January 09, 2009

Strength Training for Beginners

Image credit: popoever

Thinking about adding some strength training to your exercise routine, but aren't sure how to get started?

Building up muscle strength is really good for you. (More on that in a moment) And if you're female, we promise you're not going to end up looking freakishly masculine and massively proportioned. First off, you need a bunch of testosterone for that. And secondly, hardcore muscle-building is kick-ass hard work! It involves effort, frustration, exhaustion, and pain, and it's pretty much impossible to accidentally do too much.

Wait, where are you all going???

Sorry. Strength training really doesn't have to be all that unpleasant. That's mostly a problem for whiny slackers like yours truly, who would love to look pretty darn muscular, but would like it to happen via Fairy Dust, not actual work. Even for slackers, working with weights is pretty rewarding. Not just in terms of appearance and health benefits, but in actually being able to lift heavy stuff without ending up in the hospital.

So, for some tips to get started, who is better suited to offer advice than Crabby McSlacker?

Almost anyone, that's who!

That's why I asked some much better informed folks, like MizFit and Kelly of Fitness Fixation and Rupal of 101 Exercises and Personal Trainer Terri Walsh to help me out with links from their sites and helpful tips. Plus... we got The Google in on it too.

And if you already strength train, hang in there, because I'm really hoping you'll read this post, realize you know a LOT more about the subject than I do, and chime in with your tips and personal experiences for newbies to benefit from.

Why it's So Important to Learn The Physiological Processes Behind Muscle Building
In order to start strength training, it crucial that you first understand the process by which muscle is built and concepts such as progressive overload, zzzzzzz the distinctions between isotonic, isometric zzzzzzzzz and plyometric zzzzzz zzzzzz zzzzzzzzz zzzzzzz.

Okay, maybe we don't really give a crap about that after all.

Why Is Strength Training Good for You?
There's a handy list at WebMD. But there's also a nice summary over at 101 Exercises of what strength training can do:

  • increase metabolic rate which in turn allows your body to burn calories more efficiently, even at rest
  • cut down on cardiovascular stress by reduction of resting blood pressure and heart rate
  • increase bone density, thus reducing risk of osteoporosis
  • improve strength, power and muscular endurance
  • and even help firm up ‘bingo arms’ ‘moobs’ and ‘muffin tops’!
Rupal also contributed some further thoughts and inducements:

"Each pound of added muscle burns approximately 35 to 50 more calories daily. That can add up! And if you're a competitive sort, strengthening can enhance athletic performance. Swing the golf club harder, climb hills faster in a race, jump higher and cycle faster! It can also help prevent injuries: stronger, more balanced musculature equals greater stability at joints, more effective and efficient biomechanical relationships and enhanced movement performance."

Choosing Equipment and Setting
You can do your strength training in a gym. You can do it at home. You can do it on a train; you can do it in the rain; you can do it with a fox; you can do it in a box... oops, wait, maybe not! (Too much Dr. Seuss as a child, sorry).

As to equipment, you can use weight machines (they have combo home versions too); or use barbells, dumbells, a weight bench. Don't like heavy objects? You can also use resistance bands or tubes; fancy suspension systems; you can use use your own body weight for many exercises too. You can use even use live human children, but don't tell anyone we said that.

How to decide which way to go?

It's all very personal, and of course has quite a bit to do with convenience, space, goals, and costs. There's no right or wrong answer. I would advise against making huge financial commitments, either with long-term gym memberships or fancy-pants equipment, until you've tried a few different methods.

One tip: there are many reasons you might want to avoid gyms, like you don't want to leave the house to exercise, or you hate to wait for equipment, or the smell of a gym reminds you of high school and causes you to burst into tears at unpredictable intervals. All very reasonable. But don't let self-consciousness keep you out of a perfectly good gym.

You have every right to be in that gym, beginner or not. If you get some basic instructions before you start off, and don't do anything too obnoxious, no one will even notice you. The regulars are all too busy flexing, grunting, cursing, and staring at their own reflections in the mirror to care that you're lifting bright pink 2 lb dumbbells or grand pianos. You can join for a brief period; try out all kinds of things; get some instructions; and then use that info to put together your own home set-up.

General Tips
Virtually everyone I asked and every place I googled emphasized the same two important points:

1. Learn about proper form before you start.

2. Start off easy and build the habit before you try to lift heavy. Eventually, you will want to lift heavier and heavier weights--and in fact, I remember a study saying that most people, and women in particular, settle in at weights that aren't nearly heavy enough to challenge them.

But worry about that later. When you're just starting out, your job is to learn proper form and get in the habit of regular strength training. Save injury-inducing bonehead feats of stupidity for later on! By then, you'll have enough invested in your progress that mere sprained, torn, broken, or otherwise abused body parts won't keep you from quitting completely.

Getting Help
If you have googled around a bit looking for general guidance on getting started, you may have discovered that the advice you get is frustratingly general (like mine). Or, it is way too overwhelming--you get hundreds of possible exercises and contradictory instructions depending on who is offering the advice.

Thus I'd recommend picking one fairly reliable source, learning the basics, and then progressively getting more and more information customized to your particular goals and needs. Note: MizFit is one of our favorite reliable sources, and much of the rest of this post is swiped from her blog with her very generous permission.

Here are some of the options for designing your program and starting out:

Human: This is one of the best methods, because an actual live person can listen to your goals, note your limitations, and see what you're doing wrong and corrrect your form. How to find a helpful human? Many gyms offer a free orientation to their equipment when you join; and it's no secret you can pay a personal trainer. Mizfit has some great tips about how to choose a good personal trainer, and so does Kelly from Fitness Fixation.

Virtual Human: There are online sources offering more personalized plans than a book. Of course they can't hover over you like an in-person trainer and tell you your knees are in the wrong place or your butt's sticking out too far. One I happen to know of is Terri Walsh, a celebrity personal trainer in NYC. Have I trained with her? Heck no, do I look like a celebrity? But she did send me a nifty ebook full of useful exercises, and she also does an online training service for (just) under $20 a month. (She's also one of the 2009 trainers in People Magazine's "Half Their Size" project). But there are plenty others out there I haven't been introduced to, and maybe readers could share their experiences, good or bad.

Books, DVD's, etc:
Mizfit helps us out again on books: She likes Arnold Schwarzenegger's book because, "while I don't wish to look like he does, the explanations and photos are immensely helpful." She also finds that Weight Training For Dummies "gives clear, concise, bottom-line suggestions for how to devise and stick to a weight training plan."

This is another area where we could use some help. The last book I consulted one by Diana Nyad, which was very comprehensive and helpful at the time, but came out a hundred years ago back in the 80's and is probably out of print. We're hoping folks in the comments will help fill in this section with favorite books, dvd's or websites!

UPDATE: look for more suggestions in the comments! But one that came up over and over was: The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess. Lots of folks have found this book helpful.

Basic Routines

How Much and How Often? What Exercises Should I Do?

This is where it starts to get overwhelming. I'll just include the advice of a few folks, but again, you may want seek Professional Help to craft a routine that's right for you.

MizFit again is a super resource.

While she is, like Crabby, a believer in starting off with guidance from a live human, she offered up a sample beginner full body routine in one of her posts.

"Start off twice a week (remember, we are setting ourselves up for success!) doing only two sets per exercise at a weight where you can complete 12-15 repetitions the first set without struggle and 10-12 repetitions the last set and feel *challenged* but not in pain.

What should you include in this routine?

1 exercise for chest.
1 exercise for back.
1 exercise for biceps.
1 exercise for triceps.
1 exercise for shoulders.
2-4 for your legs (depending on time available and your current fitness level.)

As you become more fit you can increase your workout to three times a week (never on back-to-back days) and, as your fitness level increases still, you may wish to break down your routine into an upper body workout one day and lower body/shoulders on another.

And you know what's really cool? MizFit has videos to show you how to do these exercises, with emphasis on proper form.

Legs Video 1
Legs Video 2
Legs Video 3
Legs Video 4

Arms Video 1
Arms Video 2
Arms Video 3
Arms Video 4
Arms Video 5

Video 1
Video 2
Video 3
Video 4
Video 5

Terri Walsh, when she's not busy shrinking people to half their size, recommends working towards these essential exercises:

Push ups
Pull ups

However, as we've mentioned, tough exercises like pushups and pullups may require modification, especially for beginners. Terri says that as a trainer, she always starts people off slow and then adds workouts as they get more comfortable. She suggests "Start off with two workouts per week. If you make all those workouts happen in a month, then add ONE more to the week the next month. And so on. The goal is not to torture yourself, but to allow your mind, body and life to catch up to, and get used to your new thinking. Too many changes all at once is harder on the psyche than most people will admit, and that imo, causes 'relapses'."

Here's another list of "top ten exercises"; Stumptuous has lots more information on free weights for women, and of course Rupal has tons of exercises over at her place.

Warnings and Hazards
Kelly at Fitness Fixation has some very specific warnings about common exercises that people do wrong. Sample tip (among many) for the squat: "Your chest should remain upright and your back curved. I mean curved so that you are sticking out your chest and ass, like, yes, a supermodel in a waterfall."

So, do any of you have any advice for those just starting off? Any inspirational tales or horror stories?

(And if you've got a great post on this that you've written or seen somewhere, feel free to leave a link in your comment below for new folks to check out! Unless you're selling something slimy, in which case, please go somewhere else to leave your spam.)


  1. Great Post! Very Valuable advice (and I'm not just saying that bc I contributed...although it is nice seeing my name in link form) Thanks!!

  2. FRICK. and I was thisclose to skipping workout out this morning :)

    thanks for the love...


  3. Wowza, a lot of good information here! I'm going to have to bookmark this page and come back to it time and time again :)

    Thanks Crabby, Rupal, and Mizfit!

  4. Great post!!!

    Strength training is important! Whether with weights, bodyweight exercise, or moving and lifting stuff for practical reasons, it's all about being fit in our daily lives.

  5. I started weight lifting at the age of 58. Being a girl that was taught, growing up, that it was unfeminine to sweat or play sports, I was shocked how much I loved it.

    I was watching my mother deteriorate physically and decided I wasn't going there.

    A friend lent me his "BODY FOR LIFE" book and I was hooked. I started out on 2 pound weights. It doesn't matter. Do, what you can do safely and nine months later, I had lost two dress sizes, felt better than I had in years and was stronger than I ever was. I was way past 2 pound weights too.

    Unrelated ill health stopped me for a couple of years and I am just now getting back into it. I can't wait. It made me feel so good that I am anxious to get my weight bench and weights inside (when grandson goes back to Santa Fe) so I can start again.

  6. Excellent post, but when I read "dips" and "crunches" my thoughts went to potato chips and stayed there.

  7. Great Post! I especially liked the end, where you talked about starting slow (which is the fatal flaw in the newly-aggressive gym resolutioners).

  8. Excellent post, Crabby. Very well put together! Thanks.

    The Bag Lady is now going to go lift a calf or something, just to show how valuable weight lifting is.

    Oh, wait, all the calves have grown up to around 800 lbs.... even the Bag Lady won't attempt that kind of lifting! Guess she'll go lift the vacuum cleaner instead....

  9. Stop reading my mind!!

    I was just doing some research to put together some strength training exercises for myself after realising my upper body was not getting the work it needs...as my bellydancing has given me new muscles to ache. They need toning too I guess.
    The hardest part was finding videos to acutally SEE how the movements go - and here they all are.
    You rock. With disco lighting.
    Thanks Crabby! :)
    (and Mizfit and Rupal :) )

  10. Awesome post Crabby!

    You could have titled this post "Strenght Training for Jill" because I am soooooo the newbie when it comes to this.

  11. Great post! Have to give props to "New Rule of Lifting for Women". It changing how I spend time in the gym, how I define healthy (I finally stopped caring about the number on the scale after reading this book), and my body. If I ever fall off a cliff and need to pull myself up by a firmly anchored vine, I'm pretty sure I could... I fantasize about walking down the street and a random person challenging me to a push-up duel.

  12. Must go lift some furniture, or boxes of books. (Books, says the ex-librarian, average 40 pounds per linear foot.)
    How I miss the gym. But my allergies were bothering me more and more there, so I don't know if I'll be able to go back when time and money are available.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  13. Weight lifting is so important. So is cardio, but I find that I lose and maintain my weight so much easier if I'm lifting 2-3 times a week.

    I heartily second the idea of getting tips on form to start off with. People just starting out don't tend to have a lot of body awareness...there's so much new stimuli, like equipment and people and instructions and music and sounds and smells, it's hard to focus on your body and where it's positioned if you're not used to it. So it's good to work with a personal trainer, or go to a class where the instructor can correct your form, or work out with a friend who knows what they're doing. Barring that, just try to do your best.

  14. as much as i love lifting, i get out of it periodically. why, i don't know.

    another good blog for advice is kelly's - formerly of grounded fitness and now back to every gym's nightmare. she's a personal trainer in seattle and demos exercises on her blog all the time.

  15. I think strength training is so important! Love the picture of the dogs :-)

  16. So many link goodies!

    I used to find strength training very frustrating. Now- even though its still difficult- it just feels GOOD and I like it.

  17. Thanks for a very helpful post.

  18. Great stuff! I completely agree with starting out small. A ten minute session. 1-2 exercises per body part. Just getting used to doing it.

    I used to think working out was a mindless activity until I started doing it regularly. "Body awareness" is something I had never even considered let alone had very much of. And I still struggle with it.

    I think beginners need to understand that working out is a skill like any other. You're not going to be good at it right off the bat. It will feel awkward. You'll do the exercises wrong. But you keep doing them week after week and you start to notice you're getting better and stronger and it feels really great. Then you try new stuff and start all over again but maybe a wee bit easier. But know that there is a hump to get over.

  19. Excellent advice... I'm totally a beginner so I love finding stuff that tells me what I should be doing!

    I found a free strength training class in the community where I work, so I feel pretty lucky to have an instructor who tells me when I'm doing stuff wrong. Cause a lot of the time, I am. Ha.

  20. I loved the idea of using human children. I would have NEVER thought of that on my own. It's "out of the box" thinking like this that keeps me coming back to this blog.

    - Dave

  21. Awesome, someone else mentioned "New Rules of Lifting for Women" - great kick-ass workout program! Weight lifting rules!

  22. I love strength training...a little. most of the time. but I'm lazy...

    so my fav resource when I started out is Smart Girls Do Dumbbells

    and by "when I started out" I mean to include the time I lost 20 lbs (4 years ago) and I mean the time I restarted my weight loss attempt(last week)

  23. I started lifting weights on my own, at home, with a workout from a magazine. Then I came across Kathy Smith's Personal Trainer DVD at Future Shop one day and picked it up. It has 3 workouts on it - all cobbled together from a bunch of her other videos - but the strength routine was a great one to start out and learn from, and I've found that you can keep progressing with it. Not sure whether you'd still be able to find that DVD around anywhere, but I do think it's a good one if you are starting out at home on your own.

    Also regarding the amount of weight - while I agree it is important to use weights that are going to challenge you, it's also important to keep in mind that everyone has to start somewhere. It is better to start out with a light weight you can handle and work your way up than to cause yourself problems by starting out with something that is too heavy.

  24. Thanks for all the info Crabby! New links to check out and old links to re-explore. Maybe this time I will actually do something instead of just reading about it ;)

  25. If I send you my father's phone number, you will PLEASE call him and tell him this? I spent half of Christmas break trying to convince my long-time marathoner father that he needs to lift weights in addition to his cardio. He just thinks they're boring and pointless since he "doesn't care about looking like Brad Pitt." I'll have to tell him your suggestion about the kids though. Quality time with the grandkids!

  26. Great post, Crabby. I don't love strength training, but I love the results.

    Also, I interviewed Pamela Peeke (author of Fight Fat After Forty and Body for Life for Women) for a story recently and she totally convinced me of strength training's value.

  27. Great post!

    And SAVanVleck, you are my hero! I'll never whine again (OK, that's a blantant lie). I hope you can get back to your strength training soon.

    I, like many woman, had been diddling around with free weights that were way too light. Also, I can't stand gyms.

    But, after reading another great post here, on how women don't lift enough weight, I was inspired to change my ways. So, I decided to use an ancient Bowflex my husband bought many moons ago to get a proper routine going.

    I haven't been at it long, but I'm doing 2 days a week, exercising all major muscle groups, only one set at 8-12 reps (when I hit 12 reps, I add 5 pounds for next time).

    The first time I was SOOOORE! But then, it got better.

    What I like about the Bowflex is that I can use it at home, we have the booklet that came with it that has pictures showing the exercises, and I'm a lot less scared of hurting myself than I would be attempting to use the equivalent poundage with free weights.

    Thanks for this great post!

  28. The CDC has a good Strength Training For Older Adults program that helped me get started back when I was struggling to make it around the block. You can google or the link is in my sidebar if you want to share it with everyone.

    The important lesson is that we all have to start somewhere, if you think you can't, think again!

  29. Wowzy! What a lot of great information in one post!

    Another vote here for "The New Rules of Lifting for Women". I reviewed it few months ago and have just decided to give the workouts in the book a serious tryout for the next few months.

    Yeah, I'll be blogging the experience.

    I started strength training at 54; now at 56 I look 15-20 years younger, feel about the same.

    BTW, aren't you now in the bay area? We should have a blogger meet up. Gym, park, lunch?

  30. What a great post!
    Sometimes it's so hard to convince a non-believer of strength training's awesomeness.

    I am also a big hypocrite because the only strength training I do right now is ... nothing.

    I plan to get back to it immediately post bebe.

  31. Geess Cranky, I build up muscle between my ears just reading all that stuff man! Does that count?

  32. This is such a fabulous post for getting started. I'm always encourging people to start strength training when they want to lose weight but have been a bit slack at following my own advice (too busy going to bodycombat). One of the reasons is having not the faintest idea how to get a basic routine together but I think you've just answered that question. Bookmarked for further reading!

  33. Has anyone tried kettlebells? A girl I used to work with swears by these Russian torture devices and says they slimmed her down superfast. I'm giving that a shot....

  34. Loved the Dr. Suess. You can never have too much Dr. Suess.

    This was an awesome post. Makes me want to pick up those dumbbells and get to lifting. :)

    And if anyone is looking for a killer weight-lifting DVD, this would be it, my friends: http://fitbottomedgirls.blogspot.com/2008/09/fitness-by-cathe-cardioweights-4-day.html.

  35. Wow, some great suggestions, thanks everyone!

    I whine a lot about weight training, but it really is one of the most rewarding aspects of working out when it comes to results.

  36. Great Advice. I agree that it's important to start of slow, but we all know how that goes :)

  37. no need to do any isolation work for the arms or calfs since most multi joint (compound) movements will work those areas as well. think push and pull and focus on the the large muscles with exercises like squat, lunges, deadlifts, overhead press, bench press, rows, etc.

  38. Great post! One quick reminder for everyone -- STRETCH! Stretch the muscle group you're about to work out, a little in-between sets and afterwards!

    I can't stress it enough... you will avoid many injuries this way, no joke.

  39. Hey, great post! Very comprehensive for someone that says they don't know much about lifting. Check out my blog specifically for beginner weight trainers. Happy Lifting!

  40. while any type of weight training that consistently challenges your body, you can get more out of the effort by following a well laid out plan. Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength is an excellent program for building up a base level of strength while being incredibly easy to follow. this is a very useful resource for it http://tinyurl.com/startingStrength

  41. Good stuff. It's kinda neat how when you start exercising regularly you seem to learn things at a really fast pace. There are so many different things you can do from weights, to cardio and yoga. There is always something new you can do to keep things interesting and challenging.

  42. Hi, Just commenting from Sydney,Australia...not sure if you have it there, but we have a GREAT workout called "Bodypump" a 60min workout with weights/great music that goes through - warmup/squats/back/triceps/biceps/lunges/shoulders/abs/cooldown. it's a Les Mills workout (he does combat/cycle/step programs too). Gives great results and may be at a gym near you!!

  43. Wow, great post! I loved the videos to help along and give even more! You didn't leave any stone left unturned. I lift weights 3 times a week and it has made the biggest difference in not only how much body looks, but feels. My herniated disc hasn't bothered me in ages and I energized with the kids I teach.

  44. I read a lot of fitness blogs each day and I've gotta say your writing style is hilarious and addictive. Not only have you put together a great resource for anyone looking to get into strength training, but you present it in such a unique way - great job!

  45. Excellent advice and resources for people to use. Starting a fitness routine, or even at a new gym can be incredibly overwhelming and scary. Being armed with information such as that given here can make all the difference.
    There is a great new site I have been using with my trainer that incorporates many of the ideas listed in the post. From exercise descriptions with photos to keep form correct, to program builders where my trainer is able to build and track my workouts. And its free!


  46. Hi, there. I loved your post. I would like to add few more information. I think all those who have started strength training recently must warm up prior to the workout sessions. 3-5 minutes of jogging, skipping, or riding a stationary bike for 2-3 minutes is enough. Warming up is important for preparing the body for the strenuous workouts and for preventing injury. In addition, it is crucial to breathe in the right manner. The general rule is to breathe in during the down (negative part of the stroke) and to breathe out during the positive part. To get more information, you can visit http://fitnessweighttraining.blogspot.com/

  47. THis post was alright in my book. Not that I need more reasons to lift, but for those who do... I'll send them here... cause god knows I can't handle scrawny people.

  48. Nice exercises to get in shape. I love the compound workouts. So I can exercise in less time. :D

  49. Very nice way of putting things. I'm not scared of you. Lol.


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)