Adding weight training to your fitness routine has many health benefits, but getting started can feel overwhelming.
Should you use kettlebells or weight machines at a gym? How many reps should you do? How can you start weight training without getting injured? Even with all that confusion, there are some basic principles to help you get started.
Here are just some of the ways that weight training can benefit your health and fitness:
— Boosts sports performance if you’re an athlete.
— Builds and maintains muscle mass.
— Improves balance, helping to reduce your risk for falls if you’re an older adult.
— Promotes weight loss when combined with a healthy diet and other physical activity.
— Stops or slows the age-related loss of lean muscle mass.
— Supports bone health.
[READ: Muscle Recovery After Workouts.]
Types of Weights
What type of weights should you use if you’re new to weight training? The answer may not be the same for everyone, as it depends on your goals, your fitness level and your budget.
Some options include:
— Items around your home that can serve as dumbbells, like soup cans and water gallons.
— Resistance bands.
— Using your own body weight.
— Weight training machines at a gym or at home.
Fitness trainers will have differing opinions on what equipment you should use to get started. Jessica Mazzucco, a certified fitness trainer and founder of The Glute Recruit in New York City, advises those new to weight lifting to start with their own body weight, as it’ll help you get familiar with movement patterns in strength training and get a good workout.
The use of your own body weight is what happens with exercises like pushups and lunges. After you have good form, you can use free weights or light kettlebells. Although starting weights can differ for everyone, 5 to 20 pounds is a reasonable range, Mazzucco says.
For dumbbells, you can invest in a set of light, medium and heavy weights to offer more challenge as you progress, says Jill Weinreb, a trainer with the fitness app WeStrive based in Freehold, New Jersey. There also are adjustable dumbbells that allow you to add on weight as you prefer.
You also can get creative. If you have an interest in barbells, you can start with a barbell that has no weights on the sides. If that’s too much, you could even use a PVC pipe from a hardware store or a broomstick in your closet to get started, Weinreb says.
9 Tips to Get You Started With Weight Training
— Use a trainer initially if you can afford one.
— Always warm up.
— Learn the right form.
— Keep the number of reps in mind.
— Start with two to three weight training sessions a week.
— Balance weight lifting with heart-pumping cardio exercise.
— Change it up when you no longer feel challenged.
— Listen to your body.
— Be consistent.
Use a trainer initially if you can afford one.
There’s no replacing a qualified fitness trainer who can tailor guidance to your specific needs and teach you how to use proper form to avoid injury. If you can shell out the money for a trainer, it can be invaluable, says Tommy Hockenjos, a trainer with the fitness app WeStrive based in High Point, North Carolina.
If that’s not in your budget, then there are many videos online that can walk you through weightlifting basics, Mazzucco says. Some videos are free, while others are part of low-cost health and fitness apps. Both the Mayo Clinic and a company called Catalyst Athletics provide free videos for weight training.
Always warm up.
“I think of the workout like a highway,” Hockenjos says. “The warm up serves as the on ramp where we prepare our body to go from 25 miles per hour to going 65 during our workout. Then our cool down serves as the off ramp.”
Warm ups also help you to avoid injuries because you’re more limber. Although both the warm up and cool down are important, a 5- to 10-minute warm up is more critical if you’re strapped for time.
One idea for warm ups is to start with only half of your intended weight for an exercise and do 10 repetitions, advises Sergio Pedemonte, personal trainer and CEO of Your House Fitness in Toronto. From there, you can increase the weight by 10% to 15% and perform more reps until you reach the desired weight for the day.
A quick cool down could be as simple as holding a child’s pose — like the one used in yoga — for a minute, to help bring the body back to a neutral state, Weinreb says.
Learn the right form.
One common mistake for new weight lifters is to overeagerly lift too much and then get injured. Weinreb has started out clients lifting with no weight at all just to make sure their body is moving correctly. She also has had clients remove weights if their form is off.
Use your video-based resources or knowledgeable trainers to help teach proper form when weight training. You also can take video of yourself performing reps to get a better sense of your form, Pedemonte advises. If you can, film yourself at different angles. Compare this to the correct form to see where you need to improve.
Getting adequate sleep and eating a balanced diet also make a difference in learning the right form and preventing injuries, Hockenjos says.
Keep the number of reps in mind.
There’s no magic number of reps for beginning weight trainers. One common recommendation is three sets of 8 to 12 reps, Mazzucco says. It’s OK to do fewer reps and use no weight or a lighter weight while you learn the right form.
Barbell and heavier weight training typically take a different approach, using fewer reps but challenging yourself with more weight on one or two of the final reps. Don’t push yourself into doing so many reps that you always feel sore and exhausted at the end of a workout, Mazzucco says. That often can lead to burnout.
Start with two to three weight training sessions a week.
If you’re completely new to weight training, even one session a week can break some of the bad effects of a sedentary lifestyle, Mazzucco says. However, two to three sessions can help you build muscle and lose weight.
Try to schedule weight training routines at least two days apart in the beginning, so your body has more time to recover, Pedemonte recommends. You should still do other physical activity between that time, just not weight training.
As weight lifting becomes part of your regular workout routine, you can move up to four to five times weekly. Some people like to divide weight training into sessions focused on an upper body workout one day and the lower body the next day.
Others prefer exercises that work as much of the body as possible during each session. If you have one area of your body that feels sore on a particular day due to the previous day’s workout, consider giving it a rest to focus on another area of the body for your current workout.
Balance weight lifting with heart-pumping cardio exercise.
Both weight lifting and cardio exercises have a role in improving your overall health. Weinreb, who is a CrossFit trainer, likes to incorporate both weight lifting and traditional cardio exercises like walking or biking into an exercise session — combining these is part of the CrossFit approach.
Other people prefer to weight train on certain days and do walking, running, swimming or other cardio activities on the remaining days. Federal physical activity guidelines currently recommend 150 minutes of moderate cardio activity each week, which breaks down to 30 minutes a day, five days a week. The guidelines also recommend two or more strength-training sessions each week.
Change it up when you no longer feel challenged.
If you always lift the same weight for the same number of reps, your body will adapt and not change, Weinreb says. As you get started with weight training, watch out for plateaus that indicate you should vary your weight workout to add a new challenge. If you don’t have access to new equipment, see if you can at least vary the weight that you use, she advises.
Listen to your body.
Starting a weight training routine doesn’t mean you’re a robot. Even if you’re making progress with your lifting, other factors can affect how much you can lift on a given day, Pedemonte says.
These can include:
— A bad diet.
— A change in your workout time.
— A new workout.
— Poor sleep.
It’s OK if you lift less some days than others due to factors like these.
You can take a day off sometimes to have a beer with a friend or spend time with your kids, Hockenjos says. You’ll still see progress over time if you’re consistent about training.
And, adds Pedemonte, “the best way to be consistent is to avoid injury and to enjoy the process.”
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