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Jul 8 / Jeremy & Kim

A Complete Guide to Weight Lifting for Beginners

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We are glad to see that you are interested in lifting weights to improve your health and fitness.  Weight lifting will not only improve your physique, but it will also improve your overall health and help you live a more active lifestyle.  Weight lifting for beginners is all about establishing a base of strength from which to build.  It is also about learning proper technique so that you are able to lift weights without causing injury.  This post is going to discuss the key lifts that all beginners need to master, we will explain important lifting terminology, and we will point you toward other resources that may be helpful in getting started.

 Weight Lifting for Beginners – Good Habits

Lifting weights is a fun way to exercise, but when you first get started it is extremely important that you establish good lifting habits.  Here are some of the most important habits all beginners need to develop:

  1. The most important habit is to always lift with perfect technique.  Beginners should always focus on mastering their technique before trying to lift heavy weights.  We will show you perfect technique on the key lifts in a minute.
  2. Train your entire body. Balanced muscular development is important to prevent injuries and create an impressive physique.  If you only do bench press and curls without ever doing back and tricep exercises then you will develop a hunched forward look.  If you only ever exercise your upper body and never exercise your lower body then you will look like your legs do not belong to the rest of you. Also, as you increase your strength eventually you will need to activate muscle throughout your body in order to complete a lift.  If you have under developed triceps and lats then you will quickly plateau on bench press. Keep it balanced for a great physique, continuous strength gains, and to prevent injury.
  3. Always have a spotter.  A spotter can be your lifting partner, personal trainer, or simply another lifter on a break between sets.  The spotter’s job is to observe and critique your technique as well as prevent the weight from dropping on you potentially causing injury.
  4. Know your limits.  Weight lifting to build strength is a slow and steady process.  Beginners tend to achieve some quick gains, but keep in mind that progress is achieved through constant and progressive workouts.  Knowing when to increase weight as well as how much to increase the weight will come with experience.  Beginners should always increase weight by the smallest increment possible.
  5. Clean up after yourself, especially if you are lifting at a gym.  Always put your weights away when you are done with them.
  6. Follow a program.  There are many weight lifting programs available online that will help you build strength and layout a very specific routine from week to week.  The best programs for building muscle will also teach you about proper nutrition and offer a cardio program to help you balance your workouts.
The video below is a bit difficult to watch, but we wanted to be as explicit as possible about the importance of safety and proper technique when lifting weights.

[Note that these are all experienced lifters. This is proof that you always need to have spotters and you always need to be mindful of your technique.]

Weight Lifting for Beginners – The Weights

Weight training can be done using a variety of different types of weights.  You can use your own body weight as with Pull ups and pushups. You can use dumbbells, kettle bells, resistance bands, and you can use barbells with plates.  You muscles will respond differently to each type of weigh that you use to create the resistance.

It is important to know that no one weight source is really ‘better’ than another and in fact you should change up your workouts every 6-8 weeks so that your muscles are able to benefit from the unique ways in which they respond to each type of resistance.

Weight Lifting for Beginners – The Key Lifts

These are the key lifts that all beginners should master before taking on a more advanced lifting program.  These lifts can be done with barbells, dumbbells, or your own body weight.   Beginners should stick with these big compound lifts because they are the most fundamental and most functional of lifts.  Compound exercises involve the use of multiple muscles to complete the lift.

We do not recommend isolation exercises for beginners until they have been doing compound exercises for at least six months to a year.  You will find that these exercises do a great job of developing your muscles without having to isolate any one muscle.  Once you have these lifts mastered and have developed a solid base of strength, then you can look at your body and performance to determine if there are muscles that need more work or are lagging in development.  Everybody will develop a little differently.  By mastering the compound exercises first you will be able to identify your natural weak points.

The Squat:

The squat is one of the most important lifts for beginners.  It is an exercise that is challenging but leads to tremendous strength gains.  Learning proper technique with the squat is extremely important in order to prevent injuries.  If this lift is not completed properly then you can pose serious risk to your lower back and knees.  Please take the time to learn proper form on this lift so that you are able to benefit from its many advantages for a long time to come.

The video below will introduce you to proper form but it is important that you have an experienced lifter watch and critique your form to ensure you are squatting properly.


If you have never done squats before then the best way to start learning proper technique is with your own body weight.  Once you have mastered proper form with body weight begin holding dumbbells in each hand while performing the squat.  Eventually you will want to progress to where you are using a barbell and plates.  Always use a squat rack when squatting with a barbell.  The squat rack will prevent the weight from falling on you should your legs give out.  NOTE: This should NEVER happen as you should NEVER do more weight than you can handle for any given set.

The Deadlift:

The deadlift is another great exercise that will strengthen your hamstrings and lower back.  Again proper form is essential in order to prevent significant injuries.  Deadlifts can be performed with a barbell or a trap bar.  We prefer the trap bar is it helps beginners keep their body aligned for proper form.

Start with light weights until you learn proper form.  We recommend starting with partial deadlifts. To complete a partial deadlift, you will set the barbell so that it rests at just-below-knee level.  Having the weight rest at this level will prevent you from rounding your back when lowering the weight.  This will help you develop the base strength you will need to ensure proper form when lifting a heavier load.  Eventually, you will work your way towards a full deadlift.

Watch this video for important tips on proper deadlift form.


Pull ups & Chin ups:

Pull ups and chin ups are the best exercises for back development, especially for beginners.  Pull ups are done with your palms facing out usually with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders.  An easy way to determine where to grip the bar is to hold your arms up so your elbows are at a ninety-degree angle.  Where you hands are is where your grip should be on the bar.

Chin ups are done with your palms facing inward with your grip in line with your shoulders.  Chin ups make it easier to activate the bicep during the lift so it is often a bit easier to complete than the pull up.

If you have trouble completing pull ups or chin ups then there are quite a few things you can do to help develop your strength in this area.

  1. Perform the negative part of the lift.  This means instead of pulling yourself up you are going to very slowly let yourself down.  Use a chair or jump up on the bar so that you can start with your chin above the bar.  Then as slowly as possible lower yourself down until your arms are almost straight.  Then jump up on the bar again. Do this for as many repetitions are required in your program.
  2. Use a workout bench.  You can cheat on this lift a little by letting your toes rest on a bench as your perform the exercise.  As you get stronger, take more weight off of the bench.  Start with both feet on the bench; eventually move to only one foot on the bench.
  3. Reduce your weight.  For many people, simply losing some extra body fat is the only thing keeping them from being able to do pull ups.  Read some of our articles on weight loss to learn the fastest way to make this happen.

Incline Dumbbell Rows:

We wanted to introduce this exercise for those beginners who are unable to do pull ups or chin ups (yet!).  We want to make sure that you don’t give up on your back just because you can’t complete a pull up.  This is a great exercise to help you develop back strength as you work your way towards your first pull up.

Set the incline bench to forty-five degrees.  Grab a set of dumbbells and lean forward onto the bench so that your chest is resting on the incline.  Hold the dumbbells out with your arms at a 90 degree angle from your body and then pull the dumbbells to your chest.  Make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades together.  Anytime you are pulling weight to your mid section it is called a row. We usually do both arms at the same time but you can do this one arm at a time if you prefer.

[We usually do both arms at the same time but you can do this one arm at a time if you prefer.]

Shoulder Press:

The shoulder press used to be the number one lift for showing off your strength before the bench press gained popularity.  The shoulder press is a great lift for developing your shoulders (obviously) and for strengthening your core as your abdomen is activated to maintain your balance as you lift heavy weights above your head.  These can be done with dumbbells or a barbell.

[Mark Rippetoe is great! You will learn a lot from him if you look for his stuff on YouTube.]


Dips are by far our favorite triceps exercise.  In high school Jeremy and his friends used to play burn out on the parallel dip bar until they collapsed.  Start with a firm grip on the dip bars and your elbows locked.  Take a deep breath and then lower yourself in a controlled manner until your elbows are at a 90 degree angle.  Then push yourself back up to an almost locked position before slowly lowering yourself down again.  This exercise will really help you improve your triceps strength.

NOTE: going lower than 90 degrees with your elbows will active your chest muscles along with your triceps, but this can also put a lot of strain on your shoulders.  We recommend sticking to 90 degrees and then pushing yourself up for beginners.

Bench Press:

The bench press is so popular these days that we just have to mention it here, though we believe that weighted pushups can do just as much if not more for beginners than the bench press.  The bench press can be done with dumbbells or a barbell.  You will find that you can lift more weight with a barbell, but dumbbells will require more muscle activation in order to keep the weight steady as you perform the lift.

The bench press is most often performed on a flat bench, but beginner should also consider performing incline bench press.  You can fix the incline of a bench to 30 or 45 degrees and then perform the regular pressing motions.  The incline helps to activate different parts of your pectoral muscles.  People who do a lot of incline presses tend to have more square pectorals than those who stick with just the flat bench press.

Weight Lifting for Beginners – Sets & Reps

Weight training routines are structured with sets and repetitions (a.k.a. reps).  A 5×5 routine means that you will complete 5 sets of an exercise with 5 repetitions per set.  This would be a total of 25 repetitions for one exercise.

There are a million different ways in which sets and reps could be organized and choosing a specific set and rep range depends largely on your goals.  For beginners, we believe that it is best to stick with 4-5 sets of each exercise with 5-8 reps per set.  We believe that this is the best set and rep range to establish a base of strength.  Once you have lifted in this way for 6-12 months then you can start exploring other set and rep schemes depending on your goals.

Choosing a program

We strongly believe that you should follow a training program when first starting out.  Following a structured program that was developed by experienced trainers will help you maximize your gains in the gym.  In addition, there is a lot more you need to know about lifting weights that we simply do not have time to cover here.  Follow this link to learn more about programs we know to be effective at helping beginners learn how to lift weights properly.  Best Weight Training Programs.  NOTE: These programs are also filled with great information on proper nutrition and cardio to develop an impressive physique.

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  1. Raymond-ZenMyFitness / Jul 8 2011

    Excellent recommendation to learn how to lift properly. I wish I had these type of instructions when I started. I sort of had to re-learn some of the basics again so I could progress further. Learning the partial dead lift first I highly recommend, most people I see and myself sometimes lift too heavy and form breaks down so the chance of injury goes up.

  2. Darrin / Jul 9 2011

    Excellent intro here! Technique is certainly more important than how much weight or reps you can do. People get this mixed up WAY too often (as evidenced by your video here).

    • Tasmine / Sep 5 2011

      Great hammer of Thor, that is powerfully hpeflul!

  3. Great tips for any beginner looking to train by using weight lifting.
    I think using proper technique is very important. It is awful to see anyone using awful form, jerking the weight or going too heavy when all of these only lead to the path to injury.
    The next thing I would also recommend is to make a schedule and stick to it. If you skip days simply follow the schedule that you have set. For example if you have planned to workout on Mondays thru Thursdays then only workout on those days. Do not have make-up days.
    Finally, do not workout the same body part or muscle group on consecutive days. This is the sure way you will not make any progress.

    • Totally agree Sam, the most important thing is that training is manageable, consistent and enjoyable – and free from injury! Really nice to see something that’s sensibly written and encourages good practices.

  4. Ahmed-LivingNotSurviving / Jul 20 2011

    Wow, what a great guide. I wish I would have had this when I first started!

  5. Great tips on weight lifting for beginners. I think too many people just try to jump right in without learning the proper way to exercise.

  6. Jeremy & Kim / Aug 24 2011

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. We’re appreciate your support of our blog.

  7. Alex Miller / Sep 6 2011

    Good article with some very basic common sense advice to develop good habits, know your limits, use a spotter, workout with a plan and so on. Weight training as an exercise requires a serious attitude to get into it and stay into it with commitment.

  8. Alan / May 26 2012

    Great article on helping beginners with weight training. I think a lot of beginners get into it without learning correct form and trying to lift too heavy too early on. Once you get the form down and don’t swing your body to perform lifts you will allow yourself to really put up heavy weight in the long run.

    I think another good habit that beginners need to stick with from the start is breathing. Too many times have I seen someone in the gym hold their breath through almost an entire set of repetitions.

    You should always make sure to inhale while preparing to move the weight and exhale as you’re finishing out the difficult phase of your repetition.

    For example during a bench press:
    1. Inhale as you lower the weight to your chest.
    2. Equalize the pressure in your body.
    3. Then finish exhaling by the time you have pushed the weight back up.

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