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Strength Training Principles and Guidelines

by Chad Tackett

Almost any form of exercise will stimulate some degree of strength and muscle development. Unfortunately, misconceptions, myths, and misunderstandings plague the fitness industry, especially in regard to strength training. There is a huge attrition rate among those starting a strength training program primarily because most people are not taught the principles essential for a safe and effective program.

This article is part three of a five part series discussing the very important principles and guidelines of a safe and effective strength training program. This article discusses the importance of proper lifting technique, exercising through the full range of motion, proper exercise sequence, and the correct number of sets to do for what you're trying to achieve. The previous article, part two of this five part series, explained the importance of forcing blood to your muscles and proper lifting speed. The following exercise guidelines are extremely important for your safety and the effectiveness of your strength training program.

Exercise Form and Technique

The most common and critical training mistakes may be those of exercise technique. The tendency to use too much weight typically results in poor form, which decreases your ability to get results, and increases the risk of injury. Examples of poor form or technique are: bouncing the bar off the chest in the Bench Press; using hip and back extension to initiateBicep Curls; arching the back or bending backward under Shoulder Presses; using any sort of momentum in any exercise; and training at fast speeds. These mistakes will not send the blood you need into your muscles and will work counter to your goals. Be aware of these mistakes and eliminate them from your program.

Exercise Through Full Range of Motion

Perform each exercise through a full range of motion, with emphasis on the end of the positive phase. Full range exercise movements are advantageous for strengthening the prime-mover, or agonist muscles--the muscles directly trained in the exercise, such as the biceps in the biceps curl. Lifting in the full range of motion is also advantageous for stretching the antagonist muscles, the muscles that act in opposition to the agonist. In the Biceps Curl, the triceps is the antagonist. Training in the full range of motion enhances both muscle strength and joint flexibility.

Exercise Selection

It is very important to select at least one exercise for each major muscle group to promote well-balanced muscle development. Training only a few muscle groups or training one muscle group more increases the risk of injury.

Exercise Sequence

Another important element of strength training is exercise sequence. When performing a variety of weightlifting exercises, it is advisable to proceed from the larger muscle groups to the smaller muscle groups. This allows optimal performance of the most demanding exercises when fatigue levels are the lowest and you feel fresh. Another reason, one that is often overlooked, is illustrated by the common example of training both back and biceps. Ordinarily, you would want to train your back first, since it is the larger muscle group of the two; let's say you are doing the Rear Lat. Pull-down. In that exercise, you are indirectly working your biceps, too, since both muscle groups are at work in the pulling motion. This means that your biceps will actually be warmed up and ready to train when you get to them. This is the same for exercises requiring pushing motions such as the chest, shoulders, and triceps. By the time you are done with your chest exercises, both your shoulders and your triceps are warm and ready to train. Of course, you might not always do your "pulling" (back and biceps) and your "pushing" (chest, shoulders, triceps) motions on the same day--because as you reach a plateau you will want to change your exercises, the order that you do them, and the muscles that you train together, to provide a new stimulus and interest for yourself. This will be discussed soon.


Another important element is exercise sets. An exercise set is the number of successive repetitions performed without resting. The number of sets per exercise is largely a matter of goals, interests and personal preference. We recommend that people treat their first set as a warm-up--12-20 reps with relatively light weight (done slowly). Then you can do either one, two, or three more sets--even up to six (strength and power program)--depending on whether you are at a beginning, intermediate, or advanced level and what you are trying to accomplish.

If you are working on your second exercise for a particular muscle group, we recommend that you do either two or three sets for that exercise since that muscle is already warmed-up from the first exercise. Regardless of the number of sets performed, each set--and each repetition--should be done in proper exercise form and under control.

Please check back for Part four, where I'll discuss the inverse relationship between resistance and repititions and the importance of progressive resistance. That is, I'll explain the amount of weight you should use and the number of repititions you should do for the results you desire. I'll also explain how to gradually increase the weight you use to stimulate further gains. Until then, remember to use proper lifting technique, exercise through the full range of motion, exercise in the proper sequence, and use the correct number of sets for what you're trying to achieve. Good luck, and enjoy all the wonderful benefits of strength training.

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