If you’re just getting serious about your fitness and want to incorporate weight training into your routine in order to build muscle and sculpt a leaner physique, understand how to approach dumbbells, barbells, and machines can be intimidating.
But weight training doesn’t have to be scary, especially for women who make the assumption that it’ll alter their bodies to look “manly.” It won’t. In fact, as we detailed in our post on using your body as your machine (an exploration of utilizing your own body weight), putting on muscle will aid in helping you to get rid of unwanted fat, among other benefits.
But there are a few things you need to know if you’re just getting started that will help you to stay on track, avoid injury, and not lose confidence or hope as you venture into this new fitness territory.
Understanding reps and sets
Have you ever seen someone at the gym who looked like they really knew what they were doing? They’ll lift the barbell a certain number of times, and then they’ll put it down and walk in place, only to go back and do those lifts again two or three more times before moving on to another exercise.
Well, each time they pull or push that weight is called a “rep,” which means “repetition.” And each group of those reps is called a “set.”
If the person is skilled at weight training and is working to build muscle, she/he will likely follow the rule of lifting with a “higher rep” count—anywhere from 8 to 12 reps per set—before they cannot lift it anymore. That’s how they push their muscles to the max to grow. This is called “hypertrophy.”
However, if you see someone doing a “lower rep” count—lifting an amount they can only handle 1 to 3 times—then they are training to increase their strength. So if you are lifting 1-pound dumbbells, chances are you’re not growing muscles or strength. Lighter weights have their place in exercise, just not for the goal of building strength, although studies do suggest that you can build muscle with light weights (weights you can lift 20-25 times before failure).
Also, that 3 to 5 minutes spent jogging or walking in place between sets is the recovery time before they go at it again. The number of sets will vary depending on the person’s goals, but a good starting point is three to four sets per exercise.
How to approach it
You might be wondering how, exactly, do you start with weights and how do you know what to train and when…
Well, one of the simplest approaches that we’ve come across is to think about the function of your muscles: you pull, you push, you lift, and you balance.
Nerdfitness makes a great point: “Before ever trying to figure out how much weight you can lift, make sure you know how to do the movement, as flawless as possible, without any weight at all.”
So, if you want to do deadlifts, do a few reps first with just the bar (without any weight plates on it).
If you’ve never lifted before, then you probably don’t know your own strength. Start with 2.5 pounds on the bar. Lift it five times. If it was easy, then add another 2.5 pounds. And so on.
The goal is to work with a weight that you can only lift 5 times (with good form) before you simply cannot lift it anymore. That’s the weight at which you should start your full training.
Pull muscles are primarily biceps and back. Push muscles are primarily triceps, shoulders, and chest. Lift muscles are legs and glutes (your butt). And you use your core to aid in various functions of all of these exercises.
Famous bodybuilder, Lee Labrada, has a free 12-week program on BoduBuilding.com that details how you can start your weight-training journey using this cycle each day to focus on the different muscle groups, so that you’re not in the gym with no plan at all. We all know that’s a recipe for failure!
This approach can also help with eliminating “overtraining,” which any of us can easily fall victim to when we’re trying to see results and trying to see them quickly!
Knowing macros and nutrition
If you’re going to start a program as intense as weight training, you should certainly not ignore the importance of your nutrition.
We believe that you must fuel your body with the appropriate types and amounts of food, especially right before and after your training session; however, we will not recommend a one-size-fits-all tip for what you should eat regarding your macronutrient intake is concerned.
Perhaps, the most popular rule in the weight-lifting community is to load up on your protein if you want to see muscle gains or fat loss (or both), with the conventional wisdom being to consume at least 1 gram of protein per your body weight. So if you’re 180 pounds, you’re eating 180 grams of protein. That’s a lot of chicken.
But these rules just don’t work for everyone. You have to find what works for you. For instance, the Ketogenic approach is becoming extremely popular today, and that philosophy debunks the high-protein model. On Keto, your emphasis is healthy fats. Your diet will break down into: 5% carbs, only 20% protein, and that other 75% is fat.
And those weight lifters who follow a vegan diet generally don’t stress as much over tracking numbers. If they do, it’s to make sure they’re eating enough, since a diet full of nothing but whole foods can be filling without being calorie-dense. In fact, vegan bodybuilder, Torre Washington, often talks about how he not only doesn’t track his protein, but the few times he did, it wasn’t nearly 1 gram per his body weight.
If finding your ideal amounts of calories, as well as carbs, proteins, and fats is important to you, start by finding out your recommended breakdown. The Perfect Keto Calculator can help you get the numbers you need.
Sorry to break it to you, but spending an hour walking on the treadmill is likely doing more harm than good when it comes to building muscle. Plus, who has time to do something that’s ultimately a waste of all that time?
The good news is, for those of us who hate cardio, weight training often requires only a minimal amount of cardio in most programs.
If fat loss is a major part of your goal, keep in mind that burning fat while gaining muscle requires a special approach to your fitness because of the two polarizing goals, but it can be done. Try incorporating HIIT (high intensity interval training), which are short—usually 10 to 20 minutes—workouts you can do three times per week to replace that long, pointless cardio session. This will help burn the fat while the weights will aid in the muscle gains.
Also, do your cardio after your weight training session or separate from it (a separate day) all together.
Keep in mind…
Warm up: Like with any other form of exercise, you should warm up for 10-15 minutes first. Do dynamic stretching (non-static movements) that warm up your joints and muscles are a great way to avoid injury. You can also do the exercises in your plan, just without weights or with very light weights.
Rest is just as important as training. You MUST get adequate sleep, as it helps you to recover from the stress put your body when building muscle.
Strength fluctuations: You may start to experience fluctuations in your strength, where one day you’re able to lift a certain weight a certain number of times, but when you go to lift that same weight a few days later, you notice that you can’t do as many reps.
Thinkeatlift.com suggests that it may be due to overdoing it, and give tips to avoid this apparent drop-off in strength, which includes knowing when to lower your weights and resisting the temptation to add on before you’re ready.
For ladies, there’s a fantastic book called, “ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life” by Stacey T. Sims PhD, that breaks down how women can approach fitness based on women’s unique physiology. It’s a must-read for those looking to push themselves to new heights.
There are so many benefits to weight training, even if your goals aren’t be a fitness model. If you’re new, don’t be intimidated. As we said, just start small, stay with it as you work your way up, and before you know it you’ll be seeing fantastic results.