How to Start a New Exercise Habit that Can Last (and Extend) a Lifetime: Unpacking the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition. | Part 3 of 4

By Kevin Stahl, PT, DPT

Welcome back to our series of blog posts discussing how you can start exercising to meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans and improve your overall health!

If this is the first post of the series for you, be sure to go back and read our first overview post about the guidelines and our second blog that explores how to meet the minimum standards for aerobic exercise. 

For this post, we’re going to go into detail about how you can begin resistance training using the latest research as a guide.

What do the Guidelines State About Resistance Training?

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition, does a wonderful job of describing how children, adults, and seniors can benefit from regular exercise. It also discusses several forms of aerobic exercise. However, after having read the 118-page document that is the Guidelines, I cannot tell you that they give adequate instruction for how to actually begin resistance training to meet their standards.1 

Current guidelines state that adults should engage in at least two sessions of full-body resistance training per week. The document states that this full-body resistance training can take many forms. However, it does not go as far as to tell you how much you should exercise in order to ensure you gain the benefits of resistance training or how to go about it.

There are any many reasons for this ambiguity. Without going into too much detail (i.e. see the previous blog about aerobic exercise), it can be explained by the fact that while we have decent population-wide studies describing the positive benefits of aerobic activity over time, studying the benefits of different types of resistance training is much more difficult to accomplish.

What research has shown, is that individuals with low muscle mass, bone density, and strength compared to their peers were at a greater risk of all-cause mortality than those with normal or the highest levels of muscle mass, bone density, and strength.2,8,9,10.  

Strength and muscle mass are three attributes that can only be improved through resistance exercise.4 Aerobic exercise does not increase these traits, and therefore cannot be considered the sole type of exercise we should consider when trying to increase our health and decrease our risk of mortality.

So, What is Resistance Training?

Resistance training, which can also be called strength training or weight training, is the repeated contraction of your muscles to move your bones in order to overcome a weight or the force of gravity. Resistance training must also be strenuous enough that you would exhaust your muscles and have to stop the exercise before taxing your aerobic (breathing) systems.4 

How Can You Tell if You’re Doing Resistance Training or Aerobic Training? 

With aerobic training, you can keep exercising so long as you are able to breathe…within reason. You also usually perform the same exercise continuously for at least 5 minutes. 

With resistance training, you usually can only perform a given exercise for anything between 1 or 2 seconds to 2 minutes before you have to give up because your muscles literally cannot keep going.  

Some forms of exercise such as walking, or running, swimming, biking, dancing, or performing step aerobics are not intense enough to bring your muscles to exhaustion.

Caveat: If someone is very undertrained from a strength standpoint, then walking, running, dancing, etc might be so exhausting to their muscles that they cannot continue for longer than 2 minutes. These activities might therefore constitute resistance training. You could even include long-jumping or short-distance sprinting in this category, even for highly trained athletes.

Both aerobic and resistance training recommended in the Guidelines involve using large muscle groups. For beginners, it is important to use exercises that work all muscles that move the major joints of the arms and legs as well as muscles that flex and extend the torso. Since we cannot all go to school for anatomy to learn these joints, it’s perhaps more helpful for beginners to think of exercises as training movements rather than muscles. 

Here is a non-comprehensive list of relevant movements of the body that can be performed with weights or body-weight resistance to train all the major muscle groups.

Legs (Thighs and Glutes): 


-Hip Openers (aka abduction) 

-Hip Closers (aka adduction)

-Knee extensions

-Knee flexions

Legs (Calves and Ankles)

-Heel Raises (aka plantarflexion)

-Toe and foot Raises (aka dorsiflexion

Torso (Abdominals and Low Back):

-Crunches (standard and oblique)

-Back extensions


Back (Upper Back and Low Back):



-Shoulder Extensions 

-Shoulder Flexions


Chest/Arms (Chest, Shoulders, and Upper Arms):

-Overhead Press

-Shoulder Abductions (think in terms of the famous pectoral fly)

-Chest Press


-Elbow Flexion

-Elbow Extension

Arms (Forearms):

-Wrist Extensions

-Wrist Flexions

-Finger Flexions

-Finger Extensions


That’s Too Many Exercises for a Beginner!

Agreed! Fortunately, there are a few movements in that list that train multiple muscle in the same body region (and some that even train muscles in multiple body areas). Let’s narrow these down to a list we can use to start.

  1. Squats (Thighs, Glutes, Low Back, Calves, Ankles)
  2. Overhead Press (Shoulders, Upper Arms, Forearms)
  3. Chest Press (Chest, Shoulders, Upper Arms (backside), Forearms)
  4. Chin-Ups/Pull-Ups (Chest, Shoulders, Upper Arms (frontside), Forearms)
  5. Deadlift (Thighs, Glutes, Low Back, Calves, Ankles, Shoulders, Upper Arms, Forearms)

From this list of five exercises, we can train all the major muscles in the body and many smaller muscle groups that we didn’t mention. Of course, you can add exercises to this list based on your personal goals. You may be wondering if some of these exercises might not be appropriate for you given your experience level or any current injuries you may be dealing with right now.

Let’s address the first of those two thoughts:

All these exercises can be scaled or modified to allow even inexperienced people to perform them. You might even recognize some of these alternative exercises as something you do in your daily life.

  • A squat can be modified to a leg press at a gym or standing up repeatedly from a chair (or toilet).
  • An overhead press can be lifting a box up in front of your body to put on an overhead shelf in your closet.
  • Chest presses can be done against the wall and be progressed to single-arm push-ups on the ground.
  • Chin-Ups can be changed to doing seated pulls downs with a Theraband secured to the top of your door jam.
  • Deadlifts can be just bending over to reach your shins repeatedly while holding a broom, then progressed to using dumbbells, a barbell, or any other weight that can be picked up from the floor or even a raised surface such as a table. 

Of course, this is a physical therapy blog and there is a good chance you might be dealing with an injury that prevents you from completing one or more of these exercises as you read this. 

If you’re currently experiencing pain, weakness, or instability in any of your joints, it is advised that you speak to your doctor and a physical therapist to determine what kinds of resistance training would be beneficial for your specific case. 

However, there is mounting evidence to show that exercising the uninjured regions of your body (both aerobically and with resistance training) is better than not training at all. There are many systemic effects to exercise. For example, if you are currently rehabilitating your left shoulder, then exercising the right shoulder muscles could even help to preserve muscle and strength on the injured side.11,12 

Now, we have a list of five movements. We also have the information that performing exercises with the uninjured body regions is helpful. Now let’s determine how you can start resistance training and gradually increase your exercise over a single month. 

Your First Month of Resistance Training

As for how much to do for your resistance training exercise, try scheduling two sessions per week in accordance with the Guidelines to start. Full body training is best for beginners, so you should perform all five exercises each session. 

The Warm-Up

Begin each session with a five-minute dynamic warm-up. This could be as simple as going for a short walk, performing light stretches for your arms, legs, back, and neck, or even practicing the movements you will be using for your workout. Whatever you do, it should increase your heart rate a little and warm up your body in preparation for exercise. Be sure to schedule this five-minute warm-up into your plan for resistance training.

The Reps and Sets (How Much to Do)

In resistance training, we use some particular terms to record the amount of exercise we do and use this information to track progress overtime as well as to ensure we are challenging ourselves sufficiently.

Repetition: A term we use to mark the performance of a single movement done start to finish. 

Set: A term we use to record a series of continuous repetitions. A set can be any number of repetitions. Usually, you want to group sets of the same exercise back to back, especially when you are first starting to exercise. 

For your first week, perform 1 set of 8 to 12 repetitions of your version of the five exercises we listed above. 

In your second week, add an additional set of 8 to 12 repetitions for each exercise. 

Rest Periods

Be sure to rest a full minute between each set and also between each exercise! I commonly have to remind patients to take a full minute (or even more) of rest between sets of their exercises. This isn’t because we want you to waste time standing around—it helps your muscles and your central nervous system to prepare for your next set. 

With proper rest, you are able to perform more exercise, not less. This will help you to adapt to the exercise and to become stronger!

Here is how your first two weeks of training could look:

Week 1:


-5 minutes of light movement (jumping jacks, climbing your home stairs, walking around the block)

-Sit-to-Stands: 1 set of 10 repetitions 

-Push-Ups Against the Counter: 1 set of 8 repetitions

-TheraBand Pulldowns with Green TheraBand in Doorjamb: 1 set of 8 repetitions

-Stiff-Legged Deadlifts with Two Milk Jugs Filled with Water: 1 set of 8 repetitions

-Overhead Press with Two Milk Jugs Filled with Water: 1 set of 8 repetitions.


-5 minutes of light movement (jumping jacks, climbing your home stairs, walking around the block)

-Sit-to-Stands: 1 set of 12 repetitions 

-Push-Ups Against the Counter: 1 set of 12 repetitions

-TheraBand Pulldowns with Green TheraBand in Doorjamb: 1 set of 12 repetitions

-Stiff-Legged Deadlifts with Two Milk Jugs Filled with Water: 1 set of 12 repetitions

-Overhead Press with Two Milk Jugs Filled with Water: 1 set of 8 repetitions.


Week 2


-5 minutes of light movement (jumping jacks, climbing your home stairs, walking around the block)

-Sit-to-Stands: 2 sets: 12 and 8 repetitions 

-Push-Ups Against the Counter: 2 sets: 12 and 10 repetitions

-TheraBand Pulldowns with Green TheraBand in Doorjamb for 2 sets: 12 and 12 repetitions

-Stiff-Legged Deadlifts with Two Milk Jugs Filled with Water for 2 sets: 12 and 12 repetitions

-Overhead Press with Two Milk Jugs Filled with Water for 2 sets of 10 and 8 repetitions.


-5 minutes of light movement (jumping jacks, climbing your home stairs, walking around the block)

-Sit-to-Stands: 2 sets: 12 and 10 repetitions 

-Push-Ups Against the Counter: 2 sets: 12 and 12 repetitions

-TheraBand Pulldowns with Green TheraBand in Doorjamb for 2 sets: 12 and 12 repetitions

-Stiff-Legged Deadlifts with Two Milk Jugs Filled with Water for 2 sets: 12 and 12 repetitions

-Overhead Press with Two Milk Jugs Filled with Water for 2 sets: 12 and 9 repetitions.

How Do You Know it’s Working?

You might notice that even after your first training session you can lift the same weight for more repetitions. This is largely due to your brain and nerves becoming more effective at contracting and coordinating your muscles to act. Muscle growth usually takes place over a longer period of training, so don’t let up! 

That said, if you can lift the same weight more times than you could before, or can lift more weight, OR if you feel that the same weight feels lighter than it did the last time you lifted it, then you have gotten stronger! 

This will hopefully feel empowering to you, as you can realistically gain a good deal of strength even before building new muscle-which in turn will help you to become stronger still! However, be sure to focus on keeping the quality of your movements for each exercise high. If you find yourself struggling with a new amount of weight and are unable to lift it more than 2 or 3 times before having to rest AND you find that you’re not performing the movement as gracefully as you used to (lots of body twisting or trembling), you might be adding weight too quickly!

Remember, this is a life-long habit we’re trying to form, something that you can keep in your schedule and that will help you stay healthy so your schedule can stay full!

So, for your first month of training focus on your form. Search online for examples of how to perform the exercises listed above. YouTube is a wonderful resource for this.

How to Progress

Overtime, you will find that you can lift the same weight for two full sets of 12 repetitions without getting too tired. This is a good time to add an additional set to each exercise. If you are still finding you can lift the same weight for a third set of 12 without much effort, then congratulations! You have grown stronger and it is time to increase the amount of resistance you are using. 

I recommend choosing the next highest increment of weight you can use and not performing huge jumps in resistance in the space of a week. This new weight should challenge you, but you should still be able to perform at least 8 repetitions without losing control of the weight when first using it.

Keep the third set per exercise, however! 

Alright! You know have a good amount of information for how to initiate a resistance training program to add to the aerobic training we discussed in the last blog. 

Next time, we will discuss the finer points of how to increase the effectiveness of your exercise program so you can ensure you’re getting the most out of your hard work!


  1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
  2. Resistance Training Health Benefits
  3. Effects if Resistance Exercise Selection on Muscle Size and Strength in Trained Women 
  4. Evidence-based guidelines for resistance training volume to maximize Muscle hypertrophy
  5. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low-vs.-High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis 
  6. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men
  7. Resistance Training Variables for Optimizing Muscle Hypertrophy: An Umbrella Review
  8. Associations of Muscle Mass and Strength with All-Cause Mortality among US Older Adults
  9. Skeletal Muscle Strength as a Predictor of All-Cause Mortality in Healthy Men
  10. Muscle mass, BMI, and mortality among adults in the United States: A population-based cohort study
  11. Howatson G, Zult T, Farthing JP, Zijdewind I, Hortobágyi T. Mirror training to augment cross-education during resistance training: a hypothesis. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 2013 Jul 24; 7:396.
  12. Andrushko JW, Lanovaz JL, Björkman KM, Kontulainen SA, Farthing JP. Unilateral strength training leads to muscle-specific sparing effects during opposite homologous limb immobilization. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2017 Dec 14;124(4):866-76.