My college teammates and I used to have a saying: “Today, Dawn is my enemy. Tomorrow, it’s the stairs.”
We weren’t speaking metaphorically. Dawn, the team’s fitness trainer, guided us through intense circuits and weight lifting sequences designed to make us stronger, faster swimmers. We spent hours in the weight room, perfecting our squats, lunges, and chest presses... and hours afterward icing and massaging our sore muscles.
Many of my teammates hadn’t touched a weight before coming to college (and without Dawn’s prompting, probably wouldn’t have after) for fear that weightlifting programs instantly equate to CrossFit Games or bodybuilding. And that's understandable—it’s intimidating!
But it doesn’t have to be. Weightlifting is for everyone—not just to build muscle, but to improve endurance, posture, metabolism, and confidence.
Meet the Expert
Control Your Own Fitness Journey
While it can be tempting to jump straight into an Instagram-glam workout or new platform, know that you’re in charge of what you want your weightlifting journey to look like. “Our fitness journeys are our own,” says Boston-based fitness trainer Ashley Mitchell. “I think hustle culture and diet culture and self-help culture have ruined our intuitive relationships with our bodies. Movement is movement, and if you’re just starting out, you have to know your body.”
Before starting any kind of program, take stock of past injuries, your goals, and your overall health. “Do you prioritize eating whole, nourishing foods? Are you drinking enough water? All these facilitate a confident start. If you feel good getting started, you’re more likely to keep going and keep exploring,” she says.
Myth #1: "I'll Get Results Immediately"
“The first thing I do is make sure my clients set realistic expectations,” says trainer Cassie Brown. “Training is very experimental, and everybody is different. You can’t just do something for one day or even ten days and expect results.”
That means you won’t suddenly be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. “It’s a journey, and hopefully it’s a lifelong journey,” says Mitchell. “The longer you lift, the more intuitive you’ll get about how your body moves and what your body needs.”
Myth #2: Weightlifting Will Make Me Bulky"
You’re the one in control of your training program (and the amount of weight you're lifting and for how many reps), so if “bulking up” isn’t something you’d like to do, then don't. “In two or three weeks, you’re not suddenly going to have the body of a competitive lifter,” says Brown. “It’s a slow, progressive change. It’s easy to see the direction you’re moving in, and if you don’t like it, change it.”
Myth #3: "I Have to Give It 110% to Do it Right"
You may have an idea in your head of what weightlifting looks like. Are you picturing sweaty Gatorade ads of athletes grimacing, pushing through the pain?
You can absolutely get results without needing to push yourself to the brink. “You have to respect your body,” says Brown. “Don’t let your ego say you’re capable of lifting that heavier weight. If you’re constantly overdoing it and getting super sore, you’re not successfully creating a new habit.”
As you get started, pick a weight that feels good to you and that you can handle at 10-12 reps per set. “You want to feel a good burn in your muscles where you have good form. Then, wait to see how you feel the day after,” says Brown. “Every set that you’re doing, the final two or three reps should be challenging.”
It’s totally okay to start with a lower weight and work your way up, especially if you’re following a program or attending a HIIT class. “Be brave enough to modify,” says Mitchell. “This could mean less weight, or a different exercise. It could mean holding a plank while everyone else is doing burpees. You have to quiet the noise of everyone else and take care of yourself.”
You’ll know you’re ready to level up when the movements start to become really easy. “You may notice that you’re not as out of breath, or that you can do more reps in the same amount of time,” says Mitchell. “Increase the weight when it starts to feel easy.”
5 Foundational Exercises for Beginners
The most foundational exercises are also the most functional. “Think about pushing, and think about pulling,” says Brown.
You can do any of these with body weight to start—trust me, you’ll feel it. “Lifting our own bodies is deceptively hard,” says Mitchell. “The best way to learn any foundational moves is to do bodyweight.”
Here are the exercises they recommend:
The most important exercise? Your basic squat. You can do this holding one weight at your chest, stacking weights on your shoulders, or holding a weight between your legs.
“Start with your feet shoulder-width apart,” says Mitchell. “Toes pointing forward, and your feet completely flat at all times, including your big toe. Sit down, stacking your shins directly above the ankles and knees. That alignment travels up to your hips, shoulders, and neck, so your back is in one smooth line.”
Step-Ups or Lunges
Get yourself a bench or chair and use the power of your legs to step up, one leg at a time, holding the weights at your side. “I’m a huge fan of step ups, because they’re incredibly functional,” says Brown. “Being able to walk up and down stairs is something you’ll have to do the rest of your life.”
If you don’t have a bench, use that same action to step forward into a lunge, careful not to push your knees past your toes.
Pushups or Chest Presses
To do a chest press, lie on your back holding one or two weights, and slowly lower the weights toward your chest, your arms in a cactus shape, elbows at a 45 degree angle.
But you don’t need weights to get that horizontal pushing; a pushup does the trick. If you’re not able to do a pushup on your toes, that’s ok. “I love hand-release pushups,” says Mitchell. “From a pushup position with your elbows at 45 degrees, bring your body all the way to the ground. Then, release and press yourself up until you’re back in a high plank.”
“Bicep curls are something I always go to, because those pulling muscles are going to help down the line when you start to do rows, deadlifts, or chin-ups,” says Mitchell. Start with a weight in each hand, loosely by your sides. Then, squeeze upwards at a 90 degree angle, bringing the weight up to your chest.
To hold a plank, get into a pushup position, with your forearms or wrists directly under your shoulders and your body in a straight line. Practice holding it without leaning too far forward or backward and keeping your glutes in line with your shoulders.
“You have to learn how your body moves in space, holding your body up,” says Mitchell. “Start with a forearm plank, working up from 15 seconds at a time to holding for a minute.”
Build Your Own Workout Routine
To get the most out of your workouts, incorporate training at least twice a week. “When I'm writing my clients’ programs, I include two foundational strength sessions per week, and give them the option to repeat one of the days,” says Brown. In between, she recommends other movements, like Pilates, yoga, or cardio.
The most important thing of all? Don’t forget to rest. “People don’t want to take days off,” says Mitchell. “But resting is what allows your body to go forward.”
Seguin RA, Eldridge G, Lynch W, Paul LC. Strength training improves body image and physical activity behaviors among midlife and older rural women. J Ext. 2013;51(4):4FEA2.