Updated: Mar 22, 2021
When you first think of weight training, I'm sure you imagine huge bodybuilders with massive arms, a chiselled chest and rock-hard abs.
It's the stereotypical image of someone who says they lift weights and a commonly held fear by females who are looking to get started with weight lifting.
I'm often told, "If we are doing weights I don't want to end up getting big and bulky muscles.".
Just to clear that up straight away ... you've got nothing to worry about.
Ladies, you will NOT get big and bulky lifting weights.
Men have more testosterone than females, which promotes more muscle growth.
So whilst there are huge advantages for both sexes in weight training, naturally getting big and bulky for women is not one of them.
Scientists say that resistance training offers incredible benefits for everyday people hoping for better health.
The benefits of building strength and 'some' muscle include improved posture, gaining bone density, maintaining weight loss and a healthy body fat level, boosts your metabolism, lowers inflammation and can help stave off chronic disease.
And let's not forget, it helps you to look good in and out of your clothes.
What is weight training?
Weight training is a form of physical exercise that uses weighted objects to build muscle and improve strength.
It can also help to boost your power, your muscular endurance and as we've already mentioned, improve your overall health.
By creating stress and overload to muscles, weight training causes tiny microscopic tears in your muscles, which are repaired through rest and recovery to build stronger, lean muscle.
Weight training usually involves exercises performed with free weights (e.g. barbells and dumbbells) or by using weight machines.
When you are just getting started, any form of resistance will do.
Especially if you are training at home. Things like resistance bands, food tins, water bottles and even bags of shopping can provide enough stimulus to get you going.
Over time, the use of this equipment will enable the muscles to be activated and get stronger.
What are the benefits of weight training?
There's a huge number of benefits to weight training and each individual will find their reasons for lifting weights. These are some of our favourite reasons;
Build muscle: I'm yet to find a single person who hasn't liked what they saw in the mirror after consistently following a weight training programme. We understand that not everyone gets started exercising to change their appearance but the majority of people want to feel more confident naked. Weight training will build lean muscle that creates that toned look you see in fitness models.
Improved strength: Over time and with consistent training you should see improvements in how much weight you can lift, push or raise. Hitting personal bests can serve as a great motivator even for those not competitive, there's something very satisfying about seeing and feeling improvements in the gym. And, I guarantee that the more physically stronger you feel, the more mentally confident you become.
Support everyday tasks: Getting stronger will also benefit you when it comes to your daily tasks and support your daily activities. Things like carrying shopping, walking up the stairs, moving furniture and other general household activities will feel easier as you get stronger.
Weight training for weight loss: When dieting some of the weight you lose can be made up of muscle mass. As muscle is vital in supporting and strengthening our body, you want to retain as much of it as possible when you are losing weight. Lifting weights when dieting will help preserve muscle mass and will also influence your basal metabolic rate, increasing how many calories you naturally burn throughout the day.
Improve balance: Maintaining and improving muscle mass, particularly in our leg and core muscles can keep us sturdier on our feet for long and less likely to experience falls as we get older. Weight training can be the difference between you walking up the stairs or taking the stairlift as you age. It also helps with muscular imbalances, injury prevention and injury rehabilitation.
Improve mental health: Studies have shown that regular physical training such as weight training can reduce the severity of various mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. The release of mood-enhancing endorphins can help to improve your mental wellbeing, and the confidence-boosting effects of seeing and feeling changes to your body can help to improve self-esteem.
Better posture: Strengthening your posterior chain (your shoulders, back, bum, core and hamstrings) will improve your posture and stance so you can sit and stand more upright.
When you are just starting out lifting weights I cannot stress enough how important it is to learn how to do it correctly. And not only learn the correct technique but also the reason why behind what we do.
It's great knowing exactly how you should be doing things but it's even better knowing some of the theory behind it too so you can put exercises together and build your own programmes.
So I would highly recommend seeking out a local personal trainer to teach you the how and why of lifting weights.
It's all too easy to rush into it having watched a few Youtube and Instagram videos and worst case, you injure yourself, or you end up following the same routine but making no progress because you're doing something slightly wrong.
Seek professional advice, learn the basics and you will save yourself years of trial and error, and speed up your progress.
Without dissecting the human body in too much detail the major muscle groups that you are looking to strengthen over time are your bum (glutes), abdomen, legs, back, shoulders and arms.
There are numerous ways that you can target your major muscle groups during training;
- You can perform a range of exercises that target your entire body in a single session. We recommend a full-body routine for gym beginners. This enables you to train all of your major muscle groups in a single session.
- You can do a body-part split (e.g. upper body and lower body). We would recommend this type of training if you are more advanced.
- You can focus primarily on the major compound lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press) which tend to focus on the large muscle groups. I suggest trying these types of movements under the watchful eye of a qualified personal trainer as they can be difficult movements to learn to do correctly.
Reps, sets, RM and other weight training terms
These are some of the basic terms that you'll come across in weight training.
- A repetition (rep) is one completion of an exercise: one bicep curl, one squat, one press.
- A set is the selected number of repetitions before you rest. For example, 15 repetitions to 1 set of squats.
- The rest interval is the time you rest between sets. Your goals and experience will determine the rest periods.
- The 1RM or repetition maximum is your personal best or the most you can lift for one repetition in any exercise. So 10RM is the most you can lift for 10 repetitions.
As an example, your training programme might read:
Dumbbell Squats, 5kg 3 x 12RM, 90 seconds.
This means that you need to do 3 sets of 12 maximum squats, with a weight of 5kg with 90 seconds rest between sets.
Your individual goals will dictate how many reps, sets and rest time you do.
In broad terms, that could look like one of the following but again, you must hire a personal trainer to work out the finer details if you are unsure.
Strength training uses the most amount of weight, with the least repetitions and longest rest periods. 4-7 repetitions with 2-3 minutes rest period.
Hypertrophy or muscle size training uses lighter weights, more repetitions and less rest time. 8-12 repetitions with 1.5 minutes rest period.
Strength endurance uses less weight again, with more repetitions and even less rest.
13-20 repetitions with 60 seconds rest.
Power training involves lighter weights and longer rests, with the concentration on the speed of the lift.
For beginners looking to lift weights to maintain muscle mass whilst dieting and improve their general health, we recommend starting in the hypertrophy range.
A Concentric contraction is a movement that shortens your muscles. The heavier the object you're trying to move, the more strength is generated. Curling a dumbbell during a bicep curl towards your should is an example of a concentric contraction.
An Eccentric movement is the lengthening of a muscle during which your muscle fibres are stretched under tension. Imagine lowering a dumbbell during a bicep curl to get an idea of an eccentric movement - this is what is called the negative part of a lift.
An Isometric hold is when your muscles contract but does not cause your joints to move. A plank hold is an isometric contraction.
Weight training equipment
Bodyweight: Bodyweight exercises use the individual's own weight to provide resistance against gravity. Bodyweight exercises can enhance a range of abilities including strength, power, endurance, speed, flexibility, coordination and balance. Bodyweight training utilises simple abilities such as pushing, pulling, squatting, bending, twisting and balancing. Movements such as the push-up, the pull-up, and the sit-up are some of the most common bodyweight exercises.
Dumbbells: A staple in most gyms and a good place to start if you're new to weight training. They are joint friendly because your hands are not in a fixed position and allow you body to move in a natural motion.
Barbells: A barbell is a piece of exercise equipment used in weight training, bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting, consisting of a long bar, usually with weights attached at each end. Barbells are great for moves like back squats, deadlifts and snatches.
Weight machines: The machines typically take your body through the range of motion—from the starting point through to the endpoint with each repetition. They are good for targeting specific muscles, learning the mechanics of weight lifting and as an accessory for free weight lifts.
Kettlebells: The ones that look like cannonballs with a single loop handle are a great way to build strength and power. Classic kettlebell movements like swings are a great way to build power and core strength.
Resistance bands: Low impact and joint-friendly, resistance bands provide an effective workout in the gym, at home or when you are travelling. The bands create resistance in both directions and force your body to stay stable during each repetition.
TRX: TRX is a suspension, bodyweight training system. It's can offer a great full body resistance workout for new and experienced trainers alike. It has a wide variety of exercises that utilises your bodyweight to build strength, flexibility and core stability.
How often should you lift weights?
How often and how much you train should depend upon your goals, experience, age, health, fitness and other factors such as availability of time and equipment.
Training three times per week is usually the sweet spot for beginners, Allowing for 36-48 hours rest between weight sessions is advised when you are just starting out to allow for rest and recovery.
Some people may benefit from training twice a week but again this is something to discuss with a personal trainer if you are unsure.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours to days after unaccustomed or strenuous exercise. The soreness is felt most strongly one to 3 days after the exercise and is a common occurrence when you are just starting out.
When muscles are required to work harder than they are used to or in a different way, it's believed to cause microscopic damage to the muscle which results in soreness and stiffness.
Don't be put off. It's normal and does not last long. It can affect everyone from beginners to elite level athletes. As you get used to the mode of training you are doing, the soreness will decrease as your body adapts to the process.
There is no simple way to treat DOMS. Speak to your trainer beforehand if you are worried. Your initial training sessions should ease you in gently to limit the soreness but DOMS can be unavoidable.
Try icepacks, painkillers, massage, and gentle movement like walking to ease symptoms.
DOMS does not generally require medical intervention but you should seek advice if the pain becomes unbearable, you experience severe swelling or your urine becomes dark.
One of the best ways to avoid DOMS is to start your exercise programme gently and gradually, allowing your body the time to adapt to new demands placed upon it.
You can continue to exercise with DOMS, it may feel uncomfortable to begin with, however, you may find that the soreness eases once you are warmed up.
Over time you will find that as you perform the same activities there'll be less soreness, less muscle tissue damage and faster recovery.
A beginners weight training programme
A training programme is basically a schedule that draws together factors such as frequency, intensity, volume, type of exercise. Training programmes are used for weight training and any other fitness training.
In weight training there are almost unlimited combinations of variables that can be used, in terms of just getting started, focus on;
- Exercise selection: Focus on learning the correct technique for the basic movement patterns before trying more advanced exercises. A good programme includes a squatting movement, a hip-hinge, a push, pull and overhead press movement.
- Weight or resistance: Start light, learn correct form and increase the weight you lift gradually over time.
- Number of repetitions: Start with a weight you can manage comfortably for 12 reps, practise the correct technique and movement pattern until it becomes natural.
- Number of sets: 3 sets of 12 reps is a good starting point for building muscle and learning the exercises.
- Rest periods between sets: When getting started, take enough time to make sure you recover between sets, that might be 90 seconds or up to 3 minutes. Again, go on how you feel, you can make adjustments as you become more experienced.
- Rest periods between sessions: Aim to train three times a week, with 24-48 hours rest between sessions to allow your muscles to recover. That doesn't mean that rest days are spent on your backside, you can still get your steps in.
- Progressive overload: This is when you gradually increase the weight, frequency or number of sets and repetitions in your weight training routine. This challenges your body and allows your musculoskeletal system to get stronger.
Weight training for women
All of the above information and advice applies to males and females.
For some women (and men), if you're new to weight training, getting started can seem a little intimidating especially walking into the free weight area of the gym for the first time.
It usually takes a few weeks to start feeling results and a little longer to start seeing them.
Persevere and weight training is a sure-fire way to build you backside and seriously sculpt the rest of your body.
A few things to remember;
1 - Men are typically bigger than women and have more muscle mass. If you gave a male and female the exact same training programme and the same period of time to complete it, the male will burn more calories because they have more muscle mass.
I know you get disheartened when you see your partner getting faster results than you but it is natural for their body type.
2 - Women need to carry more body fat than men. Between menstruation and menopause, one of the primary roles of your body is to produce babies.
You must have the energy (body fat ) in reserve to survive a pregnancy. A woman with a six-pack has likely lost her menstrual cycle to accomplish that.
3 - You can use your menstrual cycle as an advantage in the gym. During ovulation, you produce more testosterone which can translate into your best performance in the gym. The luteal phase is at the end of your cycle. This is where it's harder to see results.
You may have higher chances of injury, strength decreases and lower motivation It is also at this point that your metabolic rate can increase, which can lead to those familiar food cravings.
4 - Whilst the weight training principles apply to men and women, you need to remember that you will carry more body fat than men, it is harder to lose body fat and your female physiology will work against you at times.
You must learn to understand how your menstrual cycle impacts your gym sessions and dieting.
5 - The luteal phase is usually when you feel tired, irritable, low mentally and physically, and crave sugar and carbohydrates. During this phase, it's worth considering lighter training and active recovery (like walking and yoga).
You may experience more water retention too, which will show up on the scales. Try adding a few pieces of fruit a day, this will help to satisfy your sugar cravings without undoing your diet.
Listen to your body and be kind to yourself.
To sum up
As we age, we lose muscle mass.
Just the same as when we diet we lose muscle mass if we don't weight train.
After 30, you begin to lose as much as 3% - 5% per decade and as much as 30% in a lifetime.
Resistance training is key to maintaining muscle mass as we get older.
Not only does it help you to look good, but you'll also benefit from increasing your strength and bone density, as well as helping to reduce the risk of falls and injuries.
I often say that I'm training now to benefit my 80-year-old self. I don't want to be reliant on a wheelchair or a stairlift in later life, and lifting weights now will hopefully go some way to preventing that.
1 - Seek the help of a qualified personal trainer if you're unsure where to start.
2- Focus on form. Before you add weight, make sure you're performing the exercises correctly.
3 - Always warm-up and cool down. Prepare your muscles ahead of the workout you're about to do.
4 - Increase weight gradually. Don't go mad and start chucking weights around that you have no right to do, it'll end in tears, trust me.
5 - Aim to weight train at least 2-3 times a week, work all of your muscles and don't forget the importance of recovery days in between sessions.
6 - Congratulate yourself for committing to changing your body, and enjoy the confidence that comes from testing and pushing your limits.
Ben Yates is a personal trainer based at Places Gym Hinckley and Hinckley Leisure Centre in Leicestershire.
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