FIRST Guidelines to Improve Muscular STRENGTH

In my last post, I wrote about using the FIRST guidelines for improving muscular endurance.  Now we’ll focus on improving muscular strength.  Muscle strength is defined as “the ability to exert a maximal amount of force for a short period of time“.

We all need muscle strength for most activities of daily living.  Lifting the groceries, picking up your child, or housework.  If you’re interested in improving your muscle strength, you can easily create a program following these guidelines.

FIRST guidelines for Improving Muscular Strength

Frequency:  When you strength train at a high intensity, it causes considerable microtrauma to the tissue which usually takes about 72 hours for recovery.  If you perform total-body workouts, two sessions per week would be advised.  If you like to do split routines, be sure to take at least 72 hours between workouts for the same muscles.  An example of a split routine would be to work chest, shoulders, and triceps on Mon and Thurs; Tues and Fridays work the upper back and biceps; Wed and Saturdays would be legs and trunk.  *Please note that the 72 hour waiting period is recommended when you are strength training at a high intensity using close to your maximum resistance*

Intensity:  In the beginning stages of training for strength, you can be successful using a wide range of weightloads.  However, for the best strength improvement, it’s advised to use weightloads between 80-90% of your max resistance.  Performing one to three reps with more than 90% of your max is very effective for developing strength, but this isn’t recommended for the average person.

Repetitions:  Training for muscular strength requires fewer reps than when training for muscular endurance.  When using higher weightloads, you aren’t able to perform as many reps.  In most cases it is suggested to complete four to six repetitions to improve muscular strength.  When you can complete 7 reps, it’s time to increase the weight by about 5%.

Sets:  Improvements in muscular strength can be gained with both single-set or multiple-set training.  It’s a good idea to start with one hard set of each exercise and increase when you feel comfortable.  Muscular strength programs typically do not go beyond 3-4 sets of each exercise.  Keep in mind that longer rest periods are needed in between sets.  Two to five minutes of recovery are advised between sets of the same exercise which means workouts will take longer.  Luckily, single-set programs can be just as effective for improving strength.

Type:  As with training for muscular endurance there are several options for muscular strength training.  Although, free weights and standard machine exercises are favored when your goal is to develop more strength.

Increases in muscular strength coincide with increases in muscular endurance, but it’s more important to focus on training intensity when your goal is to improve strength.  Split routines or total body strength training routines are both effective.  It’s mostly a matter of preference and lifestyle.

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The progress one makes varies from person to person.  It’s not realistic to automatically increase your workload each week.  If your repetition range is 4-6 per set, once you can complete 6 reps with proper technique you can then increase the weight by about 5%.  Then start back at 4 reps and work up to 6 reps.

Using these guidelines is a very efficient way to improve muscular strength.  Both muscular endurance and muscular strength are important for overall physical fitness.  The FIRST guidelines are fairly easy to follow and can be very helpful when creating your program.

Do you prefer total body training or a split routine?


Guidelines for Improving Muscular ENDURANCE

When creating a resistance training program, you can use the FIRST acronym as a guide:  frequency, intensity, repetitions, sets, and type of exercise.  Using these five essential factors can help you easily develop a workout plan to help reach your goals.

The purpose of this post is to discuss how to use the FIRST guidelines for improving muscular endurance.  Muscular endurance is defined as “the ability of a muscle or a group of muscles to repeatedly exert force against resistance“.  Muscular endurance is usually determined by an increase number of repetitions completed with slightly less than your maximum resistance.  In my next post, I’ll focus on guidelines for improving muscular strength.

Common training plans for muscular endurance focus on a total-body workout consisting of exercises for the larger muscle groups of the legs, then the trunk, and ending with the upper body and arms.

FIRST Guidelines for Improving Muscular Endurance

Frequency:  During the first few months of a typical strength-training program, two or three workouts a week seem to be equally effective for developing muscular fitness.  But, as you advance and get at higher training levels, you’ll need more time to recover between sessions.  Proper recovery time is crucial.  Three training sessions a week is sufficient for improving muscular endurance, but if you cannot complete the same or more reps at your next session the frequency of your training should be reduced to twice per week.

Intensity:  One of the goals of training for muscular endurance is to work the muscles that you are focusing on to fatigue.  For most people, this is about 12-16 controlled reps.  Typically, 12 repetitions can be done with about 70% of max resistance and 16 reps with about 60% max resistance.  For that reason, the recommended training intensity for muscular endurance is between 60-70% of your max resistance.

Repetitions:  The range recommended for enhancing muscular endurance is between 12-16 controlled reps that work the muscle to fatigue.  You should increase the resistance by about 5% when you can complete 16 controlled reps.  When you increase the weight, this usually shortens the set by 2-4 repetitions then you work your way back up to 16 reps.

Sets:  Multiple sets of each exercise are advised in a program for muscular endurance.  It’s also important to take short rest periods between sets.  So, you could do two or three sets of each exercise with <60 seconds of rest in between.

Type:  There are many options of resistance exercises that will help improve muscular endurance.  Medicine balls, bands, free-weights, and machines are all efficient for training.  Use whatever you feel most comfortable with.  It’s also helpful to switch it up to prevent boredom.  Keep in mind that you should work all major muscle groups, but you don’t have to do each one individually.  For example, if you do the bench press, shoulder press, and bar dips, you won’t have to do a specific triceps exercise.

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If you are specifically training for muscular endurance, following these FIRST guidelines can be very helpful in planning your strength training program.

Are you strength training for muscular endurance?

Do you create your own programs?

Omega-3’s: Why do we need them?

Omega-3, also known as linolenic acid, is an essential fatty acid that we must get through our diet.  It’s a type of polyunsaturated fat that our body cannot produce so we have to get it from food we eat.  Omega-6, linoleic acid, is also an essential fatty acid, but most people get a lot of this type of fatty acid through the “standard diet”.  The goal for overall health is to obtain a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

There are three forms of omega-3 fatty acids:  ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexanoic acid).  ALA is found in plants and can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body.  DHA and EPA are naturally found egg yolks, some plant and nut oils, and in cold water fish and shellfish.

Some overall health benefits of omega-3’s are:

  1. reduces inflammation
  2. reduces blood clotting
  3. dilates blood vessels
  4. important for eye and brain development (especially important for a growing fetus in the late stages of pregnancy)
  5. acts to reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  6. may help preserve brain function
  7. helps decrease risk factors for disease
  8. may help reduce the risk of mental illness and ADHD, although more research is needed to confirm mental health benefits

Getting the proper amount of omega-3’s in the diet can help athletic performance and recovery.  Reducing inflammation and helping with blood flow are important benefits for athletes and active people.

Omega-6 fatty acids tend to be pro-inflammatory.  These are mostly found in vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybean oil).  We do need omega-6 fatty acids in our diet, but we need to maintain the right balance.  Most Americans get too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3.  Balancing these two fatty acids is necessary for supporting normal circulation and other biological processes.

While there is not a dietary reference intake (DRI) for the ideal amount of EPA and DHA, the Institute of Medicine has established an adequate intake for ALA (the precursor to EPA + DHA).  The Institute of Medicine recommends 1.1 grams per day of ALA to be the minimum amount for normal growth and neural development.  It has been recommended that we get 1.25 grams of EPA+DHA per day, which is found in about 2-3 serving of fatty fish per week.

Can we get all the needed omega-3 fatty acids from only eating plant based sources?  ALA (found in plants), being the precursor, needs to be converted to EPA and DHA in the body.  According to this study, “the conversion appears to be unreliable and restricted” and “the conversion from ALA to DHA is severely restricted”.

Being plant based, I was always curious if I was getting the proper amount of omega-3’s in my diet.  Earlier in the year, my doctor advised that I take a fish oil supplement.  I was hesitant, but started taking it daily in hopes of decreasing my CRP level .  C-reactive protein (CRP) levels rise in response to inflammation.  After three months (along with some other changes) I was able to get my CRP down to a healthy level.

It’s always best to get your nutrients from food, but sometimes supplementation is needed.  When taking a fish oil supplement, quality is very important.  Some other tips on taking fish oil are:  keep it refrigerated as it could oxidize if left out in the heat;  take it with food to avoid “fish burps” or you can freeze it; most benefits happen over weeks not immediately;  fish oil can increase brain activity, so a stimulatory effect may be felt after supplementation; fish oil may reduce blood clotting, so take caution if you are on a blood-thinning medication. (

Also available is an algae supplement, which is a vegetarian alternative.

Some food sources of omega-3’s are:

  • salmon
  • anchovies
  • sardines
  • walnuts
  • chia seeds
  • flax seeds
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Getting omega-3’s in your diet, as well as lowering omega-6, has many important health benefits.  As you can see, there are several ways to get those essential fatty acids.  Whether from fatty fish or flax seeds or if you choose to take a supplement.  It’s essential to do research or talk to your doctor or dietician to find the best option for your overall health.

How do you get your omega-3’s?

Have you ever taken a fish oil or algae supplement?