Don't go into a workout thirsty: A 2007 study from the University of Connecticut found that athletes with less-than-normal levels of body water performed poorly on certain strength-training moves. You don't need to drink after each set, says Christopher Berger, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine. But keep a water bottle on hand in case you start to feel parched.
Consider eating a small postworkout snack that pairs protein and carbs, too, such as whole-grain toast with peanut butter. It can help your muscles recover by nourishing damaged tissue (skip it, though, if you're trying to lose weight).
Crank Up the Count
Your best bet for increasing strength? Strive for three sets of each move. A 2007 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported that people who did three sets of quadricep exercises twice a week for two months significantly improved the amount they could lift. Those who did only one set remained at the same level.
Experienced lifters should do 10 to 15 repetitions per set, says Berger. However, lifting newbies should start with one or two sets of 10 to 15 reps, he says, and gradually add weight on. Once you find yourself breezing through three sets, increase the weight by a few pounds. "If an exercise feels easy, your body has already adapted to it, and you're not gaining any strength," says Berger. "You've got to push yourself -- otherwise, you're just getting a mild aerobic workout."
Bookend with Cardio
Before you lift, warm up with five to 10 minutes of jogging, cycling, or any other aerobic exercise. "When you warm up, it boosts blood flow to the muscles you'll activate as you lift, and this, in theory, helps nourish and prepare your muscles," explains Berger.
Another postworkout cardio stint (five minutes of brisk walking) can facilitate recovery, he adds, and some physiologists believe it can reduce soreness as well. If you still feel sore the next day, don't worry. "Muscle soreness is perfectly normal and usually more intense for beginners," explains Berger, "although it shouldn't be so bad that you can't lift again 48 hours later."
Go Total Body
The ideal strength-training session engages your arms, back, shoulders, chest, abs, hips, and legs, so squeeze a few moves for each muscle group into every workout. Many people focus only on their upper body when weight lifting, says Berger. "They think running or cycling can substitute for lower-body weight training," he says. "But neither builds muscle mass the same way weight training can." What's more, below-the-belt weight training can keep your knees and hips limber by indirectly increasing collagen content and enhancing ligament and tendon strength.
Text by Elizabeth Barker