Whatever the reason you want to learn to lift — lose weight, build a better-looking body, get strong, forge greater self-confidence, complement your sport, improve your health, to be able to outrun fellow Homo Sapiens should a zombie outbreak occur — you’re in the right place.
Depending on what you’ve read or previously been told about strength training, the information here may surprise you. In fact, I hope it does.
Many have succumbed to misinformation that has prevented them from wanting to strength train or that has made it appear to be a complicated, dangerous, time-consuming activity. Even worse, some have lifted weights before and either didn’t enjoy the experience or developed lingering aches and pains; sometimes this is attributed to preventable mistakes, some of which are addressed here.
But you’re here now. While this article won’t reveal how to capture the elusive perfect booty selfie, it will get you started on an incredible strength training journey. As you’ll see, when learning to lift, there are few key principles that matter immensely, and an abundance of stuff that doesn’t matter; this “stuff” is either incorrect or nothing more than a distraction.
Learn to Lift: Things That Matter
There are lots of things you could do, but only a few you must do to get the most out of your learning-to-lift journey.
Start immediately. Seeking more information and searching for the “perfect” routine is a common, and costly, mistake; it wastes time that could be spent doing what must be done to achieve results. Don’t fall victim to paralysis-by-analysis like many do. What is presented here works. You just need to act. Don’t put this off; don’t wait for the “right time” or things to calm down. It won’t happen and, if it does, something else will come along and obliterate your good intentions. Do the first workout today, or tomorrow at the latest.
Strength train three times per week. Three workouts per week are enough to create noticeable, lasting changes to your health and physique while being practical for those even with the busiest of schedules, or those who simply don’t want to spend more time at the gym than necessary. Two workouts per week works well for those truly strapped for time or want to use strength training to complement their sport or hobby.
Use the tools you prefer. There are no exercises you must perform; there is no equipment you must use. Start where you’re most confident, or with what’s available. If you want to begin with dumbbell-only workouts, do it. If you want to use the Smith machine (or that’s the only option at your gym), do it. If you want to use machines, do it. If you want to train with a barbell, do it.
There is no optimal or right or wrong when learning to lift; choose what will make you take that first step. Below are workout programs that use mostly dumbbells and barbells since these exercises require coordination and stability, unlike exercise machines that move through a set range of motion. They’re incredibly efficient and scalable to all individuals; that is why they’re my tools of choice for strength training. They deliver maximum reward for the time invested.
Don’t be afraid to lift weights. Strength training is safe. You can be confident and own your space in the weight room. Refer to the article How to Banish the Fear of Lifting Weights if you’re intimidated to strength train or want to increase your confidence at the gym.
Be consistent. This should be painfully obvious. Want to learn to lift and build a better body? Consistency is one of the few non-negotiables. You must show up this week, and next week, next month, and next year. Sporadic participation isn’t an option.
Great news! You can increase your rate of consistency. Set yourself up for success by following a realistic program (e.g.: don’t follow a program that calls for four weekly workouts when you know three is realistic; don’t follow a program that calls for 60-minute workouts when you want to be done within 30). Set goals that get you excited, like deadlifting your bodyweight or transitioning from machine-based exercises to free weights.
Progress steadily. Any good program has progressive overload baked in. If you want your body to change, gradually increase the demand placed on it: perform more reps with the same weight, increase the weight, perform more sets, learn new exercises. If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry: details on how to achieve progressive overload are included in the workout programs listed below.
Pay attention to how you feel. Any time you begin a new activity, some discomfort is possible. If you started a job that had you on your feet all day, for example, you may experience soreness in your feet and considerable fatigue … at first. But then you’d adapt to the demand.
The same thing can happen with lifting. The exercises may feel awkward and uncomfortable, but after a few workouts, that feeling goes away. The activity no longer provides a “shock” of being a new, unfamiliar stimulus, much in the same way you adjust to the demands of a new job.
This is different than an exercise causing pain that doesn’t go away with technique adjustments or thorough warm-ups. In this case, listen to your body, then adapt. Can’t do single-leg exercises today because of discomfort in your groin that doesn’t go away with extra warm-ups or less resistance? Switch to goblet squats or barbell squats.
Do weights you lifted last week suddenly feel like they doubled? More tired than usual? Listen to your body — reduce the weights for that workout.
In the examples above, listening to your body then adapting to the situation is preferable to force-feeding an exercise or grunting through loads that are more challenging than usual.
Respect your limits on any given day and work with your body; don’t fight against it. Be content with what you can do; don’t bemoan what you can’t. Respond to these situations pragmatically, not emotionally.
Learn to Lift: Things That Don’t Matter
Searching for the “perfect” program. There’s no single “perfect” program for everyone. Any good beginner program has a few key principles in common: they use mostly compound exercises that work major movement patterns (think of the squatting movement — it works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes whereas a leg extension machine only works the quads), work all muscle groups, include progressive overload, and allow for individual variation as needed. Some good beginner programs are listed below.
Looking the part. Countless people feel like they must look like they lift before they even step foot in the weight room. I get it — social media is inundated with half-naked images of people in the gym squatting and pressing and posing with half their butt exposed. It can be an intimidating, if not somewhat strange place, to enter for the first time.
Choose not to care about what anyone thinks of you. Don’t dress to impress anyone or be self-conscious. Know why you’re there. Know what you’re there to do. Then do it. To hell with what anyone may think about what you wear, how you look, how much weight you lift, what exercises you do. Trying to impress people is overrated and fruitless, because you’ll never get everyone’s approval; impress yourself. (Friendly tip: most people are overly concerned about what everyone else thinks of them — they’re likely not even looking at you, unless they’re looking at you to see if you’re watching them.)
The time of day and days of the week, you work out. There is no perfect time of day to work out — except when you will actually do it, consistently — or weekly schedule you must adhere to. Sure, I like trainees to have a day off between strength training workouts if possible, but I have plenty of clients who work out on Saturdays, Sundays, and a day during the week because it’s best for them. (And, of course, some programs call for four workouts per week, or more.)
Forget about what’s theoretically “perfect”; focus on what’s practical.
Using specific exercises and equipment. This was discussed above but bears repeating. There are no mandatory exercises that everyone must perform. There is no single piece of equipment that must be used. (Exceptions include activities that demand specificity, like powerlifting.) Not comfortable squatting with a barbell on your back? Perform goblet or landmine squats, or use the leg press machine.
Working to the point of utter exhaustion. This doesn’t really “not matter” — it’s counterproductive when done regularly. Social media and fitness-related TV series are overrun with people showing their brutal workouts.
Exhaustion is glamorized.
People think a productive workout means being depleted, drenched in sweat, drained. The “harder” you push the better the results … or so that’s the perception.
You can finish a workout saying, “Hell yes, I did that. That was tough, and I feel great.”
Consistent progression, over time, determines the results you achieve. Chronic fatigue and achieving exhaustion with every workout have no place in that journey, and likely hinder it.
Now that you know what matters and, more importantly, what doesn’t, it’s time to choose which program you’ll use to learn to lift.
Learn to Lift: Workout Programs to Get You Started
Depending on your interests and the equipment at your gym (or in your home gym), below are various workout programs than can work for you.
The Women’s Beginner Strength Training Guide — If you want to use a combination of barbell, dumbbell, cable machine, and bodyweight exercises, this is a terrific place to begin.
Lift Like a Girl Dumbbell Workout — Dumbbell workouts are where many prefer to begin because they can be done at home, in hotel gyms, and even crowded gyms with ease. All you need are a variety of dumbbells and a weight bench and you can perform productive workouts, confidently.
7 of the Best Bodyweight Exercises — Maybe you want bodyweight workouts that can be done at home. These bodyweight exercises will get you started; also provided are their easier to more challenging variations.
How-To Videos and Articles
Below are some basic, but incredibly efficient, exercises and their how-to videos. For more how-to videos and exercise variations, and to discover the most common mistakes for each exercise and how to correct them, check out the accompanying articles.
How to Squat with a Barbell
How to Goblet Squat with a Dumbbell or Kettlebell
For more how-to-squat videos and resources check out How to Squat.
How to Deadlift
For more deadlift variations, common mistakes and their corrections, and resources check out How to Deadlift (and Why Everyone Should).
How to Bench Press
How to Perform the Standing Press
For more information on the bench press and standing press check out How to Perform the Bench Press and Standing Press.
How to Perform the Barbell Row
For more information on the barbell row and chin-ups check out the article How to Perform the Barbell Row and Chin-ups.
Here are some additional resources to help you forge your empowering fitness journey. These articles complement a solid strength training program and can help you achieve even greater results while ensuring you enjoy this rewarding journey.
- What is the Best Type of Cardio for You?
- Exercise Isn’t Punishment and You Don’t Have to Earn Your Food
- Why Women Should Get Strong
- How to Make Short Workouts More Effective
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