10 Essentials of Strength Training

By Mike Howard

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There are no shortages of opinions about the right way to lift weights – the best set/rep spectrum, the ideal rest periods, the optimal exercises, lifting tempo, sequence, etc, etc. Let’s put those things aside for now and key in on some of the most foundational aspects of strength training.

  1. Think movements, not muscles: Instead of trying a muscle by muscle approach, think about compound, multijoint movements that encourage the body to work as an integrated unit. Examples are squats, deadlifts, push-presses, wood chops.
  2. Key in on body weight, free weight and cable exercises: These forms of resistance offer the best in terms of balance, integrations of stabilizers and all-around freedom of movement.
  3. Always think about alignment: Keep in good posture throughout the movements – chin tucked in slightly, spine neutral (natural curves – back neither flat nor excessively curved). Also be sure you are even and symmetrical in your movement – watch your hand position, shoulder position, knees/hips etc.
  4. Stabilize the Core: The most effective way to stabilize the trunk area is a technique called bracing. This entails firing up all layers of abdominal muscles in one contraction and is achieved by trying to contract both the deep and surface level abdominal and lower back muscles without drawing the belly button in or out. Think about preparing to be punched in the gut.
  5. The last 2-3 reps should be challenging: Whether you are performing 3 reps or 30 reps, you should feel pretty wiped by the end.
  6. Breathe! Sounds like a ridiculous thing to have to mention, but breathing tends to be forgotten when exercises get more complex. Don’t worry about when you inhale or exhale – just keep a steady flow of air going in and out.
  7. Attack weaknesses first: Don’t like leg work? Do squats or lunges first. Have stiff/tight areas? Do mobility and release work first. Prioritize postural issues; if you sit at a desk all day, you likely have weak scapular retractors (muscles that pull your shoulder blades back), a jutting chin, tight hip flexors and upper trapezius. Undo what you have done to your body during the day.
  8. Work different Planes: Even those who are really into free weights can fall into the trap of doing exercises almost exclusively in the saggital/median plane (any exercise where you are in a forward-facing orientation, eg. Squats, chest presses, crunches, flys, lunges). Try some frontal plane movements ) side-to-side orientation) such as side or diagonal lunges, side tabletops and transverse plane (rotational) such as wood chops.
  9. Fast positive, slower negative: Don’t spend too much time worrying about exact repetition tempo. Instead focus on moving the weight relatively fast on the positive phase and releasing slower on the negative.
  10. Perform exercises standing as much as possible: Performing exercises in a standing position whether it is military presses, squats (instead of a leg press) or cable chest press – tends to be more functional, meaning it has more applicability to daily tasks. It also helps promote stability of the core and produces less stress on the lower back than does sitting.


  1. Milan Stolicny

    How about this one: Focus on multijpoint exercises first and then do single joint later if you still have time. Multijoint exercises are those, that use 2 or more joints to do movement. You employ more muscles in the same time. Tipical example of multijoint exercise is – Lat pulldown. You perform these exercise through your shoulder and elbow joint usin mainly biceps and lattissimus muscles.

  2. Charles

    I like tip #7, we all tend to avoid the things that we are bad at. And those are usually the things we need the most.

  3. Rosie Peters

    I was just re-reading some (very) old stuff by Schwarzenegger (Education of a Body Builder) and what you say is right in line with what he was advocating 30 years ago. I think these points cannot be said often enough. They seem simple, but many people ignore them or are unaware of them. Well written. Thanks.

  4. Evalynne

    Great article, thanks! I’m relatively new to strength training (2 months in) and didn’t know a lot of this information. 🙂

  5. Markus Jais

    Great post. I found that adding strength training to a healthy diet and cardio exercises really helps to speed up the weight loss process and also is a great way to maintain the perfect weight once reached.

    In the Gym, strength is more fun than cardio (I prefer to do cardio out in nature).

    One thing I would like to add is that strength training should be done at least twice a week. The increase in strength (and muscle) when training two or three times are week is much bigger than when training only once.

  6. JimK

    This all sounds like great advice, and it just makes good sense. What I mean by that is it feels natural and instinctual, and I’ve found that I can trust that feeling. It’s usually my mind and/or body telling me this is the way a thing ought to be done.

    Great post.

  7. Angie (Losing It and Loving It)

    I just wrote a post on strength training because I have been doing some research on it lately. I really enjoyed your message because I wouldn’t have thought about some of those things. I always have a hard time with the breathing part. I tend to hold my breath until hubby tells me not to. I always pay attention to my posture too so I don’t hurt myself. Still have a lot to learn about strength training that is for sure. Thanks

  8. SCal

    A great article.

    As for 8: I don’t work any of those movement in the gym.

    I will do sledge hammering, sandbag exercises and other unorthodox movements at home(anything from RossTraining).

    I am glad you didn’t talk about stability training, because it is a waste of time and a HUGE joke. It only increases the risk of injury.

  9. John Sifferman - Real World Strength Training

    All excellent suggestions, Mike.

    I think number 8 is the most neglected in many a training program, and it often has to do with targeting muscles instead of movements. I discovered some tremendous strength benefits from incorporating frontal exercises into my program for the first time several years ago. Then adding a rotational component took my training to a new level, adding a sort of balance to my training. With each new step, I found even further advantages.

    I think that the ultimate way of training movements, not muscles, is to not only utilize the 3 planes of movement, but to also integrate the six degrees of freedom by moving:

    1) forward/backward
    2) up/down
    3) left/right

    combined with rotation and we get

    4) rolling
    5) yawing
    6) pitching

    Whereas before, I would get great strength training benefits from moving through the 3 planes – now, after having sophisticated it to include the six degrees of freedom, movement-based training has become almost harmonious in its practicality.

    I think your number 2 suggestion is right-on about trying to integrate all-around freedom of movement – it’s a hidden gem in the world of strength training.

    To your health and success,

    John Sifferman NSCA-CPT
    Fitness Professional