Ultimate Guide to Strength Training for Beginners
You've probably heard that you should do strength training workouts, but maybe running a few miles or hopping on a spin bike fits your personality more. While that's totally fine, you should keep in mind that the benefits of strength training are too good to pass up, and they range from building muscle endurance to preventing injury.
Read on for a guide to beginner strength training and a closer look at exercises to consider implementing into your workout regimen.
What Is Strength Training?
Most people think of weight lifting when talking about strength training. Contrary to popular belief, though, you can build muscle strength using various methods, including using your own body weight, resistance bands, cable resistance machines, and yes, weight machines and free weights.
When you add weights to an exercise (whether it's via free weights or a weight machine at the gym), that is considered weight training. When it comes to strength training for beginners (and in general), it's important to understand that you can add resistance and strength train without added weight. This is particularly helpful when you don't have access to weights or machines or can't use them for any other reason.
Benefits of Strength Training for Beginners and Beyond
New to strength training? For starters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends strengthening activities "at least two days a week." Keep in mind, that's in combination with "150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity," such as a brisk walk or casual bike ride.
"Basic strength training is key to developing a strong muscular foundation," says Joel Freeman, creator of the LIIFT4 program and Beachbody Super Trainer. "Bones give your body structure, but muscles are what allow you to move, and well."
It's not always the most fun or glamorous when you start weight training, but if you do it correctly, then you'll have the strength to really do the things you love, says Freeman. "And increasing the amount of muscle in your body also aids in increasing your metabolism, which means you'll burn more calories throughout the day," he says. "That can be a win-win," especially if your goal is to lose weight.
How to Add Strength Training Exercises for Beginners Into Your Routine
Ideally, a beginner weight lifting routine should include eight to 10 exercises targeting the major muscle groups. This total-body routine does exactly that and can be performed a few times a week to maintain and build strength all over. (Want a full month of strength programming? Try this four-week strength training plan for women.)
Start small with your weights and increase as needed: "Choose a weight that's just heavy enough to complete 10 reps, and by that eighth rep, you feel really happy it's almost over," says Freeman. "This will ensure you're challenging your muscles so they can grow and get stronger."
Ready to give it a try? Follow along below to get a great strength training workout that's totally beginner-friendly
Strength Training Workout for Beginners
How it works: Do 2 sets of 10 to 15 reps of each exercise. Repeat it two or three times a week on alternate days.
You'll need: Two sets of dumbbells (3 to 5 pounds and 8 to 12 pounds) or a set of resistance bands.
Dumbbell Chest Press
Muscles worked: chest, shoulders, triceps
A. Lie on a bench, elbows bent 90 degrees out to sides.
B. Straighten arms up and return. Keep the weights centered over the middle of the chest.
Modification: Do these on the floor instead of a bench to keep from hyperextending arms below the chest, which can place a lot of stress on the shoulders.
Why you should do it: "Your chest is one of your largest upper-body muscles, and when it comes to chest training, the chest press reigns supreme," says Freeman. "It's a compound movement, meaning that it's also working your anterior deltoids [the front of your shoulders] and triceps throughout the movement."
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Muscles worked: upper back
A. Stand with legs hip-width apart and place one hand on the bench with opposite arm holding the weight below shoulder.
B. Draw elbow up toward ribs and lower. Keep back flat and stand with a 45-degree bend at the hips.
Why you should do it: "The single-arm dumbbell row is a great compound upper-body movement targeting your upper back, lats, and traps while your biceps and shoulders assist throughout," says Freeman. "Standing during this exercise is also a great way to get some extra core work in as well. Just remember that there should be zero momentum or swinging — slow and steady wins the muscular race!"
Muscles worked: biceps
A. Stand with arms extended in front of thighs and one dumbbell in each hand with palms facing forward.
B. Slowly curl weights toward shoulders then lower to starting position.
Why you should do it: "This is the best isolation exercise for your biceps," says Freeman. The key here is to nix all momentum; don't swing to get the dumbbell up. "Think about trying to pin your elbows at your sides and lift the dumbbell up completely with your biceps," he says. "Stop at the top before your elbows move away from your sides — meaning if the weights touch your shoulders, you've gone too far." (Here are more tips to master the biceps curl.)
Muscles worked: triceps
A. Stand with legs hip-width apart.
B. Lean forward from the waist, elbows bent 90 degrees at sides.
C. Straighten arms.
Why you should do it: "The triceps extension is a great isolation move where you don't need a lot of weight to feel the burn," says Freeman. Similar to the biceps curl, the key here is to think of your elbow as a hinge pinned at your side. "The only thing that should be moving is your elbow to straighten your arm, squeezing your triceps at the top and return."
Muscles worked: shoulders
A. Stand with arms down by sides, palms in.
B. Raise straight arms (with pinky leading the way) to shoulder height.
Why you should do it: "Well-built lateral delts [the sides of your shoulders] are what give you that nice rounded shoulder look, and the lateral raise is the best exercise to isolate this muscle," says Freeman. "Just like any isolation move, it's all about control to execute this move properly."
Muscles worked: legs, butt
A. Stand feet a bit wider than hips-distance apart, toes turned slightly out.
B. Keeping weight in the mid-foot and heels (not the toes), sit back and down. Keep knees in line with toes and focus on keeping chest lifted.
C. Lower until thighs are parallel to the floor, if possible.
Why you should do it: "Squats have become the more popular of all lower-body exercises, especially if you're looking to grow your glutes!" says Freeman. But keep in mind: "Safety is a must in this exercise to avoid injury, specifically to the lower back area. If you're newer or returning to exercise, it's often best to start with bodyweight only and focus completely on flexibility and proper form. If you can't go that low without dropping your chest forward, keep working on your flexibility." Once your form is on-point, you can start to add weight. (Make sure you know how to do squats correctly before trying out this strength training workout for beginners.)
Muscles worked: legs, butt
A. Stand with feet together and a dumbbell in each hand by sides.
B. Step forward with the right foot, lowering until both knees form 90-degree angles and back knee is hovering off the ground.
C. Push off the front heel to step back and return to starting position.
D. Repeat on the other side.
Why you should do it: "Also great for the legs and booty, lunges can also wreak havoc on your knees if done incorrectly," says Freeman. "This is a challenging move and can easily be felt using only bodyweight."
Muscles worked: abs
A. Lie faceup on the floor.
B. Bend opposite elbow to knee, then switch sides.
Why you should do it: "Bicycle twists are great to engage multiple areas of your core, especially the obliques," says Freeman. "The main error that many people make with this core exercise is pulling on your neck. To avoid this, try placing your fingertips right behind your temples and keep your elbows open, instead of closing them in towards your head." If you do feel any neck strain, it means you're trying to lift higher than your core has the strength to and you're compensating in your neck. "Lower your range (meaning: don't try to lift as high off the ground) and slow down your twists instead," says Freeman. "You'll still feel it!"
Muscles worked: lower back, butt
A. Lie facedown on the floor and lift opposite arm and leg.
B. Switch sides. Keep gaze down to the floor to maintain proper postural alignment.
Why you should do it: "This is a wonderful lower-back exercise, which is a must to help prevent lower-back injuries," says Freeman. When set up on your stomach, think about planting your toes into the floor and not letting them come off the ground at any time. This will also help you engage more glutes as well. When lifting your chest off the floor, you really don't have to lift very high. Just focus on squeezing your booty as you lift, and you'll also be engaging the lower-back muscles.