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.

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