Strength Training for Beginners [Best Practices]

What is strength training? What are some of the benefits? Can it be done without weights? Find out the answer to these questions and more by reading this.

If you didn’t learn to lift in high school or it’s been a while, a weight room looks like a maze of weights, switches, knobs, and bros.

Do more than just go pick up a dumbbell. Let’s learn about strength training for beginners, how to create a plan, and how to make changes to get sustainable results (and look like you know what you’re doing).

We’ll start with the basics of how strength training affects your body, shape, and ability to stay healthy in the long term.

Josey, Strength Training, with a barbell on her back


    • Strength training, also known as resistance training is a method of load-bearing exercise. It can be using your body weight as resistance or with additional external equipment like bands, dumbbells, and machines.
    • When getting started with strength training, the specific way your program is designed, your genetics, and your lifestyle will all impact the results you get.
    • You need to determine the goals of your routine before you can begin to ask if it is "working". You might be getting results but not in the ways you'd like.
    • Make adjustments as you learn. Start with a baseline, work out, and evaluate your results, relative to your goals.

Be sure to check out these accompanying articles;

What is Strength Training?

Strength training is a form of load-bearing exercise. Resistance is used to progressively challenge your body. The resistance you use can take many forms:

  • Your body weight (working against gravity)
  • Machines
  • Weights like Barbells, Dumbbells, and Kettlebells
  • Bands

Strength training is a repeated, four-part process of the SAME things:

  1. Start by figuring out your baselines using validated tests and various objective measures.
  2. Ask yourself what you want to achieve in the short and long term in your training.
  3. Make use of various training methods, aimed at improving the things related to your training goals.
  4. Evaluate how your training is going/went, relative to your goals.

For example, if your goal is to improve your cardiovascular performance, it makes sense to work out and wear a heart rate monitor. If your goal is to get stronger, that's not the best tool to measure that, instead, your workout should be focused on increasing the heaviest weight you can lift.

Can Strength Training be Done without Weights?

Yes, strength training can be done without weights. As far as your body is concerned, it's all resistance applied across a joint.

If you can find ways to adjust the amount of resistance that you're working against, then you can get stronger with just your body weight.

For example, you can make your push-ups harder by elevating your feet.

Push up progressions from least difficult to most;

  • Placing your hands on a wall.
  • Placing your hands on an elevated surface such as a box, step, or chair.
  • Moving your hands to the ground, normal push-ups.
  • Elevating your feet on a box, step, or chair.

As you get stronger at push-ups, you will be able to lift more and more of your body weight.

What Happens to Your Body When You Start Strength Training?

Depending on the design of your routine, potential Benefits of Strength training include:

  • Increased metabolism
  • Decreased body fat percentage
  • Increased low and high-speed strength
  • Building and maintaining muscle
  • Improved coordination and balance
  • Strengthened connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments
  • Greater bone mineral density
  • Decreased joint stress during physical activity
  • Reduced lower back pain
  • Lowered risk of injury
  • Slowed age-related losses in muscle and bone
  • Increased insulin sensitivity
  • Decreased bad cholesterol
  • Improved aerobic capacity

The benefits of strength training are not only physical but, also metaphysical and emotional.

The details of how you plan your routine determine the gains that you can expect. Ex. It's hard to train for strength with short rests since that will limit how heavy you can go.

One thing is for sure - as you build strength and confidence in the gym, that strength will carry over into the rest of your life.

What Are the 4 Principles of Strength Training?

Strength training is both an art and science built on multiple principles.

The goal of every program is progress or maintenance. Progress might be getting back into shape so you can keep up with your friends on a run. Maintenance could be keeping your fitness as you age.

Although all training shares those goals, there are a number of ways to try and achieve them. Principles are what you can use to evaluate the quality of different routines with common a goal.

Here are the most common 4 principles of strength training:

  1. SAID Principle
  2. Principle of Variation
  3. Progressive Overload
  4. Principle of Individuality

SAID Principle

The SAID Principle stands for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. You need to exercise in a specific way to get a specific training result.

  • If you expect to get stronger, you need to lift weights heavy enough to spur your body to increase strength.
  • If you expect to build endurance, you need to exercise in such a way that challenges your aerobic metabolism.

You can target energy systems, movements, or muscle groups but, you should be specific about what it is you want to get out of your training.

Principle of Variation

To avoid boredom and overuse injuries, training programs need variety.

Not to be confused with "muscle confusion"-marketing hype, variation is about making changes to keep up with progress.

Your body will adapt. The amount of variety you need will depend on what you're training for.

  • If you're trying to master a skill, you might change exercises less frequently.
  • If your goal is general fitness, you might change things more frequently.

Motivation is a factor in variety but exercises should not be changed, just because.

Athletes need to train in a specific way to excel in their sport. Runners have to run to get better at it. If you're not training for a sport, you have more degrees of freedom to change your routine.

Progressive Overload

(This is likely the most misunderstood of all the principles.)

Progressive overload is about changing your training program to keep up with the gains you're making.

You can't "do progressive overload", it's a result or a sign that you're doing something right.

The adaptations you get from your training allow you to show progress in various ways including lifting heavier, faster, or in less time.

Your training program should be aimed at meeting or exceeding the stimulus needed to increase your fitness.

For example:

  • How much volume (sets and reps) and tension do you need to grow bigger glutes?
  • How heavy do your weights need to be to make a neurological adaptation like increased strength or power?
  • What sort of stress do you need to place yourself under to increase endurance?

You can get stronger without getting bigger by performing training that meets the stimulus needed for strength but not one that also causes you to grow.

Principle of Individuality

Any strength training program that you undertake needs to consider your needs as an individual.

You and a friend can undertake the same training program and get vastly different results.

Things that can influence the design of your program include:

  • The sport or activities you want to participate in - What does it take to perform well in those activities? Speed? Strength? Endurance?
  • Primary Resistance Training Goal - What do you need to improve the most to get better at those activities?
  • Biological and Chronological Age - How old are you?
  • Training Age - How experienced are you at performing exercises?
  • Training History - What were you doing before the training we're about to do? Is this your off-season? Have you been chilling?
  • Health Status - Are there any medical reasons that your training might be altered?
  • Injury History - Have you been injured before? Is there anything that currently affects the way you move?
  • Stress Levels - How stressful is your daily life? Job? School semester?
  • Recovery Rate - How long does it take you to recover from your workouts?
  • Time -How often and how long can you exercise?
  • Equipment - What do you have access to?

Adjust your routine depending on how you respond to it.

What are The 6 Methods of Training?

There are countless methods that you can use in a program. To say that there are 6 is an understatement.

Some of the most popular methods include:

  • Linear Periodization (adding weight each week)
  • 5/3/1 (Jim Wendler)
  • The Tier System (Joe Kenn)
  • Velocity-Based Strength Training
  • APRE or Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise
  • High-Intensity Training or HIT
  • Conjugate
  • Bulgarian
  • 5x5
  • 3x10

The methods that you use to carry out the four principles of training are an area for creativity and exploration. Many athletes have experienced success using all of these methods, even progressing from one to another.

If you would like to see examples of loading methods, give these three articles a read:

  1. Dr. Bryan Mann, Ph.D., CSCS, RSCC*D, wrote a great article on three training methods that he's used in his career noting that every method is useful.
  2. Ashley Jones, MSc, CSCS, RSCC*E, and NSCA Professional Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year for 2016, wrote an article for on 23 different methods for effective set and rep schemes.
  3. Dr. Mike Zourdos, Ph.D., CSCS, professor, and researcher at Florida Atlantic University wrote an article on his thought process behind choosing between three load progression strategies found here.

What are the 5 Basic Strength Training Exercises?

Although there are many methods, personal trainers and strength coaches often use the same 5 (or 6) movement patterns or basic exercises.

  1. An upper body push - horizontally or overhead like a negative pushup or shoulder press.
  2. An upper body pull - horizontally or vertically like a dumbbell row or chin up.
  3. A squat or lunge - single leg or both such as the split squat, reverse lunge, or goblet squat.
  4. A hinge - hip flexion and extensions like a Romanian deadlift, Barbell Glute Bridge, or Barbell Hip Thrust.
  5. A loaded carry - like a farmer's walk.

Note: not every trainer considers a loaded carry to be necessary but, it is.

Choosing different movements that you can perform well is key.

  • If your goal is to build muscle or get in better shape, you have a lot of freedom in exercise choice.
  • If you're an athlete, you need to stick to specific movements that have been shown to transfer well to your sport.

The key to these movements is finding a variation that you can perform like our pushup example above.

When Should I Start Strength Training?

If you're a healthy adult, you can start whenever you feel ready.

You may talk to your doctor first if you have medical concerns.

For liability purposes, most gyms and trainers have some sort of screening process to ensure that you are safe to exercise. A common tool used to screen potential risk is a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire.

PARQs contain carefully worded language aimed at evaluating risk while attempting to avoid screening out an unwarranted amount of healthy adults.

For ex., specializing in working with postpartum women, provides their students with a Postnatal Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (P-PARQ).

4 Fitness Laws of Success

Set the right goal

Choose what you want to work on. Is it strength? Endurance? Sports performance? This affects how your program should be set up and carried out.

Select the right exercises

Organize exercises that challenge the muscles with movements that you want to improve.

Balance volume and intensity

Different people respond differently to different amounts of training at different loads. 3 sets of 12 reps are different than 6 sets of 6 reps. Both work.

Make the time

How much time will you prioritize to train? While you can work out anywhere 2-7x a week, you have a life.

The inspiration for those four laws comes from an article that my college coach, Dr. Bryan Mann wrote, Four Cornerstones of Sound Program Design.

A good strength training workout is one that is aimed at the goals of your training. If you're able to move closer to your goals, your strength training is working.

How Long is a Good Strength Training Workout?

There isn’t a perfect answer to how long your workout should take.

How long your workout takes you is directly related to several factors including;

  • The goals of your particular phase of training.
  • How much time do you have to train logistically?
  • How often do you work out?
  • How many sets do you perform?
  • What kind of shape you're in right now.

If you have 20 or 30 minutes, that's fine. You may have to modify the methods that you train with. 6x6 takes a while.

I generally write programs that last 45-60 minutes for clients at my studio.

Playing football at The University of Missouri we trained for ~90 minutes at a time*.

*Not including warm-ups and uhm, “extra work”.

What Weight Should a Beginner Lift?

When choosing a weight, focus on adjusting the load to be successful with the motion (good form).

Using the goals of your training as a framework, you might start with weights that allow you to fall within a reasonable range of these recommendations:

  • To Train for Strength (Low-Speed Strength) - ≤ 6 repetitions per set.
  • To Train for Endurance - 12-25+ repetitions per set.
  • To Train for Muscle Growth (Hypertrophy) - 6-12 or 8-20+ repetitions per set.
  • To Train for Power (High-Speed Strength) - 1-5 repetitions per set.

Start conservatively and aim to increase your load as allowed.

Is It Better to Lift Heavy or Do More Reps?

Instead of asking if it's better to lift heavy or do more reps ask, better for what?

  • It's better to lift heavy if your goal is strength.
  • It's better to do more reps if your goal is to build your work capacity or to get in better shape.

Note, there is a difference between doing more for the sake of more and doing more to progress.

How heavy you lift also has a direct impact on your training frequency.

How Often Should You Do Strength Training?

Train often enough to make gains in fitness, allowing for recovery.

If you lift heavy, you likely will need more time to recover between sets and workouts. Recovery rates are a source of individuality and vary based on how you train.

If you're performing bodyweight training, this might mean every day. If you're a powerlifter, you cringe at the idea of daily deadlifts. While you can train anywhere from 2-7 days per week, you don't need to.

Focus on how much training you need to perform to progress and spread your sets and works out accordingly.

How Often Should a Beginner Strength Train?

If you’re just getting started, two or three days per week are more than enough to see results.

You may experiment over time and find that you need to perform an exercise more often to spread out how hard your work is.

For example:

  • Squatting 1-3x per week
  • Lunging 2-3x times per week
  • Deadlifting 1-3x per week
  • Glute Bridging 1-4x per week

Plan your workout to fall within basic guidelines and recommendations before branching out. If you start conservatively, you have room to add more when needed.

Where Do I Start Strength Training?

Find a Personal Trainer or friend who can help you learn how to perform the moves and come up with a routine.

Workouts generally have 3 parts:

  1. A Dynamic Warm-Up
  2. Strength Training portion
  3. Cooling down and Static Stretching

Step 1: Get Your Blood Flowing with a Dynamic Warm-Up

There are many ways to warm up for a workout, the most common being;

  1. Walk on a treadmill for 5-7 minutes
  2. Dynamic exercises that take your body through a full range of motion
  3. Absolutely nothing

I’d advocate that you perform a dynamic warm-up. Dynamic exercises get your body ready to move using similar patterns that you’re about to add weight to.

An example dynamic warm-up might include:

  • Lunges-to warm up your hips (glutes and hamstrings) and legs.
  • Cat cow yoga pose -to warm up the mid back (thoracic spine).
  • Push-ups-to prepare the chest and shoulders.

From there you could progress to sets of the movements that you will be training.

Step 2: Perform the Strength Training Part of Your Workout

How sessions are laid out generally depends on your goals and how often you train.

You want the majority of your energy to go toward the things you're prioritizing. You might opt for 2-4 sets of each exercise, starting with two.

Perform the exercises that you want to make the most progress in first.

Aim to cover your 5 basic strength training exercises within a session or two.

Here's an example of the movements you might perform in a full-body training session:

  • Lower Body Squat - 6-12 reps, 1-2 minutes rest.
  • Upper Body Pull - 6-12 reps, 1-2 minutes rest.
  • Lower Body Hinge - 6-12 reps, 1-2 minutes rest.
  • Upper Body Push - 6-12 reps, 1-2 minutes rest.
  • Loaded Carry - 30-90 seconds or for distance, 1-2 minutes rest.

There is more than one way to split up your work over a training week. You may find that you enjoy full-body training.

Step 3: Cool Down and Stretch After Your Workout

After you lift, you’ll perform a cool-down consisting of static stretching and deep breathing. Be sure to stretch all the muscle groups that you just worked on.

If that’s your legs then you’re stretching your hamstrings, glutes, quads, and hips for example.

By focusing on your breathing, you will be able to relax and smoothly transition back into your day.

Challenge Yourself to Continue Making Progress

As you get in better shape, change things up to keep progressing.

This can be done in a few different ways:

  • You can add weight over time.
  • You can improve your range of motion.
  • You can increase volume over time by doing more sets, and reps, or by adding more exercises to a session.
  • You can increase how often you work out. Maybe add another day or hit a muscle group more often.
  • You can choose harder variations of the exercises you’re performing.

Following is an example of how I might start a beginner working out twice per week.

A Good Beginner Strength Training Workout

Dynamic Warm-Up:

This should take you about 5-7 minutes

  • Ankle Wall Mobility Drill
  • Reverse Lunge
  • Lateral Squat
  • Cat-Camel Yoga Pose
  • Quadruped Thoracic Spine Rotations

You can also opt for the exercises you prefer.

Stretch all your major muscle groups:

  • Hamstrings
  • Lower Back
  • Calves
  • Quads
  • Hip flexors
  • Glutes
  • Chest
  • Etc. with stretches of your choice.

Workout A:

  • 1a. Goblet Squat 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • 1b. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • 2a. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • 2b. Dumbbell Bench Press 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • 3. Single Leg Glute Bridge 2 sets of 10-20 reps
  • 4. Dumbbell Reverse Fly 2 sets of 10-12 reps
  • 5. Front Plank 1-2 x 30-60 seconds

Rest 1-2 minutes between paired sets 1,2, and between 4.

Rest 20-30 seconds on sets 3 and 5.

Workout B:

  • 1a. Shoulder Elevated Hip Thrust 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • 1b. Lat Pulldown 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • 2a. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • 2b. Half-Kneeling One-Arm Shoulder Press 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • 3. Bodyweight Step Down 2 sets of 10-20 reps
  • 4. Dumbbell Reverse Fly 2 sets of 10-12 reps
  • 5. Side Plank 1-2 sets of 30-60 seconds

Rest 1-2 minutes between paired sets and all exercises outside of 5. Rest 20-45 seconds between sets on 5.

If you have a small setup, you can perform this routine at home. The first thing that every strength training routine starts with is figuring out what you need.

From there, make tweaks to your training asking yourself, what do I need to do next to make progress on my goals?

Here's How to Get Started with Strength Training

  1. Assess where you are now.
  2. Determine the goals of your training, based on your assessments.
  3. Decide on the methods that you want to use, to try and achieve your goals, factoring in your time, equipment, skill level, etc.
  4. You can start by performing a fitness test or, test yourself after you achieve a base level of conditioning.
  5. Perform your training.
  6. Decide if your training is successful or not based on your progress
  7. Start this process over from the top.

If you're a beginner, lift weights that you can demonstrate comfort and control with. Branch out once you feel strong and confident.

Want to Start a Training Program?

As a personal trainer and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) in Columbia, MO, I can help you reach your fitness goals. I have experience in helping women of all fitness levels, and I can create a customized program for you. I am also certified in CPR and first aid. If you are interested in personal training, feel free to contact me at (573) 443-1495.

Phone: 1-573-443-1495

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Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.