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In a world where different fitness crazes pop up every few months, and the options for getting in a good workout span the gamut from taking a spin class at a boutique studio to streaming an online yoga class from your living room, it can be overwhelming to decide how you want to exercise. While nearly every option has its benefits, if you’ve been looking for a way to improve your overall health, increase your fitness, and feel more confident and empowered in your body, it might be time to consider a tried and true classic: lifting weights. Like a delicious, creamy vanilla ice cream cone, classics withstand the test of time for a reason. Perhaps they are less flashy than the newest craze to hit the market, but their benefits and merits cannot be overlooked. In the workout world, nothing epitomizes this more than weight training.
Also known as strength training or resistance training, weight training helps build and preserve lean body mass, which is crucial for your overall health and metabolism, and can slow the inevitable process of aging. Christa Shelton, a NASM-certified personal trainer and owner of Coaching With Christa, notes that in addition to building strength, “It’s great for your bones, your posture, and your balance.” Clearly, lifting weights has many physical benefits, but it doesn’t stop there. “Strength training not only makes our bodies stronger, but also truly builds morale and confidence,” says Shelton.
What more do you need to know? Well, given that strength training has many different moving parts—a lot. That’s why, with the help of four fitness experts, we’ve compiled this all-encompassing guide to weight training for beginners.
Keep reading to learn more about weight training.
What are the benefits of weight training?
Strength training has many benefits; most notably, it helps build the strength and size of muscles. “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 Tory Hale, director of education at Therabody. But, while weight training can certainly increase your strength, it leads to so much more than noticeably toned muscles.
It speeds up metabolism and enhances fat loss.
Hale points out that you not only burn calories while actually lifting weights, but increasing your lean muscle mass increases your body’s metabolic rate. This means that lifting weights will enable your body to burn more calories every day, even at rest. “This makes losing weight—should that be a goal—easier to do,” he explains.
It makes it easier to perform activities in your daily life.
The progress you make in your strength training workouts doesn’t just make subsequent workouts easier; it translates into improved function in your regular, daily life. "The strength training you do outdoors, at home, or at the gym shows up in your daily activities," says Shelton. "For example, I had a client who was unable to go from a squatting position without having to hold on to something to help herself up. After starting and maintaining her strength training program, she was amazed when that was no longer an issue," shares Shelton.
It strengthens bones.
Lifting weights helps build bone density because loading the body with weights signals the bones to develop a denser matrix of minerals inside. Plus, as your muscles become stronger, they can contract and pull on the bones more forcefully, which further enhances bone density. “The stronger the muscles, the more pull they place on tendons and ligaments, which in turn pull and harden the bones," explains Hale. "This means that lifting weights increases bone density, joint health, and lean muscle mass.”
It supports healthy blood sugar control.
In addition to boosting metabolism as a whole, and helping you maintain a healthy weight, Samantha McKinney, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer at Life Time, says that strength training can also support proper blood sugar control. “The large muscle group contractions can lower glucose in the bloodstream,” she explains, noting that those who strength train regularly tend to have a better tolerance for carbohydrates.
It improves your posture and balance.
Shelton says that strength training is great for your posture and your balance. "As we age and our bodies change, strength training helps to keep us balanced and strong," she says. Strength training activates the core, strengthens muscles along the back, and even works smaller stability muscles along the hips and ankles, all of which help maintain healthy posture and balance, and prevent falls and injuries.
It lifts your mood and boosts confidence.
In addition to the numerous physical health benefits, weight training has psychological benefits as well. Since exercise increases the production of endorphins and endorphins elevate your mood, strength training can help you feel happier, less stressed, and more confident. “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.”
Shelton agrees. "I also find strength training to be very empowering because of how strong it makes you feel on a daily basis," she says.
What should you know before you get started?
There are a few things to know before you dive into strength training in order to optimize the safety and effectiveness of your workout.
A proper warmup is crucial.
As is the case with cardio workouts, warming up before taking on a strength training session is very 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.
McKinney adds to this, noting that, “It’s 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.”
Proper form is the most important part.
All of the trainers we spoke with agree: proper form is the most important aspect of any weight lifting session. “Focus on perfect form rather than how heavy your weights are,” says HyperBody, an AFAA-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. “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.”
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 move with ease. If you can’t lift 10 to 12 reps of the weight for two to three sets, you need to go a little lighter and work your way up.
Hydration is key.
No matter what type of exercise you’re performing, staying hydrated will help you perform your best. Because of this, our experts recommend that you drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workouts, and fuel your body with a post-workout protein snack, such as a turkey wrap or some cottage cheese with berries and sliced almonds, to further help build and repair your muscles.
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 the following point enough: If you find yourself swinging the weights, it probably means they’re too heavy or your muscles are maxed out.
Don’t rush the reps.
As much as you may want to get your workout over with, it’s important to not rush through lifts. “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.”
While taking your time on the lift helps prevent injury and increases the effectiveness of the exercise, Hale says it also allows your body to learn the positions of the movement so that proper form is maintained.
Don’t forget to breathe.
It sounds like such a simple thing to remember, but you’d 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, and inhale as it lengthens. For example, in the case of a shoulder press, exhale as you press the weight up, inhale as you lower.”
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, mixing things up challenges your muscles more than repeating the same movements).
“Don’t always do the same exercises every time,” HyperBody says. “Change the number of reps, slow the reps down, add weight, switch the grip, use different forms of resistance like bands or body weight, and so on.”
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, ease into it with two weight training sessions a week and slowly increase from there once you see how your body.
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. 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,” she explains. “They need time to rebuild and adapt to the new load you are putting on them.”
Shelton agrees. “Rest is definitely a huge part of the equation when it comes to any type of exercise program and one that is often overlooked. It's vitally important to allow the muscles to recover, especially if you're new to strength training as to not overdo it,” she says.
Just how much rest do you need? According to Shelton, it depends. “In the beginning, I suggest taking two days off. As you progress in your program you might find that only one day off a week is needed,” she says. ”This can also vary by individual because every person is different.” So, how do you know how much rest you need? “Listen to what your body is telling you in terms of rest, but it is always necessary,” advises Shelton. “You may require more or less rest, but whatever that is for you, just make sure you take it.”
Consistency is key.
Just like eating one salad or drinking one smoothie isn’t going to turn you into the epitome of health, neither will completing 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.”
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 noticing progress.
What equipment do you need to start weight training?
So, if you're sold on weight training but are worried you’ll need all sorts of expensive equipment to get started, Shelton has good news: ”The only equipment necessary to start weight lifting is yourself,” she says. “You can start your strength training journey using your own body weight, so don't think you can't get started if you're not in the gym or can't get a hold of any equipment.”
With that said, if you are looking to purchase a few things to use at home and have the financial means to do so, Shelton has a few suggestions. "I do think having a set of dumbbells anywhere from three pounds up to 10 pounds is good starting point for a range and then you can build from there as you get stronger. I also love the stability ball and the medicine ball because of their versatility," shares Shelton. "Lastly, if you want to avoid callouses, I think a good pair of gloves are great to use as well!"
What types of tools are used for weight training?
While traditional “weight training” uses weights—typically in the form of barbells, dumbbells, and weight plates—there are a variety of tools that can be used for strength training. Kettlebells, medicine balls, sandbags, and even water-filled PVC pipes are often incorporated into a program. But, you don’t actually need any fancy implements to get a great workout. “Many people forget that our own body weight is also great for strength training,” explains Shelton. "There are several exercises you can do without any equipment at all and still have a very challenging workout: squats, lunges, planks, push-ups, donkey kicks, fire hydrants, as well as different types of arm movements."
If you're worried you won't get enough of workout without heavy weights, think again. "I find that clients are often surprised how challenging a workout can still be without using any extra weight at all!" shares Shelton. And beginners take note: bodyweight exercises might actually be the best way to start out. “Whenever I work with someone new to strength training, I always start them off with exercises just using their own body weight and then progress from there,” says Shelton.
What are the common myths and misconceptions about weight training?
One of the most common misconceptions about lifting weights, particularly among women, is that it will causes the body to bulk up with muscle, giving the appearance of a bodybuilder. "It's the number one myth I want to go away forever!" exclaims Shelton. "Weight training will, of course, make your muscles grow, but fearing that you will look like those you see in bodybuilding competitions is far-fetched." Shelton goes on to explain the science behind the difference: "The program of someone who lifts weights for a living is drastically different from your average gym-goer,” she explains. “The amount of strength training, supplements, and meal planning that goes into someone that carries a lot of muscle is not something the average person should be concerned about.”
What are the best strength training exercises for beginners?
As a general rule of thumb, Shelton says that if you’re new to weight training, it’s best to start with the basics—functional movements that can be done without additional weight until you’ve mastered the perfect form. “There are many weight lifting exercises that can be done as a beginner, and it's a matter of assessing where you are and discovering what feels good and safe to you as you embark on a program,” she says. “The key is taking your time and starting light and building from there.”
if you’re feeling unsure if you’re picking safe exercises to try, Shelton has reassuring words. “Most weight lifting exercises are fine to do as a beginner as long as attention is paid to proper form and not loading too much too soon,” she says.
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
Whatever form of exercise you choose to do—whether cardio, strength training, or ideally both—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.”
And, Shelton reminds us, it’s safe to put your fears about bulking up to rest. “Every person is indeed different, and how your body responds to stimulation via weight training will be unique to you based on the amount of strength training you are doing in conjunction with your genetics,” she explains. “But, unless you are training to be a bodybuilder, do NOT be afraid of picking up some heavy weights and doing some strength training!”