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Now that you’ve decided to try out strength training, you probably know that the basic idea is utilizing resistance, whether that’s with bands, weights, or simply your own bodyweight, in exercises that tear down your muscles so they can rebuild themselves stronger than before.
As you’re thinking it, we’ll say it: there’s a good chance this is where that quote “Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” came from. But the good news is, it’s probably not going to kill you, because we’re here to help you do it right, achieve your goals, and avoid injuries.
To help us out with that, we talked to experts in the field. Shawna Cordell, a celebrity personal trainer and owner of Cordell Fitness in SoHo, Manhattan, gave us the lowdown on how to get going if you’re a beginner and tipped us off to the most common mistakes to avoid. Washington, DC-based SoulCycle instructor and health and wellness advocate Victoria Brown also weighed in, along with Pittsburgh’s Meggan Castellvi, who previously placed first in the United States and as runner-up in the WBFF Pro Fitness World Championships.
Here’s what they said beginners need to know to set themselves up for success in strength training.
Set Goals For Yourself
Strength training can help you achieve a lot of different results, so it’s important to know what your goals are before you begin, Cordell said. You should set short-term as well as long-term goals. An example of a short-term goal might be to achieve better balance, while a long-term goal might be growing your booty or the ability to lift your carry-on bag on an airplane into the overhead bin more easily by yourself.
When you first begin strength training, you can save yourself a world of hurt (literally) by taking the time to learn proper technique.
There are also different ways to approach strength training depending on whether you’re trying to build additional muscle and cultivate more strength or do something more like tone up what you’re already working with for a longer, leaner look. In Castellvi’s experience, she’s used strength training to build lean muscle, and when she does it in high-intensity intervals, it’s worked for her as a form of cardiovascular training.
There’s a Wide Range of Possibilities
We’ve all heard the rumor that if you lift heavy weights, you’re going to bulk up and have big, thick muscles. If that’s what you want, great, but whether you want that or not, Brown wants you to know that myth is simply not true. “We need to get rid of that stigma that heavy weights are scary things,” she said. “For higher-intensity training, you want to do lower reps with those heavier weights to get that lean, toned muscle.”
“Weight should be challenging,” Cordell said, further explaining the intricacies of this myth. “What is ‘high weight’ is relative. But you don’t need to be lifting a 15-pound dumbbell for 25 reps. You should be taxed at 15 reps. If you do the former, your joint structures will start to wear down.”
That’s not to say that 15 reps is the magic number, though. “Whether you want to do four to six, eight to 10, or 15-20 reps is really up to you. It really is a personal thing,” Cordell said.
She added that if you do lift an extremely heavy weight for fewer reps, you will eventually grow a thicker muscle, while using a more moderate weight for 12-15 reps will result in a different muscle response over time.
Spend Time Learning the Proper Technique
When you first begin strength training, you can save yourself a world of hurt (literally) by taking the time to learn proper technique. It’s not only a good idea, but it’s actually pretty necessary, according to all three of our experts.
For example, you may not have realized before taking on strength training that there is a difference between pushing and pulling in your workouts, and both actions work your muscles differently. “The same motion can provide you with two entirely different workouts in this way,” Cordell said. At the same time, not all exercises are designed to allow for both types of execution.
“You cannot push and pull when you’re doing a chest press,” Cordell said. “Don’t pull on the way back down with your weights, but rather just resist the weight as you slowly let it come back down to your starting point.”
To avoid injuries you might incur from making a mistake like this, Cordell said it’s a good idea to invest in a trainer to learn basic executions. “Even if it’s only for your first three strength-training sessions, it’s a wise investment,” she said.
You Might Have to Learn How to Breathe All Over Again
One interesting fact we learned after talking with the experts is that strength training has its own special rules when it comes to breathing. “I have clients come in all the time that are used to the kind of breathing you do in yoga classes, and I have to retrain them,” Cordell said.
In strength training, the exhale is supposed to happen when you expend the energy. Going back to what we learned about proper technique, if you’re doing a pull exercise, like when you’re raising your forearm during a bicep curl, that’s when you should be exhaling. In contrast, if you’re doing a push exercise, like a push-up, you should be exhaling when you extend your arms to push your body away from whatever surface you’re on.
Warm It Up and Stretch It Out
Cordell said all of her strength-training programs are designed the same way, at the most basic level, from start to finish. First, she starts her clients with a warmup and then transitions them into some type of dynamic movement, like kicking from side to side, while standing. Then, they begin their strength training and close their workout session with stretching.
Warming up, in particular, is “hugely important,” she said. Typically, a warmup should take between 10-20 minutes and consist of a simple walk/run.
Another warmup option that Cordell likes is the VersaClimber, which is a multijoint movement. “It’s a great motion for the body to learn, which forces you to raise your arms above your head,” she said. “Especially because as we get older, those movements are less likely to happen naturally in everyday life.”
On the other end of the workout, Cordell also emphasized the importance of stretching, noting that people will have more soreness if they skip this step.
Brown echoed this warning. “When we’re really sore after a workout, it’s because we have a buildup of lactic acid in our muscles,” she said. “The way to combat that is to stretch, because that’s what breaks down that lactic acid and helps to get it out of our systems, so we can feel ready to tackle our next workout without the added discomfort of pushing through unnecessary pain.”
Brown likes to make her stretches do double duty as part of her warmup, as well. “Strength training is tightening things up,” Cordell added. “At the end you want to get back to neutral so you want to loosen things back up.”
Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Benjamin Stone
And Then You Have to Stick It Out
Speaking of setting long-term goals for yourself, it’s important to remember that strength training is much more of a marathon than a sprint. A lot of people go into strength training expecting to see immediate results, but that’s just not practical.
Don’t get discouraged if you’re not seeing the results you envisioned after a few weeks on your new workout regimen. It can take anywhere from six to eight weeks or even 10-12 weeks to start to see the changes you’re looking for, depending on what it is you want to achieve, Cordell said.
Start With Joint Stabilization Exercises
It’s important to strengthen the muscles that surround your joints before you work on building up the rest of your muscles, throughout your body. When we use the rest of our muscles to push and pull our bodies around in everyday life, pressure is exerted on our joints.
So if we’re going to be using those other muscles a little more intensely while strength training, it makes sense that the muscles that stabilize our joints need to be stronger, too. When you take this step, it leads to better range of motion, fewer injuries, and stronger muscles, overall, for the reason explained above.
One of Cordell’s favorite joint-stabilizing exercises is the farmer’s carry, which is simply walking, one foot in front of the other, while holding heavy weights at your sides. “Each body part that you strength train can have a precursor stabilizing exercise to go with it,” she said.
Full-Body Workouts Aren’t Wrong
Now that you’re ready to dive into your strength training, know that it’s OK to isolate muscle groups and work on them on specific days if you have the time to do it that way. “When you strength train, you’re really breaking down your muscle, which is why we get sore and the muscle rebuilds stronger,” Brown said.
When you work out a specific muscle group on a certain day, you can increase the amount of recovery time for that muscle group between workouts, allowing for maximum rebuilding.
But full-body workouts aren’t wrong. Cordell reminded us that for beginners, full-body workouts are most likely not going to be quite so intense, so less recovery time will be needed between workouts. “Three times a week is a great routine to get into,” she said. “And then maybe you take Thursday and Sunday off completely and do cardio on your other off days.”
Here Are a Few Basic Exercises to Get You Started
Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Kathryna Hancock
Any basic strength-training workout should include both bodyweight exercises and moves that incorporate weights. Weight-bearing exercises might include chest presses, shoulder presses, and bicep and triceps moves, like curls and rows. The most basic bodyweight moves include things like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, walking lunges, leg lifts, sit-ups, and crunches.
But don’t only focus on strength training. “Our bodies will plateau eventually if we just continue to do the same workout over and over again, so that’s one reason why it’s important to cross train and essentially trick your body,” Brown said. That plateau, she explained, is the result of our muscles adapting to a certain type of workout and therefore experiencing less stress when we do the same exercises over time.
Small changes to your routine can get you over a plateau hump, with some experts recommending you switch things up as often as every four to six weeks. But if you’re continuously cross training by incorporating different kinds of cardiovascular exercises into your strength training, you may not need to completely overhaul your entire workout quite so often, Brown said. She also added that by incorporating cross training into your workouts early on, you’re less likely to get bored with them and that will help with maintaining an overall healthy, active lifestyle in the long run.
How to Beat the Intimidation Factor
“The final thing to remember is that strength training can be intimidating to many to get into at first,” Castellvi said. “When people think of strength training, they generally automatically think of a bunch of men and women lifting heavy weights in the corner at the gym, but that’s not necessarily the only meaning.”
Speaking of setting long-term goals for yourself, it’s important to remember that strength training is much more of a marathon than a sprint.
Now you know it’s also bodyweight exercises and can be done in a lot of different ways.
Intimidation can also come into play in scenarios where you’re working out at a new spot and you don’t necessarily know where everything is, you feel like you don’t quite know what you’re doing, or maybe even because you do want to be where all of those heavy weights are but the room is just extra packed with people.
Regarding crowded spaces, Cordell said to take stock of how you really feel about that kind of situation. “Going to a gym is kind of social,” she said. “If that environment is intimidating, it might be the wrong one for you. Find that right fit to meet your needs.”
It’s kind of like dating in that you shouldn’t necessarily sign up as a member at the first gym you walk into. “Feel it out,” Cordell said. Beyond that, Brown wants you to remember, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete, so do your best to overcome any intimidation you might feel and don’t give up.”