Strength Training for Beginners: A How-To Guide on Getting Started
Stop skipping the weights because you’re intimidated. Instead, learn how to properly and safely approach strength training by following these tips and four fitness principles.
Have you been wanting to hit the weights and start strength training, but feel like a newbie, too intimidated, or weak? In case you need a reminder... We all start somewhere! In fact, the Fit With Iulia app has helped hundreds on their fitness journey, from beginners to advanced lifters - Our app is designed to help you get started on your fitness journey, stay consistent, and most importantly, succeed. So, if you're new to strength training you've landed on the right page 😉
However, we're not here to tell you to just download our fitness app and get started training, we're going to give you a full breakdown of strength training - the benefits, how to get started, and four fitness principles to practice.
Everyone's fitness journeys are different but by the end of this article, you'll know exactly what you need to do to build a strength training program that works for you and gets you the results you want, be it weight loss, building muscle, strength, or just being healthier!
Benefits of strength training
As most know, this style of training (also known as resistance training or weight training) is a form of physical activity that involves the movement of any weight (free weights or your own body weight) against resistance. It involves pushing your muscles outside of their comfort zone so they are forced to adapt and rebuild stronger. Most already know that the main benefit of strength training is to build strength and build muscle, but that's not all it has to offer! Here are more reasons to hit the weights...
- Help keep your bones and joints healthy: Aside from muscle-building, weight training can help your bones become stronger and denser. Studies show that it can promote better bone development, reduce lower back pain, and reverse skeletal muscle aging factors. Not only does it help with bone health, but it also can improve your joint stability and keep them healthy.
- Burns calories during and after your training session: Cardio is not the only type of workout that helps burn calories, strength training does too! In fact, it helps you burn more calories overall. The International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Metabolism published a study on resistance training and the effect it has on the resting metabolic rate in young women. The study found that after following a 100-minute strength training session, young women's basal metabolic rate spiked by 4.2% for 16 hours after the workout—burning about 60 more calories. Essentially, you can burn calories without even trying! That's due to the fact that muscle is metabolically active, and fat isn't. So, if you replace that fat with lean muscle, your body will burn extra calories even if you're activity is lower than usual.
- Lowers risk of health-related diseases: Following any good workout routine and practicing healthy eating will help reduce the risk of health-related diseases. However, strength training has been linked to helping reduce intra-abdominal fat (visceral fat), also known as belly fat which is associated with Type 2 Diabetes. The Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise published a study that used data from nearly 36,000 women ages 47-98. The women who did some form of strength training had a 30% lower risk of getting Type 2 Diabetes and 17% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, opposed to women who did no strength training. Those who combined aerobic exercises with weight lifting had an even lower risk of getting those diseases.
- Increases muscle mass and strength: Despite common misconceptions, strength training won't cause you to bulk up and look like a bodybuilder. Yes, it'll help you increase in strength and build muscle along the way, but it all comes down to how you train. Everyone's goals are different, so obviously, your workouts are going to look much different than a powerlifter. Even if you don't want to build massive amounts of muscle, you might want to consider lifting weights! Little to no physical activity can lead to a decrease in muscle mass, which can get worse as you age. As a little fun (but not so fun) fact, women who don't exercise can lose up to 3-8% of muscle mass each decade! So even if you don't have a specific muscle-building goal, it's good to introduce some light weight training to help you maintain muscle. Plus, it helps that building muscle helps you lose overall body fat thus leading to weight loss!
How do I start strength training?
If one of those benefits spoke to you, or you have other reasons why you want to hit the weights, the next thing is actually getting started training! Building an effective workout routine is your first priority, but when you're completely new to strength training you probably don't even know where to begin. Don't worry, we told you that you landed on the right page!
The following tips will get you started with strength training and will help you naturally build a strength training workout plan that is appropriate for your fitness level.
Starting a new workout program is exciting, that initial excitement and motivation drive many people to start hitting the gym hard. Although, it's great to feel excited about starting a new healthy lifestyle, don't let that initial motivation get you too excited that you dive into a rigorous workout program. There are two problems with doing that:
First, you'll end up burning yourself out after a few weeks and most likely, end up hating the gym and working out altogether that you quit. Or end up straining or pulling a muscle leading to an indefinite break from the gym. We're not saying it'll happen, but this tends to happen to people who dive headfirst into weightlifting instead of pacing themselves.
Second, your motivation is going to simmer down super fast. Motivation is fleeting. You're not always going to feel that initial excitement and motivation throughout your entire fitness journey, if that were the case, so many more people would be successful in fitness!
This is why you have to start slow and keep it simple at first. Building muscle, strength, and even fat loss takes a lot of time and consistency. The best approach is to take it slow at first, start with what you can do, not what others can. Meaning, don't dive in and start lifting heavy weights or schedule five workouts for your first week of training. Do what works for you and, most importantly, manageable.
Start with a short, simple program. Start with two full-body training sessions a week for the first two weeks and then add a third day and so forth. Ideally, you should train at least 4-5 times a week, but if you start off working out five times a week you'll shock your body and cause major muscle soreness. Starting with just 2-3 full-body workouts a week will help you target various muscle groups at once while giving your muscles enough rest in between workouts. As for the number of reps and sets you should do, start with 3 sets of 10-15 reps (depending on the exercise and weight). As you make progress and get more familiar with strength training you'll be able to implement training splits (more on this later) and find a good set and rep range for your goals!
Choose the right weight for you
Choosing the right weight doesn't only refer to actual weights, it refers to any type of resistance, meaning your body weight or resistance bands. So, what should you start with?
We highly suggest that if you're completely new to strength training to start with bodyweight exercises and getting familiar with the different movement patterns of popular exercises to slowly adjust your body. Even if you normally workout and do cardio, yoga, or pilates, we still suggest starting out by using your own body weight. The reason we suggest this is because starting out with weights, whether it's a heavy resistance band or a light pair of dumbbells, will increase your risk of an injury. Your muscles are more than likely not adapted to the movement patterns of the exercises and if you put your muscles under too much stress at once it can result in a strain or serious injury.
So, build strength gradually by starting with key bodyweight exercises, including:
- Bulgarian split squats
- Front and reverse lunges
- Curtsy lunges
- Tricep dips
- Glute bridges
There are even more to choose from, but these are the main ones that mimic strength training exercises and will help prep you for the heavier weights you'll add in the future! You can even add a resistance band to slowly adjust your muscles to a more difficult resistance, and if you have a long resistance band (like these UPPPER Resistance Bands) you can implement even more exercises like biceps curls, shoulder press, chest press, deadlifts, etc.
Once you get the hang of bodyweight exercises, have a better sense of the movements, and decent form, then you can move to the next level - training with actual weights. That could be using equipment at the gym like the cable machines, or using dumbbells! Dumbbells are the best piece of lifting equipment to start with because they're less intimidating than barbells, less confusing than gym equipment, and you can easily scale your weight up as you make progress. Plus, they are easy to incorporate with bodyweight exercises. Like adding dumbells to each hand when performing lunges, or doing goblet squats while holding a dumbbell.
To recap, start with bodyweight exercises, focus on form and going through the full range of motion, introduce resistance bands, and then dumbbells or other free weights.
Continue with the same exercises you started out with
Experienced lifters already know how to plan their workouts and know what exercises they need to do to achieve their goals, because of this they are able to add variety to their workouts. Variety is important when it comes to strength training and something you should implement, but once you're a bit more experienced.
If you're just starting out stick with the same exercises for the first few weeks to build a basic level of strength. Don't overcomplicate your training by doing every single exercise you saw on Instagram or Youtube. You'll just confuse your body thus not giving it time to adapt to the movements and make progress. Stick to the basics and master key exercises first before moving on to a different set.
Learn how to stretch and warm-up properly
Lifting weights is the fun part, but if you want to do it safely, you have to prep your muscles for the action! With that being said, always warm up your muscles before lifting. To warm-up properly, dedicate 5-10 minutes doing a mix of static and dynamic stretches. Static stretching is the traditional form of stretching where you hold your body in a certain stretch and maintain that position for 20-45 seconds. Dynamic stretches are a slower, lighter version of whatever exercise you are warming up for. They help to fully prep your muscles for the work they're about to do while helping increase your range of motion. For example, bodyweight squats, a hip stretch with a twist, or lunges with a twist. You can also incorporate resistance bands to fully stretch and activate the muscles in your lower and upper body.
A proper warm-up will reduce your risk of injury and even allow you to push yourself harder during your workout, so take the time to do it!
Listen to your body and rest when you need to
Strength training helps you build muscle and get results, but resting is when the real magic happens. Training with weights causes small amounts of damage to the tissue that needs to be repaired to grow into strong, lean muscle. There are two ways to maximize muscle repair: get good, deep sleep, and rest the muscle group you trained for at least 48 hours before training it again. For example, if you're starting out with two full-body workouts a week, you can start on Monday and schedule your next workout for Thursday, and do some light stretching and low-impact cardio on your rest days. Just remember, to listen to your body. If you're still sore after two days, take another rest day, and go outdoors for a brisk walk to get your blood flowing.
Four principles to practice for better results
The above tips will help you get started with strength training successfully and safely. After 2-4 weeks, you'll really get the hang of things and want to turn things up a notch. Before you get carried away on your training journey, there are four fitness principles you should know and practice to achieve better results.
- Progressive overload
This is a training technique that involves increasing demands on the musculoskeletal system to keep challenging your body so it can continue building muscle, get stronger, and increase muscular endurance. At first, you naturally practice progressive overload because as you make progress you either change up the equipment (like from using your bodyweight to dumbbells) or you increase the weight. Thus increasing the demand for your muscles! But oftentimes, people get comfortable with their workout routine and end up doing the same exercises, with the same weight, at the same rep range week after week. This will cause your progress to halt and frustration to seep in!
To avoid hitting a training plateau, practice progressive overload! Slowly change up either the volume of your workout (reps and sets), increase the weight, or try more challenging exercises to give your body new challenges to adapt to. But do it slowly! You won't be slapping on heavier weights every week. It's a gradual process.
So, word of advice, track your progress! Write down every workout, every exercise, and include the number of reps, sets, and weights used. That way when you plan the following week's workouts you know exactly what you need to adjust to make progress. And if you want more information on progressive overload read our guide on How to Practice Progress Overload.
- Training splits
Going back to our suggested workout schedule, we advised you to do two to three full-body workouts when starting out. This is actually known as a full-body training split! Training splits consist of “splitting” your workouts in order to train specific muscles or body parts on each day, dedicating around one hour of your time to hit those specific muscles. By focusing on a handful of muscle groups at a time, you maximize your training and optimize muscle building and strength, allowing your muscles to rest for longer periods of time while you work out your other muscle groups.
For example, on the Fit With Iulia app, Iulia implements training splits for our subscribers to ensure they're resting the muscle groups enough to maximize muscle repair thus achieving better results. To add to that example, her Build a Booty program is designed for women wanting to grow their glutes. This would entail focusing on lower body workouts more than upper body. So, her training split typically involves three leg days, with three upper-body days split up by muscle group (back and biceps, chest/tri, shoulders/cardio). If you're still confused about training splits and want to make sure you set up an appropriate split for your goals, check out our Guide to Finding the Best Training Split!
- Proper form
When you're just starting out you're unable to lift as heavy as others, but there's an advantage to this... It allows you to really focus on your exercise form. But practicing proper form isn't a principle you practice as a beginner, it's something that should stick with you throughout your fitness journey!
Neglecting form just leads to poor results and an increased risk of injury. To avoid this and maximize the time you're putting in the training, focus on maintaining good form. We can't breakdown the form for every single exercise (our app does that for you), but to give you a better understanding of what to do to practice better form here are a few tips... Pay attention to your posture (make sure shoulders are down and back, back and neck in a neutral position, etc), engage your core and other muscles being targeted, move slowly throughout the move to ensure your muscles are doing the lifting (not momentum), and remember to breathe! It might sound silly, but a lot of lifters tend to forget to control their breathing. So, inhale as you begin and exhale during the harder part of the exercise to fuel the movement.
- Good nutrition
Just like you can't outrun a bad diet, you can't outlift one either! Eating a healthy, nutrient-dense diet is crucial for those strength training because your body is going to need nutrients for sustainable energy to get you through your workouts and to help you recover better. Your body needs enough protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, and other micronutrients to function at optimal levels, and one way to ensure you're getting enough of the good stuff is by tracking your macros! Unlike calorie counting, macro tracking makes it easier for you to know exactly how much you need to eat of each nutrient to effectively reach your goals. To keep things short, everyone's bodies are different (body type, metabolism), and so are their goals. Cutting back and counting calories will lead to weight loss, but it can also lead to nutrient deficiencies and low energy levels. Instead, calculate your macros to see not only how many calories you should be eating, but how many carbs, protein, and fats you need.
In summary, strength training is beneficial for many reasons apart from muscle-building! So, stop skipping the weights in favor of cardio! In fact, it should be less intimidating now that you have the tools you need to get started. Remember, start slow, pick the right weight for you, warm-up, get enough rest, and practice the four fitness principles we've mentioned. All of this will get you on the right track, and help you accomplish the fitness goals you've set up for yourself.
And if you want some more help or maybe you're still not sure about how to create a good workout plan - check out the Fit With Iulia app! Here's the breakdown of how it works:
- You’ll get goal-focused workouts planned for you every week.
- There are six workout programs available, four gym programs, and two home programs.
- You can easily start your workouts and follow along with a video of Iulia performing the exercises with you. There are also written instructions and photos for even more guidance on form.
- Track your progress directly on the app (to help you practice progressive overload).
- Access your workout and exercise history to look back at your progress.
- Download the workouts so you can workout on-the-go, no WiFi required!
And to give everyone a shot before subscribing, we've made the first workout of every goal available to try for free! Just download the Fit With Iulia app, launch the app, go to Goals & Workout, find the best goal that fits yours, and start working out with Iulia!