Muscle Strength — Another Component of Fitness

This is the time of year I generally change up my exercise routine.  As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, I tend to give my running shoes a rest and instead I go to the gym to lift weights, and show up at yoga class more regularly.  As I (unfortunately) can’t spend hours every day exercising, I find it very hard to cross train and do all three — running, weights and yoga.

Fitness isn’t about just having great cardio-vascular strength, or being able to touch your toes, or even being thin.  Fitness is made up of 5 different components:

  1. Muscle Strength ( how much force a muscle can exert a single time, in other words, the maximum amount of weight can you lift once)
  2. Muscle Endurance (how long a muscle can work without fatigue)
  3. Cardio-Vascular Endurance (the ability of the heart and lungs to work together to provide the body with oxygen)
  4. Flexibility (ability for the joints to achieve full range of motion)
  5. Body Composition (percent of body fat vs. lean muscle tissue)

To be physically fit, we have to be fit in each of these five areas.  A while ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of Skinny-Fat.  Just because someone is thin, if they don’t have lean muscle mass, or cannot sustain moderate aerobic activity, they are not fit.  Likewise, many runners, although they can run many miles at a time, don’t strength train and so they have weak upper body muscles — again they are not truly fit.

Today I want to talk about Muscle Strength.  First though, you may ask, What is the difference between muscle strength and muscle endurance?  Muscle endurance refers to how long a muscle can work without fatigue.  Training for muscle endurance involves low intensity and high volume workouts.  In other words, you should lift weights at about 50%-75% of your max, doing 15-20 repetitions per set, for 3-6 sets.  Typically someone says she wants to be “toned” they are referring to muscle endurance.

Before starting any exercise program check with your doctor to ensure that are healthy and that you don’t have any health issues or concerns that should make you avoid certain types of exercise.


Muscle Strength means how much force a muscle can exert a single time, in other words, the maximum amount of weight can you lift once. Training for muscle strength involves performing several warm-up sets and then 2-6 “work” sets of 80%-90% of your maximum weight for up to 6 reps per set, and a minimum of 2 minutes rest between sets.  If you can do more than 6 reps, the weight is too low.  Generally when someone goes to the gym and says they want to bulk up, they are referring to muscle strength.  As you can see, there are very different techniques for different results.  


For beginners (or anyone who has not been weight training regularly in the last 6 months), it is best to start with a program designed for muscle endurance.  After a solid 3-6 months (depending on your level of fitness) of such a program, then you can begin to work up to a program focusing on muscle strength.  It is best to concentrate on one or two muscle groups at a time and really work them with 3-4 different exercises, again at heavy weights (80%-90% of max).

A 4-day a week program that works well is to break out your days as follows:

Day One: Chest (Pecs) and Triceps

Day Two: Upper Back (Lats) and Biceps

Day Three: Legs and Lower Back

Day Four: Shoulders (Deltoids) and Abdominals

Each day, do 3-4 different exercises for each muscle group.   Start with the most difficult exercise and make sure to do several warm up sets starting at a moderate weight and work up to your work sets.  Do 4 work sets of 4-6 reps per set at a heavy weight.  Rest 2 minutes between sets. As your muscles are already warmed up, for the next 2-3 exercises you can go right into the work sets, but still rest 2 minutes between sets.

After you have finished, be sure to stretch the muscle groups you have been working to minimize muscle soreness!




















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