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Basic Weightlifting

Basic Weightlifting
  • On June 20, 2014

Disclaimers: I am not an expert in ANY WAY. Consult a doctor before starting any exercise regime.

The strength training portion of exercise can be very intimidating. It’s easy to get on a treadmill or elliptical machine and have a good idea what you’re supposed to do. Strength training, however, can be much more mysterious.

When you walk into a weight room things can get confusing. All you see are weights and machines with no instructions at all. I was overwhelmed, so I hired a trainer to help me figure stuff out. What’s great about hiring a personal trainer is that they can create a program that meets your particular needs and goals. I can’t do that for you here. However, I can pass along some of the basics my trainer (Beefcake, we’ll call him) taught me to get you started with basic weightlifting.


Beefcake did not recommend a ton of cardio on weight days. I usually do no more than ten minutes of cardio on a machine to warm up. He liked the stair machine best, but I’ve also used the exercise bike, rowing machine, treadmill and elliptical. I didn’t do any special stretching.

Three Muscle Groups:

Beefcake taught me to break my body into sections: chest, legs, and back. He recommended I lift no more than three days a week, and insisted on rest days. When you lift weights you are creating intentional muscle damage. When the muscles repair themselves, they grow. If you don’t allow them time to repair, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Beefcake pro tip: Typically, chest-working movements are ones you might drop. Back-working movements are often ones that will fly out of your hands.

Compound Movements:

The image that people have of weightlifting is one of beefy men doing bicep curls. What Beefcake taught me was that compound movements–things that use more than just one muscle at a time–are better than isolating movements like curls. Curls will make your biceps pop out, but they don’t do much for overall strength building and wellness. They have their place, but are not the main thing I focus on.

A barbell bench press is a great compound movement. You use your arms and chest to press the bar away from you, you use your abdominals to stabilize you on the bench, and you push your feet into the floor giving that extra oomph and stability.

(if the barbell feels too heavy, you can also do presses with dumbbells)

My favorite compound exercise is the squat. Nothing feels more She-Hulk awesome than a bad ass squat:

(I struggle with squat form. When we started, Beefcake actually had me sit down on a bench for each squat, practicing the movement. Everyone struggles with squat form, even the big buff dudes. Don’t feel bad, just go lighter and practice. Even body weight squats have value.)


Weight lifting is about getting stronger and building muscle mass. To do that, we can’t stay on the small, colorful weights. We have to pick up heavier things. On the other hand, picking up heavier things too quickly is a bad idea–hurting the joints or tendons is not a fun time. Beefcake recommended finding a weight that was doable and lifting that weight for six to twelve reps, three to four times (sets). Once I could do ten or twelve reps without much struggle, he’d move up to the next level.

So we might start at say, fifteen pound dumbbell presses. Then, if that was pretty easy, we’d progress up to twenty. Remember that five pounds is a BIG jump, so if fifteen is getting easy but twenty is still really hard, you can do fewer reps of twenty and work to reach the ten to twelve range. So my workout might look like:

  • Set 1: 15 lbs. x 10 reps
  • Set 2: 20 lbs. x 5 reps
  • Set 3: 20 lbs. x 6 reps

Then the next week on chest day, I’d probably be able to forgo the fifteen pounds and work on twenties the whole time. It isn’t an exact science as much as trusting your body. Beefcake would encourage me to work until I was shaky and my muscles were burning, but not so hard that I felt I couldn’t push the weight and became unsafe. Usually we did two reps at the shaky, burning level, then it was time to stop.

My ENTIRE workout is three to four exercises, three to four sets per exercise. I am in and out of the gym in 45 minutes. This gives me the best bang for my buck without making me feel like I spend my whole damn life at the gym.

Keep a Journal:

I use Fitocracy, but you can use a notebook to record your workout reps and weights. That way, when you go in the next week you know where to start. People get very anal about data, but the important thing is just to jot down your progress.

What Exercises?:

There are a million different ways to pick up weights and put them down. There are also a million different opinions on the best way to do this. I know of two resources that come highly recommended to start building your work out routine:

The New Rules of Lifting for Women is a great source for basic information and specific exercises. Their recommended program looks a lot like mine did to start with. The book is also accessible, friendly and full of helpful information.

[easyazon_link asin=”0982522738″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”cattame-20″]Starting Strength, 3rd edition[/easyazon_link] is a book that I haven’t read, but weightlifters call it the lifting bible so I imagine it’s a good starting point.

(links are Amazon Affiliate links)

Here’s what I usually do, taken straight from what Beefcake taught me (remember, I pick 3-4 and do 3-4 sets):

Chest day:

Back day:

Leg day:

When picking, I usually try for variety. A flat press, an incline press, and a fly, for example. A single arm thing and a two arm thing. The idea is to hit as many of the muscle groups as you can.

As you start working out, you’ll find movements that are optimal for you. The real secret to lifting is body awareness and mindfulness. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Don’t work through sharp or surprising pain. Next day soreness (delayed onset muscle soreness, sometimes abbreviated DOMS) is normal, and can even be worse the second day after working a muscle group.

Give it a try! No matter what fitness level you’re currently rocking, you can be a bad-ass weight lifter too. Go slow, be smart, and don’t be scared. You got this.

(image: Doug’s Gym Inside by Wissembourg licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

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