How to Start a Weight Lifting Program: What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

Posted byLori Posted onJanuary 28, 2011 Comments23

This post is for former Lori (pre-lifter). For my sister, who wants to improver her (already amazing) body. For those with questions regarding what the hell to do once you get into the Testosterone Chamber (*ahem* the weight room *ahem*). This post is What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do.

(*disclaimer: these are tips and ideas that really helped me. I have taken time to learn proper form and have seen these things work with my body. I am not a physician, and nor do I want to be. So just don’t sue me, ok? Ok. 🙂 )

Let’s get started!

From all the research I’ve done, blogs I’ve read, and personal experimentation, the key to transforming your body and losing some unwanted body fat (Oh, besides all the other amazing benefits of lifting: higher self esteem, better moods, less bouts of depression, those wonderful little endorphins) is to lift weights and to lift relatively heavy. Sticking to the basics of weight training is not only easier and takes less time, but actually works.

Entering the weights zone of the gym, ’cause there is more than the cardio area, can be intimidating. But that isn’t going to stop you, is it? No, Ma’am! You walk up to that weight rack and select your poison. And at this point, you know which weights to grab: Pick a heavy enough weight for you. Heavy is subjective. (Dude to my left is doing bicep curls with 40 lb dumbbells; I am curling 25 lb dumbbells. What is heavy to me might not be heavy for dude on the left, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy.) Pick a weight that is going to make you work to get in the last two reps of that exercise. If you’re easily busting out 15 or more repetitions of your curl/squat/press/whatever, it’s too light.

Ok, so now you have your heavy weight. Check. Uh, now what?

Now, we work.

Hold up! Let’s back up just a bit. The best piece of advice I can give at this point is to figure out what you’re overall goals are. Are you going to body-building status and bulking up or are you looking for fat loss? Setting your intention before just winging it is far better for getting the results you desire.

S.M.A.R.T. goals will help. Goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-appropriate should be set. Anne has a great informational post on this.

Ok, now you’re holding your weights with your S.M.A.R.T. goals set…

Basics are best so if you’re just starting out (or even a seasoned heavy lifter)- compounded movements are going to give you the biggest bang for your buck butt, calorie-burning-sexy-and-lean-muscle speaking. Basics should be performed with good form and heavy-for-you-weight:

Again, these are the basics of compounded exercises, meaning they work a few muscle groups at a time. Once you get comfortable with these you can do all sorts of time-saving, metabolism boosting things with them. For example, I’m loving (but hating) my workouts with front squats with a push-press, one handed dumbbell bench press done on a stability ball, etc. Have fun and grow those muscles. 😉

Reps, sets, and intensity do count. You can manipulation of the number of repetitions (reps), sets, tempo, exercise types, and weight moved to cause desired increases in strength, endurance, and size, for this post we’ll just stick with the three first mentioned.

Repetitions, or reps, are usually in ranges of 3-5, 5-10, 8-12, 10-15. These will determine what you’re after and how much weight to lift. With the smallest reps, you’re going for strength and should be lifting really heavy. And as the reps increase, you’re weight might (and probably will) decrease so you can lift that last rep.

Rule of thumb:

  • 1-5 reps for strength
  • 6-12 reps for hypertrophy
  • 12+ reps for endurance

Sets will vary, also. 1-5 sets of an exercise is pretty normal. Anything more may be overkill.

Intensity, that’s information for another post.

Abs: If you lift weights, they will come…

Alright, let’s review (and compact all that writing into a short, easy to use list). These are the things that are important and a great way to get started lifting some weights!

  1. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals
  2. Write out/plan your workout
  3. Warm-up
  4. Perform exercises with proper form with your planned sets, reps, and intensity
  5. Be consistent with your weight training workouts (stick with a workout for at least 4-6 weeks before switching it up- I promise you’ll see changes!)
  6. HAVE FUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Don’t worry, there are plenty more tips and tricks and suggestions where this came from. But for now, when you get the basics down and you’ll be glad you did.

Random quote for Friday:

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those you matter don’t mind.

-Dr. Seuss

Not so random quote for Friday:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results

-Albert Einstein


What has worked for you in the exercise world?

What type of exercise do you enjoy most?

What in your life isn’t working for you right now?

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23 People reacted on this

  1. I do believe doing your workouts consistently is the way to go. However, doing this with heavy weight is a relatively important step for toning the body and shedding excess weight. All in all, awesome post. I will be on the lookout for more of this…

  2. loved this post!
    I thought you should know that I dedicated my most recent post to you… its on two of your recipes that I made! (this is wholewheatorbust lauren btw!)

  3. holy, how’d you get that picture of me and my abs??? 🙂

    i really (really) enjoy running and require no motivation to do so — but strength training yeah….that’s another story. i just don’t get the same high, although, it’s totally worth doing! since i started core work, my running has improved HEAPS (stabolizes stuff.) i really want to start doing yoga in the A.M, but question: is it okay to do yoga first thing? i’ve read it’s bad to stretch cold muscles…

  4. love the weight lifting posts 🙂
    it’s so funny how women are afraid to lift…….like they’ll get hyuge by lifting 5 or 10 lb dumbbells.
    i just want to yell “do you know how hard it is to actually gain muscle!??” it can take professionals months of HEAVY-ARSE lifting to gain even 5 lbs of pure muscle.
    it doesn’t happen by accident that’s for sure 😉

    what has worked for me is intermediate amounts of cardio and heavy lifting a couple times a week.
    i also like bodyweight exercises and plyometrics .
    what isn’t working for me right now is that we don’t have any weights in the house since we moved 🙁

  5. I’m actually thinking about joining a gym for a little bit when we move, but it depends on if we end up with a place that is big enough for our workout room or not. I do need to mix things up though, so it might be a good idea.

    Man, that girl’s waist is TINY.

  6. Nice post! I am starting New Rules of Lifting for Women this week! I can’t wait! It’s all about compound movements and I think it will really work for me. I need to stick with something that is proven, not something that I just made up on my own. I mean, I know about weight lifting, but not enough to train myself..especially right now. My goal is to put on some good muscle mass, while avoiding fat gain. Should be easy considering I eat really clean already. i just have to keep my cals and macros at a good maintenance point. Then, in the near future I want to start prepping for a comp! I’ve always been interested in it…well, ever since one of my ex-boyfriends’ brother did a comp at his university. I went to the competition and I saw the girls up on stage and I was thinking, “I want to be like that. Strong. Muscular. Sexy.” It’s ironic because at that time I was anorexic. Weak. All bones. Flat. Now, since breaking up with my boyfriend (not the body comp brother bf), I feel the need to do what I want to do. Brad didn’t like the idea of me doing a body comp, and he dissuaded me from even thinking about doing one. I am so excited to take control and do something rewarding for myself and not have to listen to others telling me what to do and what not to do.

  7. Lori love this post! Great job 🙂 Love all the tips and advice for hitting the weights. Michelle and I have seen such improvement in our bodies from focusing more on strength training instead of cardio. Hard to believe sometimes because we used to be all about cardio….not much anymore 🙂 We just love the emotional and physical benefits of doing more strength! We have been enjoying more yoga lately for more balance which we love.

  8. Christin- seriously I LOVE that- SMARTER goals it is! I’m doing these for all aspects of my life- cause it’s needed. 😉

    And yeah… no idea why my blog and comments hate me…

  9. Katie, Lindsay, and April- definitely great info. And yes, that makes a lot of sense. Everyone has different goals, right? Mine are to get STRONG and buff. hehe. Some people just want to get strong without the buff… um… yeah… I’m done now. 😉

  10. Love this post! I’m super into writing workout plans/meal ideas for newbs…it’s so much fun! Hehe, my mom doesn’t always think so though! 🙂

  11. This is awesome! I am definitely intimidated of the weight room in my gym. I’ve started doing body conditioning classes that use weights and aim to strength train the whole body so that I get some strength training in but I really need to get over my aversion! You are so inspirational!

  12. To Lindsay and Katie- thanks! That does make sense now. I always assumed people were lifting with a goal of definition or strength- so thanks for opening my eyes!

  13. Ah, Lori, I love this post! I love it for how easy to understand it is. And you know I lurve me some weights.

    Yesterday I lifted at 4 pm, which is a really off time for me (after my craptastic day….). Normally I am the only person in the weight room, but yesterday I was one of about 10. All the others were male. And I was working it right there with them. In fact I out-curled one big looking dude. And we finally got a power rack!! First day it was up, and you better believe I busted out some squats with the big boys!

    Also, to further answer April’s question about endurance is that not everyone lifts weights to gain strength and mass. Some people want to be able to hike for miles and miles wearing a big backpack, and your muscles need to be properly trained and conditioned in endurance for that type of thing.

  14. In massage therapy school we just did some goal setting regarding our future business plans, and they had us use the SMARTER principle.


    Either one is definitely awesome in helping set solid goals, and it really helped me in visualizing my future massage practice! 🙂

    Oh, and your Comment Luv thingy says this:

    “Sorry, this version of CommentLuv (v276) is no longer supported. Please update the CommentLuv plugin that is installed on this site. Click here to visit the download page or use the automatic update in the WordPress dashboard. (If you are commenting, please tell the webmaster of this site that their CommmentLuv plugin needs updating!)”

  15. Great advice and great questions. There’s so much good information here: more than I can take in at a single reading, so I will be back! I’d love you to talk about a good warm-up too.

    I love hiking but understand that it’s not the best exercise for strength-growing. I love my rebounder that I recently got too (will post pics soon of how we manage that in this tiny home!)

    What’s not working? Weekly trips to Anchorage are taking a toll: I feel like I’m always behind and don’t have time to do what I most love to do. Love the ‘smart’ goals!

  16. Great post. So many women are intimated by the weight room so cheers to you for writing this.
    Endurance athletes will lift for endurance. To keep their muscle conditioned but overkilled from all the cardio they will have to do. Thats why you can never tell if they actually lift weights. No too much tone, just conditioned. Does that make sense?
    sorry to ramble.

  17. i have come out of lurking…haha!!

    ahhh! exercise is not my forte…i hate it…but! i will definitely be bookmarking this page…i ordered the jillian michael’s 30 day shred today…and i have also been going on hour walks with my pooch (fast walks, well as fast as i can go)…gotta get this bulging bride into shape…ugh!

  18. Love this!! Except the one thing I’ve never understood is why someone would lift for endurance. Like, what’s the point of being able to lift a dumbbell 20 times? It’s a waste of time! (In my humble opinon.) Anyhow, this post was great for explaining- i’ll have to link back to it on my blog soon!

    Heavy weights have definitely transformed me into a lean, mean, calorie burning machine!

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