How To Start Strength Training To Lose Weight and Build Muscles?

When you hear the term “strength training”, you might think of heavy weights and low reps. That’s not necessarily the case. Whether you use barbells and dumbells, resistance bands or even your own bodyweight, strength training is any form of resistance training that helps you build functional strength, increase endurance, enhance your overall health and improve your body composition.

When I started strength training, I found I was weak and out of shape. I wanted to get strong, fit, feel better about my health, and improve my confidence. Strength training helped me become a better person. It can help you get in shape, gain muscle, and get stronger.

Let’s take a look at Strength Training for Beginners!

What Are The Benefits Of Strength Training?

Improves Strength – Strength training makes you stronger. How often have you been in a situation where you just don’t have enough physical strength to complete the task at hand? It’s about time we change that.

Helps Burn Fat – Losing fat demands a multi-angle approach. You need to do more than merely watch your calories. You’ll also need to exercise. Strength training can help you gain muscle. This is important because muscle burns more calories than fat. 

Helps Slow Muscle Loss As You Age – Let’s be real, getting older sucks. Starting an exercise program can help offset the negative effects of aging, such as muscle loss, weakness and fat gain.

Helps Reduce Arthritic Discomfort – The worst thing you can do for sore joints is nothing at all. Exercise can help reduce the discomfort of sore joints caused by arthritis. 

Helps Ease Depression & Increase Confidence – Seeing positive changes in your body composition can do wonders for your state of mind. You’ll feel better about yourself. This means less depression, more contentment and increased confidence.

What Is Strength Training?

Strength training can be defined as the physical exercises to increase muscles ability to produce force against resistance. The resistance should be progressively heavier over time. This will help you add muscle and get stronger.  

What Equipment Do You Need?

Traditionally, strength training uses free weights (barbells and dumbbells). However, you can use anything that provides adjustable resistance. This includes machines and all the various home gyms (Total Gym, Bowflex, single stack home gyms, resistance bands). The key point here is that you need to be able to increase the resistance as you progress. 

Getting Started

Ideally, you should work with a personal trainer. You can hire one, or work with one as part of a gym membership. Why? This is the best way to ensure you are using correct form. It’s also the best way to understand all the techniques. If you have a question, they should have the answer. However, if that is not an option, you can use this guide to get off to a great start. We’ve included an exercise list with links to videos that demonstrate how to do each exercise correctly. 

Explain Key Terms: Reps, Set…

There’s some key terms a beginner should understand before starting an exercise program:

  • Body Part Split – This is grouping muscles that have a similar function together in one workout. This approach allows you to do more exercises for each muscle group for better development. It’s also good for recovery because while one muscle group is being trained the others are resting. Example: 3 Day Push, Pull, Legs Split – This is a 3 day split routine that trains pushing muscles on day 1, pulling muscles on day 2 and legs on day 3.
  • Compound (or, Basic) Exercises – Any exercise that works multiple muscle groups. Examples include squats, deadlifts and bench presses.
  • Concentric Phase – This is the lifting phase of the exercise. For pulling muscles it means you are lifting the weight towards you. For pushing muscles, it means you are lifting the weight away from you.
  • Contraction – There’s different types of muscular contractions. There’s also a lot to the definition but for our purposes, a contraction can be defined as the tensing of a specific muscle. 
  • Eccentric Phase – This is the opposite of the concentric phase. 
  • Form – The correct performance of an exercise.
  • Frequency – Typically, how often you train each muscle group in one week. 
  • Full Body Routine – This is a routine where you train the entire body in one session.
  • Isolation Exercises – Any exercise that works a particular group of muscle in isolation from other muscles. Examples include biceps curls, side laterals and leg extensions. 
  • Repetition (or, rep) – The physical act of performing an exercise from start to finish.
  • Resistance – The type and amount of weight used.
  • Rest Between Sets – The amount of rest time taken between sets.
  • Set – A series of repetitions.
  • Tempo – This refers to the amount of time you spend performing one repetition. An example would be bench presses. You could take 3 seconds to lower the weight, pause for 1 second, and take 2 seconds to raise the weight back to the starting position. It looks like this: 3/1/2. 
  • Volume – The amount of reps and sets you do in one workout. 

How Many Sets And Reps?

As a beginner, you should spend your first month performing 2 working sets for large muscle groups such as chest, back and legs, and 1 working set for shoulders, biceps and triceps. In terms of reps, most lifters use the pyramid system. This means your first few sets are warm-up sets using higher reps and light weight. With each set, you add weight and lower the reps, like this:

  • Set 1 – light weight x 15 reps
  • Set 2 – add weight x 12 reps
  • Set 3 – add weight x 10 reps

Now you’ll do the same thing with your working sets. Use the maximum weight you can do for 6-8 reps. If you are doing a second set, the weight will need to be reduced due to fatigue. Reduce the weight you’re using by 20% and do another 6-8 reps. As an example, if you did 50lbs x 8 reps for your first working set, try 40lbs for your second set. Of course, you can adjust the amount of weight used if you need to.

Some may suggest high reps for fat loss and lower reps for muscle gain. You should always train for strength and muscle. This means you should stay around 8 reps per working set, unless otherwise instructed. Weight training is not the same as cardio. No matter the type of resistance you use, upping your reps will not expend enough extra calories to burn any meaningful amount of fat. If that’s your goal, follow the cardio program of your choice and make the proper adjustments in the kitchen.

Cropped shot of a handsome mature fitness man performing barbell squats shirtless muscular man with perfect toned body working out at the gym weightlifting bodybuilding gym motivation health concept

How Often Should You Train?

Beginners should train 3 times a week to start. Your first month will be more about learning the exercises and understanding correct form. After the first month, you can continue with a 3 days a week routine but you will add sets. My suggestion is to start with a full body routine. This is a routine that exercises your entire body in one session. 

As a beginner, the temptation will be to rush into your workout and hit it 6-7 days a week. Many people start like this and then burn out within a month or so, ultimately abandoning strength training completely. You need to understand the concept of recovery. One of the most important things to understand is that you make progress when you allow your body to recover. Training 2-3 hours a day, 7 days a week will just burn you out.

On the other hand, training 3 times a week allows your muscles and nervous system time to rest and repair so you can then come back for your next scheduled workout ready to go. Again, the process of recovery is what allows your body to react to the training session you just completed. It reacts by repairing your muscles, making them bigger and stronger. If you get nothing else out of this article, understand this point. 

How to Choose a Starting Weight?

You’ll need to start your first session by determining how much weight you should use. Once you’ve warmed up with some stretching and brief cardio, start your first exercise using the pyramid system we reviewed earlier in this guide. You’ll have to do a little experimenting to find the right weight.

Here’s an example: You pick 50lbs for a bench press and find you can’t easily do 15 reps. For your next set, drop the weight by 30% to 30 lbs and try an easy 12 reps. If you can do that set, add 10lbs and perform 10 reps. You’re resting about a minute between sets. Each warmup set should feel a little harder. The third warmup set should be a little more challenging. 

Now you’re ready for your working sets. Based on how that last warmup set felt, add 5-10lbs for 6-8 reps. You know the weight is right when your last rep is near impossible to complete. If you stop at 8 reps but probably could have done 2 or 3 more, you need to add more weight. If you’re struggling from the first rep on, and can’t get 6-8 reps, you need to drop weight. As we noted above, if you’re doing a second set, you’ll want to drop the weight by 20%. 

How Do You Breathe?

The first rule is that you do not want to hold your breath! Just breathe normally. On exercises where  the weight is heavy, you can take a deep breath in as you start, hold it as you perform the concentric phase and then exhale as you perform the eccentric phase. 

Do You Need A Warm-up?

It’s critical to always warm up before you tackle your sets. This prevents injury and helps you get your mind and muscles in tune for what’s to come. A good warm-up should consist of stretching followed by roughly 5 minutes of cardio. Then you would start your warmup sets. We’ve already reviewed using the pyramid system of starting with 3 warm ups sets and then going into your working sets. 

Focus On Form

Form is everything. The single biggest reason to make absolutely sure you understand and are using correct form is so you can avoid injury. While a sprain or strain is one thing, a tear or break is something else all together. Not to mention, proper form means you are getting the maximum benefit from the exercise.

I see guys all the time that swing the bar up, then just let it drop down to the starting position. Even worse are the guys that arch, twist and turn on the bench press. What’s the point? Learn to do the exercise correctly. 

Correct form also includes feeling an exercise in the muscle you are working. Take the time now to understand the function of the muscles. This will help you feel the appropriate muscles during a set. Also, practice tensing (flexing) your muscles. This helps as well.

As an example, let’s look at the back, specifically the lats, or latissimus dorsi and the lat pulldown. This is the largest of the back muscles and looks like a “V”. The function of the lats is to pull the arm downward. If the arm is in a fixed position, then the lats can pull the arm upwards. So these two movements are duplicated by the lat pulldown and by chin-ups/pull-ups. 

Many people have a problem feeling the exercise in the lats, instead it seems to be all in the biceps. The way to take the biceps out of the exercise is to visualize them as hooks. You have to begin the movement by flexing the lats and start by pulling with your lats. This takes time. This is why your first month should be about learning correct form and technique. 

Best Strength Training Exercises To Learn

LEG

#1. Squat

#2. Leg Press

#3. Calf Raises

BACK

#1. Deadlifts

#2. Chin-ups (or Lat Pulldowns)

CHEST

#1. Bench Press Flat

#2. Bench Press Incline

SHOULDERS

#1. Overhead Press

#2. Biceps Curls

#3. Hammer Curls

TRICEPS

#1. EZ Bar Extensions

#2. Dips

ABDOMINAL

#1. Crunch

#2. Ab Wheel

Sample 1-day Strength Training Workout

Perform on Monday/Wednesday/Friday. If those days do not work, adjust to your schedule, as long as you work out every other day or with no more than 2 days in between. 

  • Squats: 3 warm-up sets: 1 x 15, 1 x 12, 1 x 10, 2 working sets x 6-8 reps. The squat is one of the best exercises you can do because it involves most of the muscles of the body. 
  • Deadlifts: 3 warm-up sets, 1 x 15, 1 x 12,1 x 10, 2 working sets x 6-8 reps. This is another exercise that works most of the muscles of the body.
  • Lat Pull-downs: 1 warm up set: 1 x 12, 1 working set x 8 reps. You’ll want to start this exercise by pulling with the lats. Think of the arms as hooks. 
  • Barbell Curls: 1 working set x 8 reps. Don’t swing the weight up, let your biceps do all the work.
  • Bench Press: 3 warm-up sets, 1 x 15 reps, 1 x 12,1 x 10, 2 working sets x 6-8 reps. This exercise can be difficult to feel in the chest. This is because it also involves the shoulders and triceps. Focus on form and try to concentrate on the chest as you perform the exercise and you will feel the exercise there.
  • Seated Overhead Press: 1 working set x 8 reps. This works your front and side deltoid (shoulder) muscles as well as the triceps.
  • Triceps Extensions: 1 working set x 8 reps. If you feel this in the elbows, bring them a little closer to your head.
  • Crunch: 1 set x 15 reps.

Performance notes – Let’s talk about reps for a moment. You now know what they are but how do you perform them? For now, do your reps in a slow and controlled manner from start to finish. Try to concentrate on the muscle you are working. After your first month, I’ll introduce other ways to do a rep.

Sample 1-Week Strength Training Routine

You will do the above routine on Monday/Wednesday/Friday. These 3 days are not carved in stone, if you feel too sore, take another day off. As noted above, this will be your routine for your first month. If you find you are completing your workout easily and no longer feel challenged, work on adding more weight to your working sets. This is known as progressive resistance and it’s one of the primary keys to progress. This should be a consistent process. So, as an example, if you find you can easily go past the suggested 6-8 reps in the bench press two workouts in a row, try adding 20% more weight to get you back to 6-8 reps again. 

Once you’re past your first month, you can try a 3-day Push, Pull, Legs split routine:

Day One – Pull

Deadlifts

  • Set 1 –  light weight x 15 reps
  • Set 2 – add weight x 12 reps
  • Set 3 – add weight x 10 reps
  • Working sets: 2 x 8 reps

Bent Rows – 2 working sets x 8 reps 

Lat Pull-downs or Chins – 2 working sets x 8 reps

Day Two – Push

Flat Bench Press 

  • Set 1 –  light weight x 15 reps
  • Set 2 – add weight x 12 reps
  • Set 3 – add weight x 10 reps
  • Working sets: 2 x 8 reps

Incline Bench Press – 2 working sets x 8 reps

Dumbbell Flys – 2 working sets x 8 reps

Shoulder Press – 2 working sets x 8 reps

Side Laterals – 2 working sets x 8 reps

Triceps Extension – 2 working sets x 8 reps

Triceps Pushdowns – 1 working sets x 8 reps

Day Three – Legs

Squats or Leg Press

  • Set 1 –  light weight x 15 reps
  • Set 2 – add weight x 12 reps
  • Set 3 – add weight x 10 reps
  • Working sets: 3 x 8 reps

Calf Raises – 3 working sets x 10 x 12 reps 

Performance notes – Now’s the time to learn more about rep performance. There’s primarily 3 ways to perform a rep:

Explosive – The concentric phase of the rep is done explosively while the eccentric phase is done in a slow, controlled manner.This style is usually used on such exercises as squats and bench presses.

Full Range Of Motion – Perform the entire rep in a slow, controlled manner. Pause at the top of the rep and tense the muscle for a count of 2. Then return the weight to the start position in a slow and controlled manner. This type of rep performance is best used on exercises such as side laterals and leg extensions. Performing your reps like this means you can work the muscle through its entire functional range of movement. 

Controlled – This style provides constant tension on the muscle, like a piston, from the start of the rep to the end. There’s no pausing during the rep with this style. You’ll need to control the speed so the muscles, not momentum, do the work.

Common Mistakes & Tips

Mistakes are bound to happen. After all, you’re just getting started. Here’s some common mistakes you want to look out for:

  • Not doing your reps correctly
  • Not learning correct form
  • Not progressively adding weight
  • Not using enough weight
  • Not warming up
  • Using too many reps
  • Using too much weight too soon

The best tips I can give you are ones I’ve already touched on:

  • Focus on proper form
  • Focus on doing your reps correctly

The two biggest secrets, as mentioned above, are:

  • Consistently add weight
  • Recover sufficiently between workouts

Another good tip that we haven’t discussed is that you should track your workout. Copy down all the relevant information, exercises, sets, reps, weight, time started and time finished. You can even write down how you feel, what you ate prior to training, what supplements you’re using and the length of rest between sets.

Summary

Strength training is more than the old idea of lifting super-heavy weights. It’s about getting in shape, get stronger, getting leaner and feeling better about yourself. I changed everything about myself when I discovered strength training, and you can too. This guide will help you get started.

Happy training!

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