An Overview of Weight Training

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Most of us know that cardio is important for getting fit and losing some weight, but what you may not know is just how important weight training is when it comes to getting lean and burning fat.

A session of weight training doesn't always burn as many calories in one sitting as cardio and, of course, cardio is important for weight loss (but diet changes are far more effective). Still, if you really want to change your body and make a difference, you need to lift weights.

What Is Weight Training?

Weight training involves using some type of resistance to do a variety of exercises designed to challenge all your muscle groups, including your chest, back, shoulder, biceps, triceps, core, legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves) and glutes.

The idea of weight training is that, when you use more resistance than your body normally handles, your muscles get stronger, along with your bones and connective tissue, all while building lean muscle tissue.

That lean muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat, which means you burn more calories all day long, even when you're not exercising.

Weight training doesn't mean you have to use things like dumbbells or machines, although those work. Anything that provides resistance can do the job—resistance bands, barbells, a heavy backpack, or, if you're a beginner, your own bodyweight might be enough to get you started.

The Benefits of Weight Training

Too often, people skip the weights in favor of cardio. Many women worry about building muscle and looking bulky, which is a notion they should set aside. Women do not produce enough testosterone to build muscle mass like a man.

If you've hesitated to start a strength training program, it may motivate you to know that lifting weights can do so much more for your body than you may realize, including:

  • Help raise your metabolismMuscle 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
  • Strengthen connective tissue—As we get older, we need to protect our tendons and ligaments, and a strong body can help you do that.
  • Make you stronger and increase muscular endurance—This makes everyday activities much easier.
  • 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 should you opt for? Knowing how to answer these basic questions can help you get started with a good, solid workout program.

The Principles of Weight Training

When you're just getting started with weight training, it's important to know the basic strength training principles. These are pretty straightforward and can be helpful in figuring out how to set up your workouts so that you're always progressing and avoiding weight loss plateaus.

  1. Overload: The first thing you need to do 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.
  2. 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/or changing the type of resistance. You can make these changes on a weekly or monthly basis.
  3. Specificity: This means you should train for your goal. 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, or 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.
  4. 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 two days in a row.

Where to Weight Train

If you're a beginner, start with a basic total body strength workout to build a strong foundation in all your muscle groups. Taking this time will help you figure out any weaknesses you have, as well as any issues you may need to address with your doctor and learn the basic exercises you need for a strong, fit body. Your first step is to figure out where you're going to exercise.

The Benefits of Joining a Gym

You don't have to join a gym to get a great strength training workout, but there are some advantages to doing so:

  • Access to a wide variety of equipment and machines you may not be able to afford in a home gym
  • Personal trainers and other experts to show you how to use different machines
  • Variety: You also have access to classes, which is a fun way to learn how to lift weights.
  • It's easier to stick to your goals: When you go to a gym, there's nothing to do but workout, whereas you have lots of distractions at home.
  • Energy: You often get more energy when you're surrounded by people doing the same thing you're doing—something you may miss out on at home.

Of course, there is the cost of joining a gym, as well as finding one that is convenient and comfortable. It's very easy to join a gym and never go, so that's something to consider as well.

The Benefits of Working Out at Home

Gyms aren't for everyone. Doing your workouts at home has some big advantages.

  • Convenience: You can work out when you want without having to pack a bag and drive anywhere.
  • Privacy: You can work out in whatever you want to wear and not have to concern yourself with others looking at you (something that may benefit people who are a little more self-conscious).
  • Affordability: You can get a great workout with minimal equipment.
  • Flexibility: At home, you can squeeze in a workout any time, so you don't have to stick to a set schedule (unless you want to).

As for the disadvantages, you have to be very self-motivated to work out at home (there's always something to do other than work out), and you have to try a little harder to get the variety you can more easily get at a gym.

Create Your Strength-Training Program

There are several components that make up every training program: The type of resistance equipment you'll use, the exercises you'll do, the number of reps and sets you'll do, how much weight you'll lift, and how much you'll rest (between exercises and between workouts).

Choose Your Resistance

Depending on where you decide to work out, your equipment choices will vary, but the general choices include:

  • No Equipment: You don't have to start with any equipment if you're a beginner or you're on a budget and want to start simple. This No-Weight Workout gives you some ideas for how you can work out without any equipment at all.
  • Resistance Bands: These are great for home exercisers and travelers, and you'll usually find them at most gyms. They can be used for a wide variety of total-body exercises.
  • Dumbbells: You'll eventually want to get a variety of weights, but you can easily start with three sets of dumbbells: 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).
  • Machines: You can buy a home gym machine or use the huge variety of machines you find at the gym if you're a member.
  • Kettlebells: If you know how to use them correctly, kettlebells are great for building strength and endurance. It's best to get instruction from a professional before using them, however.

Choose Your Exercises

Once you have your equipment ready, choose eight to 10 exercises (about one exercise per muscle group).

For smaller muscle groups like the biceps and triceps, you can do one exercise per weight training session. For larger muscle groups, like the chest, back, and legs, you can usually do more than one exercise.

These involve a variety of equipment, so you can choose based on what you have available.

  • Chest: Chest presses, chest flies, pushups, bench press
  • Back: One arm row, double-arm rows, lat pulldowns, reverse flies, back extensions
  • Shoulders: Overhead presses, lateral raises, front raises, upright rows
  • Biceps: Dumbbell biceps curls, hammer curls, concentration curls, resistance band curls
  • Triceps: Lying triceps extensions, seated extensions, triceps dips, kickbacks
  • Lower Body: Squats, lunges, deadlifts, calf raises, leg presses, step-ups
  • Abdominals: Ball crunches, woodchops with a resistance band, planks, knee tucks on the ball

Even if your focus is on a particular body part, say getting flat abs or losing fat around the hips, it's important to work all your muscle groups. Spot reduction doesn't work, so doing crunches for your abs or leg lifts for your thighs isn't going to help you achieve your goal. What does work is building more lean muscle tissue and burning more calories.

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 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.

Choose Your Reps and Sets

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 4 to 6 repetitions with heavier weight for hypertrophy (increased muscle size), 8 to 12 repetitions for muscular strength and 10 to 15 reps for muscular endurance. In general:

  • For fat loss: One to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps using enough weight that you can only complete the desired reps.
  • To gain muscle: Three or more sets of 6 to 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: One to 3 sets of 12 to 16 reps using enough weight that you can only complete the desired reps.

Choose Your Weight

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?

  • 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, for example, you may want to use about 15 or 20 pounds for squats, but only 3 to 5 pounds for triceps.
  • You'll usually lift more weight on a machine than with dumbbells: The machine keeps the weight stable and moving in a straight line. When you are lifting with dumbbells or a barbell, you are not only having to resist gravity, you are also using smaller stabilizer muscles to keep from falling over. 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 per dumbbell.
  • If you're a beginner, it's more important to focus on good form than it is to lift heavy weights.
  • Be ready for trial and error: 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 start with very light weights, do a few reps with perfect form to determine the difficulty, and increase/decrease the weight as needed.

  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 two, increase your weight in a manageable increment 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.
  3. 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.

Every day is different. Some days you'll lift more weight than others. Listen to your body.

Resting Between Exercises

Another important part of training is resting between the exercises. This comes with experience, but the general rule is, the higher the reps, the shorter the rest. So, if you're doing 15 reps, you might rest about 30 to 60 seconds between exercises. If you're lifting very heavy, say 4 to 6 reps, you may need up to two or more minutes.

When lifting to complete fatigue, it takes an average of two to five minutes for your muscles to rest for the next set.

When using lighter weight and more repetitions, it takes between 30 seconds and a minute for your muscles to rest. For beginners, working to fatigue isn't necessary, and starting out too strong can lead to too much post-exercise soreness.

Resting Between Workouts

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends training each muscle group two to three 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.

Tips for Better Workouts

Throughout your workouts, keep these important principles 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 the 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.
  5. Prepare for soreness. It's very normal to be sore whenever you try a new activity.

Where to Get 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. You have plenty of great options:

Sample Workouts

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. 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.

Or try these ready-made workouts.

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4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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