strength training for beginners
Strength training can be intimidating for beginners, but the benefits can’t be beaten: more muscle, higher calorie burn, stronger bones and joints, better endurance, and reduced risk of injury during other workouts. Remember to pair strength workouts with cardio as you plan your exercise routine, and try these tips and top-tier strength training exercises for beginners when you’re ready to kick-start your journey to being stronger.
Start with body weight to learn basic movement patterns.
Personal trainer Annie Brees says bodyweight exercises are a great place to start if you’re new to strength training.
“Mastering the various movement patterns before you add an additional load, like dumbbells, should always be a top priority, as it helps decrease your risk of injury and will help you lift more weight down the road,” she explains. “There are five basic movement patterns: squat, hinge, push, pull, and core work. There are many variations of each of those movements, but for beginners, I tend to gravitate toward a bodyweight squat, glute bridges, push-ups (on an incline if needed), inverted rows, and planks.”
Jeffrey Siegel, a personal trainer based in Boston, breaks it down a bit further. He says there are five primary maneuvers, in addition to movements, such as throwing, crawling, and climbing:
- Hip-dominant (deadlifts, hinges, and swings)
- Knee-dominant (squats and lunges)
- Pushing movements (pushups, dips, and presses)
- Pulling movements (rows and pull-ups)
- Gait patterns, such as walking and running
Body weight allows you to focus on form first, so you can set yourself up with a solid, safe foundation and address any muscle imbalances. “We all have imbalances and weakness that prevent us from moving optimally,” Siegel says. “It is important to address these before adding a significant external load to your workouts or else you’ll just be layering strength on top of dysfunction. Working with a trained professional who can take you through some basic assessments will help you determine what muscles might be over/underactive and how to begin correcting these issues.”
Building a certain type of strength may also serve as an asset to your regular physical activity. “If your chosen sport or activity demands a particular strength, then work backward from the desired movement patterns you’ll be using,” Siegel suggests. “If you’re an avid hiker, then exercises like step-ups or lunges with added weight can be a great way to develop single-leg stepping strength.”
Then, prioritize five key strength training exercises for beginners.
After you’ve built up strength using the power of your own body weight, move on to these five strength training exercises for beginners that work your entire body, with room for modifications or levels of intensity.
Our experts agree: Squats are the best strength training exercises for beginners in terms of bang for your buck.
“Squats not only work your legs but your core and upper body, too,” says personal trainer Jillian Bullock. “Stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips, feet facing forward. Look straight ahead with your arms out in front of your body. With chest out, shoulders back, and abs tight, slowly lower your butt down as far as you can. Make sure your knees do not push forward past your toes. Weight should be in your heels, not your toes. Return to starting position, without rounding your back as you stand, and complete 15-20 reps.”
To amp things up, add dumbbells at each side or heart center for more resistance. You can also use a stability ball to test your form and stability, experiment with sumo squats, or incorporate lunges.
Luckily, there are a million push-up variations to meet any beginner at their comfort level. Bullock says to start in a plank position with arms extended, and then lower your body until your chest almost touches the floor. Keep your body in a straight line, with elbows close to your sides, and then push yourself back up. Strive for as many reps as possible.
Planks: Some of us love to hate them, but they accelerate strength throughout your body whether you do them from your hands, sides, or forearms. Place your body in a pushup position, arms shoulder-width distance apart. Hug your belly toward your spine to engage your core, so it doesn’t drop down or stick up in the air. Stack shoulders over wrists and heels over ankles. Hold for 30 seconds, working up to a few minutes over time.
This move is preferred by trainer Natalie Carey, who says, “If you can’t hold a plank for one minute, your body will have a lot of trouble properly completing any other exercises. Master this move, and you’ll have a strong, stable core that will keep you injury-free and ready for more challenging exercises.”
Deadlifts, either single-leg or from a standing position, help keep your ankles, knees, hips, and lower back happy, Carey says. They also allow you to increase strength for heavier lower-body lifts down the road.
“Almost everyone sits at a desk for their job, and our back muscles weaken as we hunch over our computers,” Carey says. “A row of some sort—cable row, body weight, bent over—will give you better posture and prevent upper back and shoulder tightness in the long run.”
Want to see results? Try to hit every major muscle group at least once a week and set reasonable goals.
“General guidelines suggest adults should strength train two times a week at a moderate to high intensity for health benefits,” Brees says. “But when it comes to lifting, something is usually better than nothing. As a trainer, I see individuals fall into the harmful mindset of, ‘If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all,’ and that keeps them from doing anything! Although strength gains may take longer to achieve, they can still be made lifting even one day a week.”
Carey recommends setting small goals to focus on consistent progress and checking in with yourself every couple weeks. If you’re able to do more reps or lift more weight, you know you’re stronger and ready to switch it up.
Siegel also likes to remind people to find their “why” in light of all other elements related to physical fitness. “Ask yourself: What do you want to be doing three months from now? Is that realistic? How much time are you willing to commit to strength training? What obstacles do you see getting in the way? What structures and supports will help you stay on track? How will you respond if you’re not making the progress you want? Answer these questions first before getting into the nitty-gritty of setting specific movement or weight goals,” he says. “Strength is important, but it is only one component. Don’t forget to also think about your cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, and balance.”