Strength training programs are essential for athletes who want to build muscle, reduce the risk of injury and boost their sports performance. To safely build muscle and avoid unnecessary weight room injuries, observe the following five fundamental training principles.
1. Warm up the muscles. A good warm-up will get blood flowing to the muscles, take them from a resting state to an active one, and get muscles and joints ready for the upcoming workout. If you start training with cold, tight muscles and joints, you heighten the risk of injuries such as strains and pulls. Examples of warm-up exercises include:
2. Use proper mechanics to prevent injury in the weight room. One of your goals for strength training is to prevent sports injuries. One key to preventing injury is to always use proper form (mechanics). Choose an amount of resistance that can be lifted with good form. Here's an example of poor mechanics in the Bench Press: the athlete lifts the bar from the rack and quickly lowers it to his chest. Then he bounces it off his chest, rapidly presses it up and repeats the movement with no pause. A safer, and better muscle-building, method is to raise the weight in one to two seconds, pause a second at the top to contract the muscle, and lower the bar for three to four seconds.
3. Incorporate multi-joint exercises. Since they require the use of more than one joint, these time-efficient movements engage more muscles—in contrast to single-joint exercises like Bicep Curls and Tricep Extensions. Multi-joint upper-body exercises include Bench Press, Dips, Push-Ups, Pull-Ups, Bent-Over Rows, Overhead Presses and Upright Rows. Lower-body multi-joint exercises include Leg Presses, Squats, Lunges and Step-Ups. The Deadlift and the Power Clean are two multi-joint exercises that strengthen the entire body.
4. Allow at least 24 hours between workouts to help muscles recover and build. Study after study shows that muscles strengthen and build best with adequate rest—a minimum of 24 hours—between workouts. Scheduling back-to-back high intensity weight training sessions on consecutive days can break down the immune system due to excess strain on muscles and joints. Athletes should be aware of these overtraining signs, caused by constant wear and tear and lack of rest: chronic muscle and/or joint soreness; lethargy; frequent colds; other illnesses; and difficulty falling asleep.
5. Building muscle results from the "progressive overload" principle. Most weight training programs rely on the progressive overload principle to strengthen and add muscle. Lifting the same amount of weight workout after workout causes muscles to plateau. By increasing the amount of weight you lift for each exercise at least every other workout, you force your muscles to adapt to the newer resistance, thus promoting muscle growth. Set a goal to add five pounds to at least one upper- and one lower-body exercise each week.
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Jim Carpentier is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, a New Jersey-licensed massage therapist and a health/fitness writer. He currently serves as associate health and wellness director at the Greater Morristown YMCA in Cedar Knolls, N.J.