The Complete Beginner's Guide to Strength Training

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

Older woman lifting weights at home
Older woman lifting weights at home. LeoPatrizi/Getty Images

If you're a beginner at exercise or you've fallen off the wagon for awhile, you may be confused about exactly how to get back to it.

It's tempting to want to jump into daily workouts to make up for lost time, but that only leads to soreness, misery and, maybe, an injury.

On the other hand, some people think they only need to do cardio. Shouldn't you lose weight before you start lifting weights? And, if you're a woman, won't you get bulky or gain weight?

The short answer to that is no...it's very hard to gain muscle, even for men who have the right amount of testosterone to do that, something most women don't have.

No matter where you are in your fitness journey, lifting weights is crucial for building lean muscle tissue, getting stronger, and burning more calories every day. Feeling overwhelmed about where to start?

Your first step is to get a basic understanding of what you're doing and how to create a workable workout schedule for your fitness level, schedule, and goals.

Why Lifting Weights is So Important

While any exercise is better than no exercise, strength training is a critical component in any weight loss program and it has a number of benefits:

  • Burn more fat - Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so the more you have, the more calories you burn all day.
  • Avoid injury - Strong muscles mean you also have strong bones and connective tissue. All of that contributes to a body that can withstand more stress than people who don't lift weights.
  • It keeps you young - Studies show that resistance training can enhance heart health, reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, increase bone density, reduce low back pain and ease symptoms of arthritis and fibromyalgia, just to name a few.
  • Boost confidence - Anytime you master something, your confidence only grows.
  • Increased energy.

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

Getting Started

Before you jump in with both feet, there are a few things you should know about lifting weights:

  • Learn the basic principles of strength training: Weight Training 101 is your starting point for learning about the rules and guidelines. This covers everything from the exercises you choose to how you progress from week to week. This is what helps you build a framework for your strength training workouts.
  • Start with a simple program: Focus on one that works all muscle groups 1-3 non-consecutive days a week. For example, this Beginner Total Body Strength Workout targets all the major muscle groups with classic moves that will help you build a strong foundation to work from.
  • Warm up with 5-10 minutes of cardio or with warm up sets of each exercise using a light-medium weight. Warm muscles are less susceptible to injury.
  • 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. Most gyms offer a free orientation, so take advantage of that and learn how to set up a basic program.
  • If you exercise at home, you may want to invest in some basic equipment such as resistance bands, weights, and an exercise ball. Learn more about working out at a gym vs. home exercise.
  • Give yourself at least a day of rest (though you may need more after the first workout) to recover. Rest days are crucial for building lean muscle tissue, so try not to work the same muscle groups two days in a row.
  • 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.

Step 1: Choosing Your Exercises

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.

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.

Step 2: Choosing Your Sets, Reps, and Weight

Choosing your reps and sets 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 do the desired number of reps with good form. The last rep should be difficult, but not impossible and you should be able to keep good form.

Your First Workout

Your first workout is a test of where your body is and how different exercises feel to your body. These classic exercises are a great place to start to begin connecting with your body on a deeper level.

The idea is to focus on doing the exercise right rather than using a lot of weight or doing a lot of reps.

Equipment Needed:

A resistance band, a chair, various weighted dumbbells

How To:

  • Start with a 5 minute warm-up of light cardio.
  • Do one set of each exercise, one after the other, resting briefly between exercises.
  • Modify of skip any exercise that causes pain or discomfort.
  • Make a note of how the moves feel and the weight you've chosen so you can keep track of your progress.
  • Rest at least a day before doing the workout again, working your way up to 2-3 times a week.
ExerciseRepsSuggested Weight
Chair Squat12No weight
Side Step Squats12 right then leftResistance band
Lunge12 repsNo weight
Wall Pushups12 repsNo Weight
Chest Flies12 reps5-10 lbs
Seated Band Biceps Curls12 repsResistance band
Seated Band Rows12 repsResistance band
Lying Triceps Extensions12 reps5-10 lbs
Vertical Leg Crunch12 repsNo weight
Back Extension12 repsNo weight

 

Source:

Westcott WL. Resistance Training is Medicine. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2012;11(4):209-216. doi:10.1249/jsr.0b013e31825dabb8.

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