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.

Originally published in 2018, this article has been helpful for my clients to skim.

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 dumbell. 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

Today you'll find answers to the following questions:

  • What is strength training?
  • Can strength training be done without weights?
  • What happens to your body when you start strength training?
  • What are the 4 principles of strength training?
  • What are the 6 methods of training?
  • What are the 5 basic strength training exercises?
  • When should I start strength training?
  • How do I know if my strength training is working?
  • How long is a good strength training workout?
  • What weight should a beginner lift?
  • Is it better to lift heavy or do more reps?
  • How often should you do strength training?
  • Where do I start strength training?
  • What is a good beginner strength training workout?

Be sure to check out these accompanying articles;


  • Strength training, also known as resistance training is a method of load-bearing exercise. Strength training can be performed with bodyweight or external equipment such as bands, dumbbells, and machines.
  • When getting started with strength training, the specific way in which your program is designed, your genetics, and your lifestyle will determine the results you get.
  • You need to determine the goals of your exercise routine before you can begin to ask if it is working.
  • Make adjustments as you learn. Start by getting some baseline measurements, perform your training, and evaluate your results, relative to your goals.

What is Strength Training?

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

  • Your bodyweight (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.

Strength training is also known as resistance training. By thinking of exercise as working against resistance, it makes things easier to answer a question that many ask.

Can Strength Training be Done without Weights?

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 bodyweight.

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 bodyweight.

A smart training program will take your goals, needs, and preferences into account. Adjust your routine to keep up with the changes that are happening in your body.

What Happens to Your Body When You Start Strength Training?

Depending on the design of your strength training routine, there are several potential benefits to training.

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.

Looking and feeling strong are two of the main needs that clients come to me for help with. The details in how you design your strength training routine determines the adaptations that you can expect.

As you build strength and confidence in the gym, that strength with carry over into the rest of your life.

What Are the 4 Principles of Strength Training?

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

The goal of every strength training program is progress. Although all training shares that one goal, there are countless ways to try and achieve it.

Principles are what we can use to evaluate the quality and differences between strength training programs.

Here are 4 principles of strength training:

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

The foundation for strength training is built on designing and adjusting training and nutrition programs based on these scientific principles and concepts.

The art is critical thinking and creativity. How you will decide to design and adjust training while applying the principles of training.

SAID Principle

The SAID Principle stands for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. What it means is that 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 must contain an element of variety.

Not to be confused with BS "muscle confusion"-marketing hype, the principle of variation is about making changes to stay on the path to progress.

Exercises and loading are changed to accommodate for the fact that your body is constantly adapting. The amount of variety you employ 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.

Yes, 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. While it can be very boring to perform the same movements day in and out, runners don't stop running because it's boring. They continue to train the primary skill that they need to excel at their sport.

If you're not training for a sport, you have more degrees of freedom to change things.

Progressive Overload

(This is likely the most misunderstood of all the principles. I didn't understand it until recently.)

You can't "do progressive overload", it is a result of your training or a signal that you're doing something right.

The adaptations that you get from your training will allow you to progress by lifting heavier, building muscle, or increasing some other physiological marker.

Your training program should be aimed at meeting or exceeding the stimulus that is required to produce the adaptations that you're after.

  • How much volume and tension do you need to grow muscle?
  • How heavy do your weights need to be to elicit a neurological adaptation like increased strength?
  • What sort of training environment do you need to create to induce a metabolic adaptation for increased endurance?

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

As your capacity to perform improves, you're allowed to get stronger.

Progressive overload is about changing your training program to keep up with your rate of adaptation.

Principle of Individuality

Although this should almost go without saying, 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 from it.

Things that can influence the design of your strength training program include:

  • Sport or Activities you intend to perform - What does it take perform well in those activities?
  • Primary Resistance Training Goal - What do you need to improve on 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 concerned with? Is this your offseason? Have you been sedentary?
  • Health Status - Are there any medical reasons that your training might be affected?
  • Injury History - Have you been injured? Is there anything that currently affects the way you move?
  • Stress Levels - How stressful is your daily life?
  • Recovery Rate - How long does it take you to recover from your workouts?
  • Time Available -How often and how long can you exercise?
  • Equipment Availability - What do you have access to regularly?

If you've been injured, you might find that you're not able to perform certain exercises well.

Take your limitations into account. Find movements that you can successfully achieve that mimic the sport or activity you want to get better at.

What are The 6 Methods of Training?

There are countless methods that you can use in carrying out strength training programs. To say that there are 6 is a gross understatement.

Some of the most popular methods include:

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

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, PhD, 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, PhD, 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 pushup or overhead press.
  2. An upper body pull - horizontally or vertically like a 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 deadlift, glute bridge, or hip thrust.
  5. A loaded carry - like a farmers 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 strength training whenever you feel that you're ready.

If you're someone who feels that they need medical clearance, you may talk to your doctor first.

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.

PARQ's contain carefully worded language that aim to evaluate risk while attempting to avoid screening out an unwarranted amount of healthy adults. It's hard to do., specializing in working with postpartum women, provides their students with a Postnatal Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (P-PARQ).

How Do I Know if My Strength Training is Working?

There is no perfect program but, there are principles that good programs are built around.

A not so secret formula for strength training is based around 4 laws of fitness success:

4 Fitness Laws of Success

Set the right goal

Picture where you want to be. Is it strength? Body composition? 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 is different than 6 sets of 6 reps. Both work.

Make the time

How much time will you prioritize to train? While you can train anywhere 2-7x a week, having a trainer means that time is spent efficiently.

It should be a challenge

Our bodies adapt to challenges — you want to smartly do more than you're capable of doing right now.

If the workouts aren’t challenging enough, you aren’t sending your body the signal that you need to change. That means you won't get results despite constantly working out.

Learn more about challenging your body by reading What is Progressive Overload?

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 you have to train logistically.
  • How often you workout.
  • How many sets you perform.
  • What kind of shape you're in right now.

If you have 20 or 30 minutes to work with, that is fine. In those scenarios, you may have to modify the methods that you train with.

I generally write programs that last anywhere from 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, it's best to focus on adjusting the load to be successful with the motion.

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?

By now, you realize that there is some nuance when coming up with an answer to this question. 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 to get better at the skill of lifting heavy.
  • It's better to do more reps if your goal is to get better at the skill of doing more work.

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

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

How Often Should You Do Strength Training?

You should strength train often enough to push for gains in fitness, allowing for recovery. If you lift heavy, you likely will need more time to recover. Recovery rates are a source for individuality and they also vary based on the way you're training.

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.

How Often Should a Beginner Strength Train?

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

You may experiment over time and find that you need to perform an exercise more often to see results.

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 still have room to add more when needed.

Where Do I Start Strength Training?

By now, you've read far enough and need a place to start Strength Training either on your own, at home in a gym.

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 the hips and legs
  • Cat cow yoga pose -to warm-up the mid back
  • Push-ups-to warm-up the chest and shoulders

From there you could progress to warm-up 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 towards the things you're prioritizing. You might opt for 2-4 sets of each exercise, start 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 become better at exercising, you will need to change things up to keep making progress.

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, reps, or by adding more exercises to a session.
  • You can increase the frequency you train at. 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.

What is 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, you should lift weights demonstrating comfort and control. Branch out once you feel strong and confident.

Want to Start a Training Program?

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 dumbell; let’s create a plan to build strength, get sustainable results (and look like you know what you’re doing).

We’ll start with the basics of strength training and you’ll walk out with (a starter amount of) confidence.

I most want to see changes in my
I want to start:
I am interested in training: *

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.