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A low-pressure, nine-step guide to making strength training a habit

Combining aerobics with strength sessions lengthens lifespan and improves quality of life and wellbeing

I still remember the torturous feeling of hanging from the pull-up bars in school gym class, struggling with all my meagre might to lift myself up. While other kids seemed naturally gifted with physical power, I came to believe my arms were best used for answering a question in class.

And yet, I have tasted physical strength since then. I took a weightlifting course in college and loved how the boost in muscle made me feel. Before my wedding, I got hooked on barre workouts, and discovered the satisfaction of being able to carry groceries for more than two minutes without resting.

Beyond the visceral joys of feeling strong, I am also aware of the health benefits of building muscle. A recent study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine found that combining aerobics with one to two weekly strength sessions not only lengthens lifespan but improves people’s quality of life and wellbeing. Numerous studies have found that resistance training is good for mental health: It has been shown to positively influence cognition and to decrease depression and anxiety. Evidence also suggests it allows us to simply feel better in our bodies.

But every time I’ve done enough strength training to see progress, my commitment has ultimately petered out, mostly because of the demands of daily life. Consumed by cycles of work, childcare and utter exhaustion, I’ve pursued the path of least resistance — literally and figuratively.


So I asked exercise psychologists, scientists, trainers and muscle evangelists for their best advice on launching a lasting strength-training routine. Here’s what I learned.

1. Start small

For those of us who haven’t done much strength training — or if it’s been a while — experts suggest starting with short but consistent strength sessions. “Set some small goals for yourself,” said Mary Winfrey-Kovell, a lecturer in exercise science at Ball State University in the US. “Some movement is better than no movement.”

How small? Depending on one’s schedule, needs and desires, exercise scientists suggest devoting 20 minutes twice a week to strength training, or perhaps 10-15 minutes three times a week.

This is backed up by another recent study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, which found that just 30-60 minutes a week of strength training can bring significant long-term rewards, including a 10-20 per cent reduction in one’s risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer. (Notably, the benefits plateaued after an hour and decreased after two hours a week.)

2. Start simple

Fitness marketing often tries to convince us that any routine worth doing must involve fancy devices or specialised gear, but in fact you need very little. “Strength training does not have to mean barbells and super heavy weights and lots of equipment,” said Anne Brady, a professor of kinesiology.

Muscle-building exercises that rely on your own body weight — think push-ups, planks and sit-to-stands (sometimes called chair rises) — can be incredibly effective when done correctly and consistently, she said. You can always incorporate equipment as you progress in strength and knowledge.

3. Embrace being a novice

Kicking off a strength-training routine when you have little or no experience can feel daunting — particularly if you work out in a gym or public space, in view of more experienced exercisers.

Many of us “hold ourselves to a standard that we need to look like we already know what we’re doing,” said Casey Johnston, author of the popular lifting newsletter, She’s a Beast, and the book, Liftoff: Couch to Barbell. “It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to ask questions.”

More than anything, learning proper form — and which movements are safest for your body — can help to avoid injury and promote a lasting routine. If you can afford it, consider hiring a certified personal trainer for a few sessions, either virtual or in person, who will create a training plan and guide you through the exercises. And if you work out in a gym, don’t be afraid to ask staff for guidance.

One upside to starting from scratch? Your strength will improve exponentially at first. “I think most people would be surprised by how quickly they can get a lot stronger than they are,” said Johnston. After a few sessions, she said, “you really will feel the difference in functionality in your body.”

4. Do it early in the day

If you’re like me and frequently plan to strength train at night but find that, come 5pm or later, you feel unable to will your weary self off the couch, experts advise making time early in the morning.

There is a reason for this. Research suggests that the more self-control we expend throughout the day, the less we have to give at night. “So if you’ve sprinkled out self-control for various things, and your plan was to work out in the evening”, it’s not surprising if you give into a desire to veg out in front of your phone or TV instead of breaking a sweat, said Elizabeth Hathaway, a professor of exercise psychology. “Self-control is not an infinite resource.”

5. Try ‘temptation bundling’

Need an extra push? Kelley Strohacker, a professor of exercise physiology who researches health behaviour change, suggests a behavioural economics hack called “temptation bundling”.

It works like this: By “bundling” something we love and look forward to — for example, a favourite podcast or TV show, gripping audiobook or playlist — with an activity we find challenging, we can boost our chances of doing the latter. “Simply pairing those together can help ease a little bit of that initial, ‘I don’t really want to do it, but I know I should’,” said Prof Strohacker. The key, however, is to only allow yourself to indulge in that particular pleasure while doing the workout.

6. Wear (pretty much) whatever you want

If the thought of changing into specific “exercise clothes” presents a barrier to strength training, don’t bother!

“Wear anything that you’re comfortable in,” said Prof Brady. “The most important thing is to be able to move freely through different ranges of motion.” You might also benefit if your clothes “breathe” so you don’t become overheated, but no need to buy special moisture-wicking athletic gear if you’re more comfortable moving in your pyjamas.

7. Remember the goal is forward progress

If you find you need to miss sessions, show self-compassion, said Prof Strohacker. Strength training, like all exercise, is a long game, and the ultimate goal is to simply keep at it throughout our lives, despite setbacks along the way.

“Our culture really pushes this narrative of ‘you can do it if you really want to’,” she said. “This is very oversimplifying.” Life happens. Research suggests the true path to longevity and consistency in any activity is “enjoying it and feeling accomplished”, she added. This becomes easier when we celebrate our progress, no matter how incremental, and find our way back when we stray off course.

8. Consider a couch workout

If the desire to spend time on your couch feels overpowering, make your couch work for you: use it as a piece of equipment to facilitate your workout.

With a couch, you can do sit-to-stand exercises, said Prof Brady. You can turn around and do push-ups or planks.

And if you want to watch TV during your couch work, choose programmes with ad breaks and try the “ad-break challenge”, Winfrey-Kovell suggests. During these breaks, do leg marches or leg lifts, or keep hand weights next to you and lift until the programme returns. Just make sure you can maintain good posture and form.

“We don’t want to exercise with our back in a shrimp position,” she said. But “if the hips are in the proper position, the spine is in alignment, the shoulders are back, and your feet can touch the ground”, there’s a lot you can do on a couch.

9. Try this 20-minute starter routine

Ready to get started? Prof Brady recommends beginning with this basic strength-building routine. The only equipment you’ll need is your own body and a set of resistance bands.

Complete each exercise, in order, 10-15 times, then go back and do it again for a second set. The exercises alternate muscle groups and should be performed with a moderate level of intensity — whatever that feels like for you.

  • Push-ups (or modified push-ups)
  • Squats
  • Seated rows with resistance band
  • Glute bridges
  • Overhead presses with resistance band
  • Bird dogs
  • Pulldowns with resistance band

— This article originally appeared in the New York Times