When you first start pumping iron, not knowing what you are doing can really weigh heavy on the mind.
You may have been frequenting the gym for years, or perhaps you're not sure how to improve your fitness. Either way, just as you can’t run from your problems, your workouts shouldn’t finish at the end of the treadmill either.
Any workout regime that focuses simply on cardio, without at least a little resistance training, is prone to plateau.
That’s where weight training comes in.
Not just for those looking to build mass, ‘lifting’ will spike your metabolism, helping you to burn fat, improve your strength for other sports and help to prevent injury – and it's much more time efficient than the treadmill.
Don’t know your Romanian deadlift from Hungarian split squat?
Follow this guide to your first-time lifting weights.
The Warm Up
Like any form of exercise a crucial phase is the warm up. And whilst easing yourself into a run may work for cardio exercise, lifting weights puts strain on muscles that you don’t use nearly as much.
A good rule of thumb is to start blood pumping to the muscle groups you intend to use. For instance, before a leg workout, complete ten minutes on the exercise bike. Perhaps the most underrated warm-up for any weight lifting routine is the rowing machine. It’s one of the few forms of cardio that works the majority of your body.
Lay a Foundation
Level three Personal Trainer, Gaelle Jeanneau, advocates building a strong base before moving on to anything bigger, “build your core, and also your confidence. Everything you do will involve the largest muscle group in your body so it pays to keep it strong.”
A strong core – the muscles around your spine and stomach – is crucial to preventing injury, quelling back pain and ensuring good form in almost all other exercises. It pays to train it well, so try to devote a few sessions a week to planks, leg raises and crunches. Not only will it help to define your abs, it will make you feel better as well.
A glance around the weights rooms and you will find people shifting slugs of metal that would dwarf your car, grunting into the mirror and risking injury. Whilst you might be in awe of such feats, it’s wise to remember that everyone started somewhere and that place is usually small.
Your first few weeks are about slowly notching up the weight as you dial in your form. “Slowly, slowly,” says Gaelle, “really feel the movement and activate the muscles”. Ensuring that you understand correct form means you will be less likely to suffer injury and more likely to see progress. “It’s not about the weight you’re putting on [the bar], it’s about your technique,” she adds.
Arched back, trembling knees and shaking hands are not only bad for progress, they’re a dangerous sign. “You’re going to get more out of your workout with less weight and proper technique,” says Gaelle. And a failed lift is likely to bruise more than just your ego.
If you have spent the majority of your time at the gym training for a goal such as distance or speed, it can be difficult to redirect that motivation towards weight and reps – especially if your first few visits don’t yield immediate ‘gains’.
The key is to push through it. Incorporate a few weight sessions into your routine and you will see your performance across the board improve. “People tend to drop it if they haven’t seen results,” Gaelle says, “they lost interest because they didn’t know how to improve so they didn’t.”
Gaelle explains how, in the first four weeks of a weightlifting plan, you are unlikely to see results but will feel stronger and be able to lift just a little bit more. “Your body gets used to moving more than its own weight, your muscles start to know what that feels like.” It’s from weeks four to six that a person will start to notice growth and find that the good form they developed helps them quickly progress.
Try this workout twice a week until you feel comfortable progressing. It mixes free weights with machine exercises to ensure you learn the movement and develop good technique simultaneously:
Warm-up with 10 mins rowing on a medium resistance. This will get the blood moving to the muscles you will soon be using.
Stretch your body to loosen the muscular tissue and increase warmth. It will significantly lower your risk of injury.
When you get to each exercise, perform a set with very low weight. This will prepare your body for the movement with a much lowered risk.
2. Lower body
Leg Press – 3 sets, 6-8 reps. Choose a weight that you can manage, concentrating on controlled movement rather than huge weights.
Goblet Squat – 4 sets, 8-10 reps. Using a light kettlebell cradled at your chest, sink into a squat. Your feet should be just wider than shoulder width with your knees in line with your ankles – push your tailbone backwards and keep your chest high, squeezing your glutes to stand back up. It’s a hard skill to master but starting early will develop good habits for when you try heavier barbell squats.
3. Chest and shoulders
Push ups – 3 sets, 6-8 reps. Place your hands, facing forwards, directly beneath your shoulders. With your head, neck and feet in a straight line, squeeze your chest until your arms are almost straight.
Dumbbell press – 4 sets, 8-10 reps. Lie on a bench facing upwards with a dumbbell in each hand. With your elbows 45° from your body press the dumbbells until your arms are almost straight. Count to two on both the up and down motion.
Shoulder press – 3 sets, 6-8 reps. Your shoulders are among the smallest muscles in the body so it pays to use a machine when you’re starting out. With your elbows facing slightly forward press upwards whilst keeping your head back.
4. Back and arms
Seated row – 3 sets, 8-10. Remember your warm up? Using the seated row machine, pull the weight towards your stomach with your elbows tucked in. Remember to keep your shoulders, back and your core tight.
Lat pull down/pull ups (if you can!) – 4 sets, 4-6. This move should work your back more than your arms. Squeeze your back with your wrists loose – Imagine putting your shoulder blades in your back pocket and you’re partway there.