Ask an Expert: How much strength training should I do?

Q: “I am a 47-year-old woman, I weigh 155 pounds, and I am very physically active. Currently, I do more cardio than strength training. How many times a week should I be doing strength training?”

Answer from Mike Boggs, BS, MBA, CSCS (certified strength-conditioning specialist), fitness specialist, Providence Fitness Services: 

Every adult, whether female or male, young and old, should perform some type of strength training at least twice a week. As a woman in her 40s, you are at an age where it can really make a difference in your health and your life – not only now, but also in the decades to come.

Just as aerobic exercise is crucial to your cardiovascular fitness, strength training is the key to muscle strength and balance. Here are just a few ways that regular strength training can benefit you as you head into your 50s and beyond:
  • It burns calories to help you keep your weight down
  • It increases bone density, which lowers your risk of osteoporosis and broken bones
  • It strengthens your muscles, which improves your balance and makes you less likely to fall and injure yourself
  • It reduces your chances of joint injuries
  • Through all of the above benefits, it increases your ability to take care of yourself, to get around and to live independently in your later years
In terms of the time investment, you’re on the right track by spending more time on aerobic activity – the more time you put into it, the more the benefits accrue. Strength training, on the other hand, doesn’t require as much time to achieve results – the benefits are related less to the time you spend and more to the quality of effort that you put into each action. (Quality of effort involves “overload,” “progression” and “specificity” – read more about this in my answer to a previous reader question.)

For general fitness, a good balance of cardio and strength training might include three to four days a week focusing on cardiovascular activity (20 to 40 minutes each session), and two days focusing on strength training (including exercises for all muscle groups). 

An advanced program might include four to six days of cardiovascular training (focusing on intensity vs. time on alternating days) and four days of strength training using a split routine (focusing on different muscles groups on alternating days).

One way to structure a balanced and beneficial program is to follow the FITT principle:
  • Cardiovascular exercise for FITTness:
    • Frequency: 3 to 5 times per week
    • Intensity: moderate to moderately difficult activity
    • Time: 20 to 40 minutes per session
    • Type: any type of rhythmic, large-muscle-group activity that gets your heart beating faster, such as walking, jogging, jumping rope, swimming or dancing
  • Strength training for FITTness:
    • Frequency: 2 to 3 times per week
    • Intensity: load or weight = 60 to 75% of the maximum amount you can lift one time for that exercise
    • Time: 1 to 3 sets (8 to 15 reps per set) each of 6 to 10 exercises involving all of the major muscle group areas: chest, back, shoulders, arms, low back, abdominals, hips/thighs and calves
    • Type: any type of resistance exercise that works the major muscle groups, such as weight machines, free weights, exercises using tubing, or exercises using your own body weight for resistance, such as curl ups, pull ups, push ups and squats
In addition to cardiovascular and strength training, a complete exercise program also should include some flexibility and range of motion exercises. Once you’ve incorporated all three of these fitness essentials into your life, you should be in great shape. Keep up the good work!

November 2008