For those who have not done any regular strength training, starting a routine can be daunting. What exercises should you do? How many days, and should you focus on low reps and high weight, or high reps and low weight?

We were luckily able to get ahold of Lisa Johnson, a fitness/pilates expert, and get her tips and strategies on how people should best start a strength training program. Here is her advice on strength training:

1) First, tell us what you do and the typical person that would come to you for fitness advice.

Lisa: I've been a Pilates Instructor since 1998 and a studio owner since 1999, I've also been a fitness blogger for four years. The typical person who comes to me for advice is stuck and frustrated. They're looking to do something different that will help them feel better about themselves and their bodies.

I also get a lot of people who come to the studio after recovering from an injury or some sort, anything from a cranky lower back to a hip replacement!

2) For a beginner new to strength training, how would you recommend they find a workout routine they'll be likely to stick with?

Lisa: Simple and brief. Just get used to the idea of pushing and pulling things as a form of exercise, that's really all resistance training is. I recommend just doing 10 to 20 minutes, maybe only 5 moves to start and then slowly add in exercises over time. As your body changes, your metabolism increases and you start to look and feel better you'll be more motivated to spend a little more time working out.

The important thing in the beginning is just to establish routine. Consistency is the hardest thing to achieve, do that first with a minimal commitment of time, then build.

3) For me, boredom is a major issue when strength training. I often hit my my max and stay there for months. What tips/techniques do you recommend to keeps strength training interesting/motivating?

Lisa: This is one of the reasons why I love Pilates so much. I too, became really bored in the gym looking at the same rack of weights and the same ol' pieces of equipment. I say Pilates is like a jungle gym but for grownups! The equipment has over 500 exercises on it so it's always a different workout.

As instructors, we just naturally evolve and challenge you as you get stronger. Things like, "Hey! Let's see if you can do this now!" and the client will eagerly give it a try because they know they're stronger and they trust us to challenge them and keep them safe.

4) Do you believe in lifting until failure (as advocated by routines like 5 X 5), or do you believe that leads to bad results?

Lisa: Training to failure is certainly one way to go about it and it's definitely effective. The Pilates philosophy is more one of muscle confusion. Keep hitting the joints from different angles with a moderate weight challenge and watch them tone and strengthen over time. It's fast too, you'll see changes within two weeks, some of my clients swear they feel different after one week.

5) What's the ideal balance of cardio and strength training? 3 days of strength to 1 day of cardio?

Lisa: There are studies all over the place that support any theory you want to put out there. The American College of Sports Medicine says to move most days of the week with moderate activity for at least 30 minutes. So that's a reasonable one to follow. I personally do cardio two to three times a week, walk everywhere, do HIIT training twice a week and Pilates twice a week. That's my usual routine.

6) What are the most important stomach exercises, ranked by order of importance?

Lisa: This is where Pilates really shines, we do core in a unique way, different from other variations of "core" training. I would say ...

1. Rollup, great for ab strength and spine flexibility.

2. The Hundred, a pure strength move and a Pilates classic, you can play with the leg positions to make it easy or super hard.

3. Oblique Twist, a great Pilates move that works the obliques, it's all about how you curl across not your abdomen, NOT what your elbows are doing.

4. Rolling Like a Ball, this is a finesse exercise, you have to do it just right of you wump your bum on the mat. We say it gives you a "spinal massage" as you're rolling and there are several variations of this move which can really challenge ab strength and oblique work

5. Cobra, although we call it a Swan in Pilates. It's great to stretch those abs after you challenge them and a little extension work through the spine will keep your posture balanced. Bonus: The better your posture the better you'll look in your clothes.

7) What are the most important chest exercises, ranked by order of importance?

Lisa: The Pushup! What could be better, even Joe Pilates has his own version, you lower for a three count and push up for a one count and then reverse, dropping down in one beat and pushing up in three. He always ended with a pushup to really challenge the client just before they left.

- Hug a Tree, a classic Reformer move but easy to do at home with a band, it's important to keep the shoulders down and keep the focus on the chest muscles, not the arms. Here's a tip, if your elbows go pass the side seam of your shirt you'll move too much into your shoulder muscles (anterior deltoid) so keep the range of motion on the front half of your body for better pectoral engagement.

- Arm circles with tension. You can do these on a reformer, or again with a band. Moving your circles in a teardrop shape in front of your body will change the tension on your chest and shoulder muscles while you move. You can vary the strength from light to super challenging and get a great workout for the chest.

8) I know you're a fan of pilates and incorporating a mind/body component. What are the good 'side effects' you've experienced from including this vs not including this?

Lisa: It really is a stress thing for me. I find both straight lifting and Pilates to be effective but there is something about the flow of Pilates as you slide from move to move that really relaxes me.

I finish sweaty and happy every time. I think with traditional sets and reps you have a burst of activity and then sit there and wait for rest period to be over and that keeps me focused on things like my to do list instead of letting all of that go for an hour and just enjoy moving with no distractions.

Lisa Johnson, highly regarded in the fitness industry. runs an award-winning Pilates studio, and regularly blogs in She has appeared as a fitness expert in numerous publications including The New York Times, Glamour, Family Circle, The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur and Inc. You can find her videos in her YouTube Channel.


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