If your weight-lifting experience is limited to carrying heavy grocery bags from your car to the front door, listen up! In addition to sculpting the strong bodies you see in magazines, resistance training can significantly enhance your physical and mental health.
But starting a program can be intimidating and expensive. Walking into a gym for the first time, you might get lost in the vast array of equipment available, and a personal trainer may be out of your price range. So set yourself up for injury-free success with the advice from fitness professionals.
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Why You Should Lift Weights
Keeping the benefits of weight-lifting front and center in your mind will help steel your resolve as you start a new weight-training program. First of all, resistance training, along with a healthy diet and regular cardio, is a great way to boost your metabolism.
"Muscle uses energy. The more muscle mass, the more energy you use, and so it helps people lose some inches," says Dana Williams, founder of Achieve Performance Training & Coaching in Mill Valley, California.
Regular strength training also combats the postural imbalances that sitting at a desk all day causes, and it can increase mobility as you age. Athletes involved in other sports, like running or tennis, can prevent injury by lifting weights as part of their cross-training.
How Weight-Lifting Builds Muscle
Ready for a little lesson in exercise physiology? When enough resistance is applied to muscles, they develop tiny tears in the muscle fibers, according to Len Kravitz, PhD, exercise physiologist at the University of New Mexico.
As the body repairs those tears, the muscles adapt to the resistance by growing stronger. But in order to continue to grow, you'll need to change your program every few weeks to a month to keep your muscles challenged.
You can also manipulate your training routine to achieve different goals. For example, if you're looking to build strength, opt for a training routine that involves lifting heavier weight for fewer reps, and if you're looking to build endurance, choose a routine using lighter weight and higher reps.
4 Steps to Getting Started With Weight-Lifting
Put those muscle to good use by starting a weight-lifting routine. It doesn't have to be complicated or fancy. Follow these four steps and you'll be lifting like a pro in no time.
Step 1: Find a Place to Work Out
Good news: You can work out anywhere with access to weights! Join your local gym or community center, purchase a set of weights and work out in your basement or sign up for a specialized program like CrossFit. Or get creative: Fill sandbags or water jugs and work out in your backyard or the neighborhood park.
Williams recommends beginners sign up for a few sessions with a personal trainer or join a gym that offers free consultations or small-group weight-training classes. "It's definitely a worthy investment for someone to spend a little bit to get started," he says.
Step 2: Learn to Navigate Gym Equipment
Depending on where you work out, your equipment options may be limited to a set of free weights or you may have several thousand square feet of dumbbells, machines, cables, medicine balls, kettlebells and more. If the latter is the case, it can be overwhelming. The best bet for beginners is to keep it simple.
Exercise machines provide stability and safety features that can reduce the risk of injury. They also have instructions printed on them that will show you how to use the equipment correctly. Once you've developed a solid foundation using the machines, you can begin to incorporate free-weight exercises into your routine. Three options to start with include:
- 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
Step 3: Build a Solid Foundation
Remember: Form first! When you first start a weight-training program, your focus should be on learning to perform the movements correctly rather than lifting heavy weights.
Don't walk into the gym, load up a bar and start churning out reps. Take your time going through the exercises using lighter weights and maintaining proper form before you start increasing the weight.
"With proper form, you can correctly load the body up with weight and start building intensity through higher volume," says Seattle-based certified strength and conditioning coach Tommy Jerome. Once you have a foundation of strength and proper form, you'll be able to add weight and see serious gains while minimizing the risk of injury.
Step 4: Plan a Program
If you hire a trainer, she'll do the hard part and plan your program based on your current level of fitness and goals. However, you can steal a few basics the pros use to plan your own program.
First off, decide your frequency. Williams suggests starting out with three weekly sessions. Second, establish training volume and intensity — this refers to the number of sets and reps and the weight. During the early phase, no matter what your goals are, Williams recommends lifting lighter weights for a higher number of reps — 12 to 15 reps is a good goal. Perform three sets of each exercise.
Which exercises? Squats are excellent multi-joint exercises that work your legs and core. Your gym might have a machine for doing squats with instructions, but it's a basic movement that even beginners can master with free weights.
Chest presses and rows are also good exercises to start with, which you can either do on a machine or with dumbbells or a barbell. Shoulder presses, shoulder raises, biceps curls, hamstring curls and leg extensions are other great options to work into your beginner program. Here are some good workouts to start with:
Tips to Help You Get the Most from Your Lifting Workouts
Once you get some good momentum going, you want to maximize the time you spend lifting weights. That's where these three handy tips come into play.
1. Hire a Trainer
Personal trainers exist for a reason (besides making money): Weight-lifting can get complex and injury is common if you're not careful (see below for more on injury prevention). A good trainer will ask if you've had any injuries that affect your mobility. Many will also do a functional movement screen to pinpoint any muscular imbalances that strength training may be able to correct.
"Every little injury that you had, every little surgery that you had or bone break leads to an increase in asymmetry in the body," Jerome says. Many gyms will offer one or two training sessions for free to new members. If you decide to continue with a trainer, he'll develop a program that's specific to your body and goals.
Read more: 9 Questions Your Trainer Wishes You'd Ask
2. Work Out With a Buddy or in a Group
Maybe you've put off going to the gym because you're not sure what to do once you get there and are afraid of looking foolish. You're not alone! But that's no reason to avoid strength training. Working out with a friend can increase your comfort level.
In fact, an April 2015 study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that people who exercised with a friend worked out longer, burned more calories and went to the gym more regularly.
If you can't rope a friend into weight-lifting with you, most gyms offer an array of resistance training classes for both beginners and more advanced lifters. These classes often combine cardio and weights in one for a more efficient workout.
3. Stick With the Program
Consistency is key! Your decision to start lifting weights is only beneficial if you stick to your plan. During the first few weeks, you'll likely feel like quitting or skipping a session once or twice. But once you start to see results, you'll be hooked.
"It takes anywhere from 25 to 45 days in my experience for people get past that point of continuing or stopping," Jerome says. That's why it's crucial to be disciplined about getting in your three weekly sessions in the first four to six weeks.
How to Stay Safe While Lifting Weights
It's easy for first-time weightlifters to get injured. Maybe you add too much weight too soon and suddenly — snap! You've torn a tendon. Accidents happen, and they're more likely when you're a novice. Williams says the key to preventing injury is to use lighter weights in the beginning.
"People are starting to work their range of motion, which starts initiating small muscles that may not have been used to these types of forces, and if you go too heavy, then there's a good chance of injury." Williams also says it's important to have an analysis — a functional movement screen — to address weaknesses from previous injuries before getting started.
- Physical Activity: Why strength training?
- Fit & Well: Core Concepts and Labs in Physical Fitness and Wellness; Thomas D. Fahey
- The Functional Movement Screen; Gray Cook, MS, PT, OCS, CSCS and Lee Burton, PhD, ATC, CSCS
- British Journal of Health Psychology: Received social support and exercising: An intervention study to test the enabling hypothesis
- University of New Mexico: How do muscles grow?