Are you new to training, have taken a long break from it or haven’t really stayed as consistent as you’d like? Today, I want to give you the best tips possible that I wish someone gave me when I first started strength training 7+ years ago. So sit down, read it through and apply these tips to create a better journey to reaching your goals!
The Beginners Guide to Strength Training
Strength training has a variety of benefits, especially as we age when muscle mass decreases. For physically inactive individuals, this can be anywhere from 3-5% each decade after the age of 30.
This is known as Sarcopenia, and describes the loss of muscle mass as we age. Strength training goes far beyond physique goals, however, and relates to good health overall. Strength training and improving muscle mass as we age is an important aspect of decreasing functional disabilities. If you’ve taken a break from training, haven’t started, or barely train- don’t worry! You can start now and experience the benefits.
Now that you have a basis of how important strength training is, let’s go over simple, but important, tips to remember as you begin or start again.
Begin with Lower Volume/Frequency
Starting a strength program after a long hiatus or as a beginner will create strains/tears in the muscle (as with any new exercise/elevation/etc.. you place on the muscle). They haven’t been trained in this way before, so soreness is expected. But, most will stop going to the gym within the first few weeks because of constant soreness. To alleviate this and help you improve consistency- start with lower volume and frequency. Volume refers to HOW much you’re doing (reps, sets, exercises) and frequency refers to how many times per week. For most, starting with 2 workouts per week (full body) for the first 4 weeks is best. Anywhere from 3-4 sets of each exercise, of 4-6 exercises can be ideal for each day. Don’t try to add more than this in the beginning, as soreness is NOT an indicator of whether your workout was good enough.
Nail your Nutrition
Far too many people negate the possible body recomposition results that are increased as a beginner (decreasing fat, increasing lean muscle mass simultaneously). Starting off as a beginner and not focusing on consuming enough calories and overall protein is doing yourself a disservice. Instead of going into a dieting phase in the beginning, focus on eating at your maintenance calories (your TDEE, where you maintain your weight) and consuming sufficient protein at .8-1g per lb of bodyweight or goal bodyweight if overweight. Nutrition absolutely matters with any training, not only to help you reach your physique goals but also to perform your best, provide optimal recovery, and support lean muscle mass. If your goal is to be toned, focus on improving body recomposition results by strength training and getting sufficient nutrition overall.
Nail the 4 Big Lifts
Training can be as complicated as you’d like it to be, especially if you intake the wrong advice. Beginning with the basic lifts, that provide the greatest benefits, is important as not only are they great as a beginner but are important in any lifting program. The 4 big lifts are chest press, squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts. Start with lower weights and focus on executing the exercise perfectly. This will take time and consistency to nail form down, but don’t forget to warm up efficiently with active stretches to perform your best (not static stretching). When you’re beginning, don’t try to start with advanced lifts like heavy barbell squats, but instead focus first on dumbbells. For example: try goblet squats before barbell squats, dumbbells rows before barbell rows, negative pull-ups before pull-ups, etc… Once you nail the 4 big lifts, all other exercises will come easier to execute.
Don’t be afraid to lift MORE
Lifting weights will not make you bulky, let’s just get that out of your mind and far away from you. Eating in a calorie surplus does. If your goal is to have a toned physique (lose fat and gain visible muscle), you must learn to lift with intensity and progressively. How do you know what weight to choose? With your required reps in an exercise, let’s say 8 reps, if you struggle the last few reps without sacrificing form this is a good weight. You’ll know to increase weight when you can perform the same reps on this exercise with the same weight or perform more reps, with ease. This can take weeks, so be patient with yourself. Some weeks you will hit personal bests, and some weeks you will not. Energy and strength is not equal for every training session.
Please remember that IT DOESN’T MATTER how much the next person is lifting- it has nothing to do with your own strength and progress. What matters most is focusing on challenging yourself and being your own competition.
Take time to REST & RECOVER & Manage Frequency
When strength training, it’s important to get optimal rest between sets to bring your best strength to each exercise. For moderate to heavy lifts (like low reps from 1-5 reps), resting for 2-5 minutes is ideal. For low to moderate lifts (6-12 reps), resting from 1-3 minutes is ideal. Bodyweight exercises usually only need 45-60 seconds of rest between sets. It’s important to listen to your body and give yourself enough rest, but not overdoing it, between sets.
Along with this, it’s important to schedule workouts between your rest days. As mentioned earlier, it’s best to start with 2 full-body workouts each week (you can increase to 3 as well, but I would gradually reach up to it). Allowing ample rest days between each training session creates more time for recovery.
For two days per week, your schedule may look like:
- Sunday: Workout
- Wednesday: Workout
For three days per week, your schedule may look like:
- Sunday: Workout
- Tuesday: Workout
- Thursday: Workout
Try to allow at least 2 days between lower-body days
Focus on Strength first, not Cardio
Cardio may burn more calories during an active session, but strength training burns more calories at rest (but I’d argue that calories is something your focus shouldn’t be on with training, strength and progression is). If your goal is to get toned and improve lean muscle mass for overall health- focus more on strength and not cardio (keeping in mind that if you have an endurance event, cardio will come first).
Instead of focusing on which one is better than the other. Pay attention instead on which one you need to prioritize at a single time. For strength training workouts, focus on saving all your energy for your training. Long sessions of cardio prior to this will zap your energy and can impact your results because of this. Complete training sessions first and then do cardio after or another time of day (or another day). Cardio is great for overall health, combining it with strength training is the best combo. But moderation is important and add it where it’s needed (if you’re primarily active all day, you’ll likely not need to add it. BUT, if you sit a lot throughout the day- adding some cardio may be beneficial). Walking outside is the best option when you can.
Track your Progress using Various Methods
Body recomposition happens especially to beginners as they increase lean muscle mass, and at the same time decrease body fat. With this, your entire body can change shape and definition without the scale budging far. This means that tracking with the scale can be discouraging if that’s the only method you’re using. Instead, using various methods like taking pictures every 3-4 weeks (same time of day, same outfit), measurements, DEXA scans, how your clothes fit, tracking workouts with a journal to hit personal bests, and mood improvements are all valid ways to track progress. Use at least two different methods.
Set Behavior and Performance Goals
Behavior goals are where you have goals in place that focus on you, and only you (such as changing your environment to support your goals, being honest with yourself and progress- aka calling yourself out on your own BS). Performance goals are where you focus on progressions made such as lifting more, better form, being able to complete exercises you couldn’t before, and doing more over time (progressive overload). When setting any type of goal, it’s important to create small ones that progress over time. Don’t try to go crazy with an ‘all or nothing’ approach where you feel burnt out right away (you can’t do it all, period). When going from nothing, start with small goals each day and week that add up. My tip would be to start with one goal at a time, once you nail that goal add another one. This increases your success rate and even improves your chances of this becoming a lifestyle.
Examples of this may be: instead of going from training 0-1 days a week to 6-7 days a week, try first increasing to 2-3 workouts per week. Another example may be instead of doing a complete diet overhaul, focus on one meal at a time like adding a lean protein source with each meal. Small steps lead to great victories.
Example Beginners Workout Plan
Full-body workouts at 2-3 sessions per week are best as it allows you to train each body part each week (which is best for muscle development). Not only this, but your time is spent wisely and your workouts are efficient.
2 days per week:
Single sets (perform all sets/reps of each exercise before moving on the next)
- Goblet squats- 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Bent knee push-ups- 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell (or bodyweight) hip thrusts- 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Overhead press- 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Bodyweight alternating reverse lunges- 3 sets of 8-12 reps each leg
- Dumbbell Deadlift- 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Single-arm bent-over rows- 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Leg extensions- 3 sets of 10-12 reps
- Bicep curls- 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Supersets (complete each set of exercise after another with minimal to no rest)
- 5.a. Dumbbell glute bridges- 12-15 reps
- 5.b. Incline chest press- 3 sets of 10-12 reps
How to begin from here
Get started by following these steps and even try the beginner’s strength training program above! If you do this, schedule in two days per week to complete these workouts for the next 4 weeks and focus on the above tips to nail your technique, nutrition, performance and so much more. Once you start to perform bodyweight and dumbbell movements with better balance and core stabilization- start adding in more barbell movements like barbell box squats, deadlifts, and rows.
Overall, give it plenty of consistency and patience and you will start seeing results. Do it for the mental and physical benefits overall, focusing on strength in the gym and adjusting your nutrition to fuel your workouts and perform your best (reaping the physique changes you desire). What matters most is that it fits YOUR lifestyle, preferences, goals, and environment.
Here’s to creating a Stronger, Healthier, journey!
Health & Mindset Coach