So You Want To Start Lifting Weights. Here's Exactly What You Need To Know

CSCS-certified strength & conditioning specialist By Rachel Straub, M.S.
CSCS-certified strength & conditioning specialist
Rachel Straub, M.S. is an exercise physiologist, nutritionist, biomechanist, certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) with master's degrees in nutritional sciences and exercise physiology from San Diego State University, and a master's in bio-kinesiology from UCLA.

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If you're not weight training yet, it's time to to start. Maybe you think cardio is enough, but it's not. Cardio exercise (such as swimming, walking, and running) does not build muscle. With age, your body loses muscle, your bone density starts to decline, and your posture starts to deteriorate.

Here's the good news: Proper weight training can help combat all of this. Additionally, if you are active in sports (and not performing strength exercises), you are setting yourself up for injury. For example, recent research shows that impaired hip strength more than doubles your risk of ACL tears. However, navigating the weight room can be overwhelming at first.

Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Take the time to learn proper form.

This will take time, so start simply, and don't overwhelm yourself with endless exercises. This may seem boring at first, but your body will thank you for it.

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2. Eliminate clutter.

Understand that the weight room presents itself with endless variations to work the same muscle group. For example, for squats, you can use barbells, kettlebells, walls, hack machines, Smith machines, TRX suspension, dumbbells, etc. This makes the weight room overwhelming. First, master what constitutes a proper vs. improper squat, for example, using a single piece before trying the endless variations!

3. Don't weight train every day.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that all healthy adults weight train at least two days a week. Therefore, as a beginner, start with two days. Don't go nuts! Work your lower body on Day 1 and your upper body on Day 2, or do total body twice a week (making sure to rest at least one day in between). It's that simple.

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4. Prioritize some exercises over others.

For your lower body, master double-leg squats, calf raises, and hamstring curls before trying anything else. For your upper body, master push-ups, back rows, and back reverse flies. If you do this, you will have your entire body covered (even your core).

5. Know which areas are injury-prone.

The lower back, knees, and shoulders are the areas most susceptible to injury when weight training. For your lower back, if you excessively arch or round, you will hurt it. For your shoulders, if you use an improper handgrip, you will hurt them. For your knees, if you overflex or overextend your knees (or even place your feet wrong), you will hurt them. So remember: Proper form is imperative in everything you do.

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6. Listen to your body.

Realize that getting your heart rate up and burning calories at the gym doesn't mean you are doing so while maintaining proper form. If you overexert yourself, your form will falter and your chance of injury skyrockets. Getting in better condition takes time, so listen to your body!

7. Proceed with caution when taking a group class.

Beware of group classes that incorporate weight lifting (such as CrossFit) that seem enticing. If you are advanced and in superior shape, you probably can handle such classes without any problem. But as a beginner, joining such classes—even though they may sound exciting—is setting yourself up for serious injury.

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8. Don't assume that all weight machines are safe.

Some of them are exceedingly dangerous. For example, the Roman Chair can wreck your low back in the matter of seconds. The shoulder press machine can force your shoulders into a high-risk position and tear your rotator cuff, while the inverted leg-press machine can break a rib (and wreck your low back). Make sure you proceed with caution when using any machine.

9. Don't assume your personal trainer knows everything.

These days, getting certified isn't too challenging. If your trainer recommends an exercise (and something doesn't look or feel right), just say no. I've known many people (including my own mother) who have suffered severe gym injuries under the supervision of a certified personal trainer. Yikes.

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10. Be patient with yourself.

If you are just starting out, you will get sore. However, this will subside with time. So be patient! What's the best thing for soreness? And this may seem counterintuitive, but the best thing for soreness is more movement—so if you're feeling sore from the weight room, try going for a run.

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