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Strength training needn’t be a quagmire of confusion. In fact, it’s a relatively simple way of exercising that uses resistance training in the form of free weights (e.g. dumbbells), fixed weights (e.g. barbells) and weighted gym machines. But you’re not alone if you’re feeling overwhelmed when trying to plan your entry into this way of working out.
The strength training and weight training sections of the gym can be daunting, and the same goes if you’re finally dusting off that bit of home gym equipment knocking around the shed and haven’t a scooby about what to use it for.
So, to clear things up, we’ve put together the ultimate strength training and weight training for beginners guide, including how soon you could see results, the benefits of doing it, the difference between strength training and functional fitness, what progressive overload actually means, how to make it work for total, brand-new beginners, and how to improve if you’ve been training for a while (creatine and grip strength, we’re looking at you), whether you’re strength training at home or in the gym.
If you’re already familiar with what strength training is, scroll down for what else you need to know about weight training for beginners, weight training for women, how to start weight training at home and strength training at home (the last two are the same thing, y’know).
What is strength training?
Strength training, like resistance training, uses opposing force or load to build strength across your body and increase your muscle mass.
‘Strength training is a method of training that helps you increase your muscular strength and build muscle mass and can use many different types of training,’ explains Yumi Nutrition‘s Kate Whapples, a strength and conditioning coach. ‘The goal of strength training is to provide a stimulus to the body that requires an adaption response.’
For example, resistance training and weight training all fall under the same umbrella of strength training, although ‘traditional strength training typically relies on isolating muscles one at a time to take them to fatigue,’ explains Chiara Lewis, founder and trainer at Total Body Studio. One of the most intense ways to do this would be to incorporate drop sets.
Strength training for beginners, however, focuses on compound exercises. These are movements that recruit multiple muscle groups until you’ve built enough strength to isolate muscles and work them to their limit.
Functional training, meanwhile, is a form of strength training that focuses on ‘functional exercises’ that could help you function better in daily life. For example, squats might help you to lift heavy shopping bags. Strength training can get a lot more complex, while functional training is more about the fundamentals.
Weight training for beginners: why you should try it
Weight training (a.k.a. strength training), like dumbbell exercises, for women can be hugely beneficial. ‘We all need to be strong to take on everyday tasks – carrying in the shopping from the car, running for the bus or picking up the kids,’ says Kate Maxey, strength and conditioning Master Trainer at Third Space, London.
The trouble is from our late twenties onwards we naturally start to lose muscle mass. In fact, studies show that after the age of 30, you may lose 3-8% of muscle mass per decade. To mitigate that, it’s worth starting strength training as soon as you’re able to build and maintain that much-needed muscle mass. (Herein, the case for strength training for women.) If, however, your early twenties are a far-distant memory, don’t fret. There are myriad rewards to be reaped no matter when you start.
Will strength training make you ‘bulk up’?
Short answer: no. This is for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that women tend to naturally have less muscle mass than men due to lower testosterone levels. So, you’re not going to wield a dumbbell and make the type of strength gains seen on bodybuilders and professional weightlifters.
It takes time, dedication and effort to put on muscle mass like that through strength training. In reality, you’ll sculpt lean muscle and burn more energy throughout the day – a result of muscle tissue burning more calories at rest than fat.
Plus, lifting weights can give your testosterone a natural boost, something that’s been linked with muscle gain, more energy and sexual desire. No-brainer.
10 strength training benefits
- Lowers cholesterol
- Reduces stress and improves mood. In fact, strength training has even been proven to reduce symptoms of depression, according to a meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials.
- Increases muscle mass
- Improves body composition (the ratio of body fat to muscle you have) and burns fat. A 2017 study found that, compared with dieters who didn’t exercise and those who did only aerobic exercise, those who did strength training four times a week for 18 months lost the most fat (about 18lbs, compared with 10lbs for non-exercisers and 16lbs for aerobic exercisers).
- Improves posture
- Decreased risk of injury
- Increases bone density. In a 2017 study, just 30 minutes twice a week of high-intensity resistance and impact training was shown to improve functional performance, as well as bone density, structure, and strength in postmenopausal women with low bone mass.
- Improves sleep
- It can help you live longer. A meta-analysis found that people who perform resistance training are less likely to die prematurely than those who don’t.
- Improves cardiovascular health. A review published in 2021 showed that resistance training combined with aerobic exercise is more effective than aerobic exercise alone in heart disease rehabilitation.
Strength training doesn’t just help you get strong and feel sturdy (something that’s important as we reach our later years). It’s also good for heart health, can lower cholesterol, help with posture and keep your metabolism ticking over as muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fatty tissue. This means your body will burn more energy at rest the more muscle tissue you have.
Although strength training can get your heart pumping when you’re new to it or when you start lifting heavy, you’ll find the rest periods between sets and the focus required can actually help you to be more mindful and feel less stressed.
How to start strength training as a beginner
Behold, the ultimate guide to weight training for beginners. Here, we’ll be taking you on the journey from plucking up the courage to enter the weights room in the first place (no mean feat) to all the lingo you need to learn.
We called on Maxey (remember, Third Space’s strength and conditioning Master Trainer) to answer your FAQs about weight lifting for beginners, how to build strength quickly, how to build strength without weights (yes, really), plus a couple of strength training workouts for you to try, too – bodyweight and weighted. Read this, bookmark it, and before long you’ll be a strength training pro.
1.What kit do I need for strength training?
When it comes to strength training you don’t need tons of fancy equipment. The basic strength training requirements are usually dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells and cables – all of which can be found in the gym. Or, stock up your home gym equipment stash and get busy in the garden. Up to you.
If, and when, you start lifting heavier weights you might want to get yourself a pair of weightlifting trainers and, potentially, a lifting belt that supports your back and helps you to brace your core during heavy deadlifts. Another useful tool could be snapping up a good pair of weight lifting gloves – they’ll cushion your palms and help you grip the weights better. Good grip is key to good form so don’t let slippery paws make you come unstuck.
If you’re already a member at one of the best gyms in London, you can rest assured they’ll have everything you’ll need, too.
2. How do I build strength?
‘Strength is built by creating a new stimulus on the muscles that have to adapt and become stronger to counteract the force applied. For many you can begin with using just your body weight, working through press-ups, planks and squats. Once these become easy it is time to up the force/stimulus through using weights, also known as resistance training.’
‘To build strength you should work at a lower rep range (anything below 12 reps) as this is where your body is most efficient at recruiting muscle fibres,’ says Maxey.
By the last rep in any set you should really be struggling, this ensures ‘that you fatigue the muscle fully, resulting in your body adapting and becoming stronger to be able to perform the task you ask of it.’
3. How quickly can I build strength through strength training?
Newbie gains (quick improvements in strength) are a real thing in the strength training world. It’s relatively easy for anyone new to weight training to see real improvements in a relatively short space of time.
‘Strength can be built daily, from using your own bodyweight to progressing into using kettlebells, barbells and all the kit in the gym,’ explains Maxey. ‘You will see the biggest development within the first few weeks as your body adapts to new stimuli.’ Which brings us onto our next point…
4. How many days a week should a woman strength train?
You need to be consistent with your strength training. ‘Two weeks on, one week off won’t quite cut it – make a plan and stick to it. In general, strength training two to three times a week will see your strength increase by around 10% in as short as a fortnight.’
‘After a few consistent months of strength training, you should see an increase of around 20-30% from where you started. But, crucially, this will be different for every individual depending on lifestyle, nutrition and recovery.’
5. Can I strength train without weights?
You can certainly make strength improvements through bodyweight strength training. In fact, according to Maxey, ‘Focusing on using your body weight to develop your strength is key to master before lifting any weights. From pull-ups and push-ups to using explosive power exercises, you can develop your strength equally to using any weights.’
The other benefit of bodyweight strength training is that there are multiple variations to try as you get stronger and your fitness capabilities improve. Try changing the angles of exercises to make them harder, a push-up against the wall or with your arms on a bench is ideal for beginners and with a little practice you’ll soon be hitting the deck and busting out a set of 10 push-ups.
‘Single leg squats and one-arm push-ups, for example, are much harder than you may think and are a fun way to progress your bodyweight workouts at home,’ says Maxey. ‘Being able to use your body in a different way to how you do every other day will mean that you will be able to develop your strength more and more.’
You can also experiment with power movements such as plyometric movements, notes Maxey. Mixing up your tempo with controlled bodyweight moves and ‘bursts of squat jumps, lunge jumps, plank jacks are all great exercises to develop power and strength,’ says Kate.
6. Get in the right frame of mind before your workouts
Take a deep breath, and walk into the strength training section or weights room with pride. Remember most people are either feeling timid like you or they’re too focused on their own workout to even notice what you are up to. Aim to be the latter.
If you’re strength training at home, set yourself up for success. Block out some time in your cal, cue up a banging playlist and clear enough space to curl, press and push your way to strength-training endorphin-induced bliss.
7. Start with a light weight
Start lighter – it’s okay to not know what weight you can work with. Choose a lighter weight, try a few reps and adjust from there. The goal should always be perfect form no matter the weight you use.
If you’re not sure what perfect form is, do a little research before you begin. There are myriad examples of how to do foundation moves online (e.g. how to squat properly, how to do a push-up, the perfect plank technique) and YouTube can be a great place to begin. If you need a little more attention, consider investing in a session or two with a personal trainer. They’ll be able to guide you into the right form. Weight training at home is a tricky business – you’re far better off nailing your technique in the long run.
8. Keep a gym log
One of my top tips is to start a gym log to track your strength training sessions, this could be on your phone or on a fitness app like Strong. Keep track of how many reps, sets and what weight you use for each exercise. You could also add a note about how it felt. When you next get to the gym, take a look at what you did last time and see if you can go a little heavier, slow the tempo down or increase the amounts of reps you do.
The Strong app also has video examples of how to perform each exercise, brilliant for beginners just getting started in the weights room.
9. Stay consistent
Strength training is not a guessing game, it takes consistency and structure to develop your strength. You’ll start to see how far you develop in just a few weeks.
Looking for a weight training plan for beginners? This Alice Liveing strength training for beginners programme will get you comfortable with basic exercises and good form.
10. Keep it simple
Keep it simple: don’t overcomplicate strength training by using every piece of equipment in the gym. To get the most bang for your buck focus on doing classic compound exercises for maximal muscle recruitment. Compound exercises are ones that use multiple muscle groups, e.g. a squat, deadlift, bench press and rows.
These exercises should make up the basis of your workouts – done well with good form. If you’re feeling intimidated about how to structure a workout, consult a PT for a single session or consultation where they can talk you through what to work on.
What do I need to do as well as regular strength training?
We know you know that strength training is only part of the puzzle. Sure, strength training has myriad benefits and we should all be doing it to support our bones now and in the future but there are other elements to a well-rounded fitness programme that aren’t found on the underside of a dumbbell.
First up, cardio. Cardio workouts are great for keeping your heart healthy, improving circulation and lowering your blood pressure. Similarly to resistance training, it’s something to make into a lifelong habit.
Slightly surprising, perhaps, but cardio workouts don’t have to mean hundreds of burpees or sprinting around the park. In fact, gentle cardio like walking, swimming and cycling, is brilliant for getting your cardio fix in, too.
Should I do cardio or weights first?
This depends very much on your goal. Here is some advice from the American Council on Exercise:
- If your goal is better endurance, do cardio before weights.
- If your goal is burning fat and losing weight, do cardio after weights.
- If you want to get stronger, do cardio after weights.
- On upper-body strength training days, you can do either first.
- On lower-body strength training days, do cardio after weights.
- If your goal is just general fitness, do either first, but maybe start with the one you like less.
Here’s everything you need to know about cardio workouts at home, what to be aware of when it comes to fasted cardio, how to use cardio for weight loss and when and whether cardio or weights are better for your goals.
Now, what to do when you’re not exercising? You guessed it, help your body get back to baseline.
All of the hard work we put in during our strength training workouts has the potential to come undone if we’re not allowing our bodies to recover in the time in between. But this doesn’t mean you need to lie prone, sipping on protein shakes when you’re not repping out squats.
Active recovery is a good way to increase blood flow (this will majorly help with your muscles repairing themselves) and includes everything from walking to hiking, foam rolling, stretching, doing mobility exercises and gentle yoga.
This guide to active recovery tells you everything you need to know about staying active in the right way between sessions.
And last but not least, NEAT exercise (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis). NEAT is all the movement you do that isn’t demarcated exercise. Think walking the dog, playing with your kids, doing chores, climbing stairs and even fidgeting. All of these things make up a significant part of our total daily energy expenditure (how many calories we burn a day) – much more so than the 40-minute gym workout we sweat through.
The goal with NEAT is to maintain a level of activity every day that supports every other healthy thing we’re trying to do (including strength training and weight training). This was much easier when our commute was longer than bed to kitchen table and back again but there are simple ways to increase how much NEAT you’re doing a day:
- Walking to your destination instead of driving or taking public transport;
- Choosing the stairs over the lift;
- Standing up and walking around for a short time every hour or between meetings.
Strength training for beginners: workouts
Try these weighted and bodyweight strength training workouts from Kate Maxey. With the weighted workout, the weight you choose is up to you, just choose a weight that makes the last rep really tough.
Bodyweight strength training workout
Do each exercise for up to 12 reps. Aim for three to five sets of each exercise before moving on to the next. Take a short rest between each set before moving on (1 – 3 minutes).
1. Crabwalk and press up
a) In a high plank position with your back straight and your core braced move sideways for 3 steps.
b) Perform a push-up, drop down to your knees if you need to. Crab walk back to the start position.
2. Tricep dips
a) Sit on the edge of a bench or chair and place your palms facedown next to your thighs, fingers gripping the edge. Place your feet on the floor in front of you, knees bent. Keeping your arms straight, scoot forward until your hips and butt are in front of the seat
b) Bend your elbows and lower your hips until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Push back to start. That’s one rep.
3. Body weight tempo squat
a) With your legs hip-width apart, lower your bum back for 4 counts until it is parallel with your knees or slightly lower. Your knees should not travel over your toes. Pause for 2 counts.
b) Now, return to standing taking 4 counts. Squeeze your glutes as you go. Pause for 2 counts and repeat.
4. Lateral lunge
a) Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight forward. Step out with your right foot as wide as possible. Engage through the right heel as you drop your hips down and back while keeping the left leg straight, stretching the groin on the left leg and keeping both soles of the feet on the ground and toes pointed straight forward. Make sure your right knee is tracking over your right foot the whole motion.
b) Powerfully “punch” your right heel into the floor to push yourself back to the full standing start position. That’s one rep.
5. Step up with bench
a) Stand in front of a step or bench and place your left foot on the step. Push your body up until your left leg is straight.
b) Return to start. That’s one rep.
Weighted strength training workout for beginners
Do each exercise for up to 12 reps, depending on the weight you’ve chosen and how much strong you currently are. Aim for three to five sets of each exercise before moving on to the next. Take a short rest between each set before moving on (1 – 3 minutes). Remember, pick a weight that challenges you – the last rep should be a struggle!
1. Kettlebell goblet squat
a) Grab a kettlebell or a dumbbell. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, and toes pointed slightly out. Grip the kettlebell by the horn, right-side-up. Pin your elbows to your rib cage and hold the weight right under your chin.
b) Keeping your arms close to your chest and elbows pointing down, bend your hips and knees to lower your body as far as you can over three seconds.
c) When you’re in your deepest position at the bottom of your squat, pause for two seconds, then drive through your glutes, legs, and heels to stand back up to the starting position (over about 3 seconds again).
2. Kettlebell deadlift
a) Get a heavy kettlebell ready on the floor just in front of you. Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart then squat down and pick up the kettlebell.
b) Holding your core tight and back straight, push your bum out and working from your legs, pull yourself back up to stand tall.
3. Dumbbell lunges
a) Hold a dumbbell in each hand, step backward with your right leg and lower your body into a lunge.
b) Pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
4. Dumbbell bench press
a) Lie faceup on a bench with your arms straight, a dumbbell in each hand. Lower the dumbbells until they’re close to the sides of your chest.
b) Press them back up to the starting position. That’s one rep.
5. Dumbbell bent-over row
a) Grab a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Hold the dumbbells at arm’s length, and then bend at your hips and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Your knees should be slightly bent and your lower back naturally arched.
b) Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the dumbbells up to the sides of your torso. Pause, then return to the starting position.
3 common strength training mistakes to watch out for
We’re not going to get it right all the time. No way, no how. But there are some strength training mistakes we should keep a beady eye out for and nip in the bud if they do crop up. Let’s run through the most common strength training mistakes and how to combat them.
1. Lifting too heavy
Loading yourself up with extra weight because the person next to you is lifting double-digit kettlebells is one of the fastest ways to do yourself an injury through strength training. One that could keep you out of the gym or off home workouts for a while. Not ideal.
Instead, plump for a weight you can work through 80% of your reps with comfortably whilst still working hard, it’s only the last 20% of your reps that should feel like a struggle. If you’re not sure how heavy to lift, go lighter than you think and work up from there. This is when you might want to consider progressive overload.
You’ll also want to think about your grip strength. If you plump too high, chances are your grip strength is what will hold you back, even if the muscles you’re trying to target could take on more weight. Check out our grip strength guide for the best ways to improve this.
2. Neglecting the need to rest
It’s easy to do when you’re working to a time limit (hello, speedy lunch break) but the rest periods between strength training and weight training sets are there for a reason. Usually around 60 seconds, taking the full time helps your muscles prepare for the next set to come.
If you don’t need the full 60 seconds, it could be a sign you’re not working hard enough during the ‘on periods’. Whilst you might not be out of breath during weight training workouts, you should still be pushing what’s easy during sets, and need the time in between to recover.
3. Working the same muscle group too often
Finally, if your workout split looks more like an ode to your glutes and nothing else it might be time to think about reworking your weekly strength training and weight training workouts.
Each week, focus on having a balance between upper and lower body resistance training workouts, cardio workouts and recovery activities. It might take a little more forethought but it’s definitely worth it.
44 strength training terms and lingo to get familiar with
- Abduction: The movement of a limb away from the centre line of the body.
- Adduction: The movement of a limb towards the centre line of the body.
- Agonist: The muscle whose contraction is directly responsible for moving part of the body.
- Antagonist: The muscle that counteracts the agonist, lengthening whilst the agonist muscle contracts.
- Barbell: A weight used for resistance exercise; a bar with detachable weighted plates at each end.
- Compound exercise: An exercise that involves using more than one muscle or muscle group to perform.
- Concentric: The lifting phase of an exercise, in which the muscle shortens or contracts.
- DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness): The pain or stiffness felt in muscles in the 24-72 hours after heavy exercise.
- Dumbbell: A weight used for exercising; a small handle with either fixed or detachable plates at each end.
- Eccentric: The lowering phase of an exercise, in which the muscle lengthens.
- Extension: The movement of a limb going from a bent to a straight position.
- Failure: The point in an exercise at which the exerciser has fully fatigued their working muscles and can no longer perform any additional reps.
- Flexion: The movement of a limb going from a straight to a bent position. The opposite of extension.
- Form: A specific way of performing a movement or exercise. The correct form should allow the exerciser to avoid injury and maximise their benefits.
- Free weights: Barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and other similar pieces of equipment that don’t have a fixed movement pattern, unlike a cable machine, for example.
- Frequency: How often exercise or the completion of a full workout should happen. Often written as per week.
- Full body training: Training the full body during one workout, rather than splitting workouts up into body parts.
- Hypertrophy: The scientific term meaning an increase in muscle mass and relative muscle strength.
- Intensity: The degree of effort put into each set of exercises.
- Isolation exercise: An exercise that stresses a single muscle, or muscle group, isolating it from the rest of the body.
- Isometric: A muscular contraction where the muscle maintains a constant length and the connecting joint does not move.
- Isotonic: A muscular contraction in which there is a change in the length of the muscle; for example concentric and eccentric movements.
- Mass: The relative size of a muscle group, or the entire body.
- Muscular endurance: The ability of a muscle to sustain repeated contractions against a resistance for an extended period of time.
- Negative reps: Performing multiple reps of only the eccentric phase of a lift or exercise.
- Overload principle (aka progressive overload): Applying a greater than normal stress or load on the body, required for training adaption and progression to occur.
- Partial reps: Performing an exercise without going through the complete range of motion of the muscle.
- PB (Personal Best): The best performance of an exercise; often measured in weight lifted or reps performed in strength training.
- Periodisation: The systematic planning of a training programme to allow the exerciser to reach their best possible performance in a specific time frame.
- Progressive resistance: Increasing the weight used whilst exercising as muscles gain strength and endurance.
- Push/Pull training: A training method in which the push muscles (chest, triceps, quads and lateral and medial deltoids) and pull muscles (back, biceps, read deltoids and hamstrings) are trained on separate days to avoid overstressing the muscles.
- Reps (Repetitions): The number of times an exerciser performs an exercise, or lifts and lowers a weight, in one set.
- Rest: The pause or break between sets designed to allow the muscles to partially recover.
- RPE (Rated Perceived Exertion): The scale used to measure the intensity of exercise; 1 being easy and 10 being very strenuous.
- Sets: A group of reps performed back to back, after which a short rest period is taken.
- Split training: Also known as a “workout split” this refers to splitting the muscles of the body up so that they are worked in different training sessions or on different days of the week.
- Spotter: A person who watches an exercising partner closely and is on hand to offer help during an exercise if it is needed.
- Strength training: Using resistance training to build maximum muscle force.
- Superset: Alternating back and forth between two exercises until the desired number of sets is complete.
- Tempo: The speed or count of a lift. Depending on the goal of the exercise, the concentric, isometric and eccentric phases are each assigned a count and these together create the tempo.
- Triset: Alternating back and forth between three exercises until the desired number of sets is complete.
- Volume: The number of reps or sets that are performed in a workout.
- Weight: The mass of a barbell, dumbbell or similar piece of equipment used during a workout. Often measured in kg or lbs.
- 1RM (One Rep Max): The heaviest weight a person can lift with maximum effort in a single repetition.
Strength training tips for more experienced exercisers
If you’ve been strength training for a while, two things that could help you are:
Creatine is one of the most-researched fitness supplements on the market, and studies have shown that it can help build strength and muscle mass. Read our guide for the full 411.
2. Incorporating a variety of set types
Switching up your workouts with various types of sets (i.e. rep arrangements) will keep your sessions interesting, and also help you progress. For example, drop sets will enable you to work your muscles to complete failure, by reducing the effort required within each set – rather than giving up completely, although you’ll need to make sure you have someone spotting you throughout so that you don’t forget your form and wind up with an injury. Other set types you could consider include supersets, trisets and pyramid sets.