Strength Training Tips for Beginners
The many health and lifestyle benefits of strength training, or resistance training, are becoming more widely known. As a result, more and more people are looking to take it up.
“Strength training”, or “resistance training” is any kind of training where your muscles have to produce force against some kind of resistance. This resistance often comes in the form of free weights, but it can also be provided by machines, resistance bands or by gravity and your bodyweight.
When your muscles work against this resistance they suffer “microtrauma” in the form of tiny tears within the muscle fibers. Over the next few days while you sleep and rest, your body will send blood filled with nutrients to the affected areas to repair them stronger. This process, repeated over a long period, will lead to increased strength and muscle mass. This has various quality of life benefits as well as health benefits.
Life is generally easier when you’re stronger. You can do more, such as play with your kids, be more mobile, carry things upstairs, walk up hiking trails, etc. More muscle mass leads to greater health as it raises your metabolic rate, meaning it’s easier to keep extra fat off. Muscle is also a place where excess glucose in your blood can be stored as energy to be used in workouts, rather than staying in the bloodstream or being converted to fat. Therefore it’s excellent for protecting against type 2 diabetes.
However, it can sometimes not be the most accessible pursuit for a beginner. There’s a lot you should know, and many potential mistakes that could be very costly – either in terms of injuries or wasted time.
Types of Strength Training
There are various types of training that could all be classed as “strength training”, for example; powerlifting, bodybuilding, olympic lifting, crossfit etc. However, I don’t recommend beginners get overly concerned with these. The most important thing at first is learning how to move properly, how to lift weights safely and how to properly work whichever muscles are being targeted.
Beginners should not worry about how much weight they can lift at first. It is not necessary to lift heavy weights that you can only lift for one or a few repetitions. Improvements to strength and muscle mass can be achieved just as effectively with lighter weights. What matters is how you lift the weight and that you train hard, taking each set to a point where your movements begin to slow down and it becomes difficult to complete more repetitions (training close to failure).
What Should Beginners Focus on First?
When you’re a beginner, it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t have perfect form. In fact, it probably won’t even be “good” form. This needs to be worked on. Without good form you risk injuring yourself and you won’t work the target muscles as effectively as you could.
Get instruction from a trainer and use light weights until you have mastered correct form. Don’t use machines that you haven’t been shown how to use, as some can be incredibly dangerous, like the leg press machine. If you don’t have it set correctly for your body, it can pin you in place. If you lock out your knees at the top, you can suffer a catastrophic injury.
Don’t dive in without any idea what you’re doing. It’s very easy to hurt yourself by being overeager. The number one things I see people do are using too much weight, and attempting exercises they’ve seen others do but have no idea how to do themselves.
Don’t be tempted to chase heavy weights. That will come with time, but it is not your goal when you’re a beginner. You need to be safe.
Common Form Mistakes
The most common form mistake is a rounding of the spine during exercises like deadlifts, squats and rows. The spine should be neutral in pretty much every exercise in the gym.
People also struggle to know how to retract their scapulae (shoulder blades). This is really important for pretty much every exercise involving the shoulder. It will keep your shoulders safe on pushing exercises like bench press, and it will help you engage the target muscles properly on pulling exercises like lat pulldowns. This machine is great at targeting the lats, but sadly, hardly anyone uses it correctly. Most people use their bodyweight (by bouncing up and down in the seat) and their arms to move the weight. With proper retraction of your scapulae, your shoulder blades should be pulled together like you’re trying to hold a pencil between them.
Beginners who are going to be training lifts like barbell squats and deadlifts, should first be able to perform a bodyweight squat with good form. There’s no point in trying to do squats or deadlifts with free weights if the trainee lacks the mobility or awareness of their own movements to perform a good bodyweight squat.
A good bodyweight squat should start with feet shoulder width apart, or wider. The trainee should be able to squat down as if they are sitting on a chair behind them until their hip crease is below the level of their knee. Knees should stay out and not cave inwards during the movement. Heels should stay flat on the floor and feet should be stable, not tilting to either side. The trainee should be able to keep their spine neutral. It shouldn’t be excessively curved in order to reach an adequate depth.
Follow a Program
One thing a lot of beginners do is just amble around the gym, without a plan in mind, just trying to use whatever available equipment they come across.
Everyone should have a program that they’re following. This is no different for beginners. There are some great beginner programs available. Have a sensible beginner program and follow it.
Many beginners without a plan will end up doing way too much which they will struggle to recover from. Less is definitely more as a beginner. There’s no point being so sore you can’t train for the next 10 days. Better to take it easy and be able to train again in a couple of days.
The program should also be balanced. Don’t focus excessively on a certain body part. Men can be guilty of this with bench presses and biceps curls, trying to get big chest and arm muscles. These muscles attach on the front of the shoulder so overdeveloping them will pull the shoulder forward, causing bad posture and shoulder pain. Everything must be in balance, so make sure to give your back just as much attention too. A good program will take care of this.
Progressive Overload is a Must
To get stronger, you’ve got to increase the difficulty. As a beginner, you will probably be able to lift new weights every week for a few months.
Keep a log and aim to progress over the weeks. There’s no rush to set any world records. Just refer back to what you’ve done on previous weeks and try to add one more rep, or increase the weight by the smallest increment available.
The progress will slow down as you gain experience. Don’t get stuck in a plateau because you’re still trying to add weight every week. Start adding reps instead and lower your expectations for how fast you will progress.