There’s a ton of information out there on resistance training with lots of do’s and don’ts though the majority of it is conflicting and confusing. This can make it difficult to figure out where to start especially if you’re a beginner. Well, don’t worry because I’ve got your back!
I’ve compiled everything you need to know into this comprehensive resistance training for beginners guide. It will help you start your fitness journey and reach your goals without wasting time wondering what you should and shouldn’t be doing to get real results.
Table of Contents
What is resistance training?
Resistance training is a method of exercise that uses various types of resistance to build strength, size, and endurance. Whether you’re using an external load like a dumbbell, medicine ball, or your own body weight, you have to work against gravity to control it.
The act of moving your body through a range of motion while resisting the urge to let gravity and weight control you has more benefits than just shaping your body and making you stronger. It’s been proven to enhance your health and increase your longevity as well.
Benefits of strength and resistance training:
- Strengthens your bones
- Promotes weight loss
- Faster metabolism, burn more calories at rest
- Improves strength and balance
- Reduces your risk of injury now and later in life
- Manages and prevents chronic conditions
- Improves brain health
Do this before you start
Starting strength training is a fantastic way to manage your health and improve your quality of life. However, there are some precautions that you may want to take to ensure that you’re being safe and impacting your health in a beneficial way, rather than putting yourself at risk.
Exercising is great for you, however, not all exercise has the same beneficial effect. This largely comes down to your personal health history, fitness level, genetics, and experience.
You probably already know this but it is always recommended that you consult with a healthcare professional before embarking on any type of new fitness program.
This way you can ensure that you’re good to go, and don’t have any underlying issues that may need to be addressed.
It’s even more imperative if you’ll be undertaking a high-intensity workout style, as this isn’t necessarily for everyone. High-intensity workouts can be very beneficial provided you don’t have any particular health concerns. Again, it’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional before you start working out.
Set achievable goals
Goal-setting is one of the most important parts of creating your fitness routine. If you’re not sure where you’re trying to go, then how are you going to get there?
Studies have shown that setting goals actually increases your chance of success. So, let’s get you set up for success by talking about the importance of figuring out which goals are right for you and how to go about setting them up.
1. Figure out and set your goals
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to decide what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you want to lose weight, build muscle, improve definition, get leaner, build strength, and increase performance?
You may be thinking, “All of that!”
This is where it can get tricky. If you’re focusing on all of the things, it can become overwhelming. So, when setting realistic goals for yourself, it’s best to choose one thing to focus on at a time and prioritize that one goal by breaking it up into smaller, easier-to-achieve goals.
You also may want to give yourself a realistic timeline to achieve them. For example, losing 20 lbs in a month is probably not the healthiest or most realistic goal for most people. Generally, healthy weight loss happens at about 1-2 lbs a week.
When you gradually lose weight, it’s more maintainable because you’ve had the time to create better habits for yourself.
Tip: The secret to long-term results is changing your habits, which takes time and patience. So, aim to set smaller, more achievable goals in order to get to your bigger goal.
If your main goal is to lose 20 lbs, then instead of chasing that one goal with tunnel vision, break it up into smaller daily and weekly goals to build confidence in your progress. A more realistic way to do this would be to focus on small things you can do each day to achieve the weight loss goal of 1-2 lbs per week.
Try to remember that if it didn’t take you one month to gain 20 lbs, then it probably isn’t going to take you one month to lose it either.
2. Find the time to work out and be consistent
There have many nights that I’ve lied in bed super excited about smashing my workout goal the next morning. But then when my alarm clock chimes before the sun has even come up, I suddenly don’t feel so excited about it anymore and often chose to hit the snooze button instead. Sound familiar?
Coming up with a routine that fits into your life will make sticking to your goals a lot less stressful, and increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with it. Find a time that works for you and commit to it. If you know that you’re basically a zombie after work, then maybe working out first thing in the morning is a better fit for you.
If you know that mornings are your most challenging time of the day, then maybe a quick evening workout after work will fit into your lifestyle better. Either way, deciding on a time that works for you most days will help you to be more consistent.
After some time, it’ll just become part of your daily routine, like showering and going to work, and you won’t even have to argue with yourself about whether or not to do it. You just will.
3. Decide where you’re going to work out
The other thing you may want to consider when setting up your new habit of working out regularly is figuring out where you’ll be working out. If you absolutely hate going to the gym, then home workouts may be more suitable for you. You don’t need to go to the gym to get a good workout or to “be healthy”.
There are plenty of options available such as parks, at-home workout equipment, calisthenics, setting up your own garage gym, etc. The point is to go ahead and make a game plan so that when the time comes to get it done you already know where you’re going.
Exercises and muscle groups
The prominence of social media has created a trend of exercising creativity that’s meant to inspire and motivate. However, it’s not necessarily the most effective way to achieve your results, despite how cool or fun it may look. It can actually lead to injury, especially if you’re a beginner.
It’s usually best to begin with the tried and true basic movements before “getting creative”. This means sticking to common exercises and working on mastering the essential fundamental movement patterns first. These include pushing, pulling, hip hinging, squatting, and lunging.
I know it doesn’t sound as intricate as what you may have seen on Instagram but that’s the “real secret” – gold old basics.
Once you’ve mastered the basics and built a solid foundation, then it’s completely fine to experiment and try to get more creative.
Some examples of basic exercises to master first include:
- Bench press
- Shoulder presses
- Lying leg raises
Compound and isolation exercises
Exercises fall into two groups:
- Compound or multi-joint movements
- Isolation or single-joint movements
Both have their place in a sound fitness program. However, they each have their own advantages and disadvantages.
- Use more than one joint at a time (bench press, squat, lunge, pull-ups, rows, etc)
- Work multiple muscle groups simultaneously
- Build more muscles and strength
- Better at increasing metabolism
- More effective for weight loss
- Greater calorie burn
- More intense
- Use one joint at a time (biceps curls, tricep kickbacks, leg extensions, etc)
- Good for training smaller, supportive muscles
- Work one muscle group at a time
- Good for hypertrophy but not strength
- Less impact on boosting metabolism
- Not as effective for weight loss
- Burn fewer calories
- Less intensity
It’s generally recommended that beginners focus on compound exercises because they’ll have the greatest impact on your progress in the shortest amount of time. Working multiple large muscles at once will increase your calorie burn and train your central nervous system to adapt to exercise more effectively.
Plus, compound movements tend to be more efficient at facilitating better gains because they create a stronger anabolic signal in your body.
This means that they send a message to your body to build muscle and burn fat, which consequently equals more weight loss and better performance results.
Target different muscle groups
It’s important to make sure that you’re taking a balanced approach to your fitness and hitting all of your muscle groups. When you neglect one or more muscles this can lead to muscular imbalances and ultimately increase your risk of injury. Aim to do at least one exercise for each body part.
This is another reason that compound movements tend to give you better results. They work multiple muscles, ensuring that you aren’t leaving any out. While everyone has their favorite muscles to work, it’s generally the one that you tend to want to avoid that you probably need to focus on the most.
- Legs: quads, hamstrings, calves
Leg press, step-ups, squats, seated and standing calf raises, hamstring curls, deadlifts, lunge variations
- Pushing movements: chest, shoulders, triceps
Chest press, flyes, push-ups, shoulder press, lateral raises, front raises, face pulls, triceps kickbacks, triceps pushdowns
- Pulling movements: back, biceps
Rows, pull-ups, chin-ups, deadlifts, biceps curls, hammer curls, rope climbing
- Stability: core
Planks, leg raises, sit-ups, crunches, Russian twists, v-ups, Turkish get-ups, farmer carries
Order of movements
Since compound movements use more muscles simultaneously, they tend to require the most energy.
Therefore it’s safer and more likely to lead to greater results if you prioritize the more difficult, complicated, and heavier movements toward the beginning of your workouts, and save the isolation exercises for the end.
Compound exercises take a bigger toll on your energy resources and impact your central nervous system to a greater extent, which can lead to fatigue a lot faster.
For example, you’d want to do heavy squats and box jumps earlier in your workout when you’re the freshest and focused, and then leg extensions using a machine toward the end.
Tip: It can be easy to get complacent with the things you feel more comfortable doing and have gotten used to. However, it’s imperative for your continued progress and overall health to switch things up occasionally.
Machines vs free weights
While machines are good for lifting more weight in a controlled manner if you mostly or only use machines you can hinder your body’s ability to stabilize itself. Using machines occasionally while also incorporating free weights is more beneficial for overall progress.
You may have to lower your weight when doing a free-weight exercise, but the benefits are well worth checking your ego.
Some of the benefits of free-weight exercise include
- Stronger core
- Improving spinal stability
- Training your supporting and stabilizer muscles
- Increasing your range of motion
- Decreasing your risk of injury
- Improving your balance
- Minimizing muscle imbalances
Number of sets and reps
Reps or repetitions are the number of times you do a movement. Sets are the groups of repetitions that you do per movement. So if you’re doing 3 sets of 10 reps of squats, then that means you’re going to squat 10 times and then rest and repeat that 2 more times for a total of 3 sets.
Your total reps at the end of your 3 sets of squats would be 30.
Why sets and reps matter
Sets and reps are important numbers to keep track of because there are different ranges depending on the goal you’re after. More reps are generally geared more toward endurance, while a lower rep range improves power and strength.
Your sets will also play a role in dictating intensity and volume. Usually, if you’re using a lower rep range, you’ll do more sets. Or if you’re a beginner whose body is getting adjusted to the demands of exercise you’ll also want to keep your sets lower at first to give your soft tissues, joints, and muscles time to adapt without getting injured.
Examples of set and rep range for specific goals:
Stick to your plan
Proper programming will play a major role in the type of results your training will elicit and the time it takes you to get there. Muscle confusion has become a popular and often misunderstood concept that leads people to throw programming out of the window in favor of switching things up too often.
The purpose of exercising to get results is to give your body time to adapt in order to change and improve. So, you’ll benefit more from sticking to the specific set and rep range for your intended goal for at least a few weeks before switching it up.
Rest time between sets
Have you ever seen that person in the gym who is looking at their watch between sets? While this may not always be the case, they’re more than likely timing their rest periods between sets.
When you do an exercise your body pulls the energy required to get through that movement from your energy stores. But your body can only produce so much energy at a time.
So, when you rest between sets it’s giving your body a chance to replenish those energy stores in an effort to allow you to continue to exert full effort during your next set.
If you don’t give yourself adequate rest between sets, you likely won’t be able to work out for very long before feeling fatigued and losing your ability to focus and maintain your form.
Your rest time between sets and exercises will depend on the goal you’re working toward. Longer rest periods are generally associated with strength and power goals, while shorter rest periods are typically used during endurance and hypertrophy training.
- Power: 3-5 minutes
- Strength: 2-3 minutes
- Hypertrophy: 30 seconds – 2 minutes
- Endurance: 30-90 seconds
It can be easy to skip adequate rest periods if you’re not paying attention or in a hurry. Not resting enough can cost you some performance benefits so using a stopwatch, a timer on your phone, or just keeping an eye on the clock can keep you accountable and enhance your training results.
The same could be said about resting for too long. While this may not be an issue if you’re training for strength or power where you’ll need much longer rest times, it can hinder the effectiveness of an endurance workout where you’ll need to keep your rest times limited to keep your heart-rate elevated.
Tip: Getting distracted by your phone is a common mistake that you want to try to avoid. While checking your phone between sets may seem like a harmless activity, it can distract you from getting back to your workout and render your rest periods ineffective.
Choose the right weight
Choosing the proper weight for your workouts is a significant choice that will dictate how well you’re able to perform and the type of effect that you will elicit. Initially, you should make sure that you’re able to maintain proper form throughout the full range of motion for the movement. This is where bodyweight exercises generally come in.
If you can control the movement well with your own body weight then the likelihood of you being able to maintain that control under an external load increases dramatically. The better your form is, the more benefit you’ll reap from said exercise.
Then when it’s time to start adding more of a challenge you’ll want to pick a weight that requires a good amount of effort. But you don’t want it to be so challenging that it detracts from your form or range of motion.
Conversely, if the weight is too light it won’t challenge you enough to stimulate adaptation. Sometimes it may take a set or two to figure out the right weight for that particular movement. If you can do about 12 to 15 reps without much effort or being winded then it’s time to add 5 to 10 lbs of weight for that exercise.
Progressing at home
At-home workouts can be highly effective if you have adequate resistance to work against. Once you’ve mastered the bodyweight movements, you can add external resistance with resistance bands, weight belts, weighted vests, ankle weights, wrist weights, and, of course, dumbbells.
A suspension training system is an excellent option for stability, mobility, and strength training in a home environment. They often come with a door-jamb device that enables you to connect it to the top of a closed door for leverage, or a D-ring that can be installed into a wooden ceiling beam or connected to a stable pull-up bar.
Maintain proper form
Sometimes it can be easy to get carried away, especially if you’re in a gym setting and are concerned about other people paying attention to what you’re doing. It’s common to compare yourself to others, although the best comparison is usually you against you.
Ego-lifting, which is where you try to lift more weight than you can handle in an attempt to impress somebody, is a surefire way to induce injuries.
You’ll want to make sure that you’re choosing a weight you can control throughout the movement while maintaining proper form. If you have to swing the weight around and use momentum in order to lift it, then it probably isn’t the correct weight for you.
Cheating has its place in training, but it’s normally a technique reserved for professional athletes and bodybuilders who are using it as an advanced technique. Employing proper form with a weight that you can handle will behoove you on a much more beneficial level.
Listen to your body and focus on what your capabilities allow you to do at that moment. You’re there for you, not to impress anybody else.
Tip: Just because the big guy in the middle of the free-weight section is lifting 120 lb dumbbells doesn’t mean that you should also try to throw as much weight around as possible.
Duration and frequency
It’s generally not recommended to work out for longer than an hour. As a beginner, you may even want to start with as little as 20 to 30 minutes in order to give your body time to adapt to the sudden increase in activity.
Your body only has so much energy that it can produce and draw from before you need to replenish it with food and rest. Once you’ve passed the 60-90 minute mark, you may notice that you’ll start to lose focus and your performance may decrease.
If you work out for too long and do too much, you run the risk of preventing your body from being able to adapt and getting stuck in a cycle of healing. This basically means that if you consistently overreach, or push too hard without giving your body adequate fuel and rest, your body won’t be able to recover and will instead feel fatigued.
Volume, or the amount of work you’re doing (reps, sets, and the number of exercises), also plays a role in the duration of your workout. Typically, as you increase the intensity of your workouts you’ll want to increase your sets as you decrease your repetitions, which means you’ll lift more weight per repetition.
When you use this pattern of adaptation it trains your body to increase your strength and performance incrementally to prevent injuries.
Time management techniques
I’ve heard many people say that they just don’t have the time to “live in the gym” and therefore don’t have the time to work out. However, it’s not necessarily the amount of time you’re spending in the gym per session so much as the consistency of doing your workouts regularly.
It’s unnecessary for the average person to be in the gym for 2 to 3 hours at a time. You’ll see much more improvement in your performance and strength if you opt for shorter, more consistent sessions.
According to research, all you need is 2-3 resistance training sessions ranging from about 20 to 30 minutes at a time per week.
When you’re able to keep your workouts shorter and more focused, it’s easier to maintain them as part of a consistent routine. If you’re being consistent with your workouts you’re more likely to see better results more quickly.
Get enough rest
Your body’s ability to adapt and heal happens when you rest, which is why it’s imperative to give yourself enough days off in order to recover.
It’s recommended that you give your muscles time to heal and adapt, so rest one full day between exercising each specific muscle group. For example, if you train legs on Monday, then you may want to wait until at least Wednesday to do another leg workout.
Based on recommendations by the American Heart Association, twice-a-week strength training sessions should be adequate for most people to elicit a significant training response.
One of the most effective ways to maximize 2 to 3 workouts a week is to work your major muscle groups using full-body workouts. Using this approach you’ll be able to give your muscles adequate time to recover before stimulating them again.
Studies have shown that exercising your larger muscle groups 2 to 3 times a week is adequate for increasing strength and building muscle.
Track your progress
I’m sure you’ve seen those people that carry a notebook around the gym with them. Well, their reason for doing this is because it helps them to keep track of their progress by giving them the ability to compare their past performances to their current performance.
While people with exceptional memory capacity may be able to remember every number for every set and rep range, most of us aren’t going to be able to recall these details over weeks and months of training.
Tip: If you keep track of how many sets and reps you’ve done, how long you’ve rested and how you felt, then it’s easier to make informed decisions for your current and subsequent workouts in order to progress more quickly.
Yes, it’s definitely more work and can be a bit tedious, but if you’re after faster results then this method is highly effective.
Using an app on your phone to track progress is also possible, however, more often than not your phone will create unnecessary distractions for you which will mess with the workout.
Another reason that keeping a workout journal is helpful in achieving better results in a shorter period of time is that it facilitates tracking your progressive overload.
As your body adapts and you get better at performing each exercise, and your ability to lift more weight with less effort increases, you have to increase the intensity in order to continue challenging your body. This is referred to as progressive overload.
Tracking how many sets and reps you’re able to accomplish per exercise allows you to gradually increase the difficulty as you get better, which will prevent you from plateauing and enhance your results.
Each week you should be trying to perform a little better than the week before, whether that be through more weight, fewer rest times, etc.
Accountability and consistency
When you first start working out your body will be focused on healing and adapting as your central nervous system tries to get over the initial shock of this new challenge it’s being subjected to.
Don’t worry though! This level of soreness will dissipate as long as you stay consistent.
The first few weeks will likely be the most challenging, but it’s important that you push through this stage. It won’t be like this forever, even though it may feel like your body hates you and wants you to give up.
How to deal with inevitable setbacks?
Unfortunately, no matter how good your programming is and how careful you’re being, there will be inevitable setbacks. Life may get in the way, you may miss a workout, or get sick. Regardless of these interruptions, it’s not the end of the world.
Just pick up where you left off, and keep pushing yourself. It’s normal for your motivation to be lower some days and weeks, which is why it’s important to establish a routine and keep habits in place to lessen the deterrents that can sabotage your consistency.
How to stay motivated?
It’s also important to note that nobody is motivated 100% of the time. Even the fittest person who loves working out and looks like they live in the gym isn’t always excited and motivated to get their workout in.
However, with that being said, there are things you can do to help motivate you along the way. Research has shown that intrinsic motivation is more rewarding in the long run than extrinsic motivation. This boils down to finding something to focus on other than the physical results that you’d like to see.
Instead of prioritizing the number on the scale going down (extrinsic motivation), find some type of performance measure that you can use to track your progress. For instance, try setting an exercise goal such as increasing your number of body-weight squats each week. Seeing results from your effort is the best motivation.
Tip: Find a positive correlation with an exercise – this is the best way to improve and maintain your consistency over time. It’s part of the reason that finding physical activities you enjoy doing will have the greatest benefit on your overall health.
Beginner workout tips
Don’t exhaust yourself right away
Start small and work your way up. Especially if you’re a beginner, there’s no reason to spend more than an hour in the gym. Set a goal of moving for at least 20 minutes 3 times a week, and once you’re able to stick to that then increase it. You don’t want to wear yourself out in the beginning or it can kill your motivation.
Drinking enough fluids keeps your body working efficiently and helps to maintain your energy levels. Try to drink water throughout the day. It will help you to perform better, think more clearly, and maintain your body’s homeostasis.
Always warm up
It’s not necessary to spend half an hour warming up. 5 minutes will get the job done. Whether you’re walking on the treadmill for 5-10 minutes, or doing some dynamic stretching it’s important for you to warm up your muscles and get your joints lubricated before starting a physical activity.
Don’t lift to impress
Ego-lifting generally results in you getting an unnecessary injury rather than leading to you impressing anyone. Listen to your body. Focus on using proper form and only lift weights that you can handle.
Maintain good form
Good form is essential for getting the most out of your training. In addition to preventing injuries and training setbacks, when you use a good form you’re able to gain the most benefit from your training and see results faster.
Listen to your body
Listening to your body means being flexible. Just because you have an hour-long workout planned doesn’t mean that you have to push through it in order to see results. Remember that your body reaps the most rewards from your training while you’re resting.
Your body is smart and will let you know what it needs, so it will benefit you more to pay attention to the messages it’s sending!
Do cardio and mobility exercises
Cardio is an essential component of any training program as it has myriad benefits including the prevention of chronic diseases. Mobility also goes hand in hand with a sound training program in that it keeps your joints working together in a healthy, efficient manner.
When your joints and heart are taken care of, you’ll see greater results and feel a lot better.
Stretching may seem like something that won’t hurt you to skip, however, it can actually make your training session more effective. When you do the physical activity it causes tension in your muscles and other soft tissues and continues to build up over time ultimately putting you at the potential risk of injury.
Stretching after your workout helps you to relieve some of this tension to increase your quality of life, as well as the effectiveness of the exercise you’re doing.
Nutrition is important
You may have heard that training accounts for about 20% of your health, while nutrition counts for about 80%. While you may be able to get away with eating junk when you’re younger and not really notice any detrimental effects, a lack of nutrition will become more evident as you age.
Fueling your body properly by feeding it the nutrients that it needs will help you to function better in your everyday life, give you more energy, help you to think more clearly, and elicit better results from your training efforts.
Be realistic with your goals
Setting realistic goals will help you to reach them faster. While you may want to set a huge goal that could take months and years to accomplish, it’s actually more helpful to set smaller and more achievable goals that you can realistically reach in shorter amounts of time.
When you set realistic goals you may find that you’re happier, more consistent, and ultimately see better results in a shorter amount of time.