Weight training for beginners: advice on how to get started lifting weights

Posted by for Strong Women

How do you start weight training? Fitness trainers answer the most googled questions. 

The benefits of weight training are huge, from improving mental health to making you impressively strong and reducing aches and pains in the body. But the fear of starting can stop you from enjoying those benefits if you’re new to the exercise.

Unfortunately, the weights room is still an intimidating place for a lot of women. It’s changing, of course, but research does show that not all women think lifting is for them. However, according to one study, a “lack of knowledge regarding free weights and other forms of resistance exercise was the simplest barrier to increasing resistance training”. That means there’s a simple step to take in order to get into lifting: learning about how to do it so you’re more confident and have better progress.

That’s where we come in. Each week, we ask fitness trainers the most googled questions about weight training. This week, Strong Women ambassador Alice Miller and Zara Ozard, from Energy House Fitness, are here to explain the steps a beginner can take to get on the gym floor.

How do you start weight training?

ZARA OZARD

“Really simply, just start with body weight and equipment-free routines. You need to build confidence to really become familiar with muscle patterns, but also to ensure that you carry out proper form and technique. Once you’ve done that, you can pick up light weights. It’s hard to say what weight, but as a general rule, use something that feels heavy enough to challenge you but not so heavy that your technique is ruined. You want the last few reps of the exercise to be quite fatiguing on the muscles, for example, if you were doing a set of 12, the last two reps should be a bit of a struggle.

“Don’t run before you can walk! Stick to the basic moves when you’re starting out until you feel confident in doing them, and then progress the weight. Don’t overcomplicate things and attempt complex moves. You will see people that gym who will be doing one rep maxes or fancy circuits, but that does not necessarily mean it’s right for us. 

“Start trying to do around three sets of each exercise, but listen to your body: if your body’s saying “don’t do another one!” then don’t. And, remember to take your rest periods – around a minute after each set.” 

ALICE MILLER

“This is actually the perfect time to start weight training. As we’ve all been away from the gym, we’ve probably been focusing a lot more on bodyweight movement and prepping the movement patterns for lifts like squats. This is great to do before you start weight training because you need to own the basics. Do you have a perfect squat? Do you have a perfect press-up? Can you hinge properly? Those are some of the basics and fundamentals, and if you can move really well you can easily progress. It’s also important to understand the four movements: squat, hinge (like a deadlift), push (like a press-up) and pull (like a pull up).

“Then progress to weighted movements: it might take two weeks or it might take a couple of months, but add in a dumbbell or a kettlebell and work on moves such as a goblet squat. Then we add the barbell in for a back squat.

“I always say people should write things down, too. That way you can track your progress and see how far you’re coming and what weights are working for you.”

Do you need a personal trainer to start weight training?

ZARA OZARD

“If you can afford to use a trainer, then do it, because you’ll get more out of your session and you will build your confidence. In weight training technique and form is so key, so while yes, you could do it on your own, you won’t know if you’re doing it correctly. And, when you’re moving on to more complex moves, doing it incorrectly will cause injury. Having someone to correct that will be a huge benefit in the short and long term.

“I like this quote: everyone is unique just like everyone else. A trainer can design a programme for you, rather than a generic training guide. There’s so many people who think they’re doing what’s best for their body and actually they could be doing the worst thing for themselves. Unless you have got an expert to say ‘this exercise would be better for you because your body is like this…’ or ‘your form should be more like this…’ you’ll never know it.”

ALICE MILLER

“I think it’s important to stick to a plan, even if it’s just your own plan, purely for consistency’s sake. Consistency is going to give you results, whereas if you’re only popping into the gym once or twice every couple of weeks, you’re not going to see any progress. 

“If you’re unsure about what to do in the gym, a really great thing to do is just find a really experienced coach or trainer. But know that not all trainers are equal and there’s some that will misinterpret your goals. I would look for referrals from a friend or read reviews and just find someone who’s informed and who can teach you things. You don’t just want to be told what to do: you want a trainer to tell you why and how so when they’re not around you know how to do everything. If you’re going to spend money on fitness, do it at the beginning.”

How many times should beginners train and what split should they do?

ZARA OZARD

“I would advocate dedicating one session a week to weight train in the beginning, and using that time to experiment with some more basic exercises. Then, up it to two days and focus on an upper and lower body split.

ALICE MILLER

“Breaking things up into body parts is a great way of training, but for a beginner I’d say working out two to three times is just fine. In those sessions you could pick one exercise from each of the four movements and you’ll get a nice well rounded workout from that. For example, a squat, a straight leg deadlift, a press up and a row.

How to avoid injury when you first start weight training?

ZARA OZARD

“You need to ensure that your muscles are properly prepped before you go into work out, especially if you’ve not done anything like that before. It’s a bit of a shock to the system, otherwise. You need to mobilise the joints and focus on the muscles that you’d be using in that weight training session. By doing that not only are the muscles warm but you should also get a greater range of movement as well, which means, in essence, you should get better results from your session.”

“Recover properly! Water, carbs and protein rebuild and repair the muscle tissue. And take rest days – it’s really important.”

ALICE MILLER

“I find a lot of people try and scoot past all the boring bits and they just want to get to the big, sexy lifts. But you really need to work on your mobility and get into these really good positions in order to reduce our risk of injury when we start adding weight.

“Recovery, fuel and rest should all be part of your plan, too.”

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Images: Getty / Sarah Brick

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