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In a world where boutique fitness studios were once the epitome of trendy health and wellness and are now taboo areas thanks to COVID-19, you might be in search of a new way to work out. While going for a walk or a run can certainly help you build up a sweat, there’s something to be said about good old fashioned weightlifting. Also known as strength training or resistance training, Life Time registered dietician and certified personal trainer Samantha McKinney says that weightlifting helps build and preserve lean body mass, which is crucial for overall health and graceful aging as a whole. “Plus, it builds strength, stability, and an aesthetically ‘toned’ look,” she adds, noting that it has the power to transform your body composition. What more do you need to know? Well, given weight lifting has many different moving parts—a lot. That’s why we’ve compiled this all-encompassing guide to weight training for beginners. Check it out, below.
What are the benefits of weightlifting?
- Enhances fat loss
- Improves posture
- Promotes cardio endurance
- Strengthens bones
- Speeds up metabolism
- Supports healthy blood sugar control
- Boosts confidence
Many people assume that lifting weights directly equates to building muscle, but in reality, lifting leads to so much more than noticeably toned muscles.
According to NASM CPT and Tone It Up trainer Chyna Bardarson, weight lifting boosts metabolism, protects bone health, aids in fat loss, improves posture, boosts cardio performance, and so much more. “It also increases your post-exercise oxygen consumption, which keeps your metabolism active after your workout, helping your body burn calories even after you finish lifting,” she adds.
In addition to boosting metabolism as a whole, McKinney says that strength training can also support healthy blood sugar control. “The large muscle group contractions can lower glucose in the bloodstream,” she explains, noting that those who strength train regularly generally have a better tolerance for carbohydrates.
And let’s not forget, since exercise increases the production of endorphins and endorphins increase happiness, strength training can also lift your mood and improve confidence. “Experiencing tangible strength increases and setting personal bests on lifts has a transformative ‘I-can-do-it’ effect that carries into other aspects of your life,” McKinney says. “It builds both mental and physical resilience.”
How does weightlifting tone and build muscles?
Where cardio exercises lean out muscles, weight lifting helps build and tone them. “Stress on the muscles from lifting weights causes micro-tears in the muscle fibers, and these tears then heal and come back stronger and larger, which is how we get stronger,” says Gold’s Gym senior director of fitness, Tory Hale. “The stronger the muscles, the more pull they place on tendons and ligaments, which in turn pull and harden the bones. This means that lifting weights increases bone density, joint health, and lean muscle mass.” Beyond physical appearance, Hale points out that increasing lean muscle mass is what helps create an increased metabolic rate, which is why your body will be able to burn more calories at rest each day than if you didn’t lift weights. “This makes losing weight, should that be a goal, easier to do,” she explains.
What should you know before you get started?
There are a few things to know before you dive into weightlifting.
1. A proper warmup is crucial.
As is the case with cardio, warming up before taking on a strength training session is super important. “A well put-together warmup will prepare your body for lifting weights,” Hale says. “This should include mobility and activation for the muscles you are going to use in the workout.” One way to activate the muscles is by foam rolling. However, if you find rolling to be uncomfortable, there are muscle percussion tools, like the Therabody Theragun Prime ($299), that can gently pummel your muscles to enhance blood flow to the muscles for activation and recovery.
McKinney adds to this, noting that, “While a cardiovascular warmup can help get your muscles warmed up for a strength training session, it’s also a good idea to add in a few priming or mobility movements to help you get more in tune with the muscles you’re trying to work during that session. For example, hip bridges might help increase your awareness of your glutes prior to doing squats.”
2. Proper form is the most important part.
All of the trainers we spoke with agree: form is the most important aspect of any weight lifting session. “Focus on cyborg form (aka perfect form) rather than how heavy your weights are,” says multimedia artist, athlete, and certified personal trainer & group fitness instructor HyperBody. “A common mistake I see is lifters going for weights that are way too heavy which will compromise their form and could lead to injury. To avoid this, always take a ‘Swollider Stance’—shoulders down and back, shoulder blades slightly retracted, core braced, a slight squeeze of the butt, ribs not flared, back not arched, long tall spine, soft knees, and create torque in the hips by screwing feet into the floor away from the body.”
3. Start with a weight you can lift comfortably.
If you’re brand new to strength training (and even if you’re not), it’s important to start each lift with a weight that you can heist with ease. If you can’t lift 10 to 12 reps of the weight for two to three sets, Bardarson says you need to go a little lighter and work your way up.
If you’re still unsure how much to lift, take McKinney’s expertise into consideration. “If you can easily hit 15 repetitions (with good form) of a movement, it’s time to increase the weight,” she says. “If you’re struggling to hit 12 repetitions, scale back on the weight a bit.” On the converse, if you’re ready to increase your weight, she says to move up in 2.5 to 5-pound increments for upper body movements and 5 to 10-pound increments for lower body movements.
“Depending on your goals and experience, properly designed exercise programs might include phases with repetitions as low as one to three reps and as high as 20 to 30 reps,” McKinney says.
4. Hydration is key.
No matter what type of exercise you’re performing, staying hydrated is what will help you perform your best. Because of this, Bardarson says to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workouts, and fuel your body with a post-workout protein snack to further help build and repair your muscles.
5. Wear the right shoes!
Unlike cardio exercises, strength training calls for comfortable shoes that will support your stance while lifting weights. If you’re unsure which shoes live up to the task, Bardarson says to look for shoes that have “training” or “cross-training” in the name. We love Puma’s Provoke XT Women’s Training Shoes ($90) and Reebok’s Nano X Women’s Training Shoes ($130).
6. Don’t use momentum.
If you work out in a gym surrounded by other lifters, you might notice people swinging weights up and down. HyperBody can’t stress this enough: If you find yourself swinging the weights, it probably means they’re too heavy or your muscles are maxed out. “Of course in some cases like cheat curls, push press, and kettlebell swings, this will not apply,” they add.
7. Don’t rush the reps.
As much as you may want to get your workout over with, it’s important to not rush through weight lifting. “Oftentimes I see people going into hyper-speed just to get the set over with because they are tired,” HyperBody says. “Take your time, and feel and visualize the muscles doing the work. Sometimes I will play around with the pace and slow the reps way down. For example: bicep curl for three seconds on the concentric (the lift) and 10 seconds eccentric (the lowering).”
While taking your time can be somewhat meditative as you observe your muscles in the process, Hale says it also allows your body to learn the positions of the movement so that proper form is maintained.
8. Avoid neck tension.
Chances are, you won’t even notice you’re holding neck tension until someone points it out to you. “The neck loves to try and lift weights for you—don’t let it,” HyperBody says. “Avoid shrugging the shoulders, keep them away from your ears. If you find this happening, the weights are probably too heavy or you are maxed out.”
9. Don’t forget to breathe.
It sounds like such a simple thing to remember, but you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to not even realize you’re holding your breath while lifting. “Oftentimes I see people holding their breath for an entire set and then exhaling when they are done,” Hyperbody says. “Instead, exhale when the muscle contracts, inhale as it lengthens. For example, in the case of a shoulder press, exhale as you press the weight up, inhale as you lower.”
10. Welcome variety to your routine.
Once you get good at a certain movement, you might want to incorporate it into every lifting session. Don’t. Instead, HyperBody says to put your muscles into “Cyborg Shock” by adding variety into your routine (in other words, this challenges your muscles more than repeating the same movements). “Don’t always do the same exercises every time,” they say. “Change the number of reps, slow the reps down, add weight, switch the grip, make it unilateral (one side at a time), try them sitting in a straddle, try half kneeling, try balancing on one leg, try combining two exercises, add isometric holds, use different forms of resistance like bands or body weight, and so on.”
11. Ease into it.
If you’ve never lifted before, you may be unsure where to start—and, if you’re starting out in a gym surrounded by other lifters, you may feel inclined to go all in, all too quickly. Before making this mistake, Bardarson says to ease into it with two weight training sessions a week and slowly increase from there once you see how your body responds.
12. Create functional workouts.
You won’t notice much progress without well-thought-out strength training routines. So, before you head to the gym (or to your home lifting set-up), keep this in mind: “A good starting point for sets and reps is three to four sets of each exercise, with eight to 10 reps in each set,” Hale says. “If you get to 10 reps, add weight; if you get to 10 again, add more weight again. In order [to achieve] the benefits of weight lifting, you must stress your muscles. Having rep ranges is helpful and allows you to push your own body, not comparing to others' weights.”
“From avid gym-goers, you might commonly hear that compound lifts (such as those using a barbell) are superior to machines,” says McKinney. “While that is generally true, there is some nuance. Utilizing machines at first might help with form and safety if you’re doing this on your own, especially if you are not enlisting the help of a trainer.”
In addition to understanding reps and sets, HyperBody says to train two to three times a week focusing on different major muscle groups. “Work opposing muscle groups every other day,” they say, noting to fill your workout with a variety of push and pull exercises.
What’s more, McKinney points out that in addition to training our muscles, weight lifting also trains the central nervous system. Because of this, she says it’s a good idea to start off with compound/complex movements involving large muscle groups (think: deadlifts and squats), and save isolated movements (think: preacher curls and leg curls) for the end.
Lastly, McKinney adds that for folks who only have time to work out two to three days a week, total body workouts are best. “They’re generally longer and burn more calories,” she says. Conversely, if you have four or more days to work out each week, she says that split routines (which tend to break up the week into upper body days and lower body days) work best. “Your program could also combine a total body and a split-routine approach,” she says.
13. Remember that post-workout recovery and rest days are crucial.
After putting forth your best effort on a lift day, it’s important to take the time to rest, recover, and rebuild your muscles, Bardarson says. In fact, as HyperBody points out, rest and recovery are just as important as the workout itself. “During the pump, you are literally tearing/ripping the muscle fibers,” they explain. “They need time to rebuild and adapt to the new load you are putting on them.” As a result, HyperBody says to spread out your workouts and never work the same muscle groups two days in a row.
14. Consistency is key.
Just like eating one salad or drinking one smoothie isn’t going to turn you into the epitome of health, neither is performing one lifting session. “The body adapts quickly, but also needs consistent exposure to the stress to truly adapt,” Hale says. “Pick a weekly routine and stick with it for at least six weeks before revisiting.”
15. Focus on progress, not perfection.
Last but not least, remember that progress takes time and your dream goal isn’t a single lift away. “Be patient, your muscles will grow,” HyperBody promises. “I find that it takes three to four weeks to start to notice progress. All bodies are different and depending a lot on hormones and genetics, our muscles grow differently. In general, low heavy reps increase muscle mass, while high light reps increase muscle endurance.” Either way, it all takes time.
What are your best weight lifting exercises for beginners?
As a general rule of thumb, Bardarson says that the best weight lifting exercises for beginners are functional movements that can be done without weight until you’ve mastered the perfect form. So, to help kick things off, see below for instructional videos of 10 exercises to consider for your foray into lifting.
Deadlift (or Romanian Deadlift)
Barbell Bench Press
Are there any programs to make easing into lifting easier?
If you’re not comfortable lifting on your own, Hale says that apps with strength training options are great ways to get started. “Most are sorted into the specific areas of focus based on lower body or upper body, and squat or deadlift and push or pull,” she says. “GOLD’S AMP has plenty of options to follow along with for all levels. Remember to choose a few workouts to make a routine and stick with it, even if you repeat a few guided workouts, your body needs consistency in the beginning.”
Another option is to join Bardarson for Tone It Up’s six-week strength program. All you have to do is download the Tone It Up App to start your free 7-day trial.
And, if you prefer a more vivid take on lifting, don’t forget to check out HyperBody’s on-demand and live streaming cardio and strength workouts. For starters, they would encourage you to check out Sick Pythons, an upper body strength training session using dumbbells (or, if you don’t have any: household objects).
Whichever form of exercise you choose to do—whether cardio or strength training—consistency, variety, and form determine how beneficial it will be. “I remember a quote I heard when I first got into personal training, and that is ‘The needs of an Olympic weight lifter and your grandma vary by degree, not by kind.’” Hale says. “This means we all need squats, deadlifts, lunges, pressing, and pulling both vertically and horizontally. Which variation of each and how much weight you use is based on where you are right now. Make a routine to hit each pattern throughout the week. Usually allowing at least a day of rest between lower body and upper body days. For example, squat Monday, press Tuesday, deadlift Wednesday, pull Thursday, and lunge on Friday. You can also pair these together: Monday: squat and press; Wednesday: deadlift and pull; and then Friday: lunge and do some core work.”