The Complete Guide to Weight Training for Beginners

A man lifting weights.
A man lifting weights. HeroImages/Getty Images

Learning the basics about gym equipment will help you feel confident in the gym, especially if you're a beginner in fitness. It can sometimes be a challenge to determine how to use something like the leg curl machine or what weight to use through a lat pulldown, so you'll want to figure out the details so you can make your time weight training worthwhile. 

Also, getting to know some terms associated with weight training and following a beginner workout can be beneficial. That way you'll have all the information you need for a successful first session. Also, it's always a good idea to get medical clearance to work out from your doctor before you head to your first workout. 

How to Choose a Gym

Select a gym that’s convenient to your home or work, and suits your experience and preferences. Here are some things you'll typically find in an all-purpose fitness gym:

  • Machine equipment, such as a cable and pulley system with easily adjustable weights
  • A weight room or area where you can train with free weights, such as dumbbells and kettlebells
  • Aerobic and cardio machines, like treadmills, stationary bicycles, steppers and cross trainers
  • A classroom where you can do aerobic exercise with an instructor, such as spinning or Zumba
  • A free session, if you ask an employee during your first session
  • A tour from an employee of the facilities to get familiar with your surroundings 
  • Avoid a professional bodybuilding, powerlifting or Olympic lifting gym

Your First Weight Training Session

If you signed up for a gym membership and familiarized yourself with the area, then it's time to get to your first sweat session. Here's a good guide for how to approach that initial gym time:

  1. Warm up at a low to moderate intensity with at least 15 minutes on a treadmill, stationary bike or cross trainer. Ask a gym attendant to show you the adjustments if you need them. You should be breathing lightly and you should be able to chat comfortably—in other words, moderate exertion.
  2. Add another five minutes of light stretching, holding each position for only a few seconds. Ideally, you should be sweating a bit by this point and your muscles should feel primed for action.
  3. Unless you're familiar with machines, you could use this visit to focus on dumbbell training. Free weights like dumbbells and barbells are often in a room of their own, but not always.
  4. Another option is to use up to seven standard weight training equipment stations with adjustable weights that most reasonably equipped gyms will have available. Add some core work with a move like crunches, too, which can be done with a machine, fitness ball, or a mat.

Adjustable machine weights can play a big role in the gym weight training experience for beginners. Being able to use the weight machines will give you confidence in the general gym environment. You can move to more complex free weight exercises when you get used to the gym. Also, know you can always ask a trainer for help if you're still feeling lost.

Get Confident With the Equipment

This first session is to build familiarity and comfort with the gym environment. It's best not to overburden your body with extreme exercise and effort, particularly if you haven't worked out in a while. Here are a few tips to consider when you're ready to start exercising. 

  • In your first session, after your warm-up, try machine-based exercises (or choose similar exercises), then cool down, stretch, and finish up. Perhaps take another lap around the gym to check out other facilities in the gym, such as the floor exercise room, stretch stations, cycle spin room, pool, and so on.
  • Take your time, investigate how each piece of equipment works and feels, ask questions of the trainers and take a look around the free weights room to get a feel for the etiquette and fundamental procedures.
  • You need to understand the equipment adjustments for seat height, leg length, and when it's time to go heavier and lighter in weights. Always ask a trainer if questions come up. 
  • Most gyms will have machine equipment that works essentially the same way for adjustment and weight selection. Occasionally you will come across an equipment station that has a different mechanism. Find out about it by asking an instructor. Adjustment mechanisms are usually pins, levers, and screw type and spring loaded knobs.
  • Once you understand the general setup and movement of a particular machine, choose a weight that is light enough for you to concentrate on the movement of the exercise, rather than the effort of moving a heavy weight. You can adjust the weight upward once you're comfortable with the operation of the equipment.
  • Treadmills, spin bikes, and other cardio equipment usually have digital press button menus. So using these is very straightforward and always a good idea to add to a session to get your heart rate up. 
  • Cool down: Stretch for about 10 minutes, working all major muscle groups. Check out the locker room, showers, sauna, and any other provided equipment and facilities if you have time before you leave. 

Be Consistent

Aim for at least two strength workouts each week. At some stage, you may wish to work with a personal trainer or gym instructor to design a program specifically for you, or you can work out on your own. Either way, you will slowly see results and the weight training experience will be useful and rewarding, so don't be afraid to start today!