So you want to start strength training, but don’t know where to start? You’ve come to the right place. It can be intimidating, sifting through the cornucopia of information you encounter on the Internet, so I’ve gone ahead and done the groundwork for you.
Hopefully, some of you can leap frog over all the mistakes I made and the months of trial and error that I (and many more before me) went through, and skip to the bread and butter of strength training, where you’ll actually make sweet sweet gainz. This post barely scratches the surface, but it’s a good place to start for newbies and I’ve linked to a fair number of additional resources for anyone who wants more!
Before I say anything else, let me be clear: DON’T BUY INTO THIS SORT OF BS! If you do, we can’t be friends.
THIS REALLY GRINDS MY GEARS. First of all, please don’t fall for society’s conventional standards of “hot bodies.” We’re all different. We’re all beautiful. Own your body. Love your body. Men, you don’t need to get “big and ripped” if you don’t want to. Ladies, STOP saying you just want to be “toned.” If I hear that one more time I’m going to squirt sriracha into my eyes.
Second of all, men and women do not need different workout routines. Men and women can and should be doing the same sorts of workouts. Granted, since us ladies are not gifted with testosterone, we will probably not be lifting quite as much weight as the men around us. It’s just biology.
Now first and foremost, learn the technique.
Master the foundational technique of compound movements (ones that involves more than one major muscle group), like deadlifts, bench press, and squats. Trust me, you don’t want to have to fix your form later. Nail down the proper mechanics from the start with low weights. Drill it. Drill it again. And again. I have seen WAY too many half squats, knees caving in, back arched and eyes up at the ceiling. Or deadlifts with rounded backs. Oof. It burns my eyes. Get the technique right before you add any sort of weight on there.
You can hire a knowledgeable coach to teach you (here’s how to distinguish between the good and the bad when it comes to coaches), or you can just very thoroughly educate yourself by reading something like Starting Strength. If you do the latter, film yourself, analyze your form, make corrections, try again.
The easiest thing to do is hire a coach to write your programming for you. You could also download a program template (like this one for Starting Strength), follow StrongLifts, or buy a program like one of these from Krissy Mae Cagney. If you don’t have a coach and you aren’t following a structured program: keep a log of your workouts. Try to be logical about how you program for yourself, e.g. don’t do heavy deadlifts two days in a row, dummy. Just as a general rule, don’t work the same muscle group two days in a row. Each week add a little bit of weight. You’ll be able to ride this out for a loooong time and make huge gains (this is called a linear progression). For a much more in depth guide to designing your own program, read this or this.
You don’t need to spend an hour warming up on the treadmill and stretching. Just take a little bit of time to do some dynamic stretches (not static stretches) to the extent necessary to make sure you can get into all of the proper positions for your lifts (most commonly, people need to “open” their hips before squatting). Follow this with a few warm up sets with just the bar/lighter weights. Here’s more info about why you probably shouldn’t be stretching like a mofo 24/7.
Exercises to focus on
Regardless of your goals, compound movements should be primary (again, those are exercises that involve use of more than one major muscle group), and isolation movements secondary (exercises that involve only one muscle group, hence, “isolation”). Spend the majority of your time on the compound movements and just spend a little bit of time at the end of your workout doing some isolation movements as accessory work. Examples of compound movements: squat, bench press, deadlift, pull-ups/chin ups, push-ups, rows, dips, over head press—pretty much anything involving pushing, pulling, squatting or deadlifting. Examples of isolation movements: dumbbell flyes, lateral raises, curls, leg extension, calf raises, leg curls—pretty much anything involving curling, raising or extending.
Rep Ranges and Rest Times
It’s pretty simple. Light weight=high reps (12+)=less rest (1 min.). Moderate weight=moderate reps (8-12 reps)=moderate rest (1.5-2 minutes). Heavy weight=low reps (4-6)=more rest (3-5 minutes). I didn’t give sample weights because obviously that’s subjective. Also, don’t take this too literally, these are loose guidelines.
If your goal is to build muscle mass and/or strength (which I’m assuming it is since you’re reading this article), you should probably use a combination of training loads and intensities.
DO NOT, I repeat, do not OVERTRAIN.
It’s tempting to think you’ve gotta be in the gym everyday because you’ll lose it if you don’t use it. NO SIR/MA’AM! Muscle growth happens while you rest. Take at least 1-2 rest days a week (it’s not uncommon to take 3-4 if you’re older). You need to allow your muscles time to recover, and you need to FEED them to grow. So that means lots of carbs and proteinz.
And the most important thing about starting strength training…. That you start!
For additional information, I like this Strength Training 101 Series by Nerd Fitness. But for anyone serious about getting strawng, being harder to kill and generally a more useful human being, I highly suggest educating yourself on the Starting Strength model.
Edits? Suggestions? Comments? Let me know! I’m open to feedback. Just make it kind and constructive. Trolling will not be tolerated 🙂
Disclaimer: I am not a certified strength coach, personal trainer or fitness professional. This guide is based upon years of personal experience, research, and interactions with extremely qualified, knowledgeable and strong athletes and coaches.