Lifting weights is awesome. Aside from the aesthetic benefits, chalking up for that barbell feels incredibly powerful. Those PRs (personal records) are as addicting as ice cream, and once you get a taste for it, you’ll never go back.
Side note: I love ice cream.
Yet I know how scary and intimidating it is to start out in the weight room, especially for women. In college, I was clueless about what to do with all those machines in the gym, so I’d watch our baseball guys crush it and then sheepishly walk over and try to do the same. (Second side note: I also crushed it)
It wasn’t perfect but it was a start, and I was willing to put in the effort (in terms of research, learning, and working with trainers) to get more comfortable in the weight room.
Where to start
Beginners tend to think the transition to heavy lifting will be difficult or complicated. My newbie female clients come with ideas like:
- Lifting heavy will make them bulky
- Lifting heavy is too hard
- They need to fit as many exercises into a workout as possible
- They should be using lots of machines
- Some exercises, like the bench press, should only be done by men
- It’ll be too time consuming
- They’ll get hurt
And on and on and on it goes.
Then there are questions around how many reps and sets to do, how often one should train, what weights to use, etc. Ahhh! So much information! No wonder newbies are confused about where to start.
The Hard and Fast Rules
I have some hard and fast rules about heavy lifting that all my female clients follow. They are:
- Do a focused, dynamic warm-up
- Earn your way to heavy
- Focus on the basics
- Ditch the machines
Let’s break it down:
I’ve said this many times before — warm-ups are like foreplay. Don’t skip it if you want to hit workout climax.
Warm-ups should include a breathing drill, mobility work and maybe some soft tissue work. But the most important thing is using the warm-up to prep you for the day’s movement, address weaknesses and use it to asses how much you can do in a given day. For example, if you feel like poop one day, it’ll reflect in your warm-up. That’s information you take with you to the workout: Go easy, go a little lighter, or take a longer rest break. It might also open you up to some weak links in the kinetic chain. Perhaps a tightness around your hip will need more soft tissue work than normal so you can hit those lower body movements without interference.
Earn your way to heavy with the basics
No one picks up a heavy barbell on day one, nor do they start off with snatches or deadlifts from the floor the first day either. These exercises don’t offer the ideal learning environment for a beginner who has yet to “groove” foundational movement patterns like the hinge or squat.
While my female clients will switch between bodyweight and loaded movements their first few months, the right to heavy is earned. Using tools like resistance bands, dumbbells and kettle bells are often necessary to train proper movement, but it’s not so heavy that it hinders progress. Exercise selection is very basic at the beginner level because the foundation of everything strength-wise lies in the basics. These exercises also have the lowest learning curves, so you can progress and get confident in the gym. Use the rule of progressive overload when it comes to weight selection, but don’t forget to focus on the basics first.
Ditch the machines
Machines do a great job of isolating the muscle but it does all the stabilization for you. Beginners need to work on those stabilizers just as much as the muscles doing the lifting, and using tools like dumbbells, cables, resistance bands is more effective than a string of single-joint movements and isolation exercises. Why do a bunch of bicep curls when we can train the chin-up and hit all the muscles in the back, arms and core? Machines have their place, and in some instances it might make sense even at the beginning level but for the most part, get yourself using your whole body when you train and skip the machines.
No matter what someone’s goal is, training the push, pull, squat, hinge, single-leg and carry are important. Putting together a 4-day a week program that hits on all these movements is doable for any level.
A Lady’s Beginner Strength Training Guide
A quick and easy guide to start your own heavy lifting journey.
Bur first, read through this quick, but important, Q&A
How much weight to use?
This will vary with every individual. Aim to get comfortable with the movement first before you get crazy with load. As you get confident, use a weight that’s challenging to you but doesn’t compromise your form. The last rep or two of a set should feel challenging to complete, but not like a grind. Each week, aim to increase the weight (by how much is up to you! 1-5lbs is a general rule of thumb).
What are circuits, supersets and reps?
Circuits are a series of exercises you complete back to back without rest until the very end of the circuit. It’s a great way to maximize your time in the gym and fat loss.
Supersets refer to a group of two exercises done back to back to complete one “set”. At this level, we don’t need to worry about this, but it’s a good thing to know.
Reps are the number of repetitions to complete per exercise.
What sets/rep scheme is best for me?
Keep this simple. Start out with 2-3 sets and aim for 6-8 reps of each exercise. As you get comfortable, you can progress those reps to 10-12.
How long should I rest?
Aim for 60-90seconds of rest between sets. At the beginning level, you’re not lifting super heavy yet where anything more than 90seconds is needed to recover.
How often should I workout? This depends on your schedule but a good rule of thumb is to lift every other day 3x a week. So it might look like
Friday – Workout A
Monday – Workout B
Wednesday – Workout A
Friday – Workout B
What about cardio and rest days? Cardio is important but not the focus of this strength building guide. Either way, aim for light to moderate intensity 1-2x a week on your non-lifting days. Also, aim for at least one rest day to ensure your body has a chance to recover.
1a) Goblet squat to bench or box
1b) Push-up (elevate the hands on a bench for assistance)
1c) TRX row
Repeat circuit 2-4x
2a) Bodyweight split squat
2b) Dumbbell bench press
2c) Chest supported row
Repeat circuit 2-4x
1a) Dumbbell Romanian dead lift
1b) One-arm dumbbell overhead press
1c) Inverted row
Repeat circuit 2-4x
2a) Bodyweight glute bridge
2b) Bent over row
2c) Seated lat pulldown
Repeat circuit 2-4x
- Log your workouts, how much weight you used and how many sets/reps. You want to track the amount of weights you’re using so you know when and how much to progress each week.
- Google the exercises you’re unsure of. The internet is full of great content if you know where to look. Some great resources include Eric Cressey, Girls Gone Strong, Nia Shanks, Tony Gentilcore.
- Aim for good quality reps. Make them pretty! Using momentum or trying to go super heavy and hard every time isn’t necessary.
- You may get a little sore or you may not. Soreness isn’t the goal, movement is.
- Be kind to yourself! Ditch the comparison and do what feels right for your body. And don’t forget to give yourself credit for showing up and doing the work for you!
You got a nice base going and you’re ready for more? Then It’s time to get a customized workout that matches your goals and lifestyle. Apply here for a spot in the Online Coaching Program for individualized training and download a free copy of The Warm-Up Guide when you join our newsletter!