Alberta Cancer Foundation

How to Get Started With a Resistance-Training Routine

Lifting weights isn’t just for serious athletes. Weight and resistance training should be considered an important part of everyone’s workout, regardless of fitness level or background.

Dr. Chris Sellar, a sports and fitness advocate, earned his PhD in physical education from the University of Alberta and is well aware of the universal benefits of resistance-training. According to Sellar, weight-training improves muscular strength and endurance, which can help with everything from athletic performance to completing day-to-day activities. It also increases muscle mass, which can improve metabolism and, in turn, helps manage weight gain. And weight-training exercises can increase bone density, which can reduce one’s risk of fractures and osteoporosis, and also stabilize joints.

Sellar is now the project coordinator for the Alberta Cancer Exercise (ACE) Program, a free, 12-week, province-wide community exercise program that is part of a five-year study funded by Alberta Innovates Health Solutions’ Cancer Prevention Research Opportunity. ACE teaches its participants how to properly incorporate exercise — including both resistance and aerobic training — into their lives following a cancer diagnosis. In his role, Sellar helps design, supervise and monitor the workout programs for ACE’s Edmonton participants.

“As well as the general benefits, resistance-training can offer additional benefits for cancer survivors,” says Sellar. “For example, at ACE we’ve had a lot of breast cancer survivors who’ve had surgery on the shoulder area. They can have a lot of weakness in that area, so doing resistance-training on that arm is ultimately going to make it stronger and help with their recovery.”

Here, Sellar offers some training tips and ideas that will help you begin a safe and successful resistance-training regimen.

Start low and slow

In order to safely incorporate weight-training into your exercise regimen and keep it a regular part of your workout, Sellar strongly recommends starting “low and slow,” regardless of fitness level or background.

“If you try to do too much too soon, you may get injured, or you won’t feel good and won’t want to continue exercising,” Sellar says.

Seek help to get started

If you’re unsure of how to start, get support from a certified trainer or other staff member at a fitness facility.

“With the ACE program, we assess all participants before they begin, which means we can base an individual’s specific starting load on testing we’ve done,” says Sellar. “A lot of fitness facilities also have trainers who can test, so you have a better understanding of where you’re at to start and what load you should begin with. They can also offer feedback on your form so you don’t hurt yourself.”

Change your routine as your body adapts

“Increasing the weight that you’re lifting by five to 10 per cent every two weeks is a common rule of thumb,” says Sellar. “But this does depend on how many times a week you’re training. If you’re only doing it one day a week, you’re not going to progress as fast. If you’re doing it three days a week, you might be able to increase the load a little bit more than 10 per cent every two weeks.”

Sellar adds that two to three days of resistance-training per week is the goal, but incorporating it into a fitness routine once a week is a great place to start.

Count your reps

Sellar recommends eight to 15 repetitions of each exercise to see some muscle-building and toning, as well as increased strength and endurance.

“With moderate repetitions and higher weights, you’ll get a little more muscle building. If your goal is muscular endurance or toning the muscle, your workout should be in that higher rep range,” says Sellar.

If you’re doing a higher number of repetitions, remember to lighten the load you’re lifting.

Work opposing body muscles

A resistance-training routine should work the whole body, but you don’t have to train the whole body in one session. However, it is important to work opposite muscles in the same training session. For example, train the legs one day, working the leg’s opposing muscles — the quadriceps and hamstrings — with exercises like leg presses and lunges. Focus on arms another day, making sure to balance bicep exercises, like bicep curls, with triceps exercises, like triceps dips.

“Working muscles in opposition helps to maintain good joint alignment, good posture and stability. It also helps avoid muscle imbalance. If you’re strong on one side and weak on the other, that’s when you can get injuries,” says Sellar.

There’s no one-size-fits-all resistance workout

Don’t forget to listen to your body. A variety of factors can affect your workout, including fatigue, illness and injury, so don’t feel disheartened if you need to modify your sessions.

“Fatigue is common among our ACE participants,” says Sellar. “We might modify their workouts so that the work they do is reduced or their training progression overall may be slowed: instead of that five to 10 per cent weight increase every two weeks, that increase might be spread out over a month.”

3 Resistance-Training Exercises to Try at Home

Consider incorporating these simple, equipment-free exercises into your routine. They can help you build strength and stamina using nothing but your own body weight.

1. Push-ups

If you’re new to push-ups, start out by doing them against a wall while standing. Work your way up to doing them on the ground from your knees, then from your toes as you get stronger. Start with one or two sets of 10 repetitions.

Sellar’s tip: “Keep your body straight, from your shoulders to the lower body pivot point [knees or toes].”

2. Squats

Work various muscles in the lower body by slowing sitting down into a chair or performing a squat against a wall. Try squats unsupported as you gain strength and endurance. Start with one or two sets of 10 repetitions.

Sellar’s tip: “Work toward lowering your body so your knees are at 90 degrees at the bottom of your squat. But always avoid pain by only going as low as your body allows.”

3. Plank

Challenge your core muscles by holding your body straight above the ground while resting on your forearms, and on either your knees or toes. Start by holding this position for 10 seconds.

Sellar’s tip: “Keep your tummy tight to protect your back, and make sure to keep breathing while holding the plank.”