Full disclosure: I used to believe a lot of really dumb things.
I’m not talking about psychics and alien abductions, although I did believe in those at one time. I’m talking about fitness-related things.
Specifically, I used to believe that lifting weights made you look good, but did nothing for your health, and all the health benefits of exercise stemmed purely from cardio. But really, I was just intimidated by the thought of going into a room full of guys who were twice my size and trying to move heavy barbells around.
Ugh. I wish I could travel back to 2003 and bitch slap myself for that. And also for wearing that Canadian tuxedo for two whole years.
Because it turns out that not only is weight training more important than cardio, but it’s really not at all difficult to get started with.
Why you should lift weights, according to science
For starters, lifting weights allows you to build muscle and get stronger. But you probably knew that. What about the effects of weightlifting on overall health?
A 2012 study compared the effects of resistance training (the scientific term for weightlifting), aerobic training, and a combined program of resistance and aerobic training on overweight adults. The aerobic training group lost more fat than the resistance training group, but also lost muscle mass. This would have lowered their overall metabolic rate, making subsequent weight regain very likely. The resistance training only group gained muscle of course.
However, the combined group gained almost as much muscle as the resistance-training only group, while also losing more fat and waist circumference than the aerobics-only group. The overall drop in body fat percentage was twice as high in the combined group as it was in the aerobics-only group, suggesting that a program combining cardio and weight training is ideal for fat loss.
A similar study also conducted in 2012 by Ho et al found similar body composition results, but also noted that the combination group showed the greatest improvement in cardiovascular risk factors like cholesterol and visceral fat levels.
What about longevity? Will lifting weights improve your lifespan? The answer is a resounding yes.
In line with the findings of the Ho study, resistance training has been shown to reduce all-causes mortality in men with hypertension. But what about healthy people?
A 2016 study found that in the elderly, resistance training was associated with a 46% drop in overall mortality, even when adjusted for other health risk factors and medical history. In other words, lifting weights can add decades to your life span.
So what’s the ideal “dosage” for resistance training? Kamada et al looked again at the association between resistance training and all-causes mortality in elderly women, but in this case they asked every participant exactly how much time they spent lifting weights. They found that all-causes mortality was minimized at 86 minutes per week on resistance training.
Based on the research, the elderly should lift weights for 30 minutes, 2-3 times a week, or 40-45 minutes twice a week. Since the elderly can’t recover from training as easily as younger people, this suggests younger people should train even more. Based on other studies as well as my personal experience as a trainer, middle-aged people will typically maximize their results with 3-5 hours of strength training per week, and young adults with 4-6 hours.
So that’s how much training you should do- but what does lifting weights actually entail?
Rules for novice resistance trainees
Getting start can seem intimidating, but the good news is that as a newbie, pretty much any program will get you results. You don’t need to use any fancy techniques, or precisely time your workouts, or even lift weights that are all that heavy. Here’s all you need to know to get started.
To begin with, you only need to be in the gym two to four days a week. As time goes on, you may want to go more often, but for now, your body needs at least one day between training sessions to recover.
You’ll want to train each muscle group every 3-5 days. That means you have three options here:
First, you could train your entire body every single workout. In that case, you’d want to limit workouts to twice a week.
Second, you could follow a two-day split body program. If you split your training into two workouts- for instance, with an upper body day and a lower body day- you’ll want to be in the gym three days a week.
Third, you could go with a three-way split, and train four days a week. The most common three-day split is push-pull-legs, where one day is spent on upper-body pulling motions, one day is devoted to upper-body pushing motions, and the third day is solely dedicated to lower body training.
There are other ways to split up your training, but don’t worry about them for now; those three are all a beginner needs to know.
Not all exercises are created equal. By choosing the right ones, you can get better results in a half-hour workout than many trainees get in a full hour.
First, you should be favoring compound movements- those that involve multiple joints- over isolation movements, which use only a single joint. Examples of compound movements include squats, bench presses, and pull-ups. Examples of isolation movements include biceps curls, triceps pull-downs, and leg extensions.
Second, exercises that allow your body to move freely are better than those that force it into a fixed path. That means most machine exercises aren’t very good, except for cable machines, which do allow full freedom of movement. Wherever possible, use barbells, dumbbells or cable machines, rather than non-cable machines.
Third, pick exercises that are safe. That means no swinging heavy weights around at high speeds, and nothing where there’s a high danger of dropping a weight on yourself.
How heavy you should lift
A key concept in weight training is the one-rep max, often abbreviated as 1RM- the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a given exercise. As you lighten the load, you can lift the weight more times before getting fatigued.
You can test your 1RM directly, or you can estimated by finding your five-rep max- the heaviest weight you can lift 5 times- and multiplying that by 1.15. For exercises where the weight is held over the body, like the bench press and squat, I recommend estimating 1RM rather than testing it directly, for safety reasons.
A wide range of training loads, or intensities– anywhere from 30% to 90% of 1RM- has been proven effective for causing muscle growth. However, the weight of evidence shows that the upper half of that range is substantially more effective than the lower half- in other words, you do need to lift somewhat heavy.
For compound movements, use weights equal to about 65-75% of 1RM. Typically, this will be a weight you can lift for somewhere between eight and fifteen reps.
For isolation movements, you’ll want to go a little lighter- 60-70% of 1RM, or a weight you can lift 10-20 times.
As you gain more experience, you may want to start using heavier weights- not just in absolute terms, but as a percentage of your one-rep maximum. Loads as high as 87% of 1RM are fairly common.
For now, however, using lights weights will allow you to minimize the risk of injury. Doing more reps also gives you more opportunity to practice good form before you start going heavier.
Be efficient with your gym time
Most people in the gym focus on one exercise at a time. They might do five sets of bench presses, then five sets of squats, then five sets of chin-ups, for instance. This is a waste of time.
Instead of doing one exercise at a time, you should organize your workouts into pairs of exercises that are alternated. Each exercise in a pair should use different muscle groups, so that one muscle group is resting while the other one is working.
Let’s look at how this plays out. Suppose another person in the gym is doing one exercise at a time, for the same number of sets as you, and resting 3 minutes between sets. You’re doing paired sets and resting 90-120 seconds between sets. That means you’re getting more rest between sets of the same exercise, yet your workout is 30-50% shorter than the other person’s.
Always alternate between two or three exercises to save time in the gym.
One other rule: compound movements first, isolation movements later. Putting the isolation movements at the end of your workout prevents them from interfering with your performance on compound movements, and allows you to end your workouts with a fun, easy “pump” exercise.
Warm up before the workout, stretch after
Stretching helps you get flexible, but it can also increase the risk of injury. Save most of your stretching for after the workout.
On the other hand, you do want to warm up. And I mean that literally- the purpose of a warm-up is to raise your body temperature and raise blood flow to your muscles, so the body can loosen up.
The best warm-up consists of simple calisthenic exercises like pushups, jumping jacks, jumprope and jump squats. Do 3-5 minutes of these warmup movements before each workout, and 3-5 minutes of stretching after your workout.
Don’t be an idiot- stop if it hurts
What about “no pain no gain?” Is that old cliche wrong? Well, kind of. There are different kinds of pain.
There’s the burning sensation that you feel in your muscles after a certain amount of continuous use. That’s caused by lactic acid, and it’s good. It doesn’t harm you, and it’s part of the process by which your muscles grow.
There’s getting hot, sweaty, and a little short of breath. Also necessary, at least sometimes, and not a problem unless you’re actually having trouble breathing.
Then there’s the sharp sensation of a pulled muscle, or a joint grinding together. That’s bad. Any kind of sharp pain means you’re injuring yourself, and you need to stop. Don’t tough it out, don’t push through the pain- just stop.
If you’re following my guidelines- staying below 75% 1RM, and not using inherently dangerous exercises- you won’t be in much danger of injury. But if something does start to hurt, stop working the affected joint for the rest of the day, and in the future, either use a lower weight, or replace that exercise with a different one.
Sample full-body workouts
I could give you a bunch of options here, but instead I’ll just give you my favorite. Here are two full-body workouts geared towards first-time trainees.
A1) Machine abdominal crunch, 3 sets at 65% 1RM
A2) Assisted chin-up, 3 sets at 70% 1RM
B1) Barbell back squat, 3 sets at 65% 1RM
B2) Dumbbell Arnold press, 3 sets at 65% 1RM
C1) Cable pull-down, 3 sets at 75% 1RM
C2) Push-ups, 3 sets to fatigue
A1) Front plank, 2 sets to fatigue
A2) Side plank, 2 sets to fatigue each side
B1) Dumbbell bench press, 3 sets at 65% 1RM
B2) One-armed dumbbell bent-over row, 3 sets per arm at 65% 1RM
C1) Leg extension, 3 sets at 60% 1RM
C2) Leg curl, 3 sets at 70% 1RM
D1) Dumbbell Zottman curls, 2 sets at 60% 1RM
D2) Dumbbell overhead triceps extension, 2 sets at 60% 1RM
Alternate between these two workouts, going to the gym twice a week initially. At first you’ll be really sore after each workout; after a month or two the soreness will subside, and you can up your frequency to three times a week.
With each workout, alternate between the two exercises in each pair, noted A1 and A2, etc. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets- each workout should last 30-40 minutes.
Start weight training today
You now have everything you need to get started- a reason, a set of general principles to follow, and specific workouts to use. You can start lifting weights today.
Now at this point, the little voice in the back of your head is probably trying to intimidate you out of doing it. It’s not that easy. This isn’t how elite bodybuilders train. This might work for other people, but it won’t work for you because you’re a 37 year old man of Polish descent who occasionally doesn’t sleep well. You’re probably going to hurt yourself.
Are you going to hurt yourself? Probably not. Newbies hardly ever hurt themselves, because the weights they’re lifting are so light. You’re not even strong enough to injure yourself yet. Counterintuitively, it gets more dangerous as you get more advanced.
Is this how bodybuilders train? Nope. You shouldn’t train like a bodybuilder, because you aren’t one. You’re not that advanced, you’re not on steroids, and your goals aren’t the same.
Do you need a program designed specifically for you? Not at first. Eventually you will. Of course it always helps to have one, and you can always work with me if you want to have the perfect resistance training program designed for you– but don’t think you absolutely have to have a unique program when you’re starting out. You are not a special snowflake.
You can learn the complicated stuff later. For now, go to the gym 2-4 days a week, pick up some heavy objects and put them back down. Lift weights, get enough rest between workouts, build muscles, burn fat- for a first-time trainee, that’s about all there is to it.