I used to ignore lifting weights because I thought I would get “bigger and look manly.” I figured if I wanted smaller legs and a nice toned body, I needed to do hours of cardio because it worked in the past and that’s what I was told. Lifting of course, would only make me “bulky.” I believed in so many weight lifting myths (like most women do) and was too intimidated to begin lifting in a gym filled with experienced men and women. I didn’t want to be judged or looked at. I later learned that lifting was the key to transforming my body completely! That was the end of me being a cardio bunny.
So where does one start? How many times a week is needed? When should one change it up? What are the best exercises? How many set/reps? What are the benefits of strength training? All of these will be answered in the simplest form to help you get started today! The tools provided below will help kick start your plan to lose weight, gain strength, build lean muscle or just improve your overall fitness.
Start with a plan!
- Know your starting point
- Are you healthy enough? Do you have any injuries? Are you a beginner, or do you have some experience but don’t practice consistency? If you’re injured or not healthy, consult your DR or PT before starting any type of program. Knowing your starting point will help you set realistic goals for your self
- Write down your personal goals
- What would you like to achieve?; lose weight, decrease body fat, build muscle etc. Most of us want a tighter core, lean muscles (arms & legs) etc. Writing down your goals and placing them in sight will keep them top of mind!
- Create an action plan
- How will you execute your goals? If you haven’t been to the gym in ages, you can make it a goal to hit the gym 2x a week and move up once you’re ready. Or if you have been going 2x, maybe it’s time to add a 3rd or 4th day etc. Setting deadlines to help you stay committed!
- Decide if you want to begin training on your own or hire a personal trainer
- Most trainers offer online or in-person training that includes either a training or nutrition program or both. If you need someone to hold you accountable, teach you proper form, give you additional tips in the gym, reassess your changes or help take you to the next level. Hiring a personal trainer would definitely be beneficial. A good trainer should be able to answer all of your questions, is reasonably priced (based on experience and credentials) and provide you with the tools needed to succeed in a healthy manner. Are they needed? I think trainers help set a strong foundation and teach you discipline, but are not needed for long periods of time. I believe anyone can follow a program with hard work and commitment. So don’t be afraid of training on your own if cant afford one
- Are you ready for the gym or are you comfortable training at home?
- If the gym intimidates you and you’re not sure if you’re ready for weights just yet. You can always begin in the comfort of your own home or outdoors. This is not an issue, as you can get fit at home if you have all the equipment. You may need to invest in some equipment though once you’re ready to move up (resistant bands, jump rope, free weights, TRX bands, kettle bells, medicine balls)
- Take measurements before you begin
- Measure your arms, waist, hips, neck and legs. Get tested for body fat composition and only weigh yourself once a week on the same day and take pictures weekly. These are all good indicators of change!
How many times a week should one weight lift and how for long?
Now that you know your goals, you should have a clear understanding on how many days you can strength train. If you can only train 3 days per week, don’t get discouraged! It’s enough days to get you started and make a significant change in your body. I don’t believe one needs to weight train 5-7x a week to get the results they want (if they are not competing in any type of sport) especially if it’s not maintainable. I always train my clients 4x out of the week or less, never below 3. I myself try to train 4-5x a week, but that is based on the physique I want to try and maintain.
There is no specific timeline for a goal, but for many of us, a short-term goal will most likely help in sticking with a plan and eventually making it a lifestyle change (which is the best goal). I always put my clients through a 12 week program, with check-ups at least every 4-6 weeks. Once they notice the progress they’re more likely to continue on their journey and make it a lifestyle change.
What type of exercises work specific body parts?
Different equipment can help target specific muscle groups. Below are lists of recommended exercises you can choose from for each body part.
- Shoulders – Lateral raises, front raises, machine seated front/lateral, posterior raises, cable front /lateral, posterior raises, dumbbell raises, dumbbell press, military press
- Biceps – Bicep curls, seated cable curl, dumbbell curl standing dumbbell curls, preacher curls
- Legs – Squats, lunges, deadlifts, leg extension, lying leg curls, Romanian split lunges, step-ups,
- Glutes – kickbacks, squats, donkey kicks, abductor machine, curtsy lunge different type of plyometric exercises (leap frog, bridges, squats with resistant bands)
- Calves – standing calf raises, seated calf raises
- Back- machine high/low rows, cable high/low rows, machine pushdown, cable pull-down, dumbbell row, barbell row, push-up, chin-ups, medicine ball overhead
- Triceps – kneeling cable pushdown, standing cable pushdown, standing cable arm extension, donkey kickbacks
- Chest – machine press, planks with arm extension, push-ups, cable press, bench flys, explosive push-ups, bench press
- Abs – basic crunch, planks, cross-over crunch, bicycle crunch, leg lift and sit-ups
- You can either use body weight (some exercises), machines or free weights.
When starting any program always remember to look up examples of each exercise. This can include videos or pictures. I use Bodybuilding.com because they are the most credible online website for fitness.
How do I create a workout program for myself?
You can combine exercises for each part of your body in a variety of ways to create 3 to 4 strength workouts a week or group multiple exercise if your short on days you can lift. For example, you might choose to work your lower body one day, your upper body one day, or break out different body parts pending your goals. Below you’ll find a few examples based on days one can workout
- Day 1 – Legs/Glutes
- Day 2 – Shoulders
- Day 3 – Biceps, Tri’s, Chest, Back
- Day 4 – Legs /Glutes
Or if you only have three days
- Day 1 – Upper Body
- Day 2 Lower Body
- Day 3 – Plyometrics + Abs or make it a cardio + ab day
If you have 5-6 days to workout break out specific exercises
- Day 1 – Legs
- Day 2 – Shoulders
- Day 3- Bi’s, Tri’s, Chest
- Day 4 – Legs
- Day 5 – Shoulders
- Day 6 – Back
When you plan your strength training program make sure each session is between 40-50 minutes with at least a 5 min warm-up and cool down. I try to add at least 7-9 different exercises for each weight training day, but you can go at your own pace and add more exercises once you’re ready. If the workout program takes longer, you’re either resting too long, on your phone too much, or you’re experienced and working on building mass or strength. Again, make the workout effective and efficient, basically get in kill the workout and get out!
A few things to note
- If you are starting off and have limited time, try to incorporate more compound exercises (multi-joint movement) which engage more muscles at a time rather than isolation exercises (one muscle group) which help burn more calories and gets a full body workout in faster
- Always take 1 minute break between each set of new exercises (example moving from leg press over to deadlifts) to give you enough time to recuperate and attack the next exercise
- If you are new use the machines as much as you can until you feel comfortable to use free weights. This will help support any weak areas
- The more days you have free to lift, the more you can focus on working the parts of your body you want to improve and the better results you’ll see over time
- You don’t always have to use weights, you can resistant bands, kettle bells, medicine balls, ropes, TRX bands
- Keep in mind, it takes more calories to maintain muscle than it does to maintain fat. Meaning the more fit you are the more calories you burn daily. Every pound gained = 30-50 calories burned.
What should my sets/reps be?
This is all dependent on your goals and your experience. I always start my clients with 3 sets and 8-12 reps. It should not be easy but it also shouldn’t be so hard that you can’t perform your reps and you lose form. As the weeks continue, I move the sets up to 4 sets, 12 reps.
Once you feel stronger, increase your weights by 5%. How do you know when it’s time? If you find that you’re able to do 20-30 reps without feeling anything and your form is perfect, and then increase. If you see that you’ve been working out for weeks/months and not seeing a difference, it could be that it’s time to increase weights as well. Over time we get stronger and our body adapts. Increased weight will keep you pushing forward. Again, while increasing weights, never sacrifice form. Increase when you are ready!
Some things to keep in mind
- Don’t rush!! Take your time lifting
- Every exercise always remember to squeeze at the top
- In lifting the goal is to have proper form as not to cause injury and be effective in your exercise
- Don’t be afraid of the weights but don’t lift to heavy too soon!
- Along with momentum its ok to take your time, but rest should be under a minute or 30 seconds between reps
- If you want strength, keep the reps low and the weight heavy.
- If you’re looking for size, keep the weight lighter and the reps higher
- When you strength train you’re basically doing two things to your muscles
- Breaking down the muscle tissue so that your body will heal and rebuild the muscle back stronger
- When you break down your muscle fiber it comes back stronger; when you try to do that thing again, it will succeed
How often do I need to change it up?
You can reassess your physic every 4 weeks if you have been consistent! You don’t necessarily need to change up an exercise program entirely. You can shift the way your exercises are set up or use different machines, weights, for the same workout. You can also try adding the following into your workout program once you are ready:
- Super setting (circuit) – Combination of two or more exercises where you don’t get a rest in between. You can superset within the same body part or two different body parts (I usually add these later in the program once a client is more experienced)
- Drop set – Perform a set of any exercise to failure, then drop some weight and continue for more repetitions until failure (I use this to increase muscle size but that doesn’t mean bulk ladies!)
- Use different equipment for the same exercises – I do this often and I find when I use a different machine or equipment it’s may work out areas a little differently and it’s like starting all over again
- Add more weight lifting days – Maybe you’re not seeing the results you want. Try adding another weight lifting day and/or break out exercises to focus on individual areas you want to improve, this has also helped me gain a better physique
- Add more sets – If you started at 3 move up for 4 sets and add another group of exercises before adding another day if you don’t have the time
Lifting + Cardio is it really needed?
I honestly don’t believe you need a lot of cardio if you’re lifting 4-5 days a week. But my clients and I have seen major changes when cardio is added, specifically HIIT cardio.
If you’re ready to start picking up the pace a little or ready for change. Try adding 3-4 HIIT cardio days. Focus on the changes weekly, you’ll start to notice your body looking a little leaner. Also by adding cardio to your strength training program, it may mean you’ll have to break out your cardio and lifting so they don’t occur during the same time. For example, I would never do cardio before lifting and only after if I really had no time. Try to do your cardio early am if you can.
Tips I’ve learned along the way
I’ve made many mistakes along the way. Below is a list of tips I like to provide my clients or remind myself every so often as the cycle never ends when you focus on living a healthy and fit lifestyle
- If you are not consistent you won’t see the results you want!
- If you want to see changes in your body, you have to eat right and workout! You can workout to eat but you won’t get the results you want
- Dont follow the same program for years. Your body needs change!!! If you are doing the same thing over and over and not seeing results, you may need to change up your program or hire a personal trainer to help you get over the hump, maybe you are doing something wrong
- Don’t get discouraged. It takes time to change your body!! 4-8 weeks of hard work and dedication
- Drink lots of water!!!
- Focus on the mind/body connection!!!
- Don’t use momentum to lift weights –ever! Even if you see someone doing it
- Dont half fast the workout, you’re only hurting yourself no one else
- When working the glutes always push from your heel and squeeze those glutes!!
- Always eat protein before and after with slow digesting carbs before and fast digesting carbs after (30-60 minutes after)
- Always take a rest day in between every two workouts if you want to spread it out (if you can only workout 3x a week)
- Get some sleep to aid in recovery and muscle growth
- Use cardio for weightloss or to lean out
- Take progress pictures so you can see changes visibly!!!
- Have friends join you to help you stay motivated
- Always stretch and warm down
- If you are injured do not continue lifting!! Reach out to your DR or PT and get recovery
- Never workout when you are sick!
- Once you become experienced, help others who are beginning. Remember we are all a beginner at one point!!!
- Don’t be afraid to lift heavy!!!!! You will not get bulky ladies!!!!
Why weight lifting important
A weight-training program has many benefits – It can help reduce cardiovascular diseases, improves type 2 diabetes, lower blood pressure, boosts your immune system, increases muscle, build power/strength, increases metabolism, and helps build lean muscle.
Lifting also allows you to burn calories even after you’ve completed your workout session (body uses a lot of energy to replenish itself to its normal state). It also helps build stronger bones so you’re less likely to have hip, joint and back problems as you get older. And last, it improves your overall self-confidence!! Now who doesn’t want that?!
In the end, If you’re looking to lose weight, strength training is the best way to start to help increase your metabolism! If you’re looking to build lean muscle, start lifting and build those guns! If you’re looking to build mass, well you already know my answer.
Over the past few weeks I have taken you through ways to improve your nutrition, understanding how to eat within means, why it’s important to know your body type, and how to get started on a healthy cardio and weightlifting regiment. Over the next two weeks, I will help give you tips and tricks that helped me keep the weight off for good while also shedding some light on what happens after you hit your goals.
Up next week – 10 tips that helped me keep the weight off for good!
NESTA Certified Personal Trainer/ISSA Certified Nutritionist
Founder of Fitbody4me (Personal Training + Nutrition Programs)
Triathlete, Adventure Junkie, National Bikini Competitor