follow an endurance training program using lighter weights and higher repetitions (12-15 reps) for each exercise. It is important to start easy and progress gradually.   Even if naturally strong and capable of lifting heavy weights, you need to protect your joints by building up slowly. If you have osteoarthritis (a degenerative joint disease), endurance training will keep the muscles around the joints strong without exacerbating the condition of the joints.

When could I progress to strength training? After conditioning the muscles and joints in endurance training on a regular basis (2-3 times a week for 4-8 weeks), progress by increasing the amount of weight you are lifting and reducing the number of repetitions (8-12 reps). This trains the muscles to produce more force, making it easier to lift something heavy without straining or to power up a steep incline. If you have osteoporosis (weak, fragile bones), maximize the load to maintain bone density while being careful to protect the joints. Focus on strengthening the bony sites most vulnerable to fracture:  the thighbone, spine and wrist.

How do I know the proper starting level of weight? Pick a weight that allows you to complete the set of repetitions in good form with the last few reps being challenging. Alternatively, start with bodyweight exercises, like squats and pushups, which are also resistance exercises moving your bodyweight against gravity. Practice them to engrain proper form and alignment, learning to stabilize the shoulders and pelvis, engage the abdominals, and perform the movement with control.

How often should I lift weights? You need to do a minimum of two full-body weight-training sessions per week to achieve the desired training effects.  Allow one day of rest in between workouts since the repair and recovery of the muscle fibers is as important as the stress to the development of the muscle.

How long should each weight training session be? The length of the session depends on the number of exercises and how many sets of each exercise you perform.  A full-body training program should include a minimum of 8-10 separate exercises that work the major muscle groups.  Research has proven that one set of each exercise is sufficient for developing and maintaining strength, although more sets may produce more gains. One set of each exercise should take about 15 minutes once you learn proper form.

What are the major muscle groups? In descending order of size, they are:  Hips and thighs, back, chest, shoulders, arms and calves. I usually save the core body (abdominals and spinal muscles) for last since much of it is done on the floor, preceding the cool-down stretches.

Do I need to do strength moves in a certain order? Ideally start with the largest muscles and work down to the smallest, so you don’t fatigue the smallest muscles first.  The smaller muscles help stabilize the larger ones, but if you exhaust them first, they cannot support the larger muscles in their work, making it more difficult to complete the exercises.

For expert guidance on strength training techniques, step by step photos depicting how to perform the exercises and a selection of well-rounded workouts please check out the book Strength Training Exercises for Women by Joan Pagano at


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