Before reading this, if you’ve not read my 10 reasons to lift weights post, do that first! My goal for this “how to” blog is to equip you with a basic understanding of strength training. The first section involves steps to building a workout. The second section offers general tips for lifting weights. If you’re interested to learn more about strength training, I encourage you to take time reading through everything. This is a lot of information, but it’s foundational to getting a good workout.
First, begin by determining what equipment do you have access to.
If you are at a gym with access to lots of equipment like dumbbells, machines, cables, squat racks, etc, you have endless workout options.
If you are at home, you will be more limited depending upon what equipment you have. Typically, at home workouts will utilize body weight, light dumbbells, resistance bands, or medicine balls. For this type of workout, plan for 3 sets of 12 or 15 reps. Since you’re likely limited to mostly bodyweight movements, your muscles will need a higher rep scheme to become fatigued. This would be the endurance training category, which I’ll discuss in the following section.
Next, plan what type of workout you will do.
At the gym, there are more options. But if you have free weights at home, you can choose from these as well. There are three weight training classifications foundational to lifting: strength, hypertrophy, and endurance. To lift for strength, structure your workout to 4-6 sets of 4 or 6 reps. Weights will be heavy in the strength phase. For hypertrophy (or muscle development), your rep and set scheme should be 3-4 sets of 8,10, or 12 reps, and the weight will be moderately heavy. If you’re looking for muscle endurance, where the weight is light, then do 3-4 sets of 12 or 15 reps.
Then, choose a routine.
There are lots of routines you can do. I’m highlighting three that are pretty standard. If you want to do a total body routine, which you might do 2-3 times a week, choose between doing hypertrophy or endurance set and rep ranges. If you want to do a split routine, you’ll split the lifting into upper and lower body sections. Then, you would do two days a week of the upper routine and two days of the lower body routine. With a split, you could follow the hypertrophy or strength schemes. For an even more specific lifting routine with greater volume per muscle group, you could also follow the hypertrophy or strength phase sets and reps. This type of routine would involve lifting once a week per muscle group and could be broken down: chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs, shoulders and core.
Also, make sure to rest!
Rest periods are always important when lifting. For the strength scheme, you want to rest 2 – 4 minutes between sets. In muscle hypertrophy, rest 45 seconds – 90 seconds, and only 30 seconds between sets when lifting for muscle endurance.
Last, don’t neglect muscle groups.
When planning your lifting routine – whether it’s a total body, split, or something else – you want to make sure you’re hitting each muscle group at some point in the week. Lower body: quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Upper body: chest, back, shoulders, triceps, biceps. Core: lower back and abs. The muscle groups break down more specifically, but these are the general categories. Basically, you want to follow the push/pull fundamental – if you perform a chest press (push) then you should do an opposing motion like a back row (pull). Repeatedly working the same muscle groups without training the opposing muscle groups will leave you imbalanced and prone to injury.
General weight training tips:
– Form is CRITICAL. If your form is incorrect, you will not fully benefit from the exercise and could get hurt. Many gyms have trainers or other workers that can help with form questions, or there may be a more experienced lifter around to ask. And if all else fails, google it.
– If you’re at a gym and have little experience with weight lifting, start with machines. These do a lot of the balance and coordination work for you. Once you’re more comfortable, switch to free weights – dumbbells and barbells. This equipment requires more of your muscles, smaller muscles that work to stabilize and balance the weights. So you’ll always get more benefit from a dumbbell chest press than using a chest press machine.
– Rest at least one day before lifting the same muscle group again.
– Keep your core engaged – as you would if someone was about to punch you in the gut.
– Exhale on the hard part of the movement, the concentric motion. For example, when squatting exhale as you stand, or if you’re doing a push up exhale as you press away from the floor.
– Perform the lifting motion through a 2/2 count. This will keep you from rushing through your reps. So on a bicep curl, take 2 seconds on the concentric motion (muscle shortening phase) and 2 seconds on the eccentric motion (muscle lengthening phase).
– After 6-8 weeks of the same routine, it’s time to change things up. You can do this in several ways. If you’ve been lifting with the regular 2/2 tempo, switch up your timing. The safest way is to slow down the eccentric phase. Take that bicep curl again. You’ll curl it as normal, but for the lengthening part, slow it down for 3-4 seconds instead of 2. Or you can change the tempo by pausing in the isometric portion of the lift. That means holding for 2-3 seconds in the middle of the movement, after finishing the concentric before beginning the eccentric motion, or while the weight is at the top of the curl. Another option to switch up your routine is to change the rep scheme. If you’ve been doing muscle hypertrophy, then switch to lifting for strength. Or say you want to stay in the hypertrophy phase and have been doing 3 sets of 12 reps, increase your weight and decrease your sets to 4 and reps to 8.
I hope you have learned more about how to lift weights. Don’t be intimidated to lift! If you lack confidence in the gym, you’re definitely not the only one. Weight lifting is incredibly important. So don’t let the fear of others – who may not know much more than you – keep you out of the gym!