Seeing athletes at the top of their game pumping iron can make strength training intimidating for beginners. But the good news is that you don't need to spend hours in the gym or lift super heavy weights to get a good muscle-building workout.
Strength training is actually a very accessible — and safe — activity for people of all levels. Even the U.S. government recommends at least two full-body, strength-training workouts a week in their Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
If you're a total newbie to the workout, here's everything you need to know to get started, including which exercises you should start with.
Types of Strength-Training Workouts
Whether you're working out at the gym or at home, there are several different types of strength training you might want to pursue. Most commonly, you'll hear about:
- Body-weight exercises: no-equipment-needed moves that use only the resistance created by your body weight (hence the name) to build muscle
- TRX: moves that again rely on your body weight for resistance but are performed with a suspension system anchored to the ceiling or wall (you might've seen the signature black-and-yellow straps at your gym)
- Dumbbells: hand weights ranging from 2 pounds and up
- Kettlebells: a cast iron ball of various weights with a U-shaped handle on top for lifting and swinging
- Barbell: a steel bar that can be made heavier by adding weighted plates to the ends
- Weight machines: strength machines designed to work specific parts of the body using weights and moving parts, such as cables and pulley systems
And within weight-lifting, specifically, you may also hear about these types:
- General weight-lifting: using free weights or weight machines to build strength
- Modern weight-lifting: involving a two standard lifts — snatch and clean and jerk
- Powerlifting: only involves three exercises — squat, bench press and deadlift
- Bodybuilding: focusing on building a muscular appearance
- Strongman: focusing on building strength to display power, such as flipping cars
Read more: How to Get Started With Weightlifting
What You Need to Start Strength Training
The best place for beginners to start is a combination of body-weight exercises and weight-lifting with dumbbells. You don't need a lot of equipment to strength train, and you don't need a laundry list of exercises. In fact, most trainers will make sure you don't overcomplicate your training, especially in your first few sessions.
"Routines involving body-weight exercises are a perfectly fine place to start, and these can be done in your home or at a park; many public parks have exercise stations with basic equipment such as parallel bars for dips, bars for chin-ups, and more," says Jeremy Tully, a strength coach at Bay Strength.
If you're looking to invest in some equipment for your at-home workouts, start with two sets of dumbbells and resistance bands, says Mary Johnson, owner and performance coach at Lift | Run | Perform. However, both trainers note that as you progress from body weight to free weights and kettlebells, eventually you'll need access to more equipment or a gym to see proper gains.
The Basics of a Beginner Strength-Training Workout
How Long Should a Strength-Training Workout Be?
You don't need be putting in hour-long at first. In fact, since your body has yet to adapt, you may only need to spend 20 to 30 minutes per session. Or instead of paying attention to total time, focus on reps (the number of times to do an exercise) and sets (the number of times to repeat your reps).
If you focus on these numbers, you can make sure to practice proper form and complete each move correctly rather than racing to hit a certain marker on the clock (and increase your chance of injury).
How Many Days a Week Should You Strength Train?
For a beginner, two to three strength-training sessions a week is sufficient to stay healthy and meet your goals. As mentioned above, the U.S. government recommends at least two full-body, strength-training workouts a week, though you may want to increase that number as you progress, depending on what your goals are.
Make sure you round out your routine with some sort of cardio, Tully says. "Optimal fitness and health will always be achieved via a combination of strength and cardio work," he says. "The precise balance depends on the individual, their goals and what activities they find most enjoyable and want to spend their limited free time pursuing."
The Best Strength Training Exercises for Beginners
"Repetition and progressive overload [continually challenging your muscles by adding weight, reps or sets or changing exercises] of the five major movement patterns — squat, hinge, push, pull and carry — will yield incredible results," Johnson says.
Focusing on these movement patterns (which are the foundation for common strength exercises) can make you more efficient in your daily life, reduce the stress placed on your body doing physical tasks on the job and lower your risk of injury, according to the American Council on Exercise.
It's also a good idea to start with compound moves versus isolated, meaning choosing exercises that work multiple muscle groups instead of only focusing on one at a time. That's because compound moves will give you the greatest return on both time and energy, Tully says. Here are six of the best exercises to lay the foundation:
Move 1: Squat
- Begin with your feet planted shoulder-width apart, standing up straight with your head facing forward and shoulders relaxed.
- Bend at the knees and as if sitting in a chair, bring your butt back and down. Your upper body may lean forward slightly with your back flat.
- Either bend your arms at the elbows with your hands clasped at your chest or extend your arms straight out in front of you.
- Keep your feet planted with weight in the heels. Your knees should remain over your ankles and behind your toes and shouldn't fall inward.
- To finish the move, keep the weight in your heels and drive your body up to standing.
Move 2: Bench Press
- Sit at the end of a weight bench and lie down. Your back should be flat against the bench and an unloaded barbell should be above your shoulders (or hold a dumbbell in each hand).
- Grip the bar roughly shoulder-width apart with your shoulders squeezed back and chest out. Plant your feet on the ground and unrack the bar.
- Bend your elbows and bring the bar down toward your chest and chin with your elbows coming close to your body.
- Press the bar back up over your chest.
Move 3: Overhead Press
- Stand up straight with your legs hip- to shoulder-width apart. Pick up a barbell (or two dumbbells) and hold it in front of your body at your shoulders.
- Push the weight up over your head, keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears.
- Slowly lower the weight back down to starting position.
Move 4: Weighted Lunge
- Grab two dumbbells and hold one in each hand. Stand tall with your feet together.
- Take a step forward with your right leg and plant your foot. Slowly lower your leg down so your knee is bent and stays over your ankle.
- At the same time, lower your back leg down to the floor (as low as you can go in order to keep your stance solid with your right leg).
- Stand back up and bring your right leg back together with your left.
- Repeat on the other side, stepping left leg forward.
Move 5: Bent-Over Row
- With your feet hip-width apart, slightly bend your knees and hinge at your hips to grab a barbell with your palms facing your body (or hold two dumbbells). Keep your back flat and butt out.
- Start with the bar just below your knees and pull it up toward your chest. Keep your arms tucked close to your body and elbows back.
- Slowly lower the bar back down.
Move 6: Lateral Raise
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold the dumbbells at your sides, one in each hand.
- Raise the dumbbells up to shoulder height so your body forms a T but with your elbows slightly bent.
- Lower the weights back down to your sides.
Try One of These Beginner Strength-Training Workouts
Now it's time to put all these move together! Tully created three workouts with three moves each and recommends doing only one per strength-training day. While you feel you may be able to do more, starting with three moves per session as a beginner will help you develop work capacity.
"Reps" is the number of times you do an exercise (ex. 4 squats). "Sets" is the number of times you repeat that number of reps (ex. 4 squats, rest, repeat twice more).
- Weighted squats: 3 sets of 4
- Bench press: 3 sets of 7
- Bent-over rows: 3 sets of 10
- Repeat for two rounds
- Weighted squat: 3 sets of 4
- Overhead press: 3 sets of 7
- Lateral raise: 3 sets of 15
- Repeat for two rounds
- Weighted lunge: 3 sets of 14
- Bench press: 3 sets of 10
- Bent-over row: 3 sets of 15
- Repeat for two rounds
How to Stay Safe While Weight-Lifting
Whether you're new to working out altogether or you already have an established cardio routine and are looking to add weight training, you may be worried about some of the potential side effects (the most-talked about being injury).
"[People believe] that strength training is risky, or that if it is performed without perfect technique, will lead to injury," Tully says. "In reality, proper load management — pushing hard and progressing over time but staying within your limits and keeping your lifts free of any major technical breakdown — provides a recipe for successful long term training while minimizing risk of injury."
Of course technique is important and will get you the best results, but as a beginner, Tully reassures that if it isn't impeccable every time, this doesn't automatically mean you will get injured. That's all a part of learning.
If you still have doubts, approach strength training conservatively and start with body-weight exercises; you can always increase if needed. With strength training — especially as a beginner — taking your time to master the fundamentals will set you up for future success.
"Strength training is a long-term process, and we care less about how much someone adds to their squat in the first month of training than we do about laying a good foundation of positive training habits and good lifting technique early on," Tully says. "The weight on the bar will go up over time."
Once you start lifting weights, you may want to have a personal trainer or spotter coach you through your lifts, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. And if anything hurts at any time — stop. It's better to rest for a few days to let your body recover. You won't lose your progress in those few days, but you may risk serious injury if you don't take time off.