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Strength Training at Home

Strength training improves muscle strength, power, endurance, and size. It also reduces your body fat, increases your body metabolism so you burn more calories each day, enhances your balance and stability, and keeps your bones strong. It also can reduce the symptoms associated with chronic conditions like arthritis, diabetes, or osteoporosis.  

Getting to the gym for a weight workout isn't always easy. That's why it pays to have weights at home as a backup or as a substitute.

The basics

Strength training, also known as resistance training, is different from weightlifting or power lifting. These are sports in which people compete to lift the heaviest weights.

In resistance or strength training, you use weights or resistance bands to force your muscles to work against gravity. Over time, this builds and strengthens muscle mass by increasing the size of your muscle cells. During the first 4 weeks of a strength-training program, the increase in your strength is primarily from changes in the neurologic system that controls your muscle contraction. The nervous system increases the number of muscle fibers used for training and coordinates their activity, but muscle fibers remain the same size. After about 4 weeks, changes take place in the structure of your muscle fibers, so they enlarge and your muscles become larger.

Talk with your health care provider before starting a strength-training program. Once you have your health care provider's OK, talk with a qualified personal trainer to set up a program. If your goal is to increase your strength, then you should use progressively heavier weights in your training sessions. If your goal is to improve your muscle endurance, then you should use lighter weights with more repetitions in your training sessions.

Why it's important

Strength training is an important part of a fitness routine, because your muscles must be strong enough for daily activities like carrying groceries or gardening, as well as for recreational and sports activities like walking or carrying golf clubs. As you age, you lose muscle mass and strength. Strength training helps delay and reduce this loss of muscle.

The National Institute on Aging offers these tips for strength training:

  • Your strength-training program should work all the major muscle groups at least twice a week.

  • Warm up your muscles for 5 minutes to 10 minutes before beginning your weight workout, with gentle exercises. Follow your workout with a cool down of 5 minutes to 10 minutes and gentle stretching. There should be at least 1 day of rest between your sessions to allow your muscles to grow and heal.

  • Use a minimum of weight the first week. Starting out with weights that are too heavy can cause injuries. You can determine how heavy a weight is to use by your ability to lift it 8 times to 12 times before your muscle becomes extremely tired, or you are unable to lift the weight. Many women beginners start with 5-pound dumbbells; men with 10 pounds to 15 pounds, but you may need to start out using as few as 1 pound or 2 pounds.

  • When doing a strength exercise, do 8 repetitions to 15 repetitions in a row. Wait a minute, then do another set of 8 repetitions to 15 repetitions in a row of the same exercise.

  • Gradually add a challenging amount of weight in order to benefit from strength exercises. If you don’t challenge your muscles, you won’t benefit from strength exercises.

  • If you have had joint repair or replacement surgery, check with your surgeon before doing lower-body exercises.

  • Avoid jerking or thrusting weights into position. That can cause injuries. Use smooth, steady movements.

  • Avoid "locking" the joints in your arms and legs in a tightly straightened position.

  • Breathe out as you lift or push, and breathe in as you relax. For example, if you are doing leg lifts, breathe out as you lift your leg, and breathe in as you lower it. This may not feel natural at first, and you probably will have to think about it as you are doing it for some time.

  • Muscle soreness lasting up to a few days and slight fatigue are normal after muscle-building exercises. Exhaustion, sore joints, and unpleasant muscle pulling aren't. These last 3 symptoms mean you are overdoing it.

  • None of the exercises you do should cause pain. The range within which you move your arms and legs should never hurt. 

The following exercises are a 30-minute home weight-training workout. Do 2 sets of 8 repetitions of each exercise before repeating on the other side.

Immediately stop any exercise with the dumbbells that causes you pain, especially in the shoulder or back. Check with your health care provider if this happens.

Dumbbell chest press

Lie on an exercise ball, with dumbbells resting on each thigh. Lift dumbbells to your shoulders with your palms facing forward. With your elbows to the sides, press dumbbells up until your arms are fully extended. Lower dumbbells and repeat.

Dumbbell rows

Lying face down on the ball, with dumbbell in hand, straighten your arm. Then pull the dumbbell toward your upper chest, with your elbow leading.

Dumbbell squats

Place the ball between the wall and the lower part of your back. In each hand, hold a dumbbell with your arms by your sides. Feet shoulder-width apart, slowly squat like you're about to sit in a chair, allowing your back to follow the roll of the ball. Stop when your thighs become parallel to the floor. Then push up to return to a standing position.

Hip lifts

Lie on the floor face up. Place your calves on the ball, about 8 inches apart. Keep your arms on the floor, away from your body. Tilting your pelvis forward, raise your hips as high as possible and contract your buttocks when you reach the top. Lower your buttocks and relax.

Dumbbell shoulder/overhead press

Sit on the ball, or stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and dumbbells at shoulder height. Grasp dumbbells with your palms facing forward. Slowly push them toward the ceiling, stopping before your elbows lock. Then slowly lower them to shoulder height.

Dumbbell arm curls

Stand with your back straight, dumbbells hanging by your sides. With your palms facing upward, curl both dumbbells at the same time toward your shoulders. Then slowly lower the weight, turning your palms so they're facing each other at the bottom of the exercise.


Moving toward your goal:

  • Gradually increasing the amount of weight you use is key to building strength.

  • When you are able to lift a weight between 8 times to 15 times, you can increase the amount of weight you use at your next session.

  • Here is an example of how to progress gradually. Start out with a weight that you can lift only 8 times. Keep using that weight until you become strong enough to lift it 12 times to 15 times. Add more weight so that, again, you can lift it only 8 times. Use this weight until you can lift it 12 times to 15 times, then add more weight. Keep repeating.