The Beginner's Guide to Strength Training

Older woman lifting weights at home
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It can be hard to know where to start when beginning strength training. There are countless exercises you can do, some of which work some muscles, but not others. There are safety concerns to beware of, a wide variety of sometimes confusing equipment to help you in your efforts, and so on. With some familiarity of the basics of getting started with strength training, actually doing so can become far less daunting, and you can begin to craft a routine that is targeted toward helping you achieve your personal goals.

Benefits of Strength Training

No matter where you are in your fitness journey, strength training—which involves some type of resistance to challenge and build your muscles—should be a key component of your workouts. Among the wealth of ​important benefits it offers, it helps you:​

  • 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 do strength exercises.
  • Stay young: Studies show that resistance training can enhance heart health, reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, increase bone density, reduce low back pain, improve sleep, and ease symptoms of arthritis and fibromyalgia.
  • Improve mood: Research shows strength training can release feel-good endorphins to reduce anxiety and even fight depression
  • Boost confidence: Anytime you master something, your confidence grows.

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

Unfortunately, many people haven't gotten the message that strong is in. Indeed, statistics on strength training are grim: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than 30 percent of American adults engage in muscle-strengthening activities like lifting weights or doing push-ups at least twice a week—the recommendations set out by the government.

 

Too often, people skip the weights in favor of cardio, especially women who worry about building bulky muscles. But that's a worry they can set aside because most women don't produce the amount of the strength-hormone testosterone necessary to build big muscles.

Common Misconceptions

Many people's sense of what's involved in strength training isn't quite complete, and learning the realities may help you overcome aspects that you might view as hurdles to getting started.

You don't have to join a gym. There are lots of benefits to working out at home—it's free, convenient, and private. A plethora of DVDs and online resources can help you direct your sessions if desired. 

If you decide to join a gym, know that you're not expected to know how all of the equipment works right off the bat—or what to do with it. Be sure to take advantage of the free orientation so you can learn how to properly use everything that's offered and set up a basic strength-training program. At the gym, machines are preferred for beginners, because they're quite safe: Most require little coordination and offer more stability than free weights while performing the movements. 

That said, you don't have to use weights or machines. Anything that provides resistance can do the job.

This includes bands, free weights like dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells, and weight machines. 

For beginners, your own body weight might be enough to get you started. However, it can be hard to challenge your body without any additional resistance, so to progress, you'll need some equipment. If you decide to strength train at home, you'll want to invest in some basics, such as resistance bands, weights, and an exercise ball. Try to have a range of weights: a light set (3 to 5 pounds for women, 5 to 8 pounds for men), a medium set (5 to 10 pounds for women, 10 to 15 pounds for men), and a heavy set (10 to 20 pounds for women, 15 to 30 pounds for men).

Getting Started

Two key terms you'll want to know are rep and set. Rep, or repetition, is a single instance of an exercise—a dumbbell bicep curl, for instance. A set is the number of repetitions performed sequentially. For example, you can say, “I did 2 sets of 10 reps of bicep curls." 

Use these pointers to build a framework for your workout:

  • Start with a short, simple program. Your goal is to do a routine that works for all muscle groups on two non-consecutive days a week. This will help you build a strong foundation and allow you to progress from week to week.
  • Warm up first. Warm muscles are less susceptible to injury, so do 5 to 10 minutes of cardio or some warm-up sets of each exercise in your workout using a light weight.
  • Focus on form. Good form means you can reap all of the benefits of your workout and avoid injuries at the same time. To maintain proper form, pay attention to your posture (stand tall with chest lifted and abs held tight), move slowly (this ensures you're relying on muscles, not momentum, to do the lifting), and remember to breathe. Many people hold their breath while exerting, but exhaling during the hardest part of the exercise helps fuel the movement. 

  • Give yourself at least a day of rest to recover. Rest days are crucial for building lean muscle tissue and preventing injury, so try not to work the same muscle groups two days in a row. Some people like to break up strength training by concentrating on their upper body one day and their lower body the next, and that's perfectly fine. 
  • Aim to challenge yourself, not overtax 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.
  • Change things up. After six or more weeks of consistent strength training, which is about the amount of time it takes to start seeing improvement in your body, you can change your routine to make it more difficult. Lifting the same weights for the same exercises every week will keep your body in the same place. You can modify weights or repetitions, choose different exercises, or change the order in which you do them. You only have to make one change at a time to make a difference, although more is often better. 

Choosing Your Exercises

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

Below is a list of muscle groups along with sample exercises. If you're a beginner, you only need to choose one or two exercises for each muscle group in the upper body and three to four moves for the lower body.

Most experts recommend starting with your larger muscle groups and then proceeding to the smaller ones. 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 moves. But don't feel limited by that. You can do your exercises in any order you like.

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 and build muscle: Use enough weight that you can only complete 10 to 12 repetitions and 1 to 3 sets—1 for beginners, 2 to 3 for intermediate and advanced exercisers. Rest about 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets and at least one day between workout sessions.
  • For muscle gain: Use enough weight that you can only complete 4 to 8 repetitions and 3 or more sets, resting for 1 to 2 minutes between sets and 2 to 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 to 16 repetitions, 1 to 3 sets, resting 20 to 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 1 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.

If you're using a resistance band, keep in mind that one band might not cut it for your entire body. Different muscles have different strengths, so you may want to buy two different resistance bands in different thickness, which determines how difficult they'll be to use. In general, if you're able to complete 8 reps of an exercise using a band, you'll want to select another that provides a greater amount of resistance. 

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 exercises right rather than using a lot of weight or doing a lot of reps.

For this workout, you'll need a resistance band, a chair, various weighted dumbbells.

  • Start with a 5-minute warm-up of light cardio.
  • Do 1 set of each exercise, one after the other, resting briefly between exercises.
  • Modify or 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 to 3 times a week.
ExerciseRepsSuggested Weight
Chair Squats12No weight
Side-Step Squats12 right, then leftResistance band
Lunges12 No weight
Wall Push-ups12 No weight
Chest Flies12 5 to 10 lbs
Seated-Band Biceps Curls12 Resistance band
Seated-Band Rows12Resistance band
Lying Triceps Extensions12 5 to 10 lbs
Vertical Leg Crunches12 No weight
Back Extensions12 No weight
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