A variety of methods exist for strength training, yet many people train the wrong way and unwittingly sabotage their efforts to increase strength and muscle mass. To see the fitness results you are looking for, make sure your strength-training regimen incorporates these four simple rules.

Rule #1: Lift heavy enough

If you want to make your muscles stronger, you must force them to do work more than they are used to (called overload)! To gain strength, you need to actually cause micro damage to the muscle by using a load that the muscle isn’t accustomed to.

As a general rule, you need to lift a load that is about 60 percent of your one repetition max (IRM), the heaviest load that you can lift just one time. If your 1RM is 100 pounds, for example, you must work out with at least 60 pounds.

Eccentric contractions (when the muscle lengthens while contracting — like when you lower a weight during a biceps curl) seem to cause the most trauma to the muscle during weightlifting. But the upside is that this trauma is the stimulus for building muscle. So rather than letting your arms drop after a lift, lower the weights in a controlled manner. Doing so lets you work the muscle during that phase of the movement.

Rule #2: Lift to fatigue

If you lift a single load, even one that’s heavy enough to damage the muscle, you haven’t stressed all your muscles. Here’s why: As more muscle fibers become fatigued, your body calls up even more fibers to help the fatigued ones carry the load. That’s why you must keep lifting to ensure that you’re stressing your muscles sufficiently. Only when all your muscle fibers are fatigued have you worked the entire muscle and stimulated growth.

Rule #3: Eat and rest to let your muscle recover

Muscles grow during the recovery time between workouts. So recovery is very important to ensure muscle growth. To make sure your recovery period maximizes muscle growth, you need rest, carbohydrates, and protein. Follow these guidelines:

  • Include adequate carbohydrates in your diet. To fuel the growth of new muscle tissue, carbohydrates should make up 50 percent to 60 percent of your diet.

  • Eat adequate amounts of protein. Protein helps form muscle. You should have between 0.4 and 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight. A 180-pound man, for example, needs 90 grams of protein per day (180 × 0.5 g/lb = 90 grams).

  • Sleep! Restful sleep is the time when the hormones of muscle growth (growth hormone and testosterone) are highest.

The harder the work, the more recovery you need. The more overload you give your muscles, the more recovery they need. Usually 24 to 48 hours between workouts is enough.

Rule #4: Progressively increase the load as the muscle adapts

You need to add more load when you can easily do more repetitions than you’re used to. If, for example, you choose a weight that is 60 percent of your 1RM (which equals about 15 to 20 repetitions before fatigue) and you have adapted enough that you can lift the weight 23 times, it’s time to add more load.

The amount of the increase varies and depends on the size of the muscle. Should you increase five pounds, ten pounds, or something more? A better strategy is to increase by a percent of the load so that the loads across different muscle groups are standardized. A 10 percent increase should be enough to provide a nice progression.