Whether you’re just getting started working out, or you’re looking to add strength training to your cardio routine, weight lifting for beginners can seem anything but simple. There’s a bunch of fitness equipment involved—how exactly do you use that big looped resistance band again?—the moves can be confusing, and you may worry that you might not have the strength to do them.
It’s true that weight lifting can appear intimidating—especially if you’re scrolling through social media and seeing people deadlifting double their bodyweight, pressing a loaded barbell over their head, or banging out Superman push-ups where they fly into the air. But it’s important to remember that those are just highlight reels of people who have been lifting for a very long time. When they first began, you can be pretty sure that they started small. Those explosive push-ups? It’s likely they started as a modified, knees-on-the-floor variation.
And strength training for beginners doesn’t have to start with the goal of getting you to that point, either. If you want to squat superheavy weight, beginning a strength training program can definitely help you get there. But it can also just help you get stronger in ways that will help you in everyday life, too, whether it’s carrying all the grocery bags into the house in one trip or squatting down to the floor to pick up your not-so-cuddly cat.
Strength training is one of the top ways to help your body stay functional and healthy for the long run, Sivan Fagan, C.P.T., owner of Strong With Sivan in Baltimore, tells SELF. “I see the benefit with my 80-year-old clients—strong hips, and being able to control your hips, for instance, is the difference between being able to stop a fall versus not being able to stop yourself, falling, and breaking a hip.”
And because muscle mass can begin to decline as early as in your 30s, starting a weight lifting program as an adult can help you maintain and even build that strength as you get older.
Weight lifting for beginners doesn’t have to be complicated—and it can really be a lot of fun. Here’s everything you need to know about getting started with a strength training program.
1. Start with your bodyweight.
Put simply, “strength training means using resistance to create work for your muscles,” Hannah Davis, C.S.C.S., owner of Body by Hannah, tells SELF. In time, that can mean external weight, but for beginners, that can also mean your bodyweight too—and that’s a great place to start.
Not only can you get a supereffective strength training workout using just your bodyweight, but bodyweight exercises are also a helpful way for beginners to become familiar with all the main movement patterns in strength training, says Fagan. For example, before you grab a pair of dumbbells for a set of deadlifts, you should first make sure you understand the hip hinge—pushing your hips and butt backward, keeping a neutral spine and a slight bend in your knees.
2. Nail down your form.
With many gyms still closed—and even if ones in your area are open, you may not feel comfortable going to them right now—it’s not as easy as it once was to get some real-time feedback on your form. But even though most personal trainers aren’t operating in person currently, you can still benefit from their professional expertise virtually (if you have room in your budget for it).
A personal trainer can help you master those basic movement patterns, which set the stage for many of the exercises you’ll be doing, says Fagan. Because they’ll be able to suggest real-time corrections to your form, you’ll be better prepared to progress safely.
One important tip: Your virtual trainer should ask you to do the same move from a variety of different angles, which will better mimic what they’d see in person.
“From the front, their form can look amazing with a squat, but then if you say, ‘Okay, show me a side view,’ you’d be able to tell their torso is leaning too much forward,” says Fagan.
If you don’t have room in your budget for a personal trainer, online tutorials can help you learn what a proper move should look like, and working out in front of a mirror (or videoing it on your phone) can help you make sure you’re executing it correctly, Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer and owner of Holly Roser Fitness in San Francisco, told SELF previously.
3. Invest in some equipment.
While starting with bodyweight moves is key, you probably will want to eventually add weights to your weight training plan. Weights, like most other kinds of at-home fitness equipment, have been pretty difficult to find online during the coronavirus pandemic, but they have slowly been coming back into stock at some retailers.
If you can find them, dumbbells are probably the most user-friendly weight option for beginners—more so than kettlebells or barbells, which have more of a learning curve to use properly and safely, says Fagan. Ideally, you’ll have three sets: a light, moderate, and a heavy (5 pounds, 12 pounds, and 20 pounds are good examples, she says).
Other non-weight equipment—which tends to be easier to find available than actual weights—can be great to mix up your workout too. This includes things like mini-bands, looped resistance bands, sliders, or suspension trainers, says Fagan.
4. Prep your muscles before you start.
A proper warm-up is an important part of an effective strength workout. Start by waking up your muscles with a foam roller.
“Foam rolling loosens up tight muscles so that they work the way they’re designed to,” says Davis. A dynamic warm-up is another important part of your pre-workout routine, since it preps your muscles for the work they’re about to do and helps increase your range of motion. Increasing your range of motion allows you to go deeper into those squats and fully extend those bicep curls, which means more muscle recruitment and better results.
“These two combined reduce your risk of injury and allow you to push harder during your workout,” says Davis.
5. Schedule regular workouts—but don’t go overboard.
“Start with two days for two to three weeks, then add a third day,” says Davis. “Ideally, you should strength train three to five days per week, but work your way up—starting off at five days a week might shock your body.” In fact, doing too much too soon is one of the most common mistakes Fagan says she sees with people starting out.
One effective way to program weight training for beginners is to make every workout a total-body day, rather than splitting it up into muscle groups, says Fagan. That means each workout, you’ll be doing a little bit of everything—some lower-body work, some core moves, and some upper-body work, which will keep your workout balanced. If you’re doing three days a week of total-body workouts, you can also eventually add a bonus day, where you focus on specific areas where you want to build more strength.
These workouts shouldn’t stretch on and on, either. Cap them at about 40 minutes, says Fagan. (For some total-body workout ideas, check out SELF’s options here.)
On the days when you aren’t weight lifting, it’s also important for overall health to get in some cardio. “I defer to the CDC recommendations for aerobic exercise—150 minutes of light-to-moderate work or 75 minutes a week of high-intensity work,” says Davis. Ultimately, finding the right mix of workouts will depend on your specific goal.
6. Lift the right amount of weight.
When you first start out, you should stick to about 12-15 reps per set, says Fagan. Shoot for one to two sets of each exercise during the first month you are strength training, and then after that, you can increase it to three sets per exercise, she says.
Different exercises will require different weights, but there are some markers that can help guide you toward the right resistance, whether you’re using dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. Go for a weight that feels heavy enough to challenge you, but not so heavy that you sacrifice your form.
Consider using the rate of perceived exertion scale to determine whether the weight you’re choosing is appropriate for you, Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., owner and CEO of TS Fitness in New York City, told SELF previously. On a scale of 0-10, if 0 is sitting on the couch and 10 is your max effort, you should shoot to end your set at an 8. If you’re already at an 8 and you still have 4 reps left, you’ll probably want to drop down in weight.
It’s also important to make sure you take ample rest between sets, he says. Sticking to a 1:2 ratio of rest to work—for example, 40 seconds of rest if it took you 20 seconds to perform your set—can help make sure you’ve recovered enough to complete your next set. You should feel challenged at the end of your sets, but the goal isn’t to keep your heart rate elevated, like it is when you do a cardio workout.
7. Continue with the same moves each day when you’re starting out.
While seasoned lifters may choose to do different exercises every day during a week-long period (and repeat the same moves the following week), there’s no need to follow this type of program when you’re just getting comfortable, says Davis.
“Stick to the same basic moves two to three times a week to build a basic level of fitness and strength,” says Davis. “Why complicate things if you don’t have to? Great results can be made by repeating the same workout, but increasing weights as you become stronger.” What’s more, this will also help you master the moves, rather than moving on to different exercises before you really got them down. (And if you don’t have access to heavier weights, you can follow these tips for making an exercise feel harder without adding more weight.)
8. Fit in a post-workout stretch if you can.
Now that you’ve got the training part down, it’s time to stretch it out. (Can you say ahh?) Stretching while your muscles are warm can help improve your flexibility, says Davis, not to mention it just feels phenomenal after you’ve pushed yourself hard.
Shoot for a 5 to 10 minute cooldown after your workout, which should include dynamic stretches, or those that involve some movement, says Jennifer Morgan, D.P.T., P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. This helps increase blood flow to your muscles, which aids in recovery.
9. Take rest days when your body tells you to.
It’s okay to be a little sore. Your muscles might feel achy or tired the day after a tough training session thanks to DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. When you strength train, you’re causing microscopic damage to the tissue that will be repaired—that’s how you build muscle. Speaking of repair and recovery, though, rest days are important.
“If you constantly break down muscle without a recovery period, you won’t give the muscle fibers a chance to repair and build back stronger,” explains Davis.
At the end of the day, you have to focus on how you feel. “Listen to your body,” says Davis. “It tells you when it needs a day off.” As a rule of thumb, take a rest day if your perceived pain is above a 7 on a scale of 10, Davis advises. Or, focus on a different body part (say, if your legs are sore, focus on upper-body moves).