Strength Training for Beginners

You’re committed to learning to lift – congrats! I admire anyone who decides to strength train AND do it right. I’m here to help you start crushing and seeing fantastic results.

From a bird’s eye view, strength training simply involves lifting things up and putting them down. But to build muscle and strength whilst not hurting yourself, there’s a few more things you should know.

Concerns You May Have

Let’s start with a few concerns you might be having before getting started.

Feeling Intimidated

I know strength training for beginners can seem intimidating – it was for me too. I was sure everyone would know immediately that I did NOT know what I was doing. There would be ridicule behind cupped hands and the rolling of eyes. Perhaps some would even laugh out loud at my obvious ineptitude.

Two things about these concerns:

  1. Most people are not critiquing you; they’re too busy with their own workouts. That said…
  2. You can empower yourself by first practicing your form at home.

When I started out with weights, there was no way I was walking into a gym and feeling self-conscious. So I bought cheap five-pound weights and practiced basic exercises at home. I bought a beginner’s weightlifting book and studied the pictures and watched myself in front of a mirror, too. After a few months I felt comfortable enough to join a gym and start lifting publicly.

I learned to train years ago; these days you can watch reputable videos and video record yourself to check your form (more on form below).

If you feel intimidated and can’t start out at home, go to the gym when it’s least busy. I found Sunday afternoons to be the deadest times and now I train mid-day on weekdays to avoid crowds.

Women and Bulking Up

If you’re a female, you might harbor images of yourself with huge, bulging muscles, your repelled partner running in the opposite direction. This is a really common misconception about women and lifting.

The truth is, females don’t have enough testosterone to build muscles as big as guys. Most women have to work very hard to build even a small amount of muscle. When combined with a lean physique, more muscle on women translates into muscle definition – that athletic, ripped look. So relax and work hard. Very hard.

Getting Started

There’s a saying about seeing progress with strength training: “One rep at a time.”

Let’s look at the anatomy of lifting weights so that you’re less tempted to rush through your workout.

  • Repetition. Reps are simply a means of counting how many movements of an exercise you do. There are three actions to a rep: concentric (raising the dumbbell), isometric (pausing), and eccentric (lowering the dumbbell). How many reps you perform during each session depends on your goals.
  • Set. A set is a group of consecutive repetitions. How many sets you do is inversely related to how many reps you do. If you do more reps, you do fewer sets.
  • Rest interval. The amount of recovery time between each set. How long you rest has a dramatic effect on the results of your training. In order to replenish your energy reserves you need to rest adequately between sets; however, you don’t want to rest too long, either.
  • Intensity. Your level of effort, or how much weight you’re lifting. You can also change the intensity by adjusting the reps and sets or the level of resistance (also see “Progressing” below).

Putting it all together, here’s an example of how doing an exercise might look:

Squats 3 x 12 / 60″ rest between sets at 30 pounds (3 sets at 12 reps each)

There are other variables, too, such as tempo (how fast or slow you perform each rep), duration (how long your workout is), and frequency (how often you train). But for now, just get to know the ones above and you’ll be doing great.

Warming Up

Before you begin each workout, you need to warm up thoroughly every time. The idea is to get your blood circulating and your joints more mobile so that you can take them through their full range of motion. This can help prevent injuries that come from being inflexible, particularly your shoulders.

Warming up is also a great time to work on strengthening those little stabilizer muscles that are so important to supporting the larger muscles. This is how I slip in this important work with my online training clients!

In the beginning, you can hop on a treadmill or elliptical machine at a brisk pace and pump your arms for five or 10 minutes. I didn’t say run… you simply want to get your heart rate up without overdoing it. After awhile I recommend that you do a dynamic warm up instead, which mimics the movements you’ll be doing during your regular workout.

Learning Proper Form

The first thing you should do when you’re learning to strength train is practice your form for every exercise. Over and over. If your form is sloppy, you will almost certainly:

  • See little or no progress
  • Injure yourself

For example, if you allow your back to round during squats, your body will take the path of least resistance and put the load on your back instead of your glutes and hamstrings. Your back is not built to handle loads in that position (including your own body weight), and it will rebel (bulging disc, anyone?).

But once you understand the basics of proper form, you can apply them to ANY exercise. But you should NOT add weight to any exercise until you know your form is flawless.


When you first start out with strength training, you’ll notice changes quickly. It’s exciting to see more muscle definition and feel like you can lift more and more.

But at some point, the changes start coming more slowly. Your body has adapted to the new stimulus. You think, how can I start seeing those changes again?

You do it by gradually increasing the stress placed upon your body during lifting (called progressive overload). That is, doing more over time.

Keep in mind that increasing the stress is done in very small increments, especially for beginners.

Any one of the following will increase the stress:

  • Adding more range of motion
  • Using even better form
  • Adding more resistance
  • Adding repetitions
  • Adding sets
  • Varying the tempo
  • Training more frequently

You don’t need to do all of these techniques every session, but you DO need to use them. Over time, you can add more special techniques to continue to progress.

Those who see the best progress also track their workouts, by the way. When you know what you’ve done you can know how hard to push.

Check out my posts about how to properly design a training program for more about progressing:

Choosing Exercises

While a training program is the big picture, exercises are the details. Which exercises you do depends entirely on your goals. As a rule, beginners should focus on compound, multi-joint movements and use isolation movements sparingly. Compound exercises are usually full-body exercises and improve your coordination and neuromuscular control, simulate real-world activities, increase your heart rate, and generally provide more bang for your buck than isolation exercises.

Compound exercises include squats, lunges, deadlifts, kettle bell swings, chest press, dips, pushups, shoulder press, pull ups, lat pull downs, and rows.

Isolation exercises include bicep curls, front and lateral shoulder raises, shrugs, tricep extensions, leg extensions, and calf raises.

Before you do any exercise, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Is it because “fun and different” or will it serve your overall goals?

As you can see, with a little advance planning, you can walk into the gym and crush it every time!

This article originally appeared on


One thought on “Strength Training for Beginners

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s