The ultimate starter guide to lifting weights

If you’re new to lifting weights the gym can be an intimidating place! A maze of complicated looking machines that everyone else seems to know how to use – while you walk around lost with no idea where to start.

Not only are you confused by all the different equipment and how to use it, you’re clueless about how many reps to do, how many sets, and what you should do on which days.

That’s exactly why I’ve put together this starter guide.

I’ve taken everything I’ve learnt from over 10 years working in the fitness industry and over 15,000 hours of coaching, plus more than 15 years of my own training experience to provide you with a simple and effective framework to provide you with all the information you need.

It will guide you through everything you need to know. How many reps and sets to do, how much weight to lift, and it contains a load of options to give you flexibility for when your gym is busy.

What should your goal be?

I was talking to someone recently who wanted to get into lifting weights but didn’t really know what he should be aiming to achieve.

If you’re just getting started with weight training your goals should be to:

  • Learn how to lift safely
  • Get stronger and build muscle
  • Increase your confidence

As you train more you’ll progress to more advanced exercises using free weights (barbells and dumbbells), aiming to lift more weight for more reps.

Free weights are one of many different tools you can use to build strength and muscle. But using things like barbells and dumbbells can be a little daunting when you’re just getting started. With free weights you have less control, and there’s that fear that you’ll trapped under the bar.

This is why starting with machines can be really helpful. Machines will only move in a set pattern so not only are they easier to use but less can wrong. Plus most of them also have helpful graphics on the side showing what they are called, which muscles they target and how to do them, you don’t get this with free weights.

The example plans I provide in this guide include machines and free weight variations which you can choose depending on your confidence, experience and what is available in your gym.

Structuring your training week

There’s endless different ways to structure your training week, if you’ve been brave enough to google this you’ve probably found yourself lost in the thousands upon thousands of articles, each one claiming that their unique approach to structuring your training is best.

Well here I am doing exactly that!

I’ve found that most people who are new to training get best results by following a full body programme and by training 3-4 times a week.

This seems to strike just the right balance between providing the stimulus to allow you to get bigger and stronger, but also allowing you to recover adequately.

Your training is only as effective as your recovery!

Rest days are when your body adapts and becomes bigger and stronger, if you just keep training without allowing your body to recover you won’t make any progress. Which is why it’s not advisable to train more than two days in a row without taking a rest day.

You can be flexible in how you choose to structure your 3-4 workouts throughout the week.

You might choose to train three times a week, spreading them Monday, Wednesday and Friday with 4 rest days between as shown below.

 

 

Or you might prefer to train four times with three rest days, which could look like this.

 

 

Whatever approach you take just try to build it into your routine and be consistent with it. Make sure you area also getting plenty of sleep and consuming enough protein too, both os these things are crucial to your recovery and progress.

Structuring your workout

By following my framework for your workouts you’ll ensure you are training effectively, by targeting the muscles and exercises that have the biggest bang for your buck to get the most from your time in the gym.

Where most people go wrong when they start training is that they prioritise the wrong exercises. They’ll spend the majority of their workouts doing things like triceps and abs, overlooking the exercises that will really change your body.

I like to describe it like a cake:

You’ve got the cake itself which is going to be made up of the main exercises you’ll structure your workout around, usually these are what we call compound exercises. They target the large muscle groups like legs and back.

Next you’ve got the icing which is made up of exercises that target smaller muscle groups like arms and calves, these are what we call accessory or isolation exercises.

And finally you’ve got the cherry on the top where you might want to do things like abs.

You can’t have the cherry on the top if there’s no cake, and likewise with the icing. Build the cake first, then come to the other stuff.

So don’t start worrying about crunches and tricep kickbacks until you’ve done the important stuff.

Training Basics

Before I explain more about the workout itself I want to cover some of the basics of training.

Let’s start off by explaining some of the terminology to stop all of this training lingo sounding so confusing:

Reps– This is how many times you’ll do each exercise

Sets– the number of cycles of reps that you complete.

(For example, 3 sets of 10 reps for squats would mean you would do 3 lots of 10 squats)

BB– stands for barbell

DB– stands for dumbbell

Warming up

Every workout should start with a warm up which serves multiple purposes, particularly when you are new to training. It helps your body prepare physically for the workout, it helps you feel more comfortable mentally by getting you settled in the gym environment and allowing you to build into the intensity of the workout.

I always recommend heading for the cardio equipment- it can be anything, the bike, treadmill, cross trainer. Do 3-5 minutes on here, starting nice and slowly and gradually building up the resistance so your heart rate and body temperature starts to increase. 

Obviously this serves the purpose of getting your body moving and prepared for the workout but it’s also a great way of helping you feel more comfortable in the gym. In most gyms there’s always going to be cardio equipment available so every time you go in you know you can just head straight there. (I used to use this tactic when I first started going to the gym). For the 3-5 minutes you’re on the cardio equipment you can be scoping out the gym, looking at which machines are available and where you’ll go next.

When you’re new to the gym the last thing you want is to make it obvious you’re new by wandering around looking lost (or at least I used to fear this anyway). Which is why getting your bearings on the cardio equipment first works so well.

After this you’re ready to start your workout.

The workout

The workout plan I recommend you follow is made up of two main parts.

For the first part, (Part A) there are 4 sets of exercises to choose from, these will form the main part of the workout. To give you flexibility if your gym is busy and equipment is in use you can work through these 4 sets of exercises in whatever order you need to.

They are specially chosen to hit the major muscle groups of the body; the front and back of your legs and the front and back of your torso. (This is your cake to use the earlier analogy).

Part A

The 4 sets of exercises that form Part A of this workout are as follows:

 

You’ll select one exercise from each section, performing 4 exercises in total for this part of the workout. Feel free to select the exercises based on what you feel comfortable and safe doing.

Ideally I would suggest starting with a lower body exercise, then doing upper body, lower body and finishing with lower body, but like I say, you can alter this to suit you. I’ll give a beginners example workout and an example of how you could progress this at the end.

You’ll do 3 ‘working sets’ of 10 reps on each of these exercises, but you will also do warm up sets.

The warm up sets are to get your muscles warm, allow you to practice the movement and also give you an idea of what weight to select for the working sets.

For example you might sit down on the leg press, select a really light weight and do 10 reps. If that feels easy increase the weight a little and do another 10 reps, you’ll be starting to get a feel for how challenging that feels.

The working sets should be around a 7 out of 10 in terms of intensity. If you imagine lying on the sofa doing nothing is a 1 out of 10, and trying to lift the heaviest thing you’ve ever attempted to lift is a 10 out of 10. These sets should be around a 7 or 8. This means when you finish your 10 reps you should feel like you could have done another 2-3 with good form.

Part B

This part of the workout is made up of smaller muscle groups, things like biceps, triceps and core. Continuing the cake analogy these exercises are your icing and cherry on top of the cake.

You’ll select 4 different exercises from the options below and perform 3 sets of 15 reps (for the core exercises you’ll do 3 sets of 20-30 seconds).

Due to these being smaller muscles you’ll find you aren’t able to lift as much weight and because of this you’ll perform more reps.

You won’t need to complete warm up sets for these exercises as they are already warmed up from the first set of exercises, but it might still take a little experimenting to find an appropriate weight. Again you should be aiming for around a 7 out of 10 in terms of intensity.

When should you increase the weight?

You’ll notice that your strength will increase, the weight that felt like a 7 out of 10 last week might feel like a 5 the next, at which point you need to increase the weight. Once you can comfortably complete the given number of reps with good form increase the weight.

Your strength won’t increase on every exercise in every session but over time that should be your aim, to increase the weight you can lift for the given reps for that exercise.

Again, the warm up sets will help you identify how strong you are feeling on any given day.

The same applies to the exercises you do, once you start to feel more confident on a particular exercises you might want to progress onto a slightly more challenging variation. For example moving from a back extension to a DB Romanian deadlift.

You can also increase or decrease the weight during your working sets. You might do 10 reps on say 10kgs and think you could maybe have done 12kgs, try that for your second set and either use it again for your increase/decrease, it’s fine to adapt as you need.

Tracking progress

Make sure you keep a track of your workouts either in a note book or on your phone. This will allow you to log which exercises you do and the weights you lift.

As well as recording the weights you lift, also track how many reps you do. Each time you train you can refer back to this and look to make improvements. It’s also good to look back in months or years to come and see how far you’ve progressed.

I would also recommend tracking your physical changes too. My preferred methods are weight, tape measurements and progress pictures. You might want to repeat these monthly to see how you are doing.

How much rest should you take between sets?

You probably won’t need to take too much rest between your warm up sets, maybe 20-30 seconds. But for the working sets you should take a little longer, particularly for the exercises in Part A to make sure you can recover and work hard enough on each set. For the Part A exercises aim for between 60-90 seconds, and for the Part B exercises 45-60 seconds.

How fast should you perform each exercise?

The key word with this is control, if you lift too fast you won’t have control and this is when it’s easy to do things wrong or injure yourself. You should be able to stop at any point in the exercise, if you aren’t able to do this you’re doing it too fast.

As a general rule you should be lowering the weight twice as slowly as you lift, so if you lift for 1 second, you should take 2 seconds to lower it.

Do you need to do cardio?

If you’d like to finish your workout with 5-10 minutes of cardio, either doing intervals or just steady cardio then that’s absolutely fine but you don’t have to. The work you’ve already done will have the greatest impact on changing your body, increasing your strength and muscle. 

But there is no harm in increasing your cardiovascular fitness by adding a small amount to the end of your workouts.

How long should the workouts take?

The workout should take around 45 minutes to complete depending on how much rest you take and if you do cardio at the end. But you definitely don’t want to be in the gym any longer than an hour.

Changing exercises and varying workouts

If you are only training 3 times a week it’s probably a good idea not to swap the workout around too much. Try to stick with largely the same four exercises for Part A of the workout for around 4-6 weeks. This will also allow you to progress more in terms of what you lift on each exercise. If you want to switch the exercises around more frequently for Part B of the workouts you can do.

If you are going to be training 4 times a week I’d recommend following two variations of the workout. So one day you might do a leg press and the next you might do a leg extension. Although both these exercises work the same muscles they do so in a different way and the leg extension is an easier exercise than the leg press which is helpful if you’re training two days in a row.

Example Beginners Workout

Cross Trainer 3-5mins

Leg press (3×10)

Seated row (3×10)

Lying leg curl (3×10)

Chest press machine (3×10)

Biceps curl machine (3×15)

DB lateral raise (3×15)

Front plank (3×20-30 seconds)

Ab crunch machine (3×15)

Progression Workout

Rowing machine 3-5mins

Goblet squat (3×10)

DB Romanian deadlift (3×10)

Incline DB press (3×10)

DB row (3×10)

Bench dips (3×15)

DB reverse flies (3×15)

Side plank (3×30 seconds each side)

Stability ball crunch (3×15)

Final Advice

The last piece of advice I’d give you is to focus on your own journey and progress at a pace that’s right for you. Don’t worry about the exercises that other people in the gym are doing or the weights they are lifting. Lifting weights is just about trying to lift a little more or do an extra rep every time you set foot in the gym.

So long as you are doing this then that’s all you need to worry about.

And remember to enjoy it!