Convinced that you should do strength training and lift weights, but not sure where to begin? Look no further – I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to get started quickly and safely.
Wait, you do know why you should lift weights, right? No? Well, go back and read part one.
Before you begin working out, it’s important to make sure your diet is in check. What you eat will have a profound effect on how you perform during your workout, how you feel, and how fast and well you recover. We highly recommend the Paleo diet for both athletes and anyone looking to optimize their health. Having a good diet is essential to gaining and maintaining strength, recovering, keeping your hormones in check and having the energy to do these workouts in the first place.
The exercises I suggest in this article are for people who want to be fit and enjoy optimal health. Everyone should strength train and lift weights so in this article I’m just going to cover the basics. This is a starting point, the beginning. What you should do as far as strength training largely depends on your goals – but I’m just going to focus on attaining basic, functional strength that everyone should have to maintain optimal health.
Before you go running into a gym, let’s cover the basic movements you should be doing and how to do them. I’m talking about lean, strong muscles gained by doing workouts that target lots of muscle groups all at once – compound workouts – no curls or any workout that only focuses on one muscle at a time.
These movements will always be in the form of:
- .. And generally picking up heavy things
Body Weight & Dumbbell Workouts
If you’ve never done any sort of strength training and have been fairly inactive, you need to start slow and somewhere easy. This is where you get an idea of how much you can do, and perfect your form. Having good form is crucial to not hurting yourself and ensuring that you are getting the most out of your workout.
Body weight and dumbbell workouts are an excellent place to start out for someone new to strength training: there’s no need for a gym membership, it’s inexpensive to get started, you can practice good form without too much risk and it will give your body a chance to get used to being used.
So, what body weight workouts should you do? Well, let’s go for…
- Pull Ups, Rows and Inverted Rows
- Planks & Side Planks
These are the basics, and all can be done with body weight alone.
Since we are going for strength gain and not mass, you’ll need to keep your repetitions and sets low – 5×5 is a good place to start. Yes, just five sets of five push-ups, pull ups, or squats, with brief rests of about 30-90 seconds in between. If you need to rest longer, then do it, but ideally keep it shorter. You could even cycle them (circuit training) so that your “rest” is doing another activity, then going back to the previous one. If it is easy, then add weight and then do your 5×5.
Adding weight for some exercises, like the squat, is pretty simple – just hang onto some dumbbells while you do it. For others, like the push-up, it’s not quite that simple, but there are other solutions. You can wear a backpack with light weight in it, prop your feet up on a box or chair while your hands remain on the floor, or you can shoot for a hand-stand push-up. Should the push-up on the ground be too hard, you can do like I had to do, and raise your upper body by doing your push-up with your hands on a stair step (which also makes it easy to see how stronger you’re getting, by how close to the bottom step you get). To make a push-up harder, raise your feet on something. To make it easier, raise your upper body. If you have a lot of trouble there are ways to build up to doing your first real push up.
Doing an inverted row, for example, can be made easier or harder depending on how far out your feet are from where you are pulling yourself up to.
These simple exercises, done 5×5 should take you between 15-30 minutes, and only need to be done at least one day per week, but no more than three days per week. You have no excuse not to do it! Between each strength day, take a day off to rest and be active in other ways, so your your muscles can recover.
How to do Body Weight Workouts with Proper Form
Practicing good form from day one is essential, so, even if you think you already know how to do these workouts, please read through this just in case there is something you didn’t previously know. I’ll also include links to videos that explain how to properly perform them so you can get a visual for what you’re attempting to do.
Push-ups are a basic movement that pretty much everyone knows how to do: you get on the floor, either on your toes or on your knees, keep your back straight, palms on the ground on either side, lower yourself slowly and then in a controlled, quick manner… Push yourself back up! Just remember: straight back, and not let your butt poke out.
If you can, you should do pull-ups. Find a tree limb, buy a doorway pull-up bar, or make your own, whatever you can use. Grab on with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and palms facing away. Leading with your chest, pull your body upwards until your chin is level with the bar. As slowly as you can, lower yourself back down. Repeat.
If you can’t do a pull-up yet, then do dumbbell rows or inverted rows to work your way up to one. For the dumbbell row, place the dumbbell on the floor. Place one hand/knee on a bench to stabilize yourself while you bend over, keeping your back straight, and grab the dumbbell in your opposite hand, and pull it straight up to chest level, and then slowly lower it back down. Repeat for the opposite side.
For the inverted row, find a bar you can toss a towel or rope over (and, ideally, affix a pipe to). Grab the bar/rope/towel how you would with a pull-up, and place the back of your heels forward so you lean back (optionally, you can also put them on a raised surface). Keeping your body straight, pull your torso up to the bar like you would a pull-up, and then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat. The farther from your center of gravity your feet get, the harder this will get.
The squat is, in my opinion, the most essential exercise. It is also extremely complex, so this description will take a while. I’m sorry, but this is crucial, especially since so many people just don’t know how to squat right. So much of what you do depends upon the dozens of muscles this workout targets – and yes it is much, much more than your knees and thighs. If you do it right, your life will be easier, better, and you’ll enjoy physical freedom for years. If you do it wrong, you’ll set yourself up for pain. This is not to scare you, but rather to emphasize how important good form is here. You need to do squats so please, start slowly and have someone check your form for you (or do it in front of a big mirror, video tape yourself, whatever you need to do, do it.)
To perform a proper body weight squat, begin standing with your feet a bit more than shoulder width apart. Your knees and feet should be pointing away from you at about 45 degree angles, and you’ll want to keep them in line with each other the entire way down and back up. Slowly lower yourself – first by poking your butt out backward, almost like your sitting – until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground, although ideally you will go as low as you can. If this is difficult, then just practice going lower and lower each time. Remember too to keep your gaze down and forward about three or so feet in front of you. Additionally, remember to keep your back straight the entire time. Do not round, or over extend your back. And, well, repeat.
The squat, when done correctly (great form and going as low as you can), is not only the safest, but also the most optimal exercise for your knees and posterior chain. It produces more stable knees than any other exercise, and works the entire set of muscles from your lower back to your knees in unison, together, how they would normally be used. So, if nothing else, then do squats for optimal physical health.
Once regular bodyweight squats get to be too easy add weight with dumbbells, or try doing one-legged squats (commonly called pistols.)
Planks and side planks are easy to perform but surprisingly difficult. Thankfully, you only really need to do one set. You might want a mat or towel under you for comfort, but begin by lying on the floor face down, keeping your back, butt and legs straight, your feet together and you will rest on your elbows (which should be kept under your shoulders.) Hold this position for as long as possible, working your way up. Once doing 90 seconds is easy, try adding weight (like a backpack.)
For side planks, lie raised on your side with your forearm on the floor under your shoulder – perpendicular to your body. Keep your legs together and straight in alignment with your back and hips. Hold this position for the set time, and then do the other side.
Picking up heavy things is a tricky one. Without a barbell it’s difficult to do a deadlift, but you can always find work-arounds. Get buckets full of sand or concrete, dumbbells or kettlebells, a box with canned food in it, or find some other random, somewhat heavy thing to carefully pick it up and then put back down. Deadlifts are the only other absolutely essential exercise that everyone should do, and also where everyone is their strongest. However, it is also crucial to start slowly so you can practice good form. Yes, it may get annoying but I’m going to repeat it over and over because it is that important.
Ideally you’d be doing your deadlifts with a barbell, but if it is not available to you, you can mimic the movement or do alternative, similar movements like the Farmer’s Walk, which is to pick up a weight in either hand, walk a set distance, and then put them down. And, of course, repeat.
For a deadlift, begin standing in the center of whatever you’ll be picking up, with your feet shoulder width apart and the object as close to your toes as you can. Keeping your back straight and slightly bending your knees, bend down and grab the object and then lift until you are standing straight up and arms hanging, keeping the object close to you. The movement will be driven by your hips and lower back, so make sure to keep your back straight and your head and chest up. Carefully reverse to put the object back down, and repeat.
Body weight workouts are a great place to begin however, as you’ll find they will quickly become just too easy, and you’ll need to add weight.
Ideally, you’ll workout with barbells and not stop with body weight and dumbbells. You can go to a gym, or you can buy a set for your house at a sporting goods store or craigslist (I highly suggest looking into a power rack.)
Barbell exercises are much like the body weight equivalents, only much harder and much more beneficial.
- The Barbell Bench Press
- The Standing Barbell Overhead Press
- The Barbell Squat
- The Deadlift
- The Pendlay Row
This is where it gets serious. These will tax your system enormously, so do make sure you eat right and don’t over train. Do only 5 sets of 5 repetitions of each of these, except the deadlift – which you should do just one set of five. Additionally, split this up into two workouts: Workout A (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press) and Workout B (Squat, Overhead Press, Pendlay Row.) Again, shoot for three days a week with a rest day in between each. If you can’t, don’t sweat it. As long as you exercise for one day each week you will see benefits, just not as much.
You should begin with the bar – a proper (olympic) bar weighs 20.4 kg/45 lbs, and slowly working your way up each workout session – adding 5 lbs each time. Although for your first week or two I highly suggest doing the entire workout with just the bar so you can practice form and get it down, then adding weight each session.
If it gets too difficult, try doing 5 sets of 3 reps or backing up a little and working your way up again. Even if you can only do 5 sets of 1 rep, with a long break in between each, you will see progress.
To warm up, keep it intuitive. If you do 50 jumping jacks before you lift weights – you’ll be weak and likely sloppy. Instead, you should do the workout with lighter weights. So, do a set of 5 with the bar, a set of 5 at half-weight, then finally the 5×5 at full weight. For example, if you are going to squat 100lbs, do a set of 5 with the bar, a set of 5 at 75lbs, then 5 sets of 5 at 100lbs.
How to Lift Weights with Proper Form
When you begin working out with barbells, practicing good form is even more crucial. Begin with just the bar – no weights – and practice the exercises.
The barbell bench press is a common and thankfully easy exercise. Lie on a bench with your back flat and feet flat on the ground. Make sure the bar height is comfortable and adjust as necessary. Grab the bar with your hands elbow-width out (or, biceps parallel to the ground) dismount the bar from the rack and slowly lower it to the middle of your chest and press back up until your arms are fully extended. Repeat.
Performing the standing barbell overhead press is similar to a bench press, which is why you do it on your alternate day, but it does work a few different muscles. You’ll want to begin either by cleaning the weight (a deadlift, then pulling the weight up and onto your chest) or start from a rack. When you hold the barbell, it should be able to rest on your chest just below your collar bone, and your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and your feed shoulder width apart. Press the bar up above your head until your arms are fully extended, then slowly lower it. Repeat.
Much like a normal squat, the barbell squat is complicated, so bear with me. Ideally, use a power rack to squat. Begin with the bar racked a few inches below shoulder height, so you will squat under it to dismount the bar. Repeat.
For the deadlift, begin standing in the center of the bar with your feet shoulder width apart. The bar should be over the middle of your feet (with weight on it - if it is empty then it will be just in front of your toes.) Bend down, back straight and knees bent slightly, and grab the bar either with a front or alternate grip (front grip means both of your hands are over the bar facing the same direction while alternate grip means one hand faces toward you and one faces away from you) and lift until you are standing straight up. Lifting the bar should be powered by your hips extending. Be sure to keep your chest up and back straight. Once you've lifted it, carefully reverse and put the bar back down, keeping it close to you. Repeat. Watch your knees that you don't hit them!
To perform the Pendlay Row begin almost like a deadlift - with the barbell on the ground in front of you, except this time the barbell will be forward some and you will be bent over it. While keeping your back straight and upper body parallel to the ground, grab the bar and pull it up to your chest, then lower it back down to the ground. Keep your gaze forward during the lifts. Repeat.
Other random parting advice:
This is your template - a starting point to lift weights so you can enjoy strength and optimal health all of your life. Feel free to tweak this workout to your needs/desires, but whatever you do, DO NOT remove squats and deadlifts, and make sure you are doing compound movements at high intensity (high weight) with excellent form (unless, of course, gaining mass is your goal, then go for it).
Why always squats and deadlifts? Well, they create the most positive hormonal response - which you want, to build muscle and burn fat. Furthermore, they are the most important as far as optimal movement since they work everything from your back and posterior chain to your legs and knees.
Three exercises each session may not seem like much, but once you begin adding weight you'll understand why. These are compound movements with heavy weights, working nearly every muscle in your body, which gets very taxing. This is why it is important to not over train. Over training will cause your body to release cortisol (bad) and weaken your immune system (very bad.) Lifting weights will take a bit longer than a body weight workout, between 30-45 minutes to complete.
During your workouts focus on your form, breathing, and don't rush it. Slow, controlled movements are always better than rushed, sloppy ones. By going slower, you'll see more strength gain, as well as ensuring that you are doing the movement correctly.
On non-strength training days, feel free to do whatever other activities you want. You can try out Tabata Sprints, go for a walk, play, whatever you want. Just don't lift more weights - recovery time is as important as the workout itself.
Speaking of recovery, there are two big important parts to it. Sleep, and nutrition. Make sure you get several hours of quality sleep, and eat reasonable amounts of vegetables and protein. You will be hungrier than normal but it's okay - you need it! Eat until you are satisfied and don't over do it (4000+ calories per day.)
Additionally, track everything for about a month or so: measurements, weights used, etc. This way you can see clear increases in strength and track how your body changes. Using this you can adjust your diet or workout to whatever you need.
Finally, I focus in this article on bodyweight and free weight workouts, which are far, far superior to using a machine or smith machine. I could write a novel on how useless they are, but, I've already written a lot so in a nutshell: machines not only make working out easier in a non-beneficial way, but they also do not work the muscles like a free weight does. Machines work you with fixed cables and weights, and life isn't on a fixed track. Free-moving weights require more muscles to keep you stabilized. Smith machines are horrible in particular because they force you to practice with incorrect form which is just plain bad. Finally, most machine movements are isolation movements - great for bulk but functionally useless.
You officially know everything you need to know in order to begin with strength training and lifting weights. So, to review, here's what you should start doing to build strength:
Body Weight & Dumbbell Version
- 5x5 Push-ups
- 5x5 Pull-ups, Dumbbell Rows, or Inverted Rows
- 5x5 Squats
- 1x__seconds Plank + 1x__ sec Side Planks (one for left and one for right)
Free Weight Version
- 5x5 Barbell Squats
- 5x5 Deadlift
- 5x5 Barbell Bench Press
- 5x5 Barbell Squats
- 5x5 Standing Barbell Overhead Press
- 5x5 Pendlay Row
Oh, and one more thing...
This ten year old girl is stronger than you.
Photo Credit: CrossFit Fever and Amber Karnes.