How to Start Weight Lifting
The best way to begin weight lifting is simply to begin. That’s the crux of the advice I’d give to anyone interested in how to start.
Notice also that I’ve separated the words “weight” and “lifting,” as I’m referring to the topic of lifting weights, like barbells and dumbbells, in the general sense and not to the sport of Olympic weightlifting (spelled as one word). The latter is a fairly technically complex endeavor that would require hands-on coaching in order to get started safely.
To that basic entreaty to just begin, I’ll add a few stipulations. Foremost, go see your primary care physician for a basic physical before embarking on an exercise program.
Once you’re cleared with a clean bill of health, the coaching idea I mentioned as a necessity for Olympic weightlifting, while perhaps not a requirement for training with free weights in the more general sense, is also not a bad idea. If you’re interested in compound free-weight movements like barbell squats and deadlifts, definitely consider booking a few sessions with a good coach. While these lifts aren’t as complex as the Olympic lifts — the clean and jerk and the snatch — they do require mastering a degree of technical precision that’s worthy of hands-on coaching.
Getting Started: Weights vs Bodyweight
There are solutions for those who simply want information on how to start exercising without the hassle of learning challenging new movements that are best taught by a coach. For the average person with goals like shedding a few pounds, toning up, improving mobility, enhancing mood, and just generally feeling better, bodyweight exercises or training with machines are excellent choices that flatten the learning curve. I’d begin by teaching the generalist who wants to know how to work out safely and productively a few basic bodyweight exercises.
We’ve all taken physical education classes in school and hopefully, those memories of doing calisthenics in neat little lines while wearing our gym uniforms aren’t dread-inducing. If it’s any consolation, we can skip the lines and uniforms and even the drill sergeant gym teacher. We’ll keep that calisthenics though, as they’re an important gateway to more strenuous forms of exercise.
My top bodyweight exercise targeting the chest, shoulders, and triceps of the upper body is the push-up. Push-ups not only mimic one of the most common weight training exercises you may eventually want to progress to, the bench press, but they’re also scalable for different strength levels.
For someone starting without much upper body strength, push-ups can be done on the knees to remove some of the body weight load. From there, gradually progress to traditional push-ups on the toes. There are also several advanced push-up variations for the ambitious, including with the feet elevated on a weight bench, with the hands close together in a diamond shape, and with specially-made handles that increase the range of motion by a few inches.
To effectively train the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes with one catch-all exercise, a simple bodyweight squat is hard to beat. As with push-ups, bodyweight squats mimic one of the most popular and effective free weight exercises, the barbell back squat, and are also scalable to different abilities. You can start by squatting to a high box, perhaps even while holding onto a doorknob or support beam for assistance, gradually reducing your reliance on external assistance while lowering the box over time and eventually removing it altogether.
Abs and Core
Planks are extremely effective to begin strengthening your midsection for resistance training you may introduce later, with progressions similar to push-ups. You can start out by planking on your knees, eventually moving to standard planks on your toes when about a minute of the knees-down version is no longer terribly demanding. Advanced planks involve lifting an arm or leg, or even lifting the opposite arm and leg.
Once you can complete three sets of ten push-ups, three sets of twenty bodyweight squats, and three rounds of 60-second planks, you have several choices. You could simply add more sets and reps to your bodyweight exercise program; you could seek out more demanding bodyweight exercises like handstand push-ups and pistol squats; or you could take the next logical step to begin weight training.
Starting with Weights: Machines vs Free Weights
For most people who are first learning how to start weight lifting, exercise machines will be less intimidating and easier to understand than free weight exercises. This is not to say that compound barbell lifts won’t come in time for those who are so inclined, but that a sensible strategy might be to cut your teeth on a few machines first.
Pressing on machines in both the horizontal and vertical planes is an excellent way to train all of the important upper body pushing muscles. A Smith machine, for example, allows guided chest pressing while lying prone on a bench or overhead pressing from a seated position.
There are also some very good machines dedicated to each purpose, like a seated chest press or seated overhead press. Both of these options are quite easy to use for beginners, requiring almost no instruction other than how to properly set the seat and adjust the weight stack.
Back and Core
To balance this pushing, you’ll want to include some pulling in both planes for the upper back and lats. My go-to here is a lat pulldown / low row cable machine. As with machine pressing, both are easy to learn though you do want to tense your abdominal muscles and maintain a flat back when rowing so as not to injure your lower back. Some may prefer to remove the lower back entirely by rowing on a T-bar rowing machine that offers a chest support pad to brace against.
For leg training, you can isolate the quadriceps on a seated leg extension machine and the hamstrings on a lying leg curl machine. You can also leg press for a more complete leg workout on a single machine.
Recommended Exercise Machine Program
To complete a beginner’s weight training workout, you might include a bit of arm isolation work with a cable curl and a triceps press-down. Here’s what the whole program, to be performed 2-3 times per week with moderate weights, might look like:
- Alternate seated chest press and supported T-bar row: 3 sets of 10-8-6 for each
- Alternate seated shoulder press and parallel-grip pulldown: 3 sets of 8 for each
- Leg press: 3 sets of 10-8-6
- Alternate seated leg extension and lying leg curl: 2 sets of 15 for each
- Alternate cable curl and triceps press-down: 2 sets of 15 for each
Where To Go From Here
Hopefully, this progression from bodyweight exercises to a machine-based training program gives you a good idea of how to start weight lifting. From here, some may choose to progress to more advanced free-weight workouts with barbells, where I advise a few sessions with a coach. Others will be content to stick with machines, perhaps branching out to explore a few more of the many good options. Either way, if decreased body fat and increased muscle mass are your goals, the path to success involves some form of weight training combined with a sound nutrition plan.
Chuck Miller has been immersed in the pursuit of strength and the art and science of physical transformation as a coach, athlete, and writer for over thirty years. He is the author of Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon: on strength training and bodybuilding and is a monthly columnist for HARDGAINER 2.0 Visit CORE Strength and Conditioning to learn more about his background or to book a consultation.