If you're thinking about getting into weightlifting or are just starting weightlifting, this article's for you. It can be intimidating to get into a lifting routine, especially if you're not accustomed to the equipment, movements, or overall gym environment. There's nothing worse than feeling out of place or embarrassed when picking up a new hobby or lifestyle, which is why I decided to write this gym guide. Armed with the basics, you'll feel more comfortable about what you're doing and have a better chance of turning weightlifting into a long-term passion.
What's the Best Beginner Weightlifting Program?
A great lifting program for beginners is the pull, push, legs routine. This workout split targets each core muscle group and will get you acclimated to all of the basic lifting movements you should know. It's also flexible and allows you to create a workout schedule around your other obligations.
Pull, Push, Legs Routine
In this program, pull means back and biceps, push means chest and triceps, and legs means quads, hamstrings, and glutes. The pull, push, legs routine can be performed on a typical Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule for beginners, and then expanded into a full powerbuilding program. Here's a breakdown of what to target each day:
- On pull day: Focus on rows and pull-downs. These can be done with free weights or machines, and will likely vary depending on what equipment you have available to you. Toward the end of your workout, you have the option to isolate your biceps.
- On push day: This is your typical bench press day. Many lifters will alternate between flat and incline bench press, and will incorporate dumbbells and machines. Toward the end of your workout, you have the option to isolate your triceps.
- On leg day: I recommend doing squats on one leg day and deadlifts on your next. Put another way, I'm suggesting a quad-dominant leg day and then a hamstring-dominant leg day. This can also be done with machines and thought of as a leg press vs leg curl split, though machines are lower-impact and could be done on the same day.
Bodyweight vs Free Weights
Bodyweight exercises are a great way to build baseline strength and get accustomed to lifting movements. Once you feel comfortable doing bodyweight exercises, you should consider switching to free weights, which will make you truly strong. For example, push-ups at your bodyweight force you to do higher reps to get stronger. This is fine, but it turns into an endurance workout more than a strength workout. A marathon runner has strong legs, but it's not the same type of explosive strength used by powerlifters. Below is the simplest way to transition from bodyweight exercises to free weights:
- Get comfortable doing bodyweight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and squats.
- Do weighted versions of these exercises, but with light weight and high reps, like bench press and squats with an empty bar, and rows with light dumbbells.
- Gradually increase the weights you use, lower your rep range, and incorporate more weightlifting movements.
Free Weights vs Machines
Most weightlifters use both free weights and machines. Free weights can be used for compound movements like squats or isolation movements like curls, whereas machines are usually for isolation movements. Are free weights better than machines? Not necessarily, as they both serve a purpose.
Free weights hit your muscle groups harder because they require you to stabilize and support the weight. Machines, on the other hand, are guided and take off some of the load for you.
With that said, machines can force you to move in an unnatural way for your body, so they're not always ideal. Most lifters will begin their workouts with free weights and then switch to machines as they become fatigued.
Compound Lifts vs Isolation
Compound lifts are movements that incorporate multiple muscle groups at the same time. Isolation lifts, as the name implies, target an area. To think of it another way, compound lifts are more athletic, while isolation movements focus on building up your strength and size in specific muscles. To maximize strength gains, you'll want to incorporate both, but with a focus on compound lifts. Squat, bench press, and deadlift are the big 3 powerlifting movements, and are the most popular compound lifts. They do a great job of increasing your overall strength, while isolation movements are the icing on the cake.
Should I Do Cardio Before or After Weights?
If your goal is to build strength, you should do cardio after you train with weights. Light cardio before a workout is a great active warmup, but anything longer than several minutes will begin to cost you the explosive energy needed for your lifts. Finding a good balance takes trial and error. Personally, I do 2-5 minutes on a stationary bike before each workout to warm up, and save additional cardio for afterward (or another time altogether).
When Is the Best Time to Workout?
There's no universal "best time" to workout, as many factors play a role for each individual. What time do you wake up? Do you have kids to attend to? When do you work or go to school? Do you train for endurance or strength? Unfortunately, our schedules usually dictate when we workout more than anything else.
However, late morning or a few hours after lunch are great for weightlifting if your schedule allows for it. A late morning workout will give you time to loosen up and become more alert, while most of our lung capacities are highest in the late afternoon, which can improve performance. The biggest caveat with the latter is to be careful with preworkouts loaded with caffeine that may impact your sleep quality. Most important, in my opinion, is finding a consistent time that you can adapt to.
What Is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload training is a fancy term for increasing the intensity of your workouts over time. The idea is simple: As you get settled into your workout routine and become comfortable with your exercises, you'll need to continually ramp up your effort to see results. This means increasing the weights you use, frequency of your exercises, or number of repetitions you perform.
How Many Exercises Should I Do per Workout?
The ideal number of exercises to do per workout will vary depending on who you talk to, with a consensus falling somewhere between 4 to 8 movements. For building strength, I suggest focusing on one main compound movement per workout (such as squat, bench press, or deadlift), and then following up with a few machines and isolation movements. This will help you build size and strength in each muscle group, and should remain relatively consistent as you progress in your weightlifting journey.
How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?
Your sets and reps will change day to day and along your weightlifting progression over time. The difference will depend on your level of experience:
- Starting off: You should only do a handful of sets (perhaps 3 to 4) at a light weight for high reps (somewhere between 8 to 12). This will get you acclimated to lifting weights.
- As you progress: You should increase your volume over time by adding more sets. Your number of reps will begin to vary by day, as some days should still be lower intensity (lighter weight for higher reps), while others should be higher intensity (heavier weight for lower reps). Common rep ranges are 8-12 reps, 4-6 reps, 2-3 reps, and singles.
Rest Between Sets
Your rest time between sets will determine how you perform on your next set. Too short and you'll still be fatigued; too long and you'll risk getting cold. A general rest range for weightlifters is 2-5 minutes to maximize strength. This is another aspect that takes trial and error, but here's a simple rule:
Heavy compound movements require more time to recover than machines and isolation movements.
No matter how advanced you become in weightlifting, it's important to recover properly. This means scheduling rest days, knowing when to take it easy, and becoming more aware of your body.
Active Recovery & Rest Days
Even the top lifters in the world need rest days to recover and grow. Depending on your goals and experience, you might have a rest day every other day or only 1 to 2 times per week. I'd suggest doing recovery workouts after your high-intensity days to loosen up. This could be a light workout (low weight, high reps, and minimal exertion) or active rest day (such as going on a bike ride). Other times, it might be warranted to do some light stretching and wait for your next workout.
Should You Workout When Sore?
It's a simple fact that you'll be sore as a weightlifter. Building muscle essentially involves the muscles becoming damaged and repaired stronger than before. Your level of soreness may dictate how intense your next workout will be, but shouldn't prevent you from working out unless you are truly injured. Learning the difference takes time and is crucial to getting stronger safely.
Should You Workout When Sick?
The answer depends on how sick you are. Light movement can help you recover faster, but sometimes it's better to wait it out. If you have a high fever with body aches, it's better (for yourself and others) to wait. If you have the sniffles and are a little stiff, I'd suggest carrying on as normal or with a light workout.
In addition to your new weightlifting routine and the tips in this gym guide, there are a few other basics to keep in mind:
- Proper sleep and nutrition will go a long way in your strength-building success.
- Weightlifting supplements are not required, but can aid in your development.
- Your training mindset will determine how far you take your weightlifting journey.
Now get out there and build the future you that you envisioned!