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A Beginner’s Guide to Weights and Strength Training

Smiling woman exercising.

If you’re new to weight training, below is a brief summary of the basic principles.

When you have digested this primer you may wish to follow up with these additional articles, which should ensure you have a solid knowledge foundation.

  • Ten basic exercises. and how to perform them.
  • Where to Train, Home or Gym. Advantages and disadvantages of two options.
  • Begin That First Weights Session. Tips on getting ready for weight training.
  • Best Weight Training Guide. A guide for anyone interested in the more technical principles of weight training.

The basics of weight training are relatively simple but you can progress all the way to the complex Olympic lifts, the clean and jerk, and the snatch if that’s your inclination. There’s no need to get too fussy about which particular exercise version you do when starting out, as long as you protect yourself from injury with correct technique. Like starting any new exercise program, go easy at the beginning, build complexity later. As one well-known lifter was heard to say: “Get on with it: lift the darn weights!”

What Is Weight Training?

Weight training is an organized exercise in which muscles of the body are made to contract in response to external weights, body exercise or resistance, or other devices in order to stimulate growth and strength. Weight training is also called ‘resistance training’ and ‘strength training’.

What Are the Benefits of Weight Training?

Weight or resistance training or strength training has important benefits beyond building big muscles, which is often the focus of much media attention. Weight training can:

  • Tone and shape the body for weight loss, personal appearance or bodybuilding competition.
  • Improve sporting performance by increasing bulk, strength, power and endurance in sports such as football, baseball, hockey, cycling and most individual and team sports.
  • Prepare you for competition weightlifting in Olympic lifting and Powerlifting sports.
  • Prevent lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and obesity.
  • Build strength and improve balance and functionality, especially as we age.
  • Assist in recovery from, or management of, chronic illnesses or conditions such as heart disease, stroke, hip replacement, and arthritis.
  • Assist in physical therapy during recovery from accident and hospitalization.
  • Prepare soldiers for service and combat readiness or for any other activity requiring strength and power.

Where Should I Do My Weight Training?

You can train at a gymnasium, health club or fitness center or at home. Some workplaces install workout gyms and many holiday resorts also have at least basic equipment. Some people prefer to train at home with their own weights and equipment. You will find advantages and disadvantages to each approach.H

Still, others like open-air activity and take portable equipment such as resistance bands and tubes to parks and fields.

Equipment Needed to Start Weight Training

At the very least you need a solid pair of shoes with a non-slip sole, a water bottle, a towel, and appropriate clothing. For a home workout, starting equipment could include an adjustable weights bench for doing various exercises; dumbbells — perhaps even only two or three different weights; an adjustable step for aerobic stepping; an exercise or yoga mat for floor exercises, and a fitness ball, which is an inflatable ball on which a variety of body exercises can be performed.

Using your own body to contract muscles is a substantial part of weight training. A pushup is a good example of using the body’s own weight to train arm and chest muscles. Chinups and situps are other examples.

What Equipment Is Available at Gyms and Fitness Centers?

Gyms usually have a combination of free weights, machines, chairs, benches, balls, and bands. The free weights tend to be used in a room or area separate from the machines and other equipment, but not always. It depends on the club.

Free weights tend to be fairly standard with barbells, dumbbells, bars with adjustable plate weights, perhaps Kettlebells and a few other pieces of ancillary equipment such as racks and cages.

Machines such as treadmills, step machines, cross trainers, rowing machines, cable weights, pulldown machines, assisted dip machines and multi-gyms, to name a few, seem to be growing in design and function faster than global warming, while even fancy electronic things with swipe cards to remember you by are seen in some places.

Do I Need a Personal Trainer?

Hiring a personal trainer (PT) is a good idea, but you need to be sure that the person is qualified and has some sort of track record of quality work. A PT can be engaged privately or you can usually hire one at the gym for an hourly rate. Many gyms include at least one training session or walk-through with your membership, during which you get to try out different exercise machines and weights. A training program may also be included. You should check this out with any prospective gym before signing up.

High school, college and university gyms, coaches and trainers no doubt vary in quality and expertise, yet they can be an excellent introduction.

How Should I Warm Up and Cool Down?

A warm-up should include light aerobic exercise for ten to fifteen minutes. Before doing any lifting exercise with weights, a few repetitions with a lighter weight than chosen for the main exercise is a good strategy.

A cool down may help to reduce muscle soreness in the following hours. Cool down with light stretching, calisthenics, or by performing a slower version of the activity; for example, a slow jog for runners, a slow swim for swimmers.

What Are ‘Sets’ and ‘Repetitions’?

This is a simple concept, but you should be completely familiar with it because this determines the quality and quantity of just about all weight training programs.

A repetition is one complete exercise movement and is often shortened to ‘rep’. For example, one lift of a barbell from the floor to the waist and back down again is a repetition of one. Sounds a bit strange when a repetition is only one, but wait, there’s more to come. Repetitions apply to every exercise you do including those without weights. Two situps is also two repetitions.

A set is a group of repetitions and is defined by a rest break in between: for example, you do six barbell lifts and then you rest for two minutes and do another six. If you repeat this cycle of six three times you have done three sets of six repetitions of the barbell exercise. This is written similar to this:
barbell deadlift 3 X 6, or 3 sets 6 reps.

What Does RM Mean?

Repetition Maximum. This is the maximum load that can be tolerated for a given number of repetitions before your muscles fail or tire badly and you have to stop. For example, you do ten bicep arm curls with a dumbbell of 15 pounds (about 7 kilos) and you cannot bend the arm to lift the weight for the next repetition. That is written like this: bicep curl – 10RM – 15 pounds.

1RM is like your personal best for any exercise. It’s the most you can lift for just one repetition. Your 1RM for the dumbbell curl could be 25 pounds (about 11 kilos) but your 10RM is only 15 pounds.

What Is ‘Good Form’?

Performing an exercise with the appropriate form means following the recommended body position and movement to ensure an efficient lift as well as protection from injury. For example, for the squat, the maintenance of a straight back with heels anchored firmly on the ground and knees unbowed or collapsed inward is important for the performance of this exercise.

What Are Compound and Isolation Exercises?

Compound exercises target more than one joint and more than one muscle group. Isolation exercises are limited to one joint movement and usually a single muscle group; for example, a standard dumbbell curl is an isolation exercise while squats are compound exercises that involve muscles of the legs, back, gluteals (butt) and the knees, hips and ankle joints. A bench press is also a compound exercise.

What Is ‘Spotting’?

Spotting is the practice of a friend or trainer watching or assisting you while you lift weights for the purpose of safety or guidance. A spotter may actually assist a person under load in the event that the weight threatens to overwhelm the person being spotted or to suggest good form. Exercises like the bench press with heavy weights usually require a spotter.

How Should I Breathe?

Except for certain advanced techniques, you should exhale on effort, that is, when you push, lift or pull, and inhale as you return to the starting position. It is easy to forget to breathe when doing weights — not for long, of course — yet it is worthwhile to remind yourself occasionally about your breathing.

The Next Step

Like many sports and fitness activities, you can progress to higher levels of knowledge, complexity and personal expertise in weight training with a little time and commitment. Read the additional articles listed at the beginning of this article or browse the other information at this site. Most of all, get down to it and do some weight training at home or gym. Start slowly and you will be surprised at how quickly you can make progress.

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