Sustainable Strength Training for Life

Strength training is a foundational element of fitness and longevity. But how do we sustain high level training over a long period of time?

By Sarah Leahy, CPT, PN1-NC – June 1, 2023

Strength training is an effective way to meet almost every fitness goal – strength, aesthetics, body composition, muscular endurance – and it’s important at every stage of life. The benefits of strength training are endless. It increases your metabolism following your session, in addition to creating more muscle mass, which in turn increases your resting metabolic rate. It’s one of the only known ways to increase and maintain your bone density, which is particularly important as you age. People throw around the words “toned” and “firm”, which can only be accomplished by building muscle from – you guessed it – strength training.

For many people, the issue isn’t that they don’t know that they should be strength training regularly, or even that they don’t know how to get rolling. It’s the consistency of it – both sticking to it, and being able to develop a strength training plan that is sustainable for the long-term. Particularly if you are new to training, it’s easy to go all-in and burn yourself out. But if you’re looking to become stronger and healthier for life, you’ll have to play the long game – developing sustainable, repeatable habits that allow you to make progress without that burn out, physically or mentally.

The first step to consistency with training is to start small, and be practical about it. If you are not an early riser, don’t decide you are going to start waking up at 5am weekday mornings to get a session in. More often than not, you’ll find an excuse to stay in bed. Instead of trying to change your entire personality, start with smaller steps, and plan ahead just one day or one week at a time. Three strength training sessions a week, for as little as 30 minutes, will get you sustainable results. Don’t overcomplicate it. Look at your calendar at the beginning of each week and block off your workout times, like appointments with yourself. Know whether you are working out at home or at the gym, and the evening before make sure you’ve got your gym bag, water, and snacks at the ready so you’ve got no excuses. Practice the simplicity of your “gym appointments” for a month or so until it’s just a natural part of your weekly prep and you’ve locked it in as a habit. If you need more accountability, hire a trainer or sign up for group strength training classes so there’s some incentive (and a fear of a late fee!) for not sticking to your scheduled sessions.

Strength Training

Structure your workouts so your body has time to recover between sessions. The simplest and most efficient way to do this if you strength train three times a week is to split your days into Leg Day, Push Day, and Pull Day. Your push day will focus primarily on the front of the body, your pull day on the back, and your leg day will be just that. This gives your muscle groups time to adequately recover between sessions, and you won’t be overdoing some areas while neglecting others.

Start each workout with the largest movement, and then follow up with your supplemental and unilateral work. An example of this is to start leg day with barbell squats, working up to a 3×5 or 5×5 at a challenging working weight. From there, you’ll move on to supplemental movements like leg presses, extensions or curls, unilateral work like step ups and split squats, and mobility

work like walking lunges. This allows you to gain strength on full body movements by starting there before your energy starts to deplete, as well as allowing your body to fully warm up by using your whole kinetic chain. For each strength session, choose just 3 to 5 supplemental movements and do 3-6 sets of 8-12 reps.

For the best results, program progressive overload into your training plan. This means you are aiming to increase your weight, reps, or sets from week to week, and month to month. Doing so will increase your strength and improve your body composition, in a safe and sustainable way. The last two to three reps of each set should be challenging but manageable with good form. Once that weight starts to feel easy, increase the weight you use, or the reps and sets you complete. Keep record of your progress via an app or notebook so you can track your progress as you get stronger.

To ensure you don’t burn yourself out, program deload weeks into your training plan. The human body is amazing, but it does need breaks, and will not make linear progress forever. To make sure you aren’t stretching yourself too thin, program deload weeks into your training program about every 12 weeks or so depending on the length and intensity of your sessions. This will allow you to keep moving without as much effort, and give your body more recovery time. A deload week means you’re backing off on the weights, the sets, the reps, or all of the above, but still keeping your body moving.

If you are an intermediate lifter, structure your programming so it’s an undulating cycle rather than linear progression. This will allow you to lift heavier weights consistently, while still recovering and not putting too much stress on your body. A great example of this is Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 programming. Especially as you get stronger and more advanced in both training and age, this will allow you to continue to progress over time, but in a slower more sustainable way, with some weeks being higher rep with lower weight, and some lower rep with higher weight.

The most important part of ensuring any strength training program is sustainable is locking in your recovery habits. Proper nutrition and hydration are important no matter your goal, as are getting enough sleep, and staying active between your weight lifting sessions. Never underestimate the power of taking a walk and keeping your body mobile, to ensure you don’t get too tight after weight training and to keep your body healthy for the long-term.

Strength training is a slow, steady build over time, and something that you should be able to do in one form or another for life. Starting small to build the consistency of your training and being smart about the way you structure your programming will ensure that you stay as strong and healthy as you can for the long haul.


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