The beginners’ guide to strength training – Everything you need to know

A man is picking up two dumbbells from the rack. He's a weight training beginner.

As a strength training beginner, stepping into the gym for the first time can feel overwhelming. There seem to be a million different exercises and pieces of weird equipment. Finding the right combinations of these exercises can seem almost impossible.

Sure, weight training looks complicated from the outside. Once you start, however, it isn’t that bad. In its most simple form, strength training is a set of exercises that uses resistance in the form of free weights, fixed weights, and body weight.

The beginners’ guide to strength training is a complete guide that will help you get well prepared for lifting. It will guide you, as a beginner, to get an approach to strength training that will secure long-term gains, avoid injuries, and teach you everything else you’ll need to know.

What is strength training?

Strength training, also known as resistance training, uses opposing force to build strength and muscle mass. There are many different ways to do this, but the most popular is weight lifting.

Resistance training is a crucial part of most athletes’ workout schedules because of its many mental and physical benefits. Not only does it benefit athletes, but it can help most to live a healthier and happier life. At least if done correctly.

The benefits of weight training

Sure, strength training helps you build muscle and strength, but that’s just a few of the endless benefits of working out. Here are a few of the other key benefits.

  1. Manage stress
  2. Controls weight (Better body composition)
  3. Combats health conditions
  4. Improved mood
  5. More energy
  6. Better sleep
  7. Increased bone density
  8. Less risk of injuries
  9. Better posture

And the list could go on.

Strength training doesn’t just burn calories while you’re in the gym but continues to do so long after you’ve finished your workout. As you gain more muscle mass, your body will require more energy. As your body requires more calories to maintain its weight, controlling it will become easier.

You’ll have less risk of numerous diseases, both physical and mental, and a lower chance of injuries. Strength training can make you happier and healthier, able to live a life with more confidence and quality.

Related: BMR calculator

Questions from strength training beginners

Being a beginner at anything is never easy. It’s no different when it comes to weight training. Usually, observing someone more experienced than you is a great place to start. While this will help you to some extent, it might also leave you more confused than before as you start to notice that they aren’t all doing the same thing.

Sure, there are many different approaches to resistance training, but the foundation is always the same. At least for the useful ones.

We have answered some of the most common questions from strength training beginners. Hopefully, this can help you get started with the right knowledge and expectations to stay motivated.

Related: Why am I not getting stronger?

What equipment do I need for weight lifting?

There are different ways to do strength training. You could do calisthenics at the bars in most parks, bodyweight workouts in your garden, or weight lifting in a gym. What they all have in common is that you won’t have to get yourself tons of fancy equipment before you start.

While most of the essential equipment is already provided by the gym, there are still a few things that you should bring yourself.

A pair of flat shoes, such as converse or vans, and a bottle of water are the only two essentials when starting in the gym. Once you get more experienced and know what equipment your body will benefit from, you can consider investing in more.

Do I need supplements?

The need for supplements is an often debated topic. Some claim that it’s a complete waste of money, while others believe it to be essential for muscle growth. But what is the truth?

Supplements aren’t necessary for muscle and strength gains. However, there are a few supplements that could make the process a bit easier.

Creatine is the world’s most studied sports supplement. It has been proved to increase exercise performance, muscle and strength gains, as well as numerous other health benefits.

Related: Does creatine make you gain weight?

Whey protein is a great source of quality protein. It doesn’t impact muscle growth directly but is a great way to add protein to your diet. Especially if you’re struggling to get enough.

As mentioned above, supplements aren’t necessary to see results in the gym. Creatine and whey are, however, two supplements that could speed up the process and make it a bit easier.

Related: How to set up your macros for weight loss

How do I build strength and muscle mass?

Strength and muscles are built by forcing the muscles to adapt to an increase in the applied force. In other words, by slowly adding more weight, reps, or sets to your lifts and workouts. This is what’s called progressive overload. The most effective rep range for this is anything below 12 reps.

Begin with practicing proper form before starting to lift heavy. Once you have a good form and understanding of how the different exercises are performed correctly, you can begin to add weight, reps, or sets. Just make sure that you don’t add too much too fast, to avoid injuries.

How fast will I see results as a beginner?

Newbie gains are a real thing when it comes to strength training. In the first couple of months of lifting, you’ll be able to feel an improvement in your strength from workout to workout. You can expect to see an increase in all of your lifts by 50-100% in the first year.

It’s not just the strength that will increase rapidly in the first year of lifting, but muscle mass as well. While experienced lifters usually can build somewhere between 0.1-0.5kg (0.2-1.1lbs) a month, beginners can build 1kg (2.2lbs) a month. That’s a total of 12kg (26.5lbs) of lean muscle mass in the first year of lifting. After the first year, however, this will begin to slow down.

The above is just the average result for beginners. It depends on genetics, age, sex, diet, and a million other things. Don’t use it as a guideline for how much you want to improve, but rather to get an idea of what’s realistic.

Related: The possible reasons why you’re not getting stronger

How do I find a workout plan for beginners?

A good workout plan for strength training beginners should focus on compound movements. It shouldn’t contain too many exercises or sets to avoid burnout and slower gains.

We have created a free workout plan well suited for weight training beginners. It requires 4 days in the gym and is build around compound exercises. You can find the free workout plan here.

Alternatively, we have created different workout plans only requiring dumbbells, the first two are well suited for beginners. You can find the dumbbell workouts here.

Do I need weights to build strength?

Weights are just one tool to build strength, but there are plenty of others. Pull-ups, dips, and other bodyweight exercises can be just as effective. They can even be used as a part of your weight training workout plan.

Bodyweight exercises shouldn’t be ignored and can be an important part of any workout plan, especially for beginners.

How many times a week should I do resistance training?

Having off-days is important, and when you’re a beginner to strength training, they’re even more important. A good start would be to aim for 3-4 days a week in the gym, which should give you time to work every muscle group twice.

Over time, as your body slowly adapts, you can begin to consider a larger split and hit the gym 5-6 times a week.

Related: The best workout split for mass

What activities should I do besides weight lifting, to stay healthy?

Strength training has many benefits but is only a part of a well-rounded workout plan. To stay healthy, decrease the risk of injuries and sickness, and overall feel better, you might consider incorporating the three activities below into your workout plan.

Active recovery

If you work hard in the gym, you need to allow your body to rest between your workouts. It’s while resting that your muscles grow, and you get ready for the next workout, both mentally and physically. Sure, while laying on the couch watching Netflix is allowed, there are other, more effective ways to let the body recover.

Active recovery increases the blood flow, which helps your muscles repair themselves more effectively. This includes low-intensity activities such as walking, stretching, foam rolling, mobility exercises, etc.

Cardio

Cardio is often seen as something “bad” if your goal is to build muscle. That doing cardio will kill your gains, and you have to pick one of the two.

Cardio keeps your heart healthy, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. It’s as important as resistance training in a healthy lifestyle.

Cardio doesn’t have to be long exhausting runs but can be something comfortable and fun instead. Walking, swimming, cycling, or an activity you enjoy is just as rewarding.

Related: Should you do cardio before or after weight lifting?

NEAT

NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) is all the movement you do that isn’t counted as exercise. Chores, shopping, walking from or to the car are examples of NEAT. This makes up for a significant part of our daily energy expenditure (how many calories we burn).

NEAT exercises are especially important when trying to lose weight. Small changes in our daily habits could lead to an easier and more successful weight loss. Here are a few simple ways to increase your NEAT.

  • Park further away from the entrance or jump off the bus a stop early. Alternatively, you could leave the car at home or skip taking the public transport and walk or bike to your destination instead.
  • Always take the stairs over the lift. As a bonus to increasing your NEAT, you won’t have to wait for the lift anymore.
  • Stand while waiting or talking on the phone.

The above are just a few examples of how easy it is to improve NEAT through small changes in our habits.

5 strength training tips for beginners

Here are five things you should know before starting in a gym.

Form over weight

Ego lifting is a big problem for many. They add more weight than they’re able to lift. To get the desired amount of reps, they bounce the weight, half rep it, or other ways to make the bar go back up. Sure, they might be able to lift more than otherwise at this workout, but long-term, they’ll suffer. They’ll experience worse long-term strength and muscle gains and have an increased risk of injury.

Start with a lighter weight, practice the form and slowly move from there. Nobody cares how much you lift, especially with bad form.

Be patient

Strength training beginners start at the gym, work hard for a couple of months before they suddenly stop. Why?

There are many reasons for this, but a common one is the lack of patience. They enter the gym with a set of unrealistic goals. When they’re not looking a certain way or as strong as they would like within a few months, they start losing their patience.

Understand that results in the gym don’t happen overnight. Most of the fitness influencers you follow have either been training for years or taken performance-enhancing drugs – most have done both. Be patient, set small goals, and only compete with yourself.

Keep your workouts simple

There’s no need to use every piece of equipment and machine in the gym. Instead, focus on compound movements, such as squat, deadlift, benchpress, or other free weight exercises that works more muscle groups at once.

Build your workout around these exercises. Either by following a program for beginners or by consulting a PT.

Start a gym log

The key to muscle and strength gains is progressive overload – to slowly increase the difficulty of a workout. This can be done by increasing the weight, reps or sets performed. An easy way to do this is by keeping a log of your workouts and always making sure to make each workout is a bit more challenging than the last.

There are many different ways to do this. My personal favorite is by using the Google sheets app.

A gym log created by using Google sheets
Example of a gym log

The above is an example of how I create my gym logs. After each set/exercise, I note how much weight I lifted, and in some exercises, the number of sets/reps. I usually leave room for small notes as well.

Find the right state of mind

Take a deep breath and walk into the gym with confidence. Despite what you might think, the other members aren’t going to judge you. Most are either nervous to be judged themselves and trying to hide or too focused on their own workout to notice you and the people around them.

It takes practice, but over time you can feel confident and forget about the other members too.

5 common weight training mistakes beginners do

The gym can be a confusing place. We’re all going to make mistakes. There are, however, a few mistakes that most strength training beginners are guilty of making early on. Let’s have a look at them and how to avoid them.

Lifting too heavy

We already mentioned the importance of prioritizing form over weight in this article. This mistake, however, is so common that it can’t be mentioned often enough.

Lifting heavier weights than you’re able to is the easiest way to get injuries and avoid long-term gains. Pick a weight low enough that you can keep a nice and clean form through your reps but still feel pain through the last couple of reps. This might be difficult in the beginning, but you’ll quickly learn what you’re capable of.

Not prioritizing rest

Most lifters know the importance of a good diet and hard work if they’d want to grow stronger. What many seem to forget is the fact that we get stronger while we rest.

Get your 8 hours of sleep, allow yourself to have off-days, and your future self will thank you.

Not setting short term goals

We tend to see things in a bigger picture. We have seen our dream physique on Instagram and are going into this, wanting to look just like that. While it’s okay to have long-term goals, they won’t help us much over time. As the month goes by and we realize how far away we are, we tend to lose motivation and give up.

A better way to do this is to include short-term goals. Combine your goals that take years to reach with smaller ones that can be reached in weeks. Aim to add some weight to your benchpress, perfect your form or lose 1 kg (2.2lbs). Let the small victories keep you motivated to reach your dreams.

No focus on stretching

Strength training comes with one negative side effect. As our muscles grow stronger, they’ll become tighter too. Having tight muscles can be painful and increase the risk of muscle and joint injuries.

Luckily, there is a simple way to avoid this, by stretching. A good way of doing this is by creating a habit of stretching after every workout. You don’t have to spend more than 10-15 min a day if you start before the problem becomes serious.

Not doing a warm-up

Strength training beginners often forget the importance of a good warm-up. But as they’re not lifting heavy yet, is it really that important?

The purpose of a warm-up is to activate the muscles. To avoid injuries, get mentally ready, and heat the body temperature to make sure that it’s ready for lifting. When we skip the warm-up, our bodies won’t be able to perform at the highest level. This is a problem, no matter how heavy you lift.

Preparing yourself with some lighter lifts is a great place to start, but the optimal would be to include some dynamic stretching and light cardio as well.