The Fundamentals: Smarter Strength Training
This expert-backed advice can help beginners lift safely and effectively, and pro athletes make progress deep into their careers.
Lift a weight. Lower it. Repeat. Strength training can look simple if you're just touring the gym. But to make real progress—and stay safe doing it—you need to look at the big picture, says Ryan Flaherty, Nike Senior Director of Performance and a Nike Performance Council member who specialises in elite athlete performance.
Flaherty has trained some of sport's biggest superstars, including Serena Williams, Brooks Koepka and Saquon Barkley. When it comes to lifting, he focuses on these five fundamental concepts that can help beginners train safely and effectively, and pro athletes make progress deep into their careers.
- Warm Up
The most important part of a strength workout happens before you even touch a weight. The purpose of a warm-up is just like it sounds: to raise your core body temperature and send more oxygen and blood to your muscles, increasing the energy and range of motion needed for your session. The harder your workout, the longer your warm-up should be. But typically, you can aim for five to 15 minutes of a few sets of dynamic exercises, such as walking planks with a push-up, walking lunges with rotation, and a minute of skipping. Sweaty? You should be. As you get into your workout, do a couple of warm-up sets before each lift, gradually increasing the weight, to make sure your muscles are prepared for load.
- Prioritise Technique
You'll stay safer and get better results when your technique is sound. For any lower-body exercise, don't let your knees collapse towards each other; keep them aligned over the middle toe of each foot. When it comes to upper-body movements, keep your chest lifted and your shoulders back and down. And no matter what you're doing, activate your core by drawing your belly button into your spine. Besides these general guidelines, there are techniques for every exercise—and then some. When you have questions, seek out a trusted pro or source to coach you through the specifics.
- Programme for Progress
If you're new to lifting or a particular movement, you could start with three sets of 10 reps during your first week. Keep in mind that once a movement starts to feel easy, it's probably time to step it up. As you get stronger, you'll want to increase the difficulty to match your abilities. You can either add weight, add volume (by upping your reps and/or sets), or adjust your tempo (more on this next), all of which can help you build muscle.
- Start With Tempo
When you're ready to take it to the next level, focus on tempo first. Slowing down your movement prolongs time under tension (TUT), which is how long a muscle is under strain for during a rep. At a slower pace, your muscles have to work harder for longer. Depending on the exercise, you may even tap into supporting muscles to help you stay balanced and in control. But rather than slowing everything evenly, break down your lift into two parts. Do the positive (lifting) part just slow enough to maintain good form, and slow down the negative (lowering) part so it lasts at least twice as long. For example, if you're doing a squat, you might take three seconds to lower yourself and just one second to return to standing.
- Stay Mindful
Next time you take on a heavy set, tune in to each breath. Or, during a compound movement like a deadlift, name each muscle as it activates (abdominals, lats, glutes, quads, hamstrings, etc.). Focusing on the present moment, or being mindful, during your workout affects every aspect of it. You may know when you're all warmed up or when you've had enough. You might have more willpower for that last rep. You'll almost certainly improve your form. And maybe most importantly, you'll enjoy the experience more—and that's what can motivate you to pick up those weights again and again.