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How to Start Weight Training
Lifting is a lot easier than you think.
If you’re unsure about how to start weight training, walking past the weight section of the gym can be pretty scary. There’s a lot of grunting and heavy-looking machinery. And how is it that everyone looks like they know what they’re doing? While starting a weightlifting routine can be intimidating, it’s also one of the healthiest things you can do for your body.
According to one study, lifting weights could mean a longer life. New research also suggests that weight training can be just as effective as cardio for protecting against heart disease. And still another shows that you can improve muscle strength and size with just a single, brief exercise set.
One of the best things about starting to weight train is that you get more bang for buck. So if you hate running, think it takes too long or an injury is keeping you off your feet, you can still reap major health benefits by beginning a weight training program.
NEED MORE CONVINCING?
As if the studies aren’t compelling enough, there are so many real-world examples of how starting a weight training program benefits the body. “My clients have seen their metabolism increase and also their overall endurance for activity,” says personal trainer and founder of Truly Well Sarah Enouen. “Even more, weight training will reduce your risk for diseases like osteoporosis and diabetes.”
Justin Orr of San Diego’s Iron Orr Fitness says his clients come to him to start weight training for three reasons: to lose weight, to tone up and to get stronger. “Most people already know that muscle burns calories,” he says. “Gaining more lean muscle will not only help overall weight goals but also reduce body fat, which will help to achieve a more toned physique.”
BUT...START OFF SLOW
Going full throttle on a weightlifting routine you’re not used to is a sure-fire way to get hurt. Orr recommends doing a proper warm-up first, which can be a brisk walk, cycling, jumping rope or a five-minute jog. When you’re ready to start lifting, test your weight limit by doing five reps. “This will give you a gauge of where you are with specific exercises and weights,” says Orr. “I don’t recommend one rep until you’ve been lifting for a while and feel confident about your form, technique and ability to handle the load that you’re placing on your body. Always start with five reps of the weight you think you can handle.”
When starting a weightlifting routine, Enouen says practicing proper form is one of the most important things you can do. Proper form prevents the body from creating imbalances, which are as bad as they sound. The fewer imbalances you have, the less time she says you’ll need to spend on a foam roller to feel better. “If you have sharp pain when moving, achy knees or lower back pain before or after your workout, your form probably needs some help,” she says. “If you’re not sure what you’re doing wrong, look for proper form resources online, take a group class or hire a trainer to work one-on-one with you. Many trainers will work with you for just three to five sessions to help improve your form and functionality.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, beginning a weight training program is all about taking things slow. Orr recommends one-leg balance movements and one-arm isometric movements, as well as core movements (hello, planks). And don’t skip the cardiovascular endurance alongside your weight training — the two work in tandem for optimal fitness.
FREE WEIGHTS OR WEIGHT MACHINES?
The padded benches. The little instruction labels. When considering weightlifting options at the gym, it can be tempting to start with weight machines. But most experts recommend free weights for beginners, which force you to move independently and unilaterally.
“Free weights are my absolute favorite because they allow you to really learn your body and how to stabilize it,” says Enouen. “Weight training isn’t just about targeting muscles and making them grow. It’s also about learning your body and how it operates so you can get longevity out of your programming.”
Orr says success with weight training usually comes down to consistency. Too often, people go too fast or too hard in the beginning. If you can consistently show up to your weightlifting workout and add five percent strength each week, that’s progress you can maintain. “Play the long game and you’ll not only mitigate potential injuries, you’ll continue to reach your goals for years to come,” he says.
Enouen couldn’t agree more. “Start small, with manageable amounts,” she says. “Pay attention to how your body moves and focus on form. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it. And most importantly, choose a program you have fun doing so that both your brain and body are engaged.”
WHEN AND WHERE?
A bit of good news: You don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) weight train every day. For beginners, most trainers recommend lifting weights three times a week, or taking every other day off. These recovery days should consist of light cardio and mobility exercises. “I like using a foam roller, which helps with myofascial release in a way that maintains tissue extensibility and mitigates the amount of lactic acid that creates soreness,” says Orr.
If you can’t get to the gym (because of the pandemic or otherwise), you can still start lifting weights at home with minimal equipment. Orr recommends a set of bands, a few sets of dumbbells, a bench and a mat. He says you can perform a ton of exercises using those items, plus they’re easy to store and don’t take up a lot of room.
MAKE IT A LIFESTYLE
Just as cardio can complement the best weightlifting workouts, so can diet. There are certain foods that help with recovery and muscle growth — think eggs, quinoa and peanuts — so focus on those. Orr also suggests adding more protein, drinking more water and getting more sleep. “Those three things will make a huge difference and allow you to recover properly,” he says. “It’s not just about the workout; it’s also about recovery. Increasing your protein when starting a weight training program will help so much.”
And, of course, there’s the gear that will make your weightlifting goals more attainable. You want to make sure your tops fit properly, and that they’re lightweight and breathable. Leggings that move with you allow for greater range of motion. And stock up on shoes that are sturdy and have a slightly raised heel for better stability.