6 strength exercises for beginners of any age

Lifting weights once a week for about 15 minutes, using six core moves, may be all the resistance exercise most of us need to build and maintain total-body strength, according to a large study of muscle, ergonomics and time management.


The study followed nearly 15,000 men and women, ages 18 to 80, for up to about seven years and found that performing a once-weekly weight-training routine, focused on machines available in almost any gym, increases lower-body strength. body by up to 60 percent, regardless of age or gender.


The findings suggest that a surprisingly small amount of weight training can produce significant strength gains for most of us, but they also raise questions about why so few of us lift at all.

Benefits of weight training

Being strong is “clearly important” for long-term health and well-being, said James Steele, an exercise scientist at Solent University in Southampton, England, who led the new study.

Strong people tend to live longer, for one thing. A 2022 review of studies on resistance training found that men and women who did strength training, no matter how infrequent they were, were 15% less likely to die prematurely than those who didn’t lift.

Other studies have shown that resistance exercise can also reduce anxiety, help with weight control, maintain muscle mass and build, improve thinking, control blood sugar, help prevent falls, and generally increase metabolism and mood. These effects often equal, and may even exceed, the effects of endurance activities, such as walking or cycling, in some respects, particularly with regard to muscle and metabolic health.

But many of us rarely lift more than a finger. According to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than a third of American adults say they regularly complete strength training at least two days a week, and the actual total is probably lower, since that number is based on people telling researchers about their exercise habits.

Knowing that people who rarely exercise tell researchers they have little time, Steele began to wonder how little resistance training might be enough for the average exerciser. Some previous studies have suggested that relatively small amounts of weekly lifting increase strength. But most of these studies were brief and small-scale, and included men, usually young men.

Fortunately, Steele heard about a large cache of weight training data available from a health club chain based in Europe that specializes in weight training for everyone. Her program consisted exclusively of visiting clients once a week, doing six weight-lifting exercises under the supervision of a trainer, recording how much weight he lifted, and going home.

The treatment regimen did not differ from week to week or from year to year, although the weights lifted would go up as people grew in strength.

Now, Steele asked for and obtained anonymized data on 14,690 men and women, ranging in age from their late teens to their 80s, who have been clubbing and attending weekly for up to about seven years. (The health club chain, fit20 International, provided data but had no other input into the study’s analysis or conclusions, Steele said.)

6 weight exercises once a week

Each person’s weekly program was consistent and simple. They completed one set of each of six common exercises, in order: chest press, lat pulldown, leg press, abdominal flexion, back extension, and either hip adduction or abduction (alternating between these hip exercises week to week), using machines available at Most gyms.

During each exercise, the subjects lift the weight for 10 seconds and then return the weight to the starting position within an additional 10 seconds, making sure to breathe the entire time.

Steele said they repeated each set on an individual machine until they reached what the researcher calls “momentary failure,” meaning “they felt as though they could not immediately complete another repetition with proper form.”

The trainers tracked people’s lifts and weight gain once someone could easily complete more than about six repetitions of the exercise.

The entire routine, which took about 20 seconds between one machine and another, used to take about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how many repetitions of each exercise someone ran, once a week.

A weekly 15-minute routine for more strength

Steele found that this short time commitment resulted in significant gains in strength, especially in the beginning. During the first year of lifting, most people’s strength has grown by about 30 to 50 percent, based on the weights they can handle during each workout.

After that, nearly everyone’s gains leveled off, with most adding maybe an extra 10 or 20 percent, overall, to their muscular strength in later years.

Steele wondered if this plateau could be avoided if people changed and diversified their weight training, and then checked an online database of competitive weightlifters, who presumably change their training more often. They also show significant gains in strength at first and then starkly level off after a year or so.

These findings suggest that there are limits to how powerful we can be.

Adaptation is likely limited, said Jeremy Lewinicki, an associate professor of exercise science at the University of Mississippi who studies muscle and strength and was not involved in this study. “People can improve, but the amount they can improve will get smaller and smaller.”

At the same time, the study suggests, perhaps we can reach our full strength by exercising just once a week, if we’re consistent.

“I think a one-set-to-failure training protocol—doing as many reps as possible with that load—would be adequate to bring about changes in strength for the majority of the population,” said Loenneke.

However, we may miss out on some of the potential benefits by aiming for as little lift as possible. The study, for example, didn’t look at muscle mass, so we don’t know if this routine will help us build or maintain mass.

It’s also possible for some people (well, some people like me) to get bored of the exact same workout that’s been done every week for years.

“Maintaining motivation is important,” Loenneke said. “There may not be a physiological reason why switching up a training program helps break the plateau phase, but there may be a psychological reason.”

However, for those of us entering the new year with a firm resolve to get stronger, these six workouts, once a week, are a scientifically valid place to start.

“It’s not the only path,” Steele said, to greater power. “But most people will get to where they should be” by following this simple, simple routine.

Do you have a fitness question? e-mail [email protected] We may answer your question in a future column.

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