Lifting weights makes you stronger because your muscles will adapt to the extra stress you’re putting on them. So you look better and you feel better. You’re also healthier, in ways that a lot of people don’t normally associate with muscle building.

For example, strength training builds lean muscle mass, which helps to burn more calories. In doing so, it helps to burn fat, which, of course, helps to maintain an appropriate body weight. And trained muscles metabolize glucose much better and lower your insulin resistance. That helps prevent diabetes.

Where strength training really does its job is making you feel more alive. Think about how much dedicated gym rats like to talk about how great they feel. (Some of them, you may have noticed, talk about it a little too much.) Then think about how much other men talk about how lousy they feel as the years go by. Strength training can turn that gym-rat attitude into an age-proof lust for life.

“If you don’t want to lose a lot of your muscle power as you get past 40 or 50, strength training can have a big effect,” Taranta says. “Without it, you won’t be able to do things as well, so your activity level will decrease. This can lead to heart problems, cholesterol problems, hypertension -all of that.” Here’s how to get the best benefits from strength training.

Shock your system. Lifting weights once in a while when you’re in the mood won’t get the job done. “You have to shock your muscular system on a regular basis or else muscles will lose their strength,” Dr. Baechle says. How often is that? Well, you need to give your muscles a day off after working them with weights, but you shouldn’t let them rest more than three days before “shocking” them again, according to Dr. Baechle. “Two days a week will work,” he says. “Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday are fairly common systems, but three times a week (for example, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) is a little better.”

Work the major muscles. Some movements with weights work the entire group; others pick out individual muscles, such as your biceps. “Try to do one exercise for each major muscle group to get a balanced effect,” Dr. Baechle advises.

Hit your number. For general health purposes, repeating each exercise 12 to 15 times without stopping is the ideal, according to Dr. Baechle. “That seems to be a number where you can really concentrate on the technique involved, on the breathing and rhythm, and on range of motion, without being so concerned about how much weight you’re lifting,” he says.

Learn to fail. The amount of weight you lift varies with the exercise, of course, but the rule of thumb is that the last time through the movement-in this case, say, the 15th repetition-should be the last you could possibly do. That, in weight room talk, is called working to failure, a case where failure is a good thing. Start light. If making it to 15 repetitions is too easy, add weight. If you can’t make it to 12, lighten up, says Dr. Baechle.

Do it once and for all. When you finish your 15 repetitions of any exercise, you’ve done one set of that exercise. If you rest and do it 15 more times, you’ve done two sets. How many sets should you do? That question starts arguments across the great schism in the church of iron about the relative benefits of multiple sets over a single set. But there’s fairly solid agreement that for the beginner interested in general health there’s no need for time-consuming extra sets. “One set’s enough when you’re starting out,” Dr. Baechle says. “But for continued improvement, try to increase the number of sets and weight loads as you get stronger.”

Get organized. There’s a reason that you see those guys walking around the gym making notes between exercises. They’re keeping track of what they did and how much they did of it. Catch-as-catch-can workouts are better than nothing, but you need a set routine in order to chart and make progress. “Your body really needs to know what you’re expecting of it,” Dr. Baechle says. “When you keep changing the exercises, it compromises the muscles’ ability to adapt and become stronger. Staying with the same routine for about a month provides an ideal opportunity for muscles to adapt to training.”

Besides, there’s something encouraging about being able to quantify your progress. “Part of the fun of training is recording the results of your workout,” Dr. Baechle says. “It’s reinforcing to be able to look back and see how much weight you are using-that is, how much stronger you are.”


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