Get Started With Weight Training

Benefits, Exercises, Safety, and More

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Most of us know that cardio is important for getting fit and improving body composition, but what you may not know is just how important weight training is when it comes to 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). But you also need strength training for weight loss. Plus, it offers many more benefits.

What Is Weight Training?

Weight training involves using some type of resistance to do exercises that challenge all the muscle groups of the body, including the chest, back, shoulders, arms (biceps, triceps), core, legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves) and glutes.

When you use more resistance than your body normally handles (by using weights or working against gravity), your muscles get stronger, along with your bones and connective tissue.

Weight training also helps you build lean muscle tissue. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat. So when you have more muscle, you burn more calories all day long, even when you're not exercising.

Weight training doesn't mean you have to use 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.

Benefits of Weight Training

Too often, people skip weights in favor of cardio. Some people worry about building too much muscle and looking bulky, which is a notion they should set aside. Bodybuilding of this type requires a specific, dedicated diet and exercise plan.

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

Principles of Weight Training

When you're just getting started with weight training, it's important to know the basic strength training principles. These can help you set up your workouts so that you're always progressing and avoiding weight loss plateaus.

Overload

To build lean muscle tissue, you have 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.

Progression

To avoid plateaus or adaptation, you need to increase 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.

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). To lose weight, you might want to focus on circuit training, which combines cardio and resistance for an efficient, effective workout.

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.

How Many Reps Build Muscle?

Building muscle, a process known as hypertrophy, is achieved through resistance training. But how much weight should you lift, and how may reps should you do? Most people can gain muscle most efficiently by using moderate weight resistance with between eight to 12 reps per set. Each exercise set should be performed one to three times for beginner weight trainers, and three to six times for those with a higher level of base fitness.

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. This will help you figure out any weaknesses you have, as well as any issues you may need to address with your doctor. It will help you learn the basic exercises you need for a strong, fit body. Your first step is to figure out where you're going to exercise.

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 work out, 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.

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 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 Weight 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).

A good weight training routine will have volume and intensity, and will also bring enough variety to keep you and your muscles engaged.

Choose Your Resistance

Depending on where you decide to work out, your equipment choices will vary, but the options 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 workouts and traveling, and you'll find them at most gyms too. 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 pairs 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). The muscle groups are:

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.

Even if your focus is on a particular body part, such as your abs, 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 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 one 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 15 or 20 pounds for squats, but 3 to 5 pounds for tricep extensions.
  • 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 10 or 15 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.

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Verywell / Ben Goldstein 

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Or try these ready-made workouts.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I start weight training?

    Start weight training by choosing light weights and performing 10 to 12 reps of a move you can do comfortably. Remember to rest between reps and eventually incorporate more advanced moves and heavier weights.

  • Does weight training help with weight loss?

    While muscle is more dense than fat, it also burns many more calories than fat. By strengthening your muscles, you'll burn more calories throughout the day, which is a key component to weight loss.

6 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.
  1. American Council on Exercise. Weight lifting for weight loss.

  2. American Cancer Society. 5 benefits of strength training.

  3. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Van Every DW, Plotkin DL. Loading recommendations for muscle strength, hypertrophy, and local endurance: a re-examination of the repetition continuum. Sports (Basel). 2021;9(2):32. doi:10.3390/sports9020032

  4. Krzysztofik M, Wilk M, Wojdała G, Gołaś A. Maximizing muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review of advanced resistance training techniques and methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(24):4897. doi:10.3390/ijerph16244897

  5. Vispute SS, Smith JD, Lecheminant JD, Hurley KS. The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(9):2559-64. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181fb4a46

  6. American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687-708. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670

By Paige Waehner
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."