The Weighted Truth: Weight Training Basics

Beginners need not be intimidated by weight training.

Have you ever walked through a gym and been intimidated by all the dumbbells, barbells and machines that put you in awkward positions best reserved for privacy of your own home? Well, you’re not alone. If you’ve never lifted weights before, it can be daunting, and when you consider the different types of exercises, the amount of weight to lift, the number of repetitions and sets and the amount of rest between sets, you practically need a Ph.D. to understand it all.

But don’t worry: Muscles don’t know the difference between a dumbbell, a gallon of milk or a suitcase. Lifting weights in a gym is not much different than lifting your four-year-old to reach the monkey bars. When done correctly and combined with other exercise, weight lifting can change the way you look.

While many people begin lifting weights to improve their physical appearance and self-image, it has many functional benefits as well. Stronger muscles improve posture and coordination, support joints and reverse the loss of muscle tissue that comes with aging. Weight training also increases bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.

FINE magazine weight training

Many people stop weight training because they don’t see immediate results. Although physiological changes begin to occur after your first session, these changes are mostly neuromuscular in origin for the first couple of months, so your brain becomes better at “speaking” to your muscles and recruiting them for tasks, much like changing from a dial-up modem to DSL cable. To see external changes in your muscles, you need to stick with weight training for a few months.

What exercises should I do?

Although gyms offer an array of weight machines and free weights to train your body’s more than 600 muscles, start with just one exercise for each major muscle group (see Sample Strength Training Program).

Machines guide movements and are designed to change resistance throughout your joints’ range of motion to accommodate the joint angles at which your muscles are stronger. Free weights, on the other hand, cannot change their resistance while you lift them — a five-pound dumbbell remains five pounds throughout the whole movement.

While it is always better to train movement than to train muscle, beginners should start with machines to train the major muscles and then train more specific movements with free weights. To minimize fatigue, train large before small muscle groups, alternating between the lower and upper body.

How much weight should I lift?

First, find out how strong you are. Ask a qualified trainer at your gym to test your maximal strength by finding out the most weight you can lift once, called your one-rep max.

If you want a leaner look with greater muscle endurance, lift lighter weights, about 60 to 70 percent of your one-rep max. For stronger muscles with an increase in muscle size, lift heavier weights, about 80 to 90 percent. If you cannot get your maximal strength tested, choose a weight that will make you fatigued by the end of each set.

FINE magazine weight training

If you’re a woman who is worried about getting bulky, don’t fret — it probably won’t happen. Since women have much less testosterone and other muscle-building hormones than men, they are less prone to getting bigger muscles. Genetics ultimately dictate your specific response to weight training. The hard-bodied women you see on the covers of fitness magazines are self-selected for weight training because they are uniquely and genetically suited for it.

How many repetitions should I do?

The number of times you repeat the movement in each set depends on your goals. If you want a leaner look with greater endurance, do 15 to 20 reps per set. If you want slight muscle growth and definition with moderate gains in strength, do six to 12 reps per set. For bigger, stronger muscles, do five to eight reps per set.

How many sets should I do?

As a beginner, one set is just as effective as multiple sets for strength gains, especially when you continue until you can no longer do another rep, which is when all muscle fibers are recruited. However, if you want increased muscle endurance and a more defined look rather than increased strength, do more sets to increase the total amount of work and calories expended. In either case, increase the number of sets after two to three months.

For a leaner look with greater endurance, take short, oneminute rests. For muscle growth and increased strength, take a longer, three to five-minute rests.

Other Weight Training Methods

When you lift weights, microscopic tears occur in your muscle fibers. Given enough time, these fibers heal to become stronger. The greater the training stimulus — which comes from lifting heavier weights or doing more reps, sets and workouts — the greater the amount of muscle damage and subsequent adaptation.

FINE magazine weight training

For a greater training stimulus, you can try “super setting,” using multiple exercises for the same muscle group and moving from one exercise to another with little or no rest between sets. You can also use pyramid training, which is multiple sets of one exercise, starting with lighter weights and many reps, with successive sets increasing in weight and decreasing in reps followed by decreasing weight and increasing reps. A third option is circuit training, which incorporates one set each of eight to 12 exercises done in succession with light weights (40 to 60% one-rep max), 10 to 20 reps, and little or no rest between exercises, with the circuit usually repeated two to three times.

So when it comes to starting weight training, don’t sweat it. The key is just to get started.