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.

  • 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!