Beginner’s Guide to Lifting Weights

Pumping Iron

It’s no secret I’m a bit of a gym nut. I started lifting weights several years ago and for close to two years I’ve been going 5-7 times a week to the gym. I also know how it can be a bit intimidating to walk into a crowded gym with complex machines and guys whose necks appear to have fused into their shoulders.

So here are some tips for new gym rats who want to take advantage of this great way to lose weight, stay strong and look good:

As a side note for female readers, women shouldn’t avoid weights out of fear of becoming freakishly huge. Women have less testosterone than men, which is a principle hormone in muscle growth. For both men and women, strength training can boost your metabolism so you’ll burn fat faster than other forms of exercise. Depending on how you lift weights, you can use it to achieve many different fitness goals.


Like all things, I think the best way to get started is just to dive in. Delaying your trip to the gym because you can’t find the right workout clothes or shoes is nonsense. But here are some things you might want to invest in before you start:

  1. Gym Clothes – Keep it light weight and comfortable. Check if your gym has a clothing policy as some gyms won’t even allow jeans or certain types of clothing. I usually wear a sleeveless shirt and shorts.
  2. Get a Bag – Buy a gym bag to keep your things. This way you are just one step from leaving the house before going.
  3. Shoes – Nothing special here. I wouldn’t recommend sandals in case you drop something, but the footwear just needs to be clean.
  4. Water Bottle – Buy a bottled water for a dollar and then you can refill it later. Amazingly a lot of people think a few slurps from the fountain are going to keep them hydrated.
  5. Gloves – Weight lifting gloves can keep your hands from getting blistered if you are using heavy weights. They also give you a better grip so you don’t need chalk.

Check out your gym in question and get a feel for how it works. Once you’ve done that, I recommend committing to going daily for 30 days. This may seem excessive for a beginner, but it will make exercise a habit. Even if you only go for twenty minutes some days, going daily will reinforce the habit of going to the gym better than if you go a couple times per week.

Also if you have heart or joint problems, be smart! See your doctor before starting.

The First Week

So now you’re ready to start. I’m not going to recommend specific exercises, because there are hundreds. Just open a fitness magazine and it will probably offer at least three new workouts that are supposedly essentials. That said, there are some specific principles you can use when going to the gym to prevent injury and get the most benefits.

  1. Use a Buddy – You probably know at least one person who is pretty good with lifting weights. If you get a guide on your first day or two, it can boost your confidence and give you some direction when getting started. If such a person is unavailable, most large gyms have a personal trainer you can hire for an hour or two.
  2. Start Lighter Than You Can Lift – Form is crucial in getting results. When you are starting you want to get used to proper form, so lifting your maximum may result in picking up bad habits. As an example, let’s say as you start off you can lift 25 lbs in an arm curl. My suggestion would be to do your first set with 20 lbs to practice the motion. You can move up after this practice set to avoid future injury.
  3. Try Everything, Then Find a Routine – It can be overwhelming coming up with an exercise routine that targets all your muscles. My suggestion is to spend the first few days trying all the different exercises. You’ll probably find ones that are more comfortable for you. Once you’ve done some experimentation, go into a more specific routine.
  4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask – If you see someone doing a workout, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and ask what they are doing and what muscles it is supposed to work. Most people at the gym are more than willing to show their expertise if you ask nicely.
  5. Get a Spotter – Don’t use any of the presses, (bench, military, incline, decline) or any exercise where dropping the weight could mean serious injury without a spotter. When I was starting with weight lifting I tried the benchpress by myself. I finished a hard set but, to my surprise, only got one of the side of the bar in the holders. I stopped applying force and it came down fast. Luckily I caught it and prevented an injury, but don’t repeat my mistake. Even if you’re by yourself, most people will be glad to offer a spot for a minute or two and it could save you a lot of harm.

The First Month

With a bit of trial and experience, it’s now time to get a more solid routine so you can start seeing results. Weight training can accomplish many different goals, whether it’s building muscle, burning fat or increasing your strength. How you lift and what exercises you choose will depend on your goals. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Want Muscle, Go Heavy – Heavy weights and low reps are ideal for muscle building. Make sure you are using proper form without swinging or you can cause injury or eliminate the benefits of the exercise. Most the numbers I’ve seen here say that the ideal amount of reps per set for muscle building is 4-8.
  2. Want to Slim, Go Reps – The opposite of a muscle-building strategy, this one uses more repetitions with less weight. 10-12 reps per set is a good rule of thumb.
  3. Want Strength, Use Your Entire Body – Exercises that focus on specific muscles won’t create as much all-round strength as full-body exercises. The benchpress and your standard pushup work almost the same muscles. But because a pushup uses your entire body, it will work more stabilizer and other smaller muscles as well. Big guys that can easily lift their bodyweight in a pull down sometimes can’t do a wide-grip chin up.
  4. Don’t Forget Your Core – Core exercises, which work the abdominal, oblique and lower back muscles are crucial if you want the foundation of strength to be stronger in other aspects. Plus, you won’t look fit if you don’t have great abs no matter how big your guns are.
  5. Establish a Routine – My routine is five days, rotating through arms, back and shoulders, legs, chest and abs and then I take a day for aerobic activity. I’ve seen many different routines each with different pros and cons. What’s really important is that you get used to it so you don’t have to spend all your gym time deciding what to do next.

Know Your Muscles

This isn’t an article on anatomy, so I won’t list every single muscle in your body, but you should know the major ones:

  • Biceps – You can work these with arm curls, chin ups and they support other exercises.
  • Triceps – These actually make up the majority of your arms size, so if you want bigger arms but only work biceps, you’re wasting time. They form the back three muscles of your arm.
  • Pecs – Your chest. Benchpress, pec-fly and pushups are all a good start. Don’t overdo it and neglect your back muscles.
  • Back Muscles – There are several different muscle groups here. Along with your legs these are the largest muscles in your body and they are what give you a V shaped torso with broader shoulders.
  • Delts – Three muscles here in your shoulders.
  • Abs and Obliques – These are your front and side abdominal muscles. Curl ups, side bends and core exercises are a good start towards a six pack.
  • Glutes – Squat’s and lunges are good for keeping the muscles you have to sit on all day strong.
  • Quads – Your thighs. Legs are often neglected by guys who want to look big, but don’t realize that strong legs don’t only create the support for building muscle but working these large muscles can stimulate chemicals to build muscle all over your body.
  • Hamstrings – Back of your leg. Leg curls are good and they are also important in other leg exercises.
  • Calves and Forearms – Both of these muscle groups for your legs and arms are difficult to train, but should be part of your routine.

If that sounds a bit overwhelming, don’t worry about it. Most gyms have posters showing the different muscles in the body and you will soon get a feel for how your body works as you start pushing it.

Good Pain, Bad Pain

I’m not a medical professional or personal trainer, but it’s important to note when the feeling of soreness from lifting weights starts to become an acute pain that doesn’t go away after a day or two. Soreness from fatigue is expected if you’re new to a workout program or move up in weights, but if pain persists for several days, you should probably see a physician.

Weight lifting is usually safe, but if you start swinging weights around when lifting too much or you use bad form you can hurt yourself. That’s why I recommend starting with less weight so you can perfect the motion before you attempt to move up.

More on Fitness

Here are some good resources to check out if you want more:

  • Beginners Guide to Running, Cycling – This is from my friend Leo at Zen Habits. Great guides to these other two forms of exercise and they inspired me to write this one.
  • – Tons of articles for lifting weights, diet and exercise to reach your fitness goals.
  • Muscular Hypertrophy – The scientific name for building muscle, this wikipedia entry has good information.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan Bodybuilding – Here is some information on becoming strong if you aren’t eating meat, like myself.
  • Mens Fitness – They keep a stack of these magazines in my gym. Not always health info, but I have found some good tips here for lifting weights and staying in shape.

I don’t profess to be an expert on weight lifting, but hopefully this has given you a good start if you are interested in your health and fitness.

Image courtesy of flickr.

  • John

    Overtraining is the #1 problem faced by weight lifters. To get the most benefit from each hour you work out, you need to give yourself time to relax. Please don’t go to the gym every day – 3 times a week is much better.

  • Scott Young


    Good point. I may change my workout cycle so there is more rest periods, but from a purely habits stand point it is much easier to go from not exercising at all to exercising daily through a thirty day trial. This is a beginners take, so I wanted to focus on getting started.

    Thanks for the wikipedia link!


  • Sean

    Most gyms have trainers on staff and provide free instruction including establishing a custom program to meet your goals. I would recommend taking advantage of this as even relatively small changes can make a huge difference and a professional will know exactly what those small changes are.

    I also agree with John that lifting weights every day seems like way too much. With most of my routines (set up by professionals from multiple gyms) every muscle group is worked at most twice a week.

  • JohnPlace

    Nice article, scott. When it comes to building muscle, I do as you suggest: more weight, fewer reps.

    For muscle building, the professionals I’ve worked with have recommended finding the amount of weight you can lift 8 times (which may be considerably less than you can lift 12), and once you find that magic weight, do 2 sets of 8 3 times a week for the first week, and then see if you’re ready to increase the weight by week two.

    But there’s more than one way to skin this cat — as you said, there are lots of different ideas out there.

    When I’m lifting, I like to lift slow, feeling the burn deep in my muscles.

    This is different, of course, than the aerobic approach of lower weight and faster repetition.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    I usually only work each muscle group once per week, since my rotation takes about 5-6 days depending on if I take a rest day. But, I will take into consideration the possibilities of overtraining for a future experiment.

  • Dan Solgoo

    Sorry, “pro’s and con’s” is wrong. It’s “pros and cons.” I’m a bit of a pest this way, I know but it’s like you say with abs and guns. No matter how smart you are, you’ll look dumb if you don’t understand the uses and abuses of apostrophes. I sure hope you’ll change this page. Plurals NEVER use apostrophes except AFTER the s and ONLY to indicate possession.

  • Dan Solgoo

    This is also true of “Glutes,” “Quads” and “Pecs.” You used “Abs” and “Obliques” correctly so I’m puzzled. Thanks for the info though. You know a lot more about weight training than I do!

  • Scott Young


    Yikes! I’m normally pretty careful with my proofreading, but I make mistakes. I’ll update the article to try and fix some of these. Sometimes my mind wants to add apostrophes where they don’t belong.


  • Dan Solgoo

    You’re welcome Scott. I should’ve sent it to you via the contact link but didn’t see it till it was too late! Duh on me!

  • Dan Solgoo

    And on further reflection, it’s all convention anyway. I mean, for example, “abs” means abdominal muscles but you could argue that, besides using apostrophes to indicate possession, you also use them to denote absences. For example, “don’t” shows that the “o” in “do not” is missing and the phrase has been condensed; likewise you could say then that “ab’s” is correct because it means “ab[dominal muscle]s.” Maybe that’s what people are thinking when they use it that way.

  • Tony

    Hello, I’m just beggining getting into lifting and I’m 16, I want a stonger core and stronger arms for downhill mountain biking. I have an ab roller, and I have felt and seen good results. I also have a 15 pund, 20 pund, and 25 pund dumbell. I don’t want to get seriously big into lifting, but I do want to do about 3 days a week. Any tips for my core and arms? Thanks a lot.

  • Chris

    Thanks for this article (and who cares about the grammar?). I’m just getting started at the gym and the ignorance factor has kept me from going for a long time. I appreciate you taking the time to write all this out; it’s definitely answered some questions for me.

  • Joe Noto

    Hi my name is Joe im 35 years old I just started to lift again my wife is going to lift with me as well I need a good work out three or four days a week please help

  • a

    very helpful dude good stuff

  • Todd

    hi was overtraining myself by going to the gym every day. Wasn’t letting my muscles fully heal. The guys at live forever at http://letslivelonger.blogspot… told me to cut back to 3 days a week. Much better. I am wasting less of my time and gaining more muscle from the times I do a work out. Good to have some days just for cardio too. Thanks guys!

  • Michael

    Scott, thanks for the info. It was really helpful.

  • kickboxingmom

    Just wondering, I am thinking about weight training to help me in my weight loss… I see that you work a different part of your body each day. If you are only working that area (like arms) once a week, wouldn’t that allow time for healing? That is the plan I was thinking about… I am super busy, so more often is actually better for me, because I would spend less time each day lifting weights.

  • Scott Young


    That was what I noticed as well, that training a particular muscle on a 1-week rotation offered significant rest time.


  • Sally

    What type of weight lifting can I do to get rid of flab under my armpits on the torso side? I hate it and it looks gross. What can I do? I’ve never been a weight lifter but feel it may help.

  • Scott Young


    Weight lifting may help, but spot-reduction is a myth. You can’t remove fat from one particular area of your body, just reduce your body fat content as a whole.


  • laura ludwig

    I am a beginning and this was very helpful – for a overweight woman in her fifties – 5-8 pound weights are a workout – it will be great when i work up to 25 lbs 🙂

  • peter

    hey there. im a 30 year old who is just beginning what is hopefully going to be an enjoyable and healthy restart to my life. ive just joined a gym not to lose weight but to turn my 5′ 11″, 13.5 stone semi flab into muscle. i’ve been reading through your site about getting started on weights but i still feel a bit intimidated going into the gym and not having a clue as to where to start or how to start or wat to start using first ect. i would seriously appreciate a helpful nudge in the right direction concerning what kind of sets to start off with concerning upper body workout so that i can ease myself into it without feeling embarrassed while i’m waitng for an induction into my new gym. all suggestions are welcome. thanks.

  • Earl

    Very helpful information. I appricate it.

  • IsabelleWhite

    I do some weightlifting at least twice a week, weightlifting is a very good exercise and it keeps the shape of my chest and shoulder muscles in very good form.`

  • Cory

    Im 14, im trying to condition for basketball by running 2 miles a day. Any good workouts that will improve my conditioning?

  • john

    if you need workout plans check out its pretty basic, Monday chest/tricepts Tuesday Legs & Core Wed Rest Thurs Back and Biceps Fri Shoulders. Theres lots of reasons for that split you can find out by checking out or lots of the other sites. Ive gained 30lbs muscle on this plan in the last year but I started off pretty skinny.

  • Justin

    Great page. I’m new to lifting and wasn’t sure how to go about gaining muscle mass. I have now reduced my days to 3times a week as well as adding a lot more weight and less reps. I should take pictures of myself because only notice small differences week to week. Thank you for the tips.
    P.S. I say use apostrophes however you want. I wasnt’ 🙂 confused at all.

  • W

    I’m a 50 yr old woman who has been lifting small weights at the gym. There I hired a young guy as personal trainer. He started me with exercises without asking me what my goals were for the 6 sessions and didn’t even weigh me. I stopped the session and told him what I hired him to focus on (to build and tone muscles of my arms, shoulders, and thighs), everything else I was going to exercise on my own time. (You know, abs, legs, back.)

    He asked me the heaviest dumbbell I’ve raised, and asked me to do 25 reps (10 more than my breaking point of 15) and to do more than 3 sets. He did the same with the push down machine (maximum weight I’ve lifted 60 lbs – then added 10, 15 then 20 more reps than previous breaking point of 15 reps in a total 5 sets). He even want to go for a 6th set when I stopped him. I was very, very sored while I was exercising – which was a red flag to me. For the next THREE days I couldn’t lift my arms or hold anything for lack of strength. I still have Unbearable pain even when I mixed whey protein with yogurt after the workout to start repairing the muscles right away.

    I don’t like the way I feel 3 days after. I think he overworked me. My arm is shapeless and everywhere I read about building muscle say that you should increase the weight with less reps; this guy didn’t instruct me that. I thought that he knew what he was doing but this terrible pain I still have tells me not.

    Can I get opinions on this? I plan to change the trainer.

  • Rahul

    Hi i am a beginner and this is my 1st time joining gym …Like your blog will make a routine plan. I want to know how do i strengthen my arms because of this, i cant workout more or lift heavy weight as it gets pumped up quickly.


  • A R

    I love this article, it really works but it is kinda long and complex. I also like because it lays out an effective workout strategy in a short simple way!

  • Jake

    Good article, really comprehensive. I know I had a lot of trouble when I first started, never felt comfortable asking for a spot or trying to get a buddy to come with me

  • The Cadence Factor!The Cadence

    Every weekend i used to visit this site, as i want enjoyment, since this this site
    conations truly pleasant funny stuff too.

  • Kimberly

    Hey guys. I work out every day besides weekends and i must say i wouldnt have it any other way. First of all i dont do arms every day, legs everyday ect. I rotate so i workout each muscle set 2/3 times a week. Leg day arm day chest/back day ect… I would recomend this to beginners like myself because it helps u become more motivated and it becomes a habit faster. But this is all my personal preference and i wouldnt have been able to keep it up with out it

  • Keith

    I’ve been doing Body Pump now 4 times a week, for about 12 weeks, and its really got me interested in using the weights in the gym. I don’t really use the gym normally, but prefer the group fitness classes. This article has been really helpful, Thanks

  • Kingoftheflies

    Awesome article. It is impressive how well you summarize the topic and make it understable.Really helpful! I wrote a similar post on my blog:
    I would appreciate if you gave me some feedback on it!

  • David

    Weightlifting gloves are designed to protect your hands and provide increased grip.I sp. like Gripped Premium Gloves as they hey actually fit the hand completely and comfortably without covering it. The best thing about them is they offer a lot more control.

  • Andrew James

    Well thought out article! Good information and easy to understand. I just published a similar post on my blog taking a slightly different approach. It includes an easy beginner work out split for those looking to get started! Check it out, comments and critique are encouraged!

  • Andrew James

    Well thought out article! Good information and easy to understand. I just published a similar post on my blog taking a slightly different approach. It includes an easy beginner work out split for those looking to get started! Check it out, comments and critique are encouraged!

  • Leah

    W, have you recovered from the workout yet?