Weight training, also known as resistance or strength training, is probably one of the most misunderstood ways to get fit. Popular media and gyms worldwide have given the impression that weight training is reserved only for super muscular people.
However, this misconception couldn't be further from the truth. Weight training is beneficial for people of all ages. In fact, the older you get, the more critical it is to put your muscles to work. By age 30, adults who don't exercise will begin to lose 3-5% of their muscles mass per decade. As the saying goes, if you don't use them, you'll lose them, which can seriously affect your overall health and mobility.
The best part is that you don't need a fancy gym membership to get started. In this beginner's guide, you'll learn how to get started with weight training regardless of whether you have access to a gym or not.
The Benefits of Weight Training
Weight training, when combined with cardiovascular exercise and a balanced diet, is an excellent way to achieve your fat loss goals. Weight training helps build muscle. This muscle then boosts your overall metabolism, allowing you to burn more calories, even at rest.
Resistance training teaches you a whole new way to think about weight loss. The goal isn't to lose weight; it's to improve your body composition by losing excess fat and building lean muscle. Muscle weighs more than fat, but it takes up less space and has much better metabolic and hormonal effects on your body. So you'll look leaner while also being and feeling stronger, regardless of what the scale says.
But the benefits of weight training extend way beyond boosting fat burn. There are several ways lifting weights can help improve your overall health and livelihood. Lifting weights is an excellent way to:
Before You Get Started
Before getting started with any new exercise regimen, it's vital to ensure that you are in good enough health to do so. Consult your physician for your yearly physicals to ensure that your body can endure the demands of exercise. Scheduling an appointment with your physician is especially pertinent if you currently struggle with any particular health conditions or if you're taking any prescription medications.
Getting Started With Weight Training: Bodyweight Training
The cool thing about the human body is that it adapts when placed under stress. When you lift weights, you're putting your body under a good form of stress, which causes many beneficial reactions. Muscle fibers become bigger, stronger, and more resilient in response to strength training.
The most accessible weight is the weight you already carry. Before you begin lifting any external weights, it's beneficial to learn how to move your body weight. Learn how to perform basic movements properly before picking up those dumbbells.
Here are five basic bodyweight exercises to learn as a beginner. As you build your physical fitness, you'll be able to explore a variety of variations on these movements, both with and without weights:
Getting used to moving your body weight is especially important if you've been spending a lot of time on the couch or sitting at a desk. Some muscles may become inactive, while others become overactive. Resistance training with your body weight can help "wake up" muscles you aren't otherwise using. Your muscles, connective tissues, and nervous system will benefit from practicing proper movement patterns. Bodyweight exercises are also great warmups for your weight training workouts.
Weight Training At Home
There are various tools available to you if you're getting started with weight training at home. The equipment you decide to use will depend on your preferences and budget. Keep in mind that you don't need to purchase an entire gym's worth of equipment at once. You can always start small and build up a modest home gym over time.
The most basic pieces of weight training equipment are dumbbells. Dumbbells are pieces of solid iron tubes with weights on each end. They can be found as bare metal or coated with rubber or neoprene, a synthetic rubber. These coated dumbbells tend to be lighter and colorful, making them perfect for the home.
Adjustable dumbbells can be found in several varieties, from small metal tubes with weights that can be screwed on and off to larger, more complicated sets. These are great for workouts that require different weights for different movements.
It's best to purchase dumbbells in pairs, one for each hand. The benefits of dumbbells are that they're easy to use and quite versatile. Buying two sets of dumbbells about 5-10 pounds apart is a great place to start.
However, as you become stronger, you'll require more and more pairs of dumbbells to continue seeing progress, which can strain your budget. It can also be an issue if you live in an apartment or are limited in space. For these scenarios, investing in a pair of adjustable dumbbells can be a great solution.
Kettlebells are solid cast-iron weights shaped like a sphere with a handle on top. The weight sits directly underneath the handle instead of evenly distributed on opposite sides like a dumbbell. Like dumbbells, they can be found in a wide range of weights, from very light (less than 10 pounds) to very heavy (over a hundred pounds and more).
Kettlebells are incredibly versatile tools that you can use to build strength, endurance, and power. Kettlebells have an advantage against dumbbells with their ability to perform more ballistic exercises such as swings, cleans, and snatches.
You'll also progress less slowly as it takes a bit longer to adapt to the off-center weight distribution of the bell. Because of this, you can accomplish a lot with just one or two kettlebells before you need to buy bigger weights. And while there are plenty of double kettlebell workouts that you can do, you don't need to purchase kettlebells in pairs to get a great workout.
Kettlebells are an excellent tool for weight loss because you can get more bang for your buck. They're great for muscle strengthening exercises but can also add a hefty dose of cardio into your workout sessions with ballistic movements.
Resistance bands are another great solution for people who are short on space. These bands come in varying weights that can neatly fold and store away. They're also an excellent option for travel as they can be brought and used pretty much anywhere.
Flat resistance bands (also called loop bands) are one continuous circle used for exercises like banded squats and bridges. There are also thicker, larger bands of heavier weights that are often used with and without free weights for some types of squats, deadlifts, and other movements.
Tubular resistance bands are long, hollow tubes with handles attached to the ends. These handles are often detachable and can be replaced with special attachments such as bars and ankle straps, allowing for a broader range of exercises.
Ankle Weights, Wrist Weights & Weighted Vests
As mentioned above, bodyweight exercises are a perfectly valid way to begin weight training, as your muscles still have to put in work to move your body. But if those bodyweight exercises aren't feeling like enough, you can always make yourself heavier with ankle and wrist weights.
While ankle and wrist weights aren't as heavy as free weights such as dumbbells and kettlebells, they're a great way to boost calorie burn while doing lesser-impact movements such as walking or doing chores around the house.
Weighted vests are another way to increase your body weight resistance. You can add or remove weights to the vest to adjust the resistance to your liking. Short on cash? Try taking an empty backpack and filling it with a few moderately heavy items before your next walk. You'll burn more calories while also putting your core to work.
Weighted Cardio Equipment
Getting fit should always be an enjoyable endeavor, and what's more fun than some of our favorite childhood toys? Weighted hula hoops and jump ropes can take joyful movement to a whole new level. Hula hooping with weighted hoops can offer a low-intensity core and cardio workout, a great supplement to your heavier weight training sessions. Weighted hoops come in pieces that can be quickly snapped together and taken apart for convenience.
Jumping rope is an excellent cardio exercise that can help you burn lots of fat while requiring less intensity and putting less stress on your joints than running or jogging. You can get the most out of your weight training sessions by ending with a set of jump rope intervals.
But you can also take jumping rope to the next level by using weighted or heavy ropes. The resistance in these ropes recruits more muscles, allowing for a strengthening, fat-burning workout. Jump ropes are also a portable tool you can take outside to a park or even on vacation.
Weight Training At The Gym
At the gym, you will have access to a wide range of equipment that may not be feasible or cost-effective to buy for your home. Depending on the gym, it may make more sense for your budget and lifestyle to pay for a monthly membership instead.
Having access to a squat rack, barbells, heavy weights, and a wide variety of cable machines can be a game-changer for your weight training routine, but you can still achieve your fat loss goals without them.
Commercial gyms also have a reputation for becoming too crowded during "rush hours," such as during lunchtime or right after work. If time is of the essence for you, finding a less-crowded gym or working out at home may be better for your lifestyle.
Best Weight Training Exercises For Fat Loss
Once you're ready to start incorporating weights into your exercises, you'll want to remain focused on fundamental compound movements. Compound movements help boost calorie burn while building strength and muscle. You'll also reap other additional benefits, such as improving your balance and coordination.
Here are some of the foundational compound weight training movements to add to your workouts. Each of these moves has countless variations and can be done using the weight training equipment of your choice. Schedule a session with a fitness professional for assistance in properly performing each of these movements with the tools you have available.
Overhead/Shoulder Press Examples
Muscles Worked: Anterior & Lateral Deltoids, Triceps, Trapezius
Chest Press Examples
Muscles Worked: Pectoralis, Anterior Deltoids, Triceps
Muscles Worked: Quadriceps, Gluteus, Adductors
Muscles Worked: Hamstrings, Gluteus, Adductors, Erector Spinae
Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Trapezius, Posterior Deltoids, Biceps
Hybrid movements combine two exercises into one move and are excellent for your fat loss goals. These movements challenge more muscles while increasing the heart rate, boosting the overall calorie burn during the workout. Here's an example of a dumbbell squat press, where a shoulder press immediately follows a dumbbell squat:
Grouping compound and hybrid movements into circuit-style workouts where you perform exercises back to back with minimal rest between each exercise is an effective way to push the intensity and burn more calories. Utilizing this tactic is an effective way to use weight training to reach your fat loss goals.
However, burning extra calories should never be prioritized over your health, safety, or overall enjoyment. If you have mobility or health issues or know that it will make weight training unpleasant for you, avoid doing circuits without rests. Use a standard multiple-set style, performing each exercise for a set, followed by a rest of 30s-60s before moving on to another movement. Repeat three to four times.
You'll also want to progressively overload, meaning that you consistently increase the amount of weight you lift over time so that your muscles remain challenged to adapt. You may have heard that the best way to weight train for weight loss is to lift heavy. While that's true, "heavy" is subjective. Start where you are and gradually build strength over time. Doing too much too soon can lead to injury.
Creating Your Weight Training Schedule
An effective fat loss program integrates both weight training and aerobic (cardio) exercises. Studies have shown that combining resistance training with cardio intervals is the most effective way to lose weight and keep it off in the long term. Scheduling a mix of weight training, high-intensity cardio intervals, and low-intensity movement into each week will reap the best results. Here's an example of a workout schedule that incorporates multiple forms of activity:
In this schedule, there are three weight training sessions for the week. Two-four days of weight training is enough to see results. If you only have two days to spare, you may choose to dedicate those days to full-body workouts where all muscles are targeted at once. If you have more days, you may decide to do a split routine like the one shown above, where you target different muscle groups on different days.
You may be wondering why there are no "rest" days. Resting between lifting days doesn't mean being inactive and spending the entire day on the couch. Being sedentary is a leading cause of disease and disability, and working out a few times per week isn't enough to offset that.
Incorporating easy, low-impact movement such as walking each day will help you be healthier and fitter overall. Developing a daily walking regimen in addition to your structured exercise is a great way to get you closer to your health and fitness goals. A great tip is to take multiple ten-minute walks throughout the day to prevent you from sitting too long in one place.
Flexibility is also an essential part of fitness. Even if you aren't interested in doing yoga, you should still spend time doing a bit of stretching. You should definitely stretch during warmups and cooldowns on weight training days, but you will also benefit from taking a brief moment to stretch on non-lifting days as well.
Warming Up Before Weight Training
It's essential to warm up before each workout to prepare your body for exercise. Beginning with a short foam rolling and stretching session can help loosen up any knots, boost blood flow, and get your muscles warmed up. Taking the time to warm up your muscles allows them to move more efficiently during your workout.
Follow up with a minimum of 5 minutes of movement to gradually bring up your heart rate. You can use a stationary bike, walk on a treadmill, jump rope, or even go old school with some arm circles or jumping jacks. You also have the option of warming up with bodyweight versions of the exercises you plan to do, such as squats or lunges.
Sample Beginner's Full-Body, Fat-Burning Weight Training Dumbbell Circuit
This sample routine requires two dumbbells of a moderate weight, around 10-15 pounds is suitable for most beginners. You can always use lighter or heavier weights, depending on your strength.
Cooling Down After Weight Training
Just as it's essential to warm up before you exercise, it's also crucial to cool down after the workout. Cooling down allows your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature to come back down to normal gradually. You can cool down with a brief bout of steady-state cardio (like walking on the treadmill or using a stationary bike) followed by stretches of the muscles you've just exercised.
Staying Safe While Weight Training
Be sure always to remain safe while working out with weights. Wear proper footwear, such as closed-toe shoes, especially if training at the gym or close to other people. Wear comfortable clothing that allows you to move freely. Always be aware of your surroundings. If training at the gym, be sure to give space to the people around you as they're lifting. If training at home, be aware of any children or pets roaming around, as accidents happen.
Use a spotter when lifting heavy weights, especially if you're lifting this weight overhead. It's never a good idea to "ego lift" by trying to lift more than you're capable of lifting for the sake of showing off. The attention isn't worth the possibility of injury.
It also isn't a good idea to lift heavy weights if you aren't feeling well. Illness can adversely affect your coordination and strength, leaving you vulnerable. If you're feeling under the weather, it's best to give your body time to get better. When you start feeling better, ease yourself back into training gradually.
Weight Training & Diet
No amount of weight training can compete with poor diet choices. Diet and exercise go hand-in-hand. What you eat fuels your muscles both for exercising and recovery. Food also provides the energy you'll need both during and between workouts. Eating a diet full of ultra-processed junk food will not only make you feel sluggish during your training, but it will also make it harder for you to reach your fat loss goals.
Struggling with how to eat? Here are some tips:
Getting Help From A Fitness & Nutrition Coach
Weight training is an excellent way to build muscle and burn fat. Even if you never join a gym, you can achieve great results with very few tools. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg for putting together a complete, long-term fat loss plan.
The finer details of your weight training program or diet may need to be adjusted over time to account not only for your progress but for any other changes that may have occurred in your life. Working with a fitness coach can take the guesswork out of putting a program together while helping to keep you on track.
You Got This!
While your goal may be to lose weight, don't become a slave to the scale. The number you see there can be misleading, especially when you're building muscle a the same time. As long as you're doing the work, you will still be making beneficial changes to your body composition - even when it isn't registering on the scale.
The great thing about weight training is that it provides ample opportunities to measure progress. Celebrate the fact that you're getting stronger and fitter and taking the time to improve your overall health. Savor every victory, big and small.
Lastly, don't rush the process - these things take time. Be compassionate with yourself and enjoy the journey. You got this. As long as you're willing to put in the work and remain consistent, you will achieve things you never thought possible.
Niv Mullings is a Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness coach from the Bronx, New York. After years of struggling with obesity, anxiety, depression, painful menstruation, and other chronic health complaints, Niv changed her life for the better through fitness and a healthy plant-based diet. Now she helps others to do the same.