The 10 Top Exercises for New Weight Trainers

squat variation

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The following exercises provide a nice full-body experience for anyone new to weight training—or for more experienced exercisers wanting a simple yet thorough program on which to build further. A full-body session means training all or most parts of the main large muscle systems of the body: the shoulders, arms, back, chest, legs, buttocks, and abdominals.

Weight Training Basics

Before you start lifting weights, there are some basic terms, tips, and basic practices that you should know.

  • One lift of a weight or completion of an exercise movement is called a repetition or ‘rep’ for short.
  • A series of repetitions is called a ‘set of reps’ or a ‘set’ for short. Common exercise recommendation for beginners is for three sets of ten repetitions of an exercise, often written as 3x10 — for example, three sets of ten squats.
  • When starting, try one or two repetitions with a low weight to get the feel of the procedure, then try up to 10 exercises consecutively (one set).
  • Try lighter or heavier weights for comfort with useful intensity. If you can only do less than eight reps then you may be lifting too heavy a weight. If you can do more than 12 reps without too much effort, say 20, you may need to weight up a little, although some programs for strength endurance use this many reps. This applies to all exercises described.

Lastly, you should rest between sets so that your body replenishes its energy system for the next round. Time taken between sets can be as short as 60 seconds or as long as five minutes depending on the intensity and weight. One to two minutes is usually adequate rest time for a ten rep set of moderate to low intensity.

Top 10 Weight Lifting Exercises

These common weight training exercises will work all of the major muscle groups. You can do them in this order or change things up to suit your needs.

You would be wise to get a personal trainer or gym instructor to show you how to do these exercises first. One way to do this, should you not have decided to join a gym, is to ask for a single gym session with instructor guidance. Some gyms will want to put you through health, fitness and posture evaluation first for a bit extra money. This is worth doing. However, you will also be pressured to sign up on a more permanent basis.

If you are considering training at home, tell the gym instructor that you want a single session only for now, and then make notes mentally or on paper of the important points about each exercise. You can ask the instructor to show you exercises that he may not include in your session. You can also check good form for the exercises in a well-written beginner's book on weight training or at an appropriate internet site such as this one and others we link to.

If you decide to join the gym later, nothing is lost and you already have the assessment, so you can start immediately. Meanwhile, you have a grasp of the exercise techniques for your home gym. Most of these exercises can be done at home with a few sets of dumbbells and some resistance bands, although the variety of machines at a gym should make it a better experience. You should be aware that this is a basic introduction to these exercises and that many variations are possible.

Safety Basics

Weight training provides many health benefits. But it can also cause injury if certain safety standards aren't followed. There are two common mistakes that beginners (and even advanced exercisers may make that put you at higher risk for injury.

  • Hyperextension. Hyperextension means pushing a joint beyond its normal range of movement. This may produce injury when excessive joint movement stresses ligaments and tendons too much. This concern has led to the common advice not to lock out the arms at the elbow or the legs at the knees when doing any number of exercises with weights.
  • Rounded back. Exercises like the squat, leg press and deadlift require movements that place the spine under pressure in ways that can precipitate injuries, particularly to the lumbar or lower spine. In such exercises, the importance of keeping the back straight or slightly arched in the neutral position cannot be overemphasized, especially for beginners. No rounded backs, please.

However, while this is sound advice as far as it goes, particularly for beginning weight trainers, there is some disagreement on the totality of this recommendation. While explosive straightening of these joints in, say, the leg press or overhead press is agreed by most to be risky business, a more controlled full range of movement accompanied by the shortest possible pause at peak extension may not be harmful, particularly for exercises that are injury-free and without a limiting joint abnormality.

A dash of common sense is required here; you shouldn't think that an elbow will suddenly explode if you happen to straighten it while lifting.Comply with the general premise to keep the elbows and knees slightly bent under the weight, but don't overdo it and produce an unnatural half-way extension that could have its own safety issues. A very slight flexion of the joint is all that is required to prevent the possible hyperextension that is the main problem. 

The shoulder is a complex ball and socket joint with a wide range of movement. It is also one of the most injured joints among sports people in general and weight trainers are no exception.

The rotator cuff, a group of four muscles, ligaments, and tendons, is often injured, even in non-athletes, and takes some time to heal. Weights exercises requiring unusual or extreme positioning of the shoulder should be considered with much caution. Pulling a bar behind the neck as in variations to the pulldown or the overhead press (see list above) should really be avoided unless you are very sure of your shoulder capability.

Even squatting with the bar on the shoulders (back squat), which is a standard procedure, should not be attempted if that rearward rotation of the shoulder joint to position the bar causes any pain or discomfort. Resort to dumbbell squats in this case. More advanced lifters can try other squat variations like front squats with the bar on chest or hack squats in which the bar is held behind the legs.

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.