One of the most common questions I get is “how do I, a total beginner, start lifting weights?”
The reality is that it’s a lot more simple than most people think, and I want to make it even easier for you.
Trainers complicate it over and over again to sell programs and services, but usually it’s not so complicated as all that. What matters most is finding a plan that works for you and sticking to it consistently. This isn’t as sexy of a promise as the “abs in 15 minutes a day!!!” workouts you tend to see online, but it’s what works.
To that end, all it really takes is a to learn a few major lifts, and focus on progressing within those lifts. If you stick to this plan, you can forget all the useless fluff that most beginners waste their time with.
This guide will give you a basic understanding of what you need to know in order to get started. We'll start off with the science of training, follow up with the basics of diet, and finish with the actual nitty gritty of the programming. You can skip the first two sections if you're just looking for the most practical advice.
Getting Started Lifting Weights? Here’s The Science
Before we get started with any of the actual lifting advice, the first thing to understand is the way that your body adapts to exercise.
When you exercise, your performance decreases. You exhaust your muscles. Your energy reserves are depleted. Your muscles are actually broken down a little bit during the process. This leads to a short term decrease in overall ability.
Think of what happens when you do a hard workout - afterwards, you're exhausted and sore, and you wouldn't want to do another workout right away. This is an example of the decrease in performance that you experience due to exercise.
The workout sends a signal to your body that you need to improve. In response, your body adapts - builds more muscle and makes other changes to your metabolic system. These changes make you better able to handle more exercise in the future, and you get bigger and stronger.
However, there’s an issue called diminishing returns. When you’re a beginner, a small stimulus (a workout) is enough to spur growth. But as you improve, you need a greater and greater stimulus (harder workouts, and more frequent workouts) in order to continue to improve.
Even then, at some point you hit the limits of your body’s ability to recover from exercise - and thus the limit of how much you can improve within a given period of time. As a result, future growth gets slower and slower. You can't turn into a pro athlete overnight, so you have to buckle down and prepare for lifting more in the long term.
This is often called “noob gains”. When you’re a beginner, it’s not uncommon for first time lifters training for strength to be able to put 20-30 (or more) pounds onto a lift every month for the first few months. After the first few months, it slows considerably, and you can expect something like 10lbs a month (or less). After years of training, it takes elite lifters many months just to put an additional 10lbs on their lifts.
For an example, I’ve been training for over a decade and it usually takes me an entire 6 month block of my training to put 10lbs onto any of my lifts.
Another important thing to realize is that soreness is not a good indicator of the value of your training.
Soreness is caused in part by neurological mechanisms designed to protect your body against further damage. When you exercise, that stimulus is damaging your body. In order to protect it so that it can repair effectively, your body creates this soreness signal to discourage further trauma. Over time, soreness decreases as your body becomes more adapted and becomes used to dealing with these stimuli.
This means that while it is possible to induce a lot of soreness with a particularly challenging workout, this isn’t ideal. It is the accumulation of multiple workout stimuli over time, and not the value of any individual stimulus, that defines your body’s increased adaptive ability and eventually accumulation of muscle and strength. Particularly soreness-inducing workouts are actually usually a net negative because they reduce your ability to recover quickly, induce a new stimulus, and continue to improve.
You can cause greater soreness intentionally with certain methods. Let us say that your legs are used to using a leg press exercise to provide the stimulus needed for growth. Now say that you switch to using a squat instead.
The squat utilizes different overall muscles in different ways, and your neurological system is less conditioned to it. So, squatting will seem like an all new thing, even though your legs are used to being worked out. The switch to squatting will cause a great deal of soreness, and then you’ll get used to it as usual and soreness will decrease over time.
Another way to induce additional soreness is simply to take time off. Your body becomes less conditioned to the stimulus without practice, and you experience great soreness again upon returning.
So, don’t chase soreness. It’s a side effect, and not a driver, of improvement. In fact, you should be looking to avoid it as much as possible - research suggests that most improvement in a program occurs after the initial bouts of soreness are over, and you’re able to get into the regular habit of consistent exercise.
One last important concept to understand is that the natural stimulus-recovery-adaptation process can be messed up. If workouts are too frequent, sleep is compromised, stress is high, or calorie intake is low, these can all have negative impacts on your body’s ability to recover. This leads to a smaller adaptation, and may compromise your ability to provoke a greater stimulus with a harder workout in the future.
It’s common for low-level trainers to suggest all-out approaches - working out 6-7 days per week, not focusing on their sleep quality, starving themselves with cleanses, going 100% as hard as you can in every workout, and so on. These strategies are all actually self-defeating. They compromise your body’s ability to adapt and improve, in addition to being psychologically draining. In short, they just suck.
Now that you have a rough understanding of the general cycle of training and adaptation, you might start to see how some of the silliest things in the fitness industry don’t make sense. P90X uses the principle of muscle confusion - constantly changing workouts. Clearly, this doesn’t really allow room for long term repetition and adaptation. It can still be good for burning calories if all you want is to lose weight in the worst way possible.
Don’t stress over short term changes. Real change can take months or years to materialize. If monitoring your weight, do so daily but take rolling 1-2 week averages (services exist for simplifying rolling averages), which iron out the small variations in your weight and will be a better indicator of progress.
Focus on regularly repeated, appropriately progressed workouts. If you haven’t picked it up already, the free GAINS program is an example of one such workout. If you need more help understanding the underpinnings of exercise science, I recommend looking into my series on periodization.
Diets Suck, Plus: How Muscles Grow, Anyway
Diets suck, period. In the long term, it really is quite difficult (though not impossible) to lose significant amounts of weight. Eating to lose weight involves drops in energy levels, increase in hunger, compromised adaptations to exercise, and more. However, they’re a necessary evil for people serious about changing their bodies.
That being said, you don’t always need to lose weight to get in shape. Many more people would be helped simply by gaining a bit of strength and muscle than by trying to starve themselves to an unrealistically low weight. Luckily, when it comes to building muscle and strength, diet is much simpler, doesn’t require calorie restriction, and sucks a lot less.
In terms of lifting, the biggest impact your diet can have is through your protein intake. Muscle is built of dietary protein and its component molecules, amino acids.
Think of muscular growth as the byproduct of two competing processes - muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown. Muscle protein synthesis builds muscle, while muscle protein breakdown, well, breaks it down.
Literally every day, both are going on at a regular rate. For most (non-lifting) people, most of the time, muscle protein breakdown is always winning, just by a little bit. Over time, we tend to lose muscle mass. This is simply a consequence of aging. After about the age of 30, we start steadily losing muscle.
However, we can stimulate muscle protein synthesis in order to overcome the rate of breakdown. When more is being built than broken down, muscles grow. This causes muscle to grow and accumulate over time.
The primary way that we do this is through exercise - think of that stimulus-recovery-adaptation cycle. What many people may not realize is that exercise itself initially causes breakdown (remember what I said about your muscles initially being exhausted/depleted after exercise), and then this initial breakdown is what sends a warning signal to your body to stimulate growth.
Up to a certain point, consuming additional protein can also increase levels of muscle protein synthesis. This is pretty simple - when you have more protein, you can use more of it to make muscle with. This effect is dependent on exercise, so the two work better together than alone.
However, the benefit isn’t endless. At a certain point, your body is already getting as much protein as it can handle.
Instead, research shows that protein synthesis tends to top out at around 0.82g/lb of bodyweight/day. For example, this comes out to 164g/day for a 200lb man, or 123g/day for a 150lb woman.
This number is a good starting point, but it overlooks the fact that this can be a bit inflated when talking about very heavy exercisers. A 350lb man looking to lose weight, for example, would definitely struggle to get in 287g/day, particularly since protein tends to be among the most expensive of foods.
For beginners and intermediates, it’s usually better to start off with aiming for 120-160g/day, and some research suggests that it doesn’t matter much above that point anyway. For advanced lifters looking to maximize muscle mass, it doesn’t hurt to go all the way up to 200+g/day (or about 1g/lb/day) to be on the safe side, though it probably won’t improve muscle protein synthesis much overall.
Beyond that, the rest of your diet is less important. You need enough calories to maintain your bodyweight (or overshoot them a little to gain further weight/muscle, but this will also cause additional body fat gain). You need some amount of fat for hormonal balances. Just hit your protein targets, eat your veggies regularly, and don’t worry too much about it.
What To Do In The Gym
Ok, now you’ve got a basic understanding of how exercise works, and how diet works. What, specifically, should you be doing in the gym?
First off, the gym is intimidating. I know that much. I’ve been on the other side of that equation. We fail to make gym spaces welcoming. There’s not usually a lot of clear guidance out there, it’s hard to know what to do, and there’s a lot of people who look like they know a lot more than you do. If you’re a woman in a weight room, chances are that men are going to constantly come up and offer to help you, even when they’re idiots.
It’s important to realize that no one else in the gym knows what they’re doing either. I’ve been lifting for over a decade, so I’ve seen it all. On any given day, about 80% of the people in the gym clearly have no clue what they’re doing. But the funny thing is, most of them think they do. Dudes who know a few lifts think that they’re hot shit, but the reality is that most of them still look like idiots to the trained eye.
Recognize that you’re among equals - most everyone else is just as clueless as you. Hopefully that helps. That guy confidently doing curls over there? Probably not getting results. The only difference is, he’s following some garbage program he found online (or some advice he heard from someone else) and he’s getting some results, just not good ones - just enough to give him plenty of false confidence.
All you need is a plan. Ignore everyone else. Lift some weights.
The first thing you need to understand is the difference between isolation and compound exercises. An isolation exercise targets just one major muscle group, or just a few small muscle groups.
In contrast, a compound exercise targets several major muscle groups, working together. Compound exercises allow you to move more weight, use more muscle, build more muscle, and build more strength. For this reason, they should be the focus of your workouts.
At the same time, compound exercises have one major drawback - they’re very exhausting. They tire you out quickly. While isolation exercises don’t provoke as powerful of a strength or muscle building stimulus, they also don’t generate as much fatigue.
So, in a typical workout, you want to perform a handful of compound movements to get your effective work in and then you can add in some isolation exercises at the end to squeeze a bit more work out. A huge and common mistake is to waste all your energy from the start on endless isolation exercises.
The compound exercises tend to be defined by planes of movement (the path the bar is travelling) rather than specific muscle groups involved (although they can still be broken down into component muscles). For this reason, we classify them as horizontal push, vertical push, horizontal pull, vertical pull, squatting, and hip hinging. These six movement patterns cover most of the major muscle groups and movements to be trained.
It’s unnecessary to include both a horizontal and vertical push in a program, for example, but people still do it all the time - it’s not a bad thing. Same thing with pulls - you don’t need both types, but it won’t hurt.
Squatting and hip hinging are significantly different movements - squatting tends to train the quads (muscles on the front of the leg) more, and hip hinges train the hips and lower back.
So, to simplify things, you can just stick to push, pull, squat, and hip hinge, to break it down to just four major movement patterns to train.
Here are the major compound movements:
Horizontal Push - Bench Press, barbell or dumbbell. Start off with a chest press machine. When you can handle a decent amount of weight, switch to dumbbell bench presses. When you can handle about 25lbs/hand with the dumbbells, switch to the barbell.
Vertical Push - Overhead press, barbell or dumbbell. Start off with a shoulder press machine. When you can handle a decent amount of weight, switch to seated dumbbell overhead presses. When you can handle about 25lbs/hand, switch to the barbell. You can also switch from seated to standing at some point - this makes the lift harder, but isn’t really necessary unless you’re getting into a strength sport of some kind.
Horizontal Pull - Rows of all kinds. Start off with a machine row or cable row, progress to a dumbbell one arm or batwing row, and then progress to barbell rows. The horizontal and vertical pull target roughly the same muscles, so you don't need both in your program (though it doesn't hurt).
Vertical Pull - Pull ups and pull downs. The lat pulldown machine works well for beginners. Once you can handle a decent amount of weight, you can use an assisted pull up machine. Once you can handle pull ups without any assist, you no longer need the assist machine. Eventually, you can add weight to pull ups with a weight belt if needed. If you need more help getting started on pull ups, I've put together a guide with tips and tricks for getting your first pull up.
Squat - Squats of all kinds. Start off with a bodyweight squat, working to master the form, keeping a step or bench below you if needed. Once you can handle a decent number of bodyweight squats without too much difficulty and with good form, switch to a dumbbell goblet squat. Once you can handle at least 45lbs on the dumbbell goblet squat, switch to a barbell back squat. Some may struggle to start off with bodyweight squats - if so, stick to the leg machines (leg press, leg curl, and leg extension) to build a bit of strength and muscle until you can handle bodyweight squats.
Hip Hinge - The main goal is to get to deadlifts, but the path can be a bit more convoluted here. Start off with a single kettlebell or dumbbell deadlift between the legs, limiting the range of motion if you have trouble going all the way down. Once you can handle a full range of motion, add weight. Once you can handle at least 45lbs, switch to a barbell or hex bar (if your gym has one). From there, add weight. Pay good attention to proper form at all stages. Consider a sumo deadlift if the traditional stance doesn't feel right.
You can pick these exercises up pretty easily by analyzing those youtube videos. At this point, there are full tutorials for every exercise under the sun, so you can typically search for form videos on anything else you want to know. Take videos of your own form when exercising so that you can compare this up against youtube videos and see what might be going wrong. A personal trainer or coach will be a great help in this regard, if you can find one who isn’t too full of BS.
Next is setting up the structure of your workouts. A mix of lifting and cardio is most helpful in terms of keeping healthy and being active. For this reason, I tend to recommend a simple 3 day/week setup for beginners:
|Upper Body||Lower Body||Cardio|
|Horizontal Push 3x6-12||Squat 3x6-12||15-60 min run, cycle, or elliptical (increasing steadily over time)|
|Vertical or Horizontal Pull 3x8-15||Hip Hinge 3x6-12|
|Vertical Push 3x8-15||Leg Curl Machine 3x8-15|
|Isolation work for arms (bicep curls, tricep extensions, lateral raises) as desired (3x10-20)||Isolation work for legs (leg extension, leg press, calf raises) as desired (3x10-20)|
After the upper and lower body workouts, a short cooldown (5-10 min cardio, some stretching or foam rolling) is useful to help keep you flexible and well recovered.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Once you complete your first week, congratulations! You’re kicking ass. But what do you do next?
The next step is progression. You need to steadily increase the difficulty over time. Remember what I said about diminishing returns - you need to do more and more work, and apply a greater and greater stimulus, in order to keep improving.
There’s no magic to this: you just add sets, reps, or weight as you get better.
A simple progression that works well is to start off at a specific weight, repeating training with that weight until you can hit the max number of reps in the rep ranges given. Once you can do max reps for 3 sets, you can add 5-10lbs, drop back down to the lower end of the rep range, and build back up. Occasionally (very rarely) you may hit a wall in your training where it’s getting harder to progress.
At this point, you can either take a deload (break), drop down to a lighter weight, and build back up, or you can split the same amount of work up into more sets and continue. Let’s say you’re struggling to add weight or reps on a lift, and you can currently do 3x12. In this case, you’re doig 36 total reps, so if you bump it up to 4 sets, that means you’re doing a more manageable 9 reps per set, then building back up as usual. The former approach tends to work best if you’re feeling tired, beat up, or incompletely recovered. The latter approach tends to work best if you’re feeling well-rested and need more of a challenge.
This plan, though simple, will actually last you for quite a while. As you get more advanced, you’ll need to start picking specialized goals: training for strength, training for size, training for endurance, training for a specific sport, etc. At this point, a more careful approach is needed, and coaching may be necessary to set up a good program. I'll also be writing more specific guides for each in the near future.
Again, if you want something just a little bit more varied than this standard program, I recommend signing up for the GAINS mailing list, which nets you a free copy of a couple more programs that may be more your style. The mailing list also includes weekly tutorials in various exercise science topics, so you can learn a lot more about the basics of training.
If you’re curious about learning more of the fundamentals of lifting, how everything works, and how to best organize your training, I recommend my series on periodization. I’ve written plenty of articles about how to structure proper programs, going over the related scientific concepts in much more detail there.
- Linear Periodization Done Right
- Periodization For Beginners
- Your Training Path From Beginner To Expert
- The Simplest Way To Get In Shape (And Why It Won't Work)
- 6 Ways To Save Time At The Gym
- The Pareto Principle and Fitness
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day.
Interested in coaching? Inquire here. If you don’t have the money or interest in purchasing long term coaching, consider donating a small monthly amount to my Patreon, which also nets you a copy of my book, the UpLift Method. You can also subscribe to my mailing list, which gets you the free GAINS exercise program for maximizing strength, size, and endurance.