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The “Fitness Triad” is a three-pronged formula composed of progressive resistance training, aerobics and nutrition. No serious fitness aficionado would dream of devising an exercise program that didn’t incorporate all three aspects, and neither should you.

While each point of the triad deserves special focus, in my experience, the average trainee needs more help with incorporating progressive resistance training (lifting weights) than they do with either of the other subjects, so we’ll start there.

Weight-Training Basics

There are six key variables in designing a weight-training regimen:

  1. Reps (each time you lift or move a weight is considered one rep)
  2. Sets (if you lift a weight 10 times, then rest, you’ve done one set of 10 reps)
  3. Poundage (how many pounds you lift)
  4. Intensity (how hard you work)
  5. Duration (how much time you spend in a given lift or lifting session)
  6. Frequency (how often you lift or perform a specific exercise)

Weight training is called progressive resistance for a specific reason: in order to trigger hypertrophy (muscle growth) we have to bump up against the limit of our current capacity. Just because you go through the motions of a lifting program, even a good program, does not guarantee that you’ll reap results. To spark gains, you have to tax the target muscle.

You can spark hypertrophy in any given exercise in one of two ways: you can exceed your current personal-best poundage for a given number of repetitions (reps); or you can exceed your current personal-best reps with a given poundage.

Obviously if you exceed your best, you will have generated the “intensity” required to pull the hypertrophy trigger. But science has determined that even if you are unable to increase poundage or reps, as long as you work to the limit of your capacity on any particular day, that is enough to reap the benefit.

In other words, if you are capable of bench-pressing 100 pounds for 10 reps, it is not necessary for you to actually exceed this rep/poundage record to receive the benefit. If on a particular day you are only capable of 8 reps with 100 pounds, or 90 pounds for 10 reps, you still trigger hypertrophy because you have done all you can (given your available strength on that day).

Conversely, sub-maximal weight training is largely worthless. If you are capable of 100 x 10 in a given exercise and content yourself by doing 60 pounds for 10 reps, yawning and laughing your way through the workout, no gains will manifest.

Does this mean you have to miss (i.e., fail to complete) your last rep on every set in order to “push the envelope” and trigger gains? The answer is no. You only need to go all out on the final set of an exercise.

Okay, you’re ready for the weight room. Now what are you going to do once you get there?

No Dessert Until You’ve Had Dinner

There are two types of weightlifting exercises – compound multi-joint exercises and isolation exercises.

Think of compound multi-joint exercises as the main course and isolation exercises as dessert. A similar logic applies: Never skip the main course, never eat dessert first, and if you are full after the main course it is permissible to skip dessert. This analogy makes sense once you understand the function of the two exercise types.

A compound, multi-joint exercise requires groups of muscles to work together in a coordinated fashion in order to complete the assigned muscular task. An isolation exercise, as the name implies, zeros in on specific muscles to the exclusion of all others. Exhaust a small muscle that is required in a compound exercise and you’re done for the day. Do your compound work and you may still have enough left over in that one muscle to crank out an isolation exercise just fine.

For compound exercises, I recommend one or two warm-up sets to lubricate technique, raise the core temperature of a muscle, grease neuromuscular nerve synapses and electrical impulse pathways. On the final set of an exercise, you need to rep the weight until you know completing another rep wouldn’t be possible. For isolation exercises, two sets – a light warm up and an all-out final set – should suffice.

Again, in all cases, going to actual failure is not necessary. Having said that, you should learn how to miss a rep safely. Sooner or later, if you train as hard as you’re supposed to, you will miss a rep and you need to be prepared.

Know Your Lifts

Compound Multi-Joint Exercises

  • SQUAT:  Quadriceps, spinal erectors, hamstrings, gluteus
  • LEG PRESS: Quadriceps, gluteus, vastus internus
  • BENCH PRESS: Pectorals, front deltoids, triceps
  • INCLINE PRESS: Upper pectoral, front deltoid, triceps
  • OVERHEAD PRESS: Front deltoids, side deltoids, triceps
  • ROW: Lats, rhomboids, teres
  • DEADLIFT: Erectors, trapezius, lats, gluteus
  • CHINS: Lats, rhomboids, teres
  • ZOTTMAN CURL: Biceps, forearms
  • HANGING TWIST LEG RAISE: Lower and upper abdominal, external oblique

Isolation Exercises

  • LEG EXTENSION: Teardrop quadriceps muscle above the knee
  • LEG CURL: Hamstrings
  • CALF RAISE: Calves
  • PEC DEC: Pectorals
  • FLYE: Pectorals
  • LATERAL RAISE: Anterior deltoids
  • CURLS: Biceps
  • CRUNCH: Upper abdominal

NOTE: If you’re not an experienced lifter (or if you’re unfamiliar with a particular lift), please ask a trainer to show you how to properly perform these exercises.

Designing an Effective Program

The first step in setting up a training program is to determine how much available time you have to devote to a lifting program. Realistically, a beginner needs to train twice a week for about 30-40 minutes per session. An intermediate should train three times a week for about an hour per session. An advanced trainer might train four-to-five times weekly for an hour or so. We’ll save the advanced routine for a future article, but here are some basic routines to get you started.

Typical Beginner Weight-Lifting Routine

  • Monday: squat, leg curl, bench press, flye, seated overhead press, lateral raise, row, lat pull-down, curl, triceps pushdown, hanging leg raise
  • Tuesday: OFF
  • Wednesday: OFF
  • Thursday: repeat Monday workout
  • Friday: OFF
  • Saturday: OFF
  • Sunday: OFF

Typical Intermediate Weight-Lifting Routine

  • Monday: squat, leg curl, calf raise seated press, lateral raise
  • Tuesday: OFF
  • Wednesday: bench press, flys, dip, triceps pushdown
  • Thursday: OFF
  • Friday: deadlift, row, lat pull-down, preacher curl, cable curl
  • Saturday: OFF
  • Sunday: OFF

If you already lift weights, try incorporating some of these tactics into your current lifting regimen. If you don’t lift, get started. The results will blow your mind, assuming you conform to the guidelines and push the lip of the intensity envelope. If you have questions, just let me know – or consult with a trainer in your club for some hands-on instruction. Good luck and good lifting!

Marty Gallagher is a two-time World Masters powerlifting champion and a fitness columnist to The Washington Post online. Log onto his live chat session every Tuesday at noon at

This article originally appeared as “Lift!” in the March/April 2002 issue of Experience Life.

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