The Complete Beginner's Guide to Strength Training

Getting started with strength training - It's not as scary as you think

woman doing triceps extension
Getty Images/Mike Kemp

Whenever I talk to beginner exercisers or people who've been on a break for a long time, almost all of them say the same thing: "I figure I'll start with cardio and, when I lose some weight, I'll add in some strength training."

They're often afraid of bulking up or that lifting weights will cause them to gain weight. Some are just overwhelmed by the idea of having to do cardio and strength training in the same week.

How to Do It All

The truth is, beginners can do just that, start with cardio and add in the strength training later. However, strength training is critical if you want to lose weight... specifically when it comes to burning more fat. In fact, lifting weights has a number of benefits, not the least of which is helping you lose weight and, of course, keeping your body strong. No matter what your goals are, strength training is an important component of your exercise program and it's never too late to start.

Be sure to check with your doctor before you start lifting weights if you have any medical conditions, injuries or illnesses.

Getting Started

  • Learn the basic principles of strength training: Weight Training 101 is your starting point for learning about the rules and guidelines. 
  • Start with a simple program:  Focus on one that works all muscle groups 1-3 non-consecutive days a week. I typically advise my beginners to lift twice a week with a simple total body workout.
  • Warm up with 5-10 minutes of cardio or with warm up sets of each exercise using a light-medium weight.
  • Choose 1-2 exercises for each muscle group (see below) and do 1-2 sets of 8-16 repetitions of each exercise. As a beginner, you may want to start with about 12 reps until you feel comfortable with the moves and build some strength. After that, you can add more weight or reduce your weight and change your reps for a different challenge.
  • If you exercise in a gym, you may want to start with machines so you have more stabilization for the movements.
  • Give yourself at least a day of rest (though you may need more after the first workout) to recover.
  • Each week, add either 1 repetition and/or a few pounds of weight to each exercise to progress. Just keep your reps at about 16 or below. Once you hit 16 reps, increase your weight and drop your reps down to 10 or 12 reps. Anything above about 20 reps doesn't really add more muscle or strength at that point.
  • You want to challenge yourself, not kill yourself. The first few weeks, focus on learning how to do each exercise rather than on how much weight you're lifting or how many exercises you're doing. You have plenty of time to build muscle.
  • After 6 or more weeks of consistent strength training, you can change your routine to make it more difficult.

What Exercises Should You Do?

If you don't know much about weight training, consider hiring a personal trainer to help you set up your program.

You should work all of your muscle groups each week so that you avoid muscle imbalances, which could lead to injury. For detailed information on specific exercises, see How to Choose Your Exercises.

Below is a list of muscle groups along with sample exercises. If you're a beginner, you only need to choose 1-2 exercises for each muscle group in the upper body and 3-4 moves for the lower body.

  • Chest: bench press, chest press machine, chest presses with dumbbells, pushups
  • Back: one arm row, back extensions, lat pulldowns
  • Shoulders: overhead press, lateral raise, front raise
  • Biceps: bicep curls, hammer curls, concentration curls
  • Triceps: tricep extensions, dips, kickbacks
  • Lower Body: squats, lunges, leg press machines, deadlifts, calf raises
  • Abdominals: crunches, reverse crunches, woodchops, pelvic tilts

Choosing Your Sets, Reps and Weight

Choosing your reps, sets and weight can be the most confusing part of strength training. How many reps and sets you do will depend on your goals.

  • To lose body fat, build muscle: Use enough weight that you can ONLY complete 10-12 repetitions and 1-3 sets (1 for beginners, 2-3 for intermediate and advanced exercisers). Rest about 30 seconds-1 minute between sets and at least one day between workout sessions
  • For muscle gain: Use enough weight that you can ONLY complete 4-8 repetitions and 3 or more sets, resting for 1-2 minutes between sets and 2-3 days between sessions. For beginners, give yourself several weeks of conditioning before you tackle weight training with this degree of difficulty. You may need a spotter for many exercises.
  • For health and muscular endurance: Use enough weight that you can ONLY complete 12-16 repetitions, 1-3 sets, resting 20-30 seconds between sets and at least one day between workout sessions.

To determine how much weight you should use, start with a light weight and perform one set. Continue adding weight until you can ONLY do the desired number of repetitions. The last rep should be difficult, but not impossible and you should be able to keep good form. See Weight Training 101 for more info.

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