Strength Training

STRENGTH TRAINING- (For more details on starting an exercise routine, read Chapter 5 in my book, The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up.)

Strength training stresses your muscles and stimulates them to build mass. Building muscle mass is essential to preventing and reversing both insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, which is the #1 cause of memory loss and heart disease.

Muscle mass is like money in the bank—something to retire on. Muscle mass provides amino acid building blocks to fight infections and accelerate the healing of injured tissues. A bigger muscle mass burns more calories, even at rest; in fact, add one pound of extra muscle and you’ll burn an extra 40 calories every day, enough to burn off four pounds of fat over one year.

To begin, choose a weight that you can lift at least 8-10 times. The last couple lifts should make your biceps feel very fatigued—you’ll feel a little shakiness at the end, and that’s good. If you can’t lift the weight at least eight times, it is probably too heavy. This would increase your risk of injury. If you can lift the weight 15-16 times, it is too light. You won’t stress your muscles enough to make them enlarge.

You can do strength training on your own, but many find it more fun to do with an exercise partner. In addition, you are less likely to skip your session if you know your partner is waiting for you, too. If you haven’t done strength training in the past, consider hiring a trainer. An exercise physiologist helps you avoid injury, and likely will help you achieve better results faster as well.


  • Start with a 5-10 minute warm-up. If you haven’t done aerobic exercise on a treadmill or elliptical machine, run up and down the stairs or do some jumping jacks—get a bit sweaty 5-10 minutes before you start lifting weights.
  • Exercise at least 8 to 10 body parts during each session and balance your workout. That means if you strengthen your biceps (elbow flexors) with arm curls, you’ll also need to strengthen your triceps (elbow extenders). If you do lots of crunches for your abs, balance them with back extension exercises. (See the exercise instructions below.)
  • Lift your weight 10 to 15 times. If you can’t do at least 10 reps, the dumbbell is too heavy. But if you can lift it more than 15 times, it’s too light. When you are first starting, you can count out the up-and-down motions to slow yourself and also keep a good rhythm. You can say, “one-one thousand” for up and “two-one thousand” for down.
  • Lift the weight smoothly and lower it slowly. Jerky movements can cause injuries, so avoid them. If you can’t lift the weight without jerking, then it’s too heavy for you. Go back to a lighter weight. Aim to feel a gentle burn as you lower the weight.

Pick 6-10 of the following activities and repeat them two to three times a week.

Abdominal Crunches

  • Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and your knees bent at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees. Your arms are folded across your chest, one hand on each shoulder.
  • Flex your pelvis, pushing your lower back into the floor and tilting your pelvis up; this protects your back during crunches.
  • Now raise your upper back and head off the floor, lifting your shoulder blades about 1 to 2 inches from the ground. Hold for one second, and then lower down slowly. Repeat until you feel your abdominal muscles strain. Then take a break for 5 to 10 seconds and perform at least 10 more crunches.
  • Exhale through your mouth on the upward motion (the most strenuous part of an exercise) and inhale through your nose on the down motion. And don’t forget to breathe on each movement!

Tip: Once you can easily reach 75 crunches, try this exercise with your feet lifted gently off the ground, keeping your pelvis flexed. This works your lower abs. Also, be sure your pelvis remains flexed with your back firmly pressed against the floor throughout your routine.

Back Extensions (Supermans)

This exercise balances the muscle groups used when performing crunches.

What you’ll need: An exercise ball.

  • Lying face down on the ball, brace your toes against the wall or another object. Your feet should be at least hip-width apart, if not a bit wider. (The wider your feet, the easier it is to perform this exercise. With time, you can bring your feet closer together.) Place your hands gently on the floor and bend your abdomen over the ball at about a 30-degree angle.
  • Now lift your arms so they are extended out in front of you as if you were Superman flying. Your trunk and arms should be in a straight line, with only your mid-tummy touching the ball. Be careful not to overextend or arch your back into a V. Hold for 1 to 2 seconds.
  • Slowly and smoothly lower your arms and allow your stomach to bend so that your hands touch the flour again. Your feet should remain against the wall during the whole exercise.
  • Repeat 12 to 16 times.

Tips: If you can’t achieve 10 to 12 smooth extension lifts, make the exercise easier by holding your arms behind your back over your buttocks or along your sides. Lean forward until you are bent over the ball, then extend so that your trunk is straight, again keeping your toes against the wall. Once you’ve easily reached 16 back extensions, add a 2- or 3- pound weight to each hand. Continue to add weight as needed over time. If you have back problems, avoid extending your back beyond the straightened neutral position.

Chest Press

You can choose this exercise, or as you advance, do the chest press on the ball. They all work the same muscle groups—your triceps, deltoids, and pectoral muscles.

  • Lie on your back on a bench with your knees bent and your feet resting on the end of the bench. Your legs should be bent at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees.
  • Press your lower back into the bench, flexing your pelvis.
  • Hold the weights next to your chest at breast level with your palms facing toward your knees. Your elbows are pointing down toward the floor.
  • Now straighten your arms up into the air so they are perpendicular to your body. Don’t let the weights touch at the top of the motion; this keeps your muscles working. Don’t lock your elbows. Keep your body and wrists steady and pelvis flexed.
  • Raise and lower the weights with smooth motions, counting “one-one thousand” up and “two-one thousand” down. You should just barely be able to lift the correct weight 10-15 times smoothly without jerking your arms or trunk.

One-arm row

This exercise balances the muscles used in the push-up and chest press exercises.

  • Place your right knee on the bench or a chair and rest your right hand on the bench in front of your knee.
  • Hold the weight in your left hand.
  • Lean forward so that your trunk is parallel to the floor and your left arm dangles toward the floor, your palm facing your standing leg.
  • Inhale and pull your left elbow as high as you can, pointing toward the ceiling without shifting or rotating your trunk. Keep your arm close to your body.
  • Exhale and slowly lower your left arm to the starting position.
  • Repeat 10-15 times.
  • Change sides and repeat holding the weight in your right hand and your left knee and hand on the bench or chair.

Biceps curls (with free weights)

  • Stand with your knees slightly flexed and hold a free weight in each hand your palms facing your legs.
  • Keeping your upper arm stable and your elbows at your side, raise your forearm upward until your hands nearly reach your shoulders. Your palm rotates as you lift your arm so that it is facing your chest at the end of this motion.
  • Next lower your hands smoothly to the starting position. Repeat 10-15 times.
  • Keep your trunk stable during your movements, your pelvis and knees flexed, and your abs tight to protect your low back.

Triceps extensions 

This exercise balances the muscles used in the biceps curl.

  • Hold a dumbbell vertically by one of its knobs with both hands behind your head making sure your elbows are pointed forward and up.
  • Extend your hands above your head, straightening your elbows and keeping them close to your ears, but do not lock your elbows.
  • Count one-one thousand on the up motion, then, slowly lower your hands behind your head and count two- one thousand as you drop the weight to the down position. Repeat for 10-15 times.
  • Watch to make sure your head is clear of the dumbbell. Keep your neck aligned with your spine.

Overhead Press 

This exercise balances the muscles in your shoulders.

  • Stand erect with your pelvis flexed. (If you find you are arching your back, perform this lift sitting instead to avoid back strain.) Hold a weight in each hand at shoulder height with your palms facing forward and your elbows out to your sides. To prevent shoulder strain, make sure your elbows don’t bend more than 90 degrees.
  • Now slowly press the weight up until your arms are nearly straight directly above your shoulders without locking your elbows. Do not allow the weights to touch.
  • Keeping your trunk still, lower the weight slowly.
  • Perform 10-15 reps.
  • If you note pain or popping on your shoulder, stop immediately.


This exercise works your quads and glutes (buttocks) and also adds some work for your hamstrings.

  • Be sure to perform lunges with your pelvis flexed forward. If you extend your back and pelvis, you can irritate your low back and spine.
  • Stand with both feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Holding one weight in each hand (or not), take a big step forward on your right foot, bending your right knee and lowering your left knee toward the floor. Stop when your left knee is just above the floor, and make sure your right knee doesn’t extend beyond your toes. Your right knee should be bent at about a 90-degree angle when your left knee is close to the floor. Keep your weight in your front (right) heel. You want to feel a smooth dropping motion.
  • Next, push back smoothly to your standing initial position.
  • Repeat with your left foot lunging forward while slowly dropping your right knee.
  • Once you can perform 20-25 lunges with each leg comfortably, add an extra five-pound weight to each hand. Gradually increase the weight so that reaching 15 to 20 lunges with each foot produces some moderate strain.

Hamstring Bridge

This counterbalances the lunge.

  • Lie on the floor with your back flat.
  • Place your hands on the floor next to your hips
  • Place your heels either on the ball or on a chair.
  • Lift your pelvis and buttocks off the floor as high as you can, pushing with the backs of your heels against the ball or chair. Feel the pull in your hamstring as you go up.
  • Hold the position for 2 seconds then lower your buttocks slowly back toward the floor.
  • Lift again without resting your buttocks on the floor, keeping your muscles contracted between repetitions.
  • Repeat 10-15 times.

Calf presses (with free weights):

Benefits:  This builds your calf muscles and develops nice, shapely calves.

What you’ll need: Two free weights (average starting weight 10-30 pounds)

  • Stand erect holding free weights in each hand with your feet pointing forward, shoulder width apart.
  • Slowly rise up on your toes, holding for one half a second, and then slowly lower back down. Repeat with a weight you can lift 10- 15 times.

 Shoulder Rotator Cuff Lifts 

  • While standing with your pelvis flexed, hold a small weight (start with just 2-5 pounds) in each hand with your thumbs pointed directly down towards the floor and your palms resting beside your thighs.
  • Slowly lift your arms up in front of you with your hands a little more than shoulder width apart, and with your thumbs pointing to the floor, until they’re shoulder height and parallel to the floor. Don’t raise your arms above shoulder height; doing so can pinch tendons inside the shoulder.
  • Now slowly lower your arms and repeat 12 to 15 times.

Steven Masley, MD