“I threw this exercise in just for fun. ‘Cause I’m evil like that.”

Weight training for beginners

LET’S GET BIG!

Kidding! But only a little…

Today I’m going to talk about a topic that’s very important to me: weight training. I neglected weight training for a long time, opting instead for the ever-popular cardio. However, I can now say that weights have had the biggest effect on my physique and, surprisingly, my sense of empowerment.

My start

I started weight training when I graduated college. To tell the truth, I was tired of having to accept help lifting up my huge suitcase on Amtrak trains and frustrated by my lacking arm strength when turning my ICU patients in bed. I wanted to feel strong.

It was daunting when I started. What kind of equipment should I buy? How do I use all these different gym machines? Why does it seem like everyone in the gym knows what they’re doing, except me?

I’ve since gotten my personal training certification through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and put a little bit of weight training experience under my belt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge hulking mass of muscle and don’t claim to be. Anyone who knows me will tell you: I’m a small person. But I’m a whole heck of a lot stronger for it, feel my best, and am way more toned.

As many people now know, the misconception that lifting weights will make you bulky has been debunked. It certainly can make you bulky, though, if that’s your goal. There are different techniques you can use to achieve your particular objective. You just have to know what they are and, most importantly, get started.

Your Start

Which brings me to today: weight training for beginners, men and women alike. This post aims to provide some basic exercises that can be performed at home, with minimal equipment. They can all be done in one weight training session. If you have gym access, you can absolutely do these there too. For each exercise I can, I’ll link to a full demo with further information from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) website. It’s another reputable personal training certification program. Feel free to browse further in their exercise library, as it is an excellent resource. Off we go!

Please note: Below I suggest performing most of these exercises as 3 sets of 10 reps because performing at least 30 total reps of an exercise has been shown to build muscle. As far as weight amounts to use, I’m giving suggestions based on my experience selecting starting weights for patients/clients. If it is too heavy, please stop and select the next lowest dumbbell you have. If that is still too heavy, perform the exercise without weight at first! There is nothing wrong with that, as it is still working your muscles. Feel free to omit any of these exercises as well. And of course, if you have any pain while performing these exercises, please STOP IMMEDIATELY! Do not injure yourself. We all have different bodies and different past medical/surgical histories; please be safe.

Glute bridge

These first two exercises are the foundation of the core exercises. By core I mean all the muscles that attach in the torso: abdominal, back, hip, and gluteal muscles. These are important to strengthen first as they help prevent injuries down the road when you progress to more demanding exercises. The stronger your core, the better your balance and stabilization which is also crucial to preventing accidents later in life, such as falls.

To perform:

Lay on your back with arms by your sides and knees bent.  Contract your abdominal muscles and raise your hips off the ground until your body is in a straight line. Squeeze the glutes. Slowly lower back down to the floor, and repeat.

3 sets of 10 reps

To progress:

Add a weight such as a 3 or 5 lb dumbbell on top of your hips to increase the resistance.

Glute bridge demonstration

Plank

Another core exercise, the plank should be a staple in your weight training regimen. Body weight exercises can be some of the most challenging. With the plank, the most important thing to remember is pulling the abdomen in towards the spine the entire time.

To perform:

Get on hands on knees. Lower down to forearms and extend legs behind you so you are holding your hips and torso off the ground. Tense the belly and hold! Make sure your body is in a straight line – no sagging or raised hips!

Start with 30 seconds and try to increase to 60 seconds over time.

To progress:

Dip your hips from side to side while holding yourself up. You can also raise each arm and leg in turn to challenge your balance, also called “around the world” plank.

Plank demonstration

Leg raise

I threw this exercise in just for fun. ‘Cause I’m evil like that. It’s excellent for the lower abs and burns so good.

To perform:

Lay on your back with legs fully extended. Tense the belly and raise your legs up to 90°. Lower the legs back down, but don’t let them touch the floor. Repeat, raising and lowering the legs. Note: it’s best if you keep your whole back on the ground the entire time, not letting the small of your back arch when you lower your legs. If this means you need to refrain from lowering your legs too far, that’s okay. Protect your back!

3 sets of 10 – 20 reps

To progress:

If you feel so inclined, you can add ankle weights. Those who do – you are one tough cookie.

Bicep curl

One of my favorites, because who doesn’t want nice guns you can show off in a tank top. I like to use bicep curls and the next exercise, tricep extensions, in a superset. That just means you alternate between exercises. For example, complete one set of bicep curls and then do a set of tricep extensions immediately after – that’s one set. Supersets are good for muscle groups that oppose each other. Working both muscle groups is important to keep them equally strong and prevent injury.

To perform:

Stand shoulder width apart with dumbbells in each hand. Bending at the elbows and keeping the upper arms at your sides, slowly raise the dumbbells up to the shoulders. Note: the slower the better! Count to 3 on the way up and the way back down if it helps you remember. The most important time to go slow is when you’re lowering the dumbbells and resisting the gravitational pull. This is actually when you’re building the most muscle!

3 sets of 10 reps

5 lbs is often a good starting place. You should feel some muscle fatigue at the end, but be able to complete all repetitions with good form.

Bicep curl demonstration

Tricep extension

This is a good exercise for the back of the arms, often lovingly referred to as the “bat wings”.

To perform:

Stand shoulder width apart with knees slightly bent and bend forward at the hips by 45°. Keep your shoulders back and your back as straight as a board. Start with arms bent at a 45° angle at the elbows, holding dumbbells in each hand. Keeping the upper arms in the same position, lower the dumbbells and push them back by straightening the arms.  Return the forearms to the starting position and repeat.

3 – 5 lbs is often a good starting place.

3 sets of 10 reps

Tricep extension demonstration

Row

Rows and chest presses are another superset I love. Rows work the upper back and also make the arms burn.

To perform:

Stand shoulder width apart and bend forward at the hips by 45°, keeping shoulders back and your back straight as a board (same as with tricep extension). Place arms straight out in front of you, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Now pull your arms back until the dumbbells are by your sides; you should feel your shoulder blades squeeze together. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position and repeat.

7 – 10 lbs is often a good starting place.

3 sets of 10 reps

Row demonstration

Chest press

The purpose of the chest press is in the name: it strengthens the chest.

To perform:

Lay on your back on a bench or the floor with legs extended or bent. Holding dumbbells in each hand, put your arms out to the sides with elbows bent at a 45° angle, dumbbells up in the air, and palms facing towards your feet. Slowly extend your arms straight up over you. Lower your arms back to the starting position, and repeat.

7 – 8 lbs is often a good starting place.

3 sets of 10 reps

Chest press demonstration

Squats

Squats are a superstar exercise. They work the lumbopelvic hip complex (LPHC), which is made of muscles that connect to the hips, legs, back, and abdominals. Working the LPHC can greatly help reduce the risk of back and leg injuries.

To perform:

Stand shoulder width apart, with toes pointed straight forward. Keeping the chest up and hips back, bend at the knees and lower your body, putting your weight in your heels. Lower as far as you can without letting the knees go past your toes. Then rise back up, push the hips forward while squeezing the glutes, and repeat. Note: if your knees hurt while performing this exercise, make sure you’re putting your weight in your heels (not your toes!) and that your knees aren’t going past your toes at the bottom. Contract your belly while performing this move too to get an extra ab exercise in!

3 sets of 10 reps

To progress:

Hold one 10 – 20 lb dumbbell at chest level (aka goblet squat) and feel the legs fire up!

Squat demonstration

Look at you! You weight lifting muscle machine. If you complete these exercises, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Are there any other weighted exercises that you love? Weight training is one of the most empowering things I’ve done. The stronger you are, the more you can do more for yourself – and that’s a pretty amazing feeling.

Happy lifting!