Strength Training for Beginners: A Brief Guide

Strength training is an important part of any well-rounded exercise program. Strength training allows you to build muscle, which increases the amount of calories you burn at rest. It also improves bone strength, boosts weight loss, reduces your risk of heart disease, and improves balance and coordination.

Planning Your Splits

Strength training, like any other exercise, breaks down muscle. As such, it’s important that you give each muscle and/or muscle group the proper recovery

time (see more about that below). This is where splits come in handy, which are used as a way to break up your training, allowing you to work one area of your body while resting the other.

You can split your strength training by area of the body or large muscle groups. See two split options below.

  • Monday: Back, chest, cardio
  • Tuesday: Legs, core
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Biceps, triceps, shoulders
  • Friday: Legs OR Cardio

OR

  • Monday: Upper body, cardio
  • Tuesday: Lower body
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Core, cardio
  • Friday: Upper body

Choosing Your Reps and Sets

Let’s start by defining and explaining both terms.

Reps: The number of times you do a specific exercise. There are three main rep ranges, each of which have a different purpose.

  • 10-12 Reps: Strength endurance
  • 6-12 Reps: Hypertrophy
  • 6 Reps or less: Strength

I start most clients with the 10-12 rep range and this is also what I would recommend for you. Not only is it safe, forcing you to choose a weight that you can lift for a long period of time, but it allows you to build a strength-lifting base.

When you’ve mastered the beginner strength exercises (see below) within this rep range, meaning you can successfully do 10-12 reps with proper form, you can add more weight and lower your rep range. This allows you to increase muscle size—helping you work toward building visible muscles. Eventually you may want to move to the strength range, where the focus is on heavy lifting for very low reps.

Sets: The number of times you repeat each exercise or grouping of exercises. For example, you may see workouts that tell you to do, “3 sets of 10.” This is saying, “Do 10 reps of each exercise, and then repeat that two more times.”

I use the following format to determine my sets:

  • 10-12 exercises = 3 sets
  • 8-10 exercises = 4 sets
  • 6 or less = 5 sets or more

Making Time for Rest

One of the most important parts of strength training isn’t the training itself, but the rest. When you workout, your muscles are breaking down and their micro-fibers are tearing. When you’re not working out, your muscles are rebuilding and growing. As you can see, if you want to build muscle, you have to make time for rest.

“Rest” doesn’t mean sitting on the couch for two days after every workout. When split correctly, you can stay active every day while still making time for recovery. For example, if your split is upper body on Monday and lower body on Tuesday, Tuesday works as a rest day for your upper body.

Active rest is another important recovery option, especially after a particularly challenging workout. The idea is simple: Focus on gentle, low-impact activities, which increase blood flow, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the muscles that are in repair mode. Active rest options include:

  • Yoga
  • Walking, biking, jogging
  • Stretching
  • Hiking
  • Paddle boarding

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Progressing too quickly: Lifting too much too fast is an easy way to get a painful injury. Instead, start with low weight, like 5 or 8 lbs. You can increase by 1 to 2 lbs when you’ve mastered the 10-12 rep range at the current weight; usually 2 to 4 weeks.

Forgetting to stretch: Stretching both before and after your workout is important. Before your workout, focus on dynamic stretches (jumping jacks, squats, high knees) and after your workout, stick with static stretches. This is when you use the stretch-and-hold format, like when you hinge at the hips, touch the ground, and feel the stretch in your hamstrings.

Not focusing on form: When adding weight to your routine, it’s important that your form is always correct. One wrong lift or swing could throw your back out or tweak a muscle, sidelining you for longer than it would have taken to progress properly.

If you’re not sure if your form is correct, ask a personal trainer or group trainer at your gym; they’ll be able to correct you.

Beginner Exercises to Master

Before moving forward with weights, or adding too much weight, it’s critical that you’ve mastered the following.

Squat

Form notes: Focus on sitting backward, like you’re putting your butt into a chair. Keep legs a little further than shoulder-width apart and toes slightly pointed out. Keep your chest open, shoulders back.

Bicep Curl

Form notes: Keep back straight, chest open, shoulders back. Keep elbows glued to the side of your body so only the forearms move, activating your bicep. Do not let your elbows swing at all.

Shoulder Press

Form notes: If you find yourself bending backwards to get the weights over your head, they’re too heavy. Keep elbows in line with your ears and start and stop with elbows at a 90-degree angle.

Lunge

Form notes: Keep back straight up and down; don’t lean forward when lunging. Keep legs far enough apart that your front knee isn’t strained. All movement comes from lowering your back knee, first and foremost.

Deadlift

Form notes: Keep back flat and focus on hinging at the hips. Shoulders back, chest open and eyes forward. Roll down until you feel a pull in your hamstrings and return to start, standing straight up and down.

Tricep Swings

Form notes: Hinge at the hip, keep your back flat. Squeeze at the top of the tricep swing. Lower and raise without using force; slow and controlled.

Bent Over Row

Form notes: Hinge at the hips, keep your back flat, arms hanging in front of you. Roll your shoulders back open your chest. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together as you pull your arms up to a 90-degree angle on both elbows, palms facing your body.

Jessica Thiefels

Jessica Thiefels has been writing for more than ten years. She's the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Honest Body Fitness, where women are warriors who love their bodies. She's also a a full-time writer, ACE Certified Personal Trainer and NASM Certified Fitness Nutrition specialist. She’s written for Shape, Reader’s Digest, AARP, Snap Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness and more. Follow Jessica and Honest Body Fitness on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for health articles, workouts tips and more.

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