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How to get stronger

How to get stronger: Image shows woman with dumbbells
(Image credit: Getty)

Learning how to get stronger can benefit both your physical and mental health – it’s a win-win for body and mind. 

Building strength can help you reduce the risk of age-related conditions like osteoporosis and sarcopenia (muscle wastage), as well as improve balance, posture and focus, while reducing stress and anxiety, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"To be physically strong is be mentally strong and both are hugely important for overall physical and mental health," said personal trainer Angie Bell, who runs StudioBelles gym.

"Whatever your age, body type or training style, physical strength is of huge importance as it allows us to do the daily functional tasks of movements well, with less risk of injury."

Like medicine in the treatment of mental illness, exercise can increase levels of mood-boosting serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain. 

It improves and normalizes neurotransmitter levels, which improves brain health and helps us feel mentally strong, according to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study. 

But how do you build strength? All sorts of training can help you get stronger, from rowing machines and resistance bands to free weights and core work. In this article, we will cover how to get stronger and why it’s important.

Why strength is important

How to get stronger: Image shows woman training with weights.

(Image credit: Getty)

Personal trainer Angie Bell said: "Being physically strong allows us to live life at its best; it reduces the risk of injury, helps us shed fat and maintain a healthy weight with stronger bones, and builds muscle mass and confidence.

"Because muscle, even at rest, burns more calories than fat, starting a strength training routine can help you lose inches, even if you don’t see a change on the scales," said Bell. "So the more toned your muscles, the more calories you will burn a day - knowing how to get stronger is a great way to lose or maintain weight."

Regular strength training can also reduce the symptoms of chronic conditions, such as arthritis, back pain, depression and diabetes.

Getting started

If you want to learn how to get stronger, then you might want to consider investing in a personal trainer or going to a strength and conditioning class.

"Hiring a professional fitness instructor or attending a class means you will learn how to do the exercises properly with good technique and form, which means you are less likely to injure yourself," said Angie Bell.

"And if you’re a woman who is worried that lifting weights will make you ‘bulk up’, don’t worry as your body chemistry will stop that from happening." Women have lower levels of the hormone testosterone, so they don’t gain muscle mass in the same way as men.

"In fact, because women are so susceptible to osteoporosis and bone issues, especially around the onset of menopause, regularly lifting weights and strength training is extra important," said Bell.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation agrees - it recommends weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises for those at risk for or diagnosed with osteoporosis.

How to lift weights

How to get stronger: Image shows woman lifting weights.

(Image credit: Getty)

Just like all exercise, it’s important to warm up before you start any strength training session. A short cardiovascular pulse raiser – running on a treadmill, cycling or using a rowing machine for five to 10 minutes – is usually enough to get the body ready to lift weights.

After warming up, start with 10 reps of an upper-body move like a push-up, then 10 lower-body moves like squats or lunges. "These are called ‘rehearsal sets’, and prime the muscles and joints for the range of motion and work ahead," explained Personal trainer Angie Bell.

"Next, I would learn some of the basic functional lifts that help build strength – moves like back squats, deadlifts, bench press, bent-over row and lunges. You can mix them up with different reps, rest time, tempo and weights to change the intensity.

"If you’re new to strength training and want to know how to get stronger safely, I’d start by doing three sets of 8-10 reps to get a feel for the weights. Start at a weight that's comfortable, a weight that you can use the correct form without any back issues. Once you settle into the correct technique you can adjust those weights but get that form perfect before increasing."

How to get stronger: Image shows woman working out in gym

(Image credit: Getty)

"If you can’t pull or press a weight with proper technique, then you need to go down in size or risk damaging connective tissue, or a muscle. It’s also important to control your movement, and don’t hold your breath!"

"Working muscles need a constant flow of oxygen to create energy to fuel their contractions, and breathing properly also reduces the urge to tense your muscles, which means less risk of injury," said Bell. "Exhale as you lift or press, then inhale as you return the weight to starting position."

"And don’t forget to do a cool down at the end of each session to reduce the risk of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)."

Assistance exercises and why they are important

How to get stronger: Image shows women training in the gym

(Image credit: Getty)

Compound movements like deadlifts, squats and bench presses work big muscles groups so they are great for strength training and changing body composition.

But it’s also important to do accessory exercises, also known as auxiliary exercises. "These are smaller and more focused moves that help you do the compound movements with better form, efficiency and results," explained Bell.

"The idea is that doing smaller and more targeted isolation exercises will build some of the individual muscles, or smaller groups of muscles, used in the compound moves."

Here’s an example: the squat utilizes multiple muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves and abs. An accessory exercise to improve squats would be a leg curl to strengthen the quads, broad jumps to improve power and build up more fast-twitch muscle fibers (important for energy) or lunges, to work one side of the body at a time.

"If you’re short on time then it’s easiest to just do compound strength training, as this is the key to how to get stronger," said Bell. "But it’s worth making time for accessory exercises a couple of times a week if you can, as these will strengthen the smaller, supporting muscles and help you get stronger overall."

Seeing results

"Give yourself 6-8 weeks to see a difference physically," recommended personal trainer Angie Bell, "but you’ll probably feel mentally and physically stronger within a few weeks of starting a strength training program."

"I also tell my clients to take ‘before’ pictures and measurements as this is a game-changer in terms of motivation and seeing results. Make sure on heavy training days you are having lots of muscle-repairing protein, either in food or shakes and aim to sleep 8-10 hours a night to allow muscles to repair and regrow.

"Also, make sure you factor in rest days as part of your training. Active recovery like a walk or some yoga helps the body recover, reduce injury and stay strong."

Maddy is a freelance journalist and Level 3 personal trainer specializing in fitness, health and wellbeing content. She has been a writer and editor for 22 years, and has worked for some of the UK's bestselling newspapers and women’s magazines, including Marie Claire, The Sunday Times and Women's Health. Maddy loves HIIT training and can often be found working out while her two young daughters do matching burpees or star jumps. As a massive foodie, she loves cooking and trying out new healthy recipes (especially ones with hidden vegetables so the kids eat them).