Imagine for a second that you have two friends, one who consistently lifts weights to stay in shape and the other who consistently lifts donuts to keep themselves out of shape.

Now, let’s say the in-shape friend does a quick workout consisting of only dumbbell step-ups on the same day the other, out-of-shape friend is extra busy at his job and finds himself hustling up and down flights of stairs all day instead of playing Tetris in his cubical. Two days later, both friends say their legs are sore.

So, which one performed resistance training? And what are resistance exercises?

To start to answer to the first question, we have to define a few things. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) defines physical activity as any bodily movement that leads to caloric expenditure, while defining exercise (or training) as a movement done SPECIFICALLY to improve one or more components of physical fitness, two of which are muscular strength and body composition.

Both the ACSM and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) convey three important principles to all training, including resistance training, and they are:

Principle of Specificity: is what I’m doing affecting what I want it to?
Principle of Overload: is the intensity of what I am doing (is what I’m doing hard enough) to bring a change in my body?
Principle of Progression: understanding my body will adapt to what you consistently do, am I increasing the intensity, or amount of work I do, to continue to adapt the way I want?

So, to come back around to our original example, no, both of your friends were not performing resistance training. However, both of them were meeting principles to make changes in their muscular strength and, possibly, body composition, which are two adaptations seen in those who consistently resistance train.

The only difference here was intent, with one friend intentionally working out to improve a physical trait and the other forced to move because of his job.

There are many different forms of resistance training, all of which live under one, simple theme

Applying force to move a load. We can argue intensity thresholds and optimal volume all day, but it all comes down to a use of muscular strength to overcome the want of the human body or external object to remain where it is, or its inertia.

Most of us would not consider walking up one flight of stairs a resistance training workout, but, to someone weighing 400 pounds and can barely walk, that flight of stairs will induce more stress than most leg workouts you see at the gym.

Some of the more traditional modes of resistance training include weightlifting machines, free weights, and bands or tubes, with other, non-traditional heavy implements numbering too many to count.

what are resistance exercises_2

The safest types of resistance training would be those machines with fixed movements found at the local fitness center and require very little additional technique to gain benefit. Free weight lifts incorporating barbells, dumbbells, and kettle bells add a little risk, but, if learned to utilize properly, can add many more benefits from resistance training sessions than single purpose machines, such as coordination and core stability.

Bands and tubes allow similar benefits as free weights, with the added advantage of being much cheaper and can make for quicker routines when considering the ease of setting them up and moving from exercise to exercise.

Some non-traditional implements include rocks, sandbags, Indian clubs, sleds, giant tires, and just about any other awkward object that one drunken frat boy would bet another to lift. Where non-traditional implements incur the most risk when using, they also afford the benefits of gaining strength in dynamic movements, such as walking and balancing, while also being fun as hell.

If you are just getting started, then it is best to stick with the basics. Fixed range of motion machines that require you to move more than one joint at a time (i.e. elbow and shoulder during the chest press or ankles, knees, and hips during a leg press) are good places to start.

The ACSM has stated, in its position paper, that 2-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions are adequate for strength gains and 1-4 sets of 15-20 repetitions for gaining muscular endurance. I would recommend the beginner start at the higher repetition range with lower weight and decrease the repetitions as weight is added gradually, over time.

If changes in body composition (adding muscle) are the goals of your resistance training regimen, then the NSCA suggests using weights that can only be performed 6-12 times per set. The previous recommendations are meant to be used for resistance exercises at relatively low speeds throughout the entire repetition.

Ballistic training, such as Olympic weightlifting and the throwing of objects, adds many different variables that are outside the scope of this article.

In the end, it comes down to moving weight. There are many different ways you can do it, and you should explore the majority of them in order to prevent boredom and stagnation in progression. A focus should always be on lifting with proper technique to not only prevent injury but maximize your gains.

It would definitely be beneficial to seek out professionals qualified to assess your physical capabilities and progress you through a resistance training program. It is always recommended that you get a medical examination before starting an exercise regime.


Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human kinetics.

Garber, C. E., Blissmer, B., Deschenes, M. R., Franklin, B. A., Lamonte, M. J., Lee, I. M., … & Swain, D. P. (2011). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise43(7), 1334-1359.

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