Getting Started with Strength Training in 5 Easy Steps

By , SparkPeople Blogger
You know that strength training (also called resistance training) is good for your body. It can help you maintain and build muscle mass, rev your metabolism, make you a better recreational athlete, strengthen your bones and reshape your body. But unlike cardio, where you usually just pick an activity you enjoy and get out there and do it, strength training can be a lot more complicated to a novice. Most people don't just walk into a weight room, stare at the sea of weights, and know how to begin.

If you've never lifted weights before (or it's been a long time since you have), it can be intimidating to know how to start. There are so many weights, machines, classes and options. Which ones are right for you and your goals?
While the idea of strength training can be complex, hopefully these basics will point you in the right direction so you feel comfortable starting a training program.
Note: This blog is intended to serve as a general guideline for healthy beginners who want to get started on a strength-training plan for general fitness. It will not speak to special concerns, injuries or limitations or specific goals (like bodybuilding or sports performance).
Step 1: Expand Your Knowledge
A good first step to starting a strength training program is to develop you knowledge about what strength training is, how it works, and how it should be done. SparkPeople has an in-depth yet easy-to-understand Reference Guide to Strength Training that will give you a solid overview of basic strength training principles and describe the different types of resistance options available, how to choose a number of sets and reps, and some getting-started tips. You certainly don't need to memorize all of these facts, but have more background on what kinds of exercise count as strength training will help you decide how to begin.

Step 2: Pick Your Mode of Resistance
As you learned from the link above, resistance can come in many forms: body weight, bands/tubes, dumbbells or free weights, barbells, gym machines, etc. You don't have to pick just one option if you want to try a variety, but for simplicity, it could be good to narrow your focus at least in the beginning. Beginners often do well with bodyweight exercises, which allow them to master good form before adding resistance to the movements. SparkPeople's fitness experts generally recommend that weight machines at the gym tend to be safe and easy for beginners, too. They set you up in proper form and alignment, come with step-by-step instructions and visuals (most of the time anyway), and allow you to easily adjust resistance levels compared to barbells and dumbbells (free weights), which can feel more natural or better mimic common body movements.
Free weights require you to know how to execute the move and keep your body in proper alignment and form without any assistance, which is why they can be a little more challenging if you are just starting out. That said, I wouldn't discourage someone from picking up the free weights if that was more appealing to him or her as a beginner. Just know that you should really master form and control in every move if you do.
Step 3: Find a Plan to Follow
A good resistance training plan will include exercises for all of your major muscle groups: the upper body (biceps, triceps, shoulders, chest, back), core (abs, lower back) and lower body (glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves). This isn't an exhaustive list of muscles, but they are the main larger muscle groups to pay attention to. A thorough plan will also allow for adequate rest days between sessions to allow for recovery and muscle rebuilding.
There are many sources of strength-training plans that are credible and meet these basic guidelines. Trouble is, you don't always know just how good a plan is or whether it's right for your fitness level when you are just starting out. For this reason, I'd recommend considering hiring a certified personal trainer who can show you the ropes and create a basic plan that you can follow on your own—tailored just for you. That can easily be accomplished by investing in just 1-3 workout sessions with a trainer. If that's out of your budget, there are a few other ways to get started:
  • Look for a strength-training workout DVD that allows you to train at home with minimal equipment. Although not every DVD is created equal (some may contain unsafe moves or poor instruction), look to product reviews or for recommendations from someone you trust. SparkPeople has reviewed a lot of workout DVDs, so browse our list to find out what works for you. I've also created several beginner-friendly workout DVDs that focus on full-body strength training and include training plans so you know which workouts to do on which days.
  • Join a group fitness class that uses weights or resistance. Exercise classes like BodyPump are very popular and feature solid full-body workouts that change every few weeks. Your gym may offer something by a different name. Talk to the instructor or gym manager to find out if the class is right for you. A "gateway" into strength training may also be a mat Pilates class, which only uses bodyweight to help build strength and coordination. (Read my take on whether Pilates can be a substitute for strength training here.)
  • Find a workout plan online. SparkPeople's Workout Generator features many beginner-friendly workouts that use little to no equipment. They include step-by-step instructions and animated demos to show you proper form. These are workouts that you can trust to be balanced, and each description will let you know which area of the body the workout focuses on (total body, core, upper body, etc.). You'll also find detailed instruction and workout ideas in our Fitness Video section. And for beginners, our 7-Day Plan is a great way to get started in just 10 minutes a day!
Just remember when seeking plans that while it's good to get recommendations and advice from a trusted fit friend, what works for one person might not always be appropriate or right for another.
Step 4: Start Slowly
When you're new to strength training, you are probably motivated and eager to get results. However, form should always trump weight lifted. Don't jump in and try the heaviest weights you can handle. Take time to ease into strength training by even choosing a slightly easy weight at first since mastering form is essential to your success (and the avoidance of injury). Build in plenty of rest days, too. These exercises and intensity levels are going to be very new to your body, so give it the time it needs to recover instead of overdoing it. After all, it is during rest and recovery that your body actually gets stronger—not during the workout itself.
These two resources will help guide you now and in the future:
Step 5: Get On Schedule
For beginners, I recommend strength training every major muscle group twice a week. Two good sessions are a great start and will meet your needs for a while.
There are a lot of different ways to break up strength training depending on your time available and how you like to work out. In this previous blog I discuss how to create a weekly strength-training plan (when to rest, how to divide up your muscle groups, etc.). Check it out for more detail.
Strength training consistently is really important to getting results from your efforts. Even if the days that you do your workouts on change week to week, the important thing is to include it along with adequate rest.

What other questions do you have about starting a strength training plan? Do you have any beginner weight-lifting tips to share?