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Things beginners need to know

by Mary C. Weaver, CSCS on December 19, 2012

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After hearing me extol the virtues of weight-training, a friend e-mailed as follows: “So how does one begin training with weights if one has not even exercised regularly in the past? We’re talking very poor muscle tone here.”

I could say a lot in response, but I’ll hold myself to a few general observations.

1. Weights work for everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re approaching them as an athelete, a couch potato, a man, a woman, an octogenarian, a teenager, or a wheelchair-bound person. With weights, you can work with and around your limitations. Weights are wonderfully democratic. If you are working your hardest to perform a set of seated dumbbell presses with a pair of 10s, you’re doing as much, relatively speaking,as the much more muscular guy or gal who’s using many times more weight. Everyone has to start somewhere—and everyone has her own limitations. So focus on what you can do, and don’t worry about how you compare with anyone else.

2. Start out right. Learning the proper form for each movement helps prevent injury and targets the muscles that the movement is supposed to strengthen. Sure, there’s a place for some controlled “cheating,” but beginners don’t need to worry about that yet. So take a class taught by someone reputable, hire a personal trainer for a few sessions, or ask a knowledgeable friend to work with you. Ask the staff of your gym to show you the basic movements. If these fail—you don’t know anyone, you can’t afford a trainer, and you live in the sticks where there’s no gym—get a video or DVD that demonstrates weight-training exercises or buy an authoritative book with plenty of pictures. (A couple of good choices: The Book of Muscle by Ian King and The New Rules of Lifting for Women by Lou Schuler and Cassandra Forsythe.)

3. Learn to appreciate the difference between good pain and bad pain. This is simple: injuries, joint pain, chest pain, sudden agony of any kind is bad. Duh. On the other hand, working your muscles really hard causes good pain: the burn of lactic acid, the all-out fatigue that says you can’t possibly lift that bar one more time. When you feel bad pain, stop what you’re doing, and get help if you need it. When you feel good pain, smile (or grimace), and keep going.

4. Give the process time—but expect good things. Jogging is great, riding a bike is great, walking is great. All of these forms of cardio training are great. Ditto yoga, ballroom dancing, gardening, and whatever other physical things you enjoy doing. But (and this is a big but, paraphrasing Peewee Herman) none of those activities will reshape and firm your body like weight-training. Sorry.

It takes a while to transform your physique, but if that’s what you want, you gotta lift weights. Lifting is the fountain of youth. Weight-trainees may be carting around excess adipose on top of their muscles, but their bodies are firm. Their bones are nice and dense too. Most women grow muscle very slowly. We’re not even going to talk about the ludicrous notion that you might suddenly become a hulk. Unless you’ve got too much testosterone in your system, you’re not going to look like a man from lifting. You’re going to look like a gorgeous woman. You’re going to feel terrific. In three to six months you’re going to notice some real improvements; in two to three years, you could be a stone fox. Depends where you’re starting from and whether you need to shed some fat.

5. Take it easy. Don’t kill yourself when you start. Two or three days a week is plenty. You can do cardio on your gym days or your off days or both, but don’t try to lift more than three days a week or on consecutive days.

Don’t think you need to train for hours. Beginners don’t need a lot of volume to make substantial gains. I recommend keeping the workout to 30 to 40 minutes max, not counting a nice whole-body warmup on the treadmill first and whatever cardio you want to do after you work out with weights.

Get plenty of sleep, plenty of water, and good nutrition. You know—fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fat-free dairy, all that stuff.

If you have questions, please drop me a line in the comment box. I will be happy to respond.

Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
I'm Mary Weaver, your weight-loss and body-transformation coach. My specialty is helping women get in the best shape of their lives with satisfying diet plans, effective fat-burning exercise, and loads of encouragement and motivation. Check me out on Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter!
Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

yolanda October 23, 2011 at 11:07 am

#3 is huge, stopping when it's good pain means you make little progress.  This is a tough place for beginners.
#5 3x a week, even I can wrap my head around doing weights 3x a week.  I certainly think it makes sense to add it to my running regimen…  Now…. to just get started!
Xllnt list of beginner tactics!


Sarah Arrow October 23, 2011 at 11:57 am

Great advice for beginners Mary –  much appreciated. I am thinking of starting a weight regime after seeing what you and Suzanne achieve. I'll drop back and read more info when I am starting the plan :)


Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S. October 23, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Excellent!!! Then you’ll be ready for our gym sessions at BlogWorld next year!


Vicky October 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm

I used to lift weights and loved it, but have been sedentary for a few years due to various reasons.  The first thing I did when starting up again was pull something on the right side of my right wrist.  It has been somewhat swollen, but is now feeling better.  My wrist only hurts when I twist it now.  Is it OK to brace it and lift during this time?  


Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S. October 23, 2011 at 9:07 pm


Ouch! Injuries are such an irritation.

Bracing your wrist is a very good idea, but I would also urge to be very smart and very careful. First, I’d recommend having your doctor check it out just to see what’s going on.

Second, I would focus on activities that don’t stress your wrist—specifically, I’d use machines that don’t require a lot of gripping. That gives you carte blanche for most lower-body work and ab work. And several upper-body machines allow you to initiate the movement through your forearms or upper arms and take out the wrists altogether.

Until the pain is completely gone, avoid dumbbell work, push-ups, and anything that could put stress on those wrists.

The point is to avoid inflaming whatever is injured. A month or two of taking it easy beats the heck out of a recurrent injury that never goes away.

Good for you for starting back! Be patient with yourself and know that you can reach your goals—even if you’ve been thrown a bit of a curveball.


Linda Mattacks October 25, 2011 at 7:07 am

Hi Mary

What worries me about your second point (which I thoroughly agree with in principle) is: How do you (as a learner) know how good your instructor is?

A friend of mine joined a fitness centre that was one of a franchise and boasted ‘state of the art equipment’ – fine. Yet the trainer she engaged to help get her into better shape visibly winced at the approach of some of her colleagues with their clients.

Over time, as they got to know each other, she voiced concerns that some of the workouts she witnessed would potentially cause longer term damage. There was nothing she felt she could say without probably losing her job.


Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S. October 25, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Linda, you raise an excellent point, and I wish I had a better answer!

If someone is a complete beginner, she won’t know whether her instructor is any good or not. It’s just as same as when we’re trying to hire a roofing contractor, a mechanic, or a hairdresser. Let the buyer beware—and do your due diligence before you join a gym or hire a trainer.

Ask around, check the Better Business Bureau, and do some internet research to see which gyms and trainers in your area have a good reputation and which ones don’t.

I’d also recommend trusting your instincts. If you start working with someone and his or her advice just doesn’t feel right, it might be time to find a new trainer!


Christine Miller October 30, 2011 at 1:48 am

You had me with number 1 –
“Weights work for everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re approaching them as an athelete, a couch potato, a man, a woman, an octogenarian, a teenager, or a wheelchair-bound person. With weights, you can work with and around your limitations. Weights are wonderfully democratic.”

This is such an encouraging post Mary, which has really piqued my interest in how I could introduce weights into my life.
Thank you.


Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S. December 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Christine–I’m glad to hear it! Maybe you can tell that I’m kind of a weights evangelist. :-)


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