This post will break down how to start resistance training to help you develop a regular resistance or strength-training routine.
Tired of logging hours on the treadmill yet not seeing the results you desire?
Intrigued by resistance training but not quite sure what to do and where to start?
Ready to try something new in the gym (or at home) to move you closer to your goals?
Wanting to try something that will build both your strength and self-confidence?
If so, you’re in the right place!! If you’ve been curious as to how to start resistance training, this post will take you through the basics of resistance training to help you develop a regular resistance training routine. If you’re wondering what the benefits of resistance training are/why you should care, then check out my post all about the Benefits and Importance of Resistance Training HERE, I think it will be super helpful and eye opening for you!
Below I’ve broken down some of the basics of resistance, or strength, or weight, training. These all mean generally the same thing: lifting some type of force or weight that is placed on the body in order to improve muscular strength, endurance or size. This post will cover:
- Hoq to Start with Resistance Training
- Resistance Training vs. Cardio
- Why Type of Equipment Do I Need?
- How to Pick Weights
- How Many Reps and Sets Should I Do?
- Progressive Overload: What Is It? How to Do It?
- I Don’t Want to Get Bulky!!
- Warm Up and Cool Down
- Recovery and Rest Days
How to Start with Resistance Training
Most organizations recommend incorporating at least 2 strength training sessions per week — this could be 2 full body workouts, or an upper body and a lower body focus, to start out. If you are new to resistance training, you will likely want to space these apart, to give your muscles time to recover. So, if you complete one full body workout on Monday, completing the next one on at least Wednesday will help reduce excess fatigue and soreness. As you become more conditioned to resistance training, you can increase the amount of training sessions throughout the week (if desired).
Resistance Training vs. Cardio
Both resistance training and cardio training provide benefits for your health. However, it’s easy for many of us to get caught up in the calorie burn mindset that typically comes with cardio workouts. And while cardio training can aid in weight loss, it’s important to remember that weight loss is not always the best indicator of improved health, and that weight loss alone doesn’t take into consideration where that weight is coming from, nor does it always have the most favorable impact on body composition changes. Cardio is good at improving your cardiovascular endurance and stamina, but it’s not the best option if you are wanting to “tone up” and build muscle that will then aid in less fat mass and increased metabolism over time — muscle burns more calories to maintain than fat does!
You can and should include BOTH resistance and cardio in your weekly routine! Aim for at least 2-3 resistance training sessions per week, and the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity) activity per week, which could be a walk, run, spin, swim or hiking!
What Type of Equipment Do I Need?
There are all types of fitness equipment that can be used in resistance training sessions. If you are working out at home, having a few sets of dumbbells and/or kettlebells, and some various resistance bands is a great place to start. Don’t overlook items like book bags filled with books, as a way to add resistance as well! You can also use items such as a chair, step or bench.
If you have access to a gym with more equipment, then you can also utilize equipment like barbells, plates, stationary machines and cable machines. Even if you don’t have access to these, you CAN still get in a great resistance-based workout!
How to Pick Weights
When it comes to picking the right amount of weight to use, you will want to pick weights that aren’t too light and aren’t too heavy — this will be unique to your starting point and level of fitness!!
You’ll know a weight is too light if you can do an entire programmed set and feel like it was a walk in the park, with minimal effort exerted. A weight is too heavy if you are sacrificing form or compensating to lift the weight (i.e. using whole-body momentum, like swinging or contorting your body into weird positions, to lift the weight). You want your weight selection to be a challenge; a good rule of thumb is that the last 2-3 reps should feel difficult to complete with good form. Regardless of your weight, good form is of the utmost importance! Breathe through the movements, engage your core, stand tall, and complete the exercises in a controlled manner — not just relying on momentum to swing a weight up.
It is important to note that your weight selection can fluctuate day to day or week to week! Depending on your recovery, sleep, nutrition, hydration and stress levels, one week you might feel like using 12lb dumbbells is a good, challenging weight, while the next week it might feel impossible and 8lb feels more appropriate. That’s okay!! That doesn’t mean you regressed or lost strength. Often our progress isn’t a straight, linear path but instead is jagged with some ups and down, but trending up overall.
You will likely be able to use heavier weights with lower body muscle groups (glutes, hamstrings, quads) since these are bigger muscles. Upper body muscles like biceps, triceps, shoulders and chest will likely use lighter weights in comparison to lower body. If you’re unsure where to start, use some trial and error by starting with a lighter weight and performing a set. See how you feel and if you could go up in weight, until you reach a weight that is challenging but not impossible!
How Many Reps and Sets Should I Do?
The number of reps and sets you complete will depend on your starting point and your personal fitness goals. Are you looking to improve endurance, build muscle, or gain maximal strength? These will dictate, to some degree, how many reps and sets you will complete of each movement:
- Endurance: 12-20 reps and 1-3 sets
- Build muscle (hypertrophy): 6-12 reps (though really this is a wide range, up to 40 reps), 3-5 sets
- Maximal strength: 1-5 reps, 4-6 sets
So for example, if you are just starting out, you will likely want to focus more on building endurance first as this will help develop muscle coordination and greater proprioception (essentially, awareness of your body in space, which is crucial as you lift heavier weights). Since you are doing more reps, you will be using lighter weights that if you were doing 1-5 reps for maximal strength. This could look like: 2 sets of 15 bicep curls, 20 squats, 15 chest press, 20 lunges. You can complete the movements in a circuit fashion, or do 2 sets of each movement before moving on to the next.
For building muscle (ahem, or *toning*), this could look like: 4 sets of 8 deadlifts followed by 12 reverse lunges, then 3 sets of 15 squats followed by 12 step ups. Notice that the reps are slightly less than the previous example (endurance), but not as low as the rep amount for maximal strength exercises.
Again, these are simply examples of how these reps and sets play out for each goal!
If you are starting out (and have medical clearance), incorporating 2 full body workouts a week is a great place to start. You can include anywhere from 8-10 movements that focus on all major muscle groups, and complete 1-3 sets with anywhere from 6-20 reps for each exercise.
Progressive Overload: What Is It? How to Do It?
Progressive overload is a principle used in resistance training where you gradually increase either the weight, frequency, time/tempo or number of repetitions in your strength training routine. This will elicit continued changes and challenges that lead to improvements and continued benefits. Think about it: if you do the same routine over and over, you will eventually hit a point where it’s easy and doesn’t challenge you like it once did. Implementing progressive overload will allow you to continue to see progress.
There are many ways to incorporate progressive overload. Some examples include:
- Increasing weight
- Increasing reps
- Decreasing rest time
- Increased time under tension (holding a movement longer, incorporating a different tempo)
- Increasing range of motion
- Increasing frequency of training sessions in a week
You do not need to incorporate all of these at once!! Even implementing just one form of overload can be enough to stimulate continued progress, such as performing one additional set of a movement — even if keeping the number of reps and weight the same. This could look like doing 3 sets of 12 reps of chest press one week, and a few weeks later adding a 4th set of 12 reps.
I Don’t Want to Get Bulky!!
This is a common concern for many women that are hesitant about lifting weights. I get it! We all have different goals when it comes to our fitness and body composition, and that’s a beautiful thing! However, let me assure you that you won’t get bulky from lifting weights alone. Most of the men and women that you see that have a lot of muscle mass, have been putting in the work and working HARD to gain that mass, over many many years, through consistent training and eating in a surplus over time. Incorporating a couple resistance training sessions into your weekly routine does not automatically lead to you getting bulky. While yes, the goal of hypertrophy is to increase muscle size, it doesn’t lead to bulky muscles. In fact, the term “bulky” is subjective!! Further, women don’t have as much testosterone as men do, which is what leads to greater muscle mass gain. Chances are, building muscle will actually lead to the results you want: that “toned” look.
Warm Up and Cool Down
The warm up and cool down portions of your workout are crucial! A proper warm up will help to raise your core body temp, prime your muscles and central nervous system for movement, and help you mentally get in the zone to work out. A couple minutes of light cardio followed by dynamic stretches is usually adequate. Performing bodyweight movements is another way to prime your body for the workout.
A proper cool down helps to lower your heart rate and stretch out the muscles you worked. Think of the warm up as more of a dynamic, higher energy stretch, and the cool down as a slower paced stretch. Even just 5 minutes of stretching or walking it out is better than rushing off to your next task!
Recovery and Rest Days
When it comes to your fitness routine, incorporating regular rest days is just as important as your workouts themselves. Without proper rest days, you’re more prone to injury, burn out, and poor recovery — which will only impede reaching your fitness goals. Your muscles NEED time to repair and recover. Aim to incorporate at least 1-3 rest days a week, but pay attention to how your body is feeling and adjust accordingly.
Do rest days mean you’re a lazy bum? No!! You can and should still incorporate some type of activity in your rest days, but that doesn’t have to mean structured exercise. Light stretching or foam rolling, restorative yoga, an easy walk around the neighborhood, and just generally being active (like taking the steps instead of elevator) are all great to include in rest days.
Other aspects of rest and recovery that we must not overlook: adequate sleep (7-9 QUALITY hours!), hydration, nutrition and stress management, as these will all impact your recovery levels.
How to Start Resistance Training: Next Steps
Now that we’ve covered the basics (and assuming you have medical clearance to engage in physical activity!!!), what are your next steps? I have shared several at-home workouts on my Instagram HERE. These range from full body to body-part specific workouts that you can scale to your fitness level. Remember: start slow and build up over time. You don’t have to be completing 5 resistance-based workouts a week by week 2!! Below is an example of a full body workout you could complete 2 times a week:
Complete in circuit fashion, 1-3 sets (rounds) and 8-12 reps per movement. Choose weights that are challenging for each movement and leave you feeling like you have 2-3 reps left for each round.
- Squats (bodyweight or weighted)
- Pushups (place hands on elevated surface to make it easier)
- Reverse lunges (each leg)
- Good mornings
- Overhead press
- Mountain climbers
- Bicep curls
- Plank (hold for 15-60 seconds)
I hope this was a helpful place to start to learn how to start resistance training! Feel free to leave a comment with any other questions you have and I’ll be happy to answer 🙂