Weight Training 101 - Everything You Need to Get Started

Getting Started

Woman lifting weights in a gym
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Most of us wouldn't mind losing some weight, but, more than that, we want to change our bodies. We want to get lean and burn fat, so what do we do? We spend hours and hours doing cardio.

Cardio is important for weight loss, don't get me wrong, but if you want to change your body, you're going to need to strength training, too. If you've hesitated to start a strength training program, it may motivate you to know that lifting weights can:

  • Help raise your metabolism. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn all day long.
  • Strengthen bones, especially important for women
  • Make you stronger and increase muscular endurance
  • Help you avoid injuries
  • Increase your confidence and self-esteem
  • Improve coordination and balance

Getting started with strength training can be confusing – what exercises should you do? How many sets and reps? How much weight? Knowing how to answer these basics questions can help you get started with a good, solid workout.

The Basics

If you're setting up your own program, you'll need to know some basic strength training principles. Don't worry, there's no pop quiz at the end...just a few ideas to help you figure out how much weight to use and how to choose your reps and sets so that you're always progressing in your workouts and not hitting an annoying plateau.

  1. Overload: The first thing you need to build lean muscle tissue is to use more resistance than your muscles are used to. This is important because the more you do, the more your body is capable of doing, so you should increase your workload to avoid plateaus. In plain language, this means you should be lifting enough weight that you can ONLY complete the desired number of reps. You should be able to finish your last rep with difficulty but also with good form.
  1. Progression. To avoid plateaus (or adaptation), you need to increase your intensity regularly. You can do this by increasing the amount of weight lifted, changing your sets/reps, changing the exercises and changing the type of resistance. You can make these changes on a weekly or monthly basis.
  2. Specificity. This principle means you should train for your goal. That means, if you want to increase your strength, your program should be designed around that goal (e.g., train with heavier weights closer to your 1 RM (1 rep max)). To lose weight, you might want to focus on circuit training, since that may give you the most bang for your buck.
  1. Rest and Recovery. Rest days are just as important as workout days. It is during these rest periods that your muscles grow and change, so make sure you're not working the same muscle groups 2 days in a row.

Tips for Great Workouts

Before you get started on setting up your routine, keep a few key points in mind:

  1. Always warm up before you start lifting weights. This helps get your muscles warm and prevent injury. You can warm up with light cardio or by doing a light set of each exercise before going to heavier weights.
  2. Lift and lower your weights slowly. Don't use momentum to lift the weight. If you have to swing to get the weight up, chances are you're using too much weight.
  3. Breathe. Don't hold your breath and make sure you're using full range of motion throughout the movement.
  4. Stand up straight. Pay attention to your posture and engage your abs in every movement you're doing to keep your balance and protect your spine.

Getting Some Help

Your first step in setting up a routine is to choose exercises to target all of your muscle groups and, of course, set up some kind of program.  If your brain just exploded at the thought, you have plenty of great options:

If You're a Do-It-Yourselfer

For beginners, you want to choose about 8-10 exercises, which comes out to about one exercise per muscle group.

The list below offers some examples.  Here's what you do: Choose at least one exercise per muscle group to start. For the larger muscles, like the chest, back and legs, you can usually do more than one exercise:

Want some already made workouts? I've got your back.

Ready-Made Workouts

Sequence of Exercises

  • Make sure you choose at least one exercise for each major muscle group.
  • The muscles to work include: Chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and abdominals.
  • If you leave any muscle group out, this could cause an imbalance in your muscles and possibly lead to injuries.

Most experts recommend starting with your larger muscle groups and then proceeding to the smaller muscle groups.

The most demanding exercises are those performed by your large muscle groups and you will need your smaller muscles to get the most out of these exercises. But, don't feel limited by that. You can do your exercises in any order you like and changing the order is a great way to challenge yourself in different ways.

How Many Reps/Sets to Do

You've figured out the exercises you should be doing, but what about the number of sets and repetitions? Your decision should be based on your goals. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 8-12 reps for muscular strength and 10-15 reps for muscular endurance. They also recommend at least 1 set of each exercise to fatigue although you'll find that most people perform about 2-3 sets of each exercise.

In general:

  • For fat loss: 1-3 sets of 10-12 reps using enough weight that you can ONLY complete the desired reps.
  • To gain muscle: 3+ sets of 6-8 reps to fatigue. For beginners, give yourself several weeks of conditioning before going to this level. You may need a spotter for many exercises.
  • For health and endurance: 1-3 sets of 12-16 reps using enough weight that you can ONLY complete the desired reps.

How Long to Rest Between Exercises/Workout Sessions

This will depend on your goal. Higher intensity (i.e., when lifting heavy) exercise requires a longer rest. When lifting to complete fatigue, it takes an average of 2 to 5 minutes for your muscles to rest for the next set. When using lighter weight and more repetitions, it takes between 30 seconds and 1 minute for your muscles to rest.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends training each muscle group 2 to 3 times a week. But, the number of times you lift each week will depend on your training method.

In order for muscles to repair and grow, you'll need about 48 hours of rest between workout sessions. If you're training at a high intensity, take a longer rest.

Where to Workout

You don't have to join a gym to get a great strength training workout. A gym is nice because you'll have access to both machines and free weights, so you have plenty of variety.

If you do join a gym, it's a good idea to incorporate both types of equipment into your workout routine for variety. Learn more about free weights vs. machines.

If you decide to workout at home, here are a few items you might want to consider buying:

  • Resistance bands are around $6 to $15. They're small, light, travel well, and you get get a full body workout with it.
  • Dumbbells are relatively inexpensive and you can do a variety of exercise with them. Find them at your local Target or Walmart. Other options include a barbell set, an exercise ball, and/or a weight bench.
  • An exercise ball can be used for everything from core work to a weight bench and is a great way to work on balance and stability while building strength and endurance.
  • For more, see Home Fitness Equipment

How to Figure Out How Much Weight to Lift

Choosing how much weight to lift is often based on how many reps and sets you're doing. The general rule is to lift enough weight that you can ONLY complete the desired number of reps. In other words, you want that last rep to be the very last rep you can do with good form.

However, if you're a beginner or if you have medical or health conditions, you may need to avoid complete fatigue and just find a weight that challenges you at a level you can handle.

So, how do you know how much weight you need to challenge your body?

Tips for Choosing Your Weights

  • The larger the muscles, the heavier the weight - The muscles of the glutes, thighs, chest, and back can usually handle heavier weight than the smaller muscles of the shoulders, arms, abs and calves.  So, I usually use about 15 or 20 pounds for squats and 10-15 pounds for chest presses, just to give you an idea.
  • You'll usually lift more weight on a machine than with dumbbells - With machines, you're usually using both arms or both legs for the exercises while, with dumbbells, each limb works independently. So, if you can handle 30 or 40 pounds on a chest press machine, you may only be able to handle 15 or 20 pounds with dumbbells.
  • If you're a beginner, it's more important to focus on good form than it is to lift heavy weights.
  • It may take several workouts to figure out how much weight you need

    The easiest way to determine how much weight you should use on each lift is to guess (not very scientific, huh?).

    Here's How to Start

    1. Pick up a light weight and do a warm up set of the exercise of your choice, aiming for about 10 to 16 repetitions. 
    2. For set 2, increase your weight by 5 or more pounds and perform your goal number of repetitions. If you can do more than your desired number of reps, you can either pick up a heavy weight and continue or just make a note of that for your next workout.
    1. In general, you should be lifting enough weight that you can ONLY do the desired reps. You should be struggling by the last rep, but still able to finish it with good form.

    Keep in mind that every day is different. Some days you'll lift heavier than others. It's just the way the old body works, so listen to it and do your best.

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