Want to get strong like these LEGO lifters but don’t how to start?
In this Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training (part of our Strength 101 series), you’ll have both the confidence to start getting strong with resistance training AND a plan to follow.
These are the exact strategies we use with our Online Coaching Clients to help them start strength training, and I’m excited to cover everything you need.
We’ll be digging into the following:
How do I start strength training or resistance training?
What are some examples of strength training?
Which strength training program is right for me?
5 best strength training workouts for beginners.
How much weight should I lift?
The 9 best strength training exercises.
How to know you’re doing an exercise properly (form checks)
Strength training for weight loss.
“Just TELL ME what strength program I should do.”
By the way, we’ve combined this article along with the rest of our strength articles into a “Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know” guide.
Grab it free when you join the Rebellion by putting your email in the box below.
Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
How Do I Start Strength Training?
Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.
You’ll look back years from now and thank “Past You” for starting strength training today.
And I promise, you WILL strength train today.
After all, strength training or resistance training doesn’t need to be scary or overcomplicated!
Strength training really comes down to two things:
#1) Movement of any weight against “resistance”(including your body weight) – Doing ANY exercise that pushes your muscles outside of their comfort zone, forcing them to rebuild stronger to prepare for the next challenge.
#2) Progressive overload: doing slightly more than last time (lift heavier weight or do 1 more rep) consistently. Your muscles will constantly have to adapt and rebuild themselves. These microscopic tears (that don’t hurt) force your muscles to go through hypertrophy, meaning they grow bigger and stronger so they can meet the demands of the exercise.
Coach Jim explains the ins and outs of progressive overload in this video:
That’s all there is to it: do some resistance training and attempt to make it more and more challenging, and you’ll grow stronger.
This means if you drop down and do ONE knee push-up right now, technically you’ve done a strength training workout.
It also means if you then do TWO knee push-ups tomorrow, then you are officially following a strength training routine.
In other words…
Now, there are many different “strength training” and “resistance training” paths.
Like a “skill tree” in a video game (with branching paths and progressions), you can progress up one path, and mix and match movements from others depending on the situation.
These paths depend on your goals and what equipment you have available to you.
What Are Some Examples of Strength Training?
Let’s chat about a few different types of strength training.
#1) BODYWEIGHT TRAINING
Bodyweight training is simply doing an exercise in which your own body is the “weight” you are “lifting.”
This is the BEST place for anybody – regardless of weight or age – to start their strength training journey.
Why is this the best place to start? Two big reasons:
A) You always have your body with you (unless you are a ghost, in which case, this is awkward). This means you can work out ANYWHERE with bodyweight training:
B) Using your body for resistance training is the most “human” thing ever! By learning to push and pull and hang and squat and lunge, you are doing what your body is literally designed to do.
By getting strong with bodyweight movements, you’re making yourself antifragile and less injury-prone.
Now, it’s SCIENCE TIME!
While learning the movements with bodyweight exercises, you are allowing for proper communication to develop between your neuromuscular systems.
More efficient communication between your neuromuscular systems will result in something known as “proper motor unit recruitment.”
You may be asking yourself: what is a motor unit?
That’s okay because I was asking myself this same question.
A motor unit is a single motor neuron and the muscle fibers it innervates.
You can think of two different types of motor units:
We all have small motor units, meaning that a single motor neuron innervates relatively few muscle fibers, and these smaller motor units are good for precise and detailed movements (e.g., moving your fingers).
We all also have large motor units, meaning that a single motor neuron innervates hundreds of muscle fibers, and these larger motor units are good for generating a lot of force (e.g., getting larger muscle groups like the quads to generate a lot of force to help in sprinting).
When you start strength training, you really are helping your muscles communicate better together. This is why we recommend starting with bodyweight exercises, to help start this process.
However, bodyweight training isn’t as easy to ‘scale’ the difficulty as some of the other strength training methods (“put more weight on barbell”), but you can get REALLY strong with just bodyweight training.
You just have to know HOW and WHEN to scale up (we can help there too).
#2) DUMBBELL TRAINING
Dumbbells are a great first step into the world of weight training and strength training:
Most gyms will have dumbbells, even if it’s a basic gym in your apartment complex.
A set of dumbbells doesn’t take up a lot of room, which means you can have a pair at home without a large footprint.
Dumbbells make it easy to add difficulty to a bodyweight movement: holding dumbbells while doing lunges, for example.
Dumbbell exercises can be less intimidating than barbell training for some, and are a step towards barbell training.
Dumbbells have an added stabilization challenge, and will point out muscle imbalances pretty easily (“oh my right arm is stronger than my left arm.”).
Dumbbells allow for single-arm and single-leg exercises to be performed. This can allow you to strengthen any muscle imbalances and can come in handy especially after an injury.
You can scale easily. Once the 10-pound weights become too easy, pick up the 15-pound ones!
#3) KETTLEBELL TRAINING
A kettlebell is essentially a cannonball with a handle on it. They come in any weight imaginable, they don’t take up a lot of room, and can be used in dozens of ways for a great compact workout.
Our 20-minute kettlebell workout has 8 simple exercises you can do with just one weight.
Although there are “adjustable kettlebells,” you’ll most likely be working with a single kettlebell, and then adjusting your movements for “progressive overload” (making the workout slightly more difficult each time).
If you are a member at a gym, they’ll probably have multiple kettlebells that you can use to level up.
#4) BARBELL TRAINING
Regardless of sex or gender age, if your goal is to get strong quickly, use 20 seconds of courage and get comfortable training with a barbell (I’ll help you, I promise):
“Progressive overload” is easy – you simply add weights to either side of the bar, allowing you to progressively lift more and more weight each week.
It’s much easier to go heavy safely – especially for lower body movements like the squat and the deadlift.
The biggest downside to barbell training is that in order to train at home, you need to have purchased a squat rack, a barbell, a bench, and enough weights for your house or garage (which can be an expensive investment, especially when starting out!).
If not, you definitely will need to join a gym.
WHICH RESISTANCE TRAINING PATH IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
Not sure which path to pick? You’re not alone – this stuff can be overwhelming. Check out our 1-on-1 Coaching Program. We get to know you and your goals, will check your form via video, and make adjustments based on your progress!
Which Strength Training Program is Right for Me?
So, what’s the best workout program to start as a beginner?
Realistically, it’s the one that you will ACTUALLY do.
Barbell training might be optimal in terms of building pure strength quickly, but if you don’t see yourself getting to the gym regularly – or you’re too self-conscious to enter the free weight section (for now) – no problem!
Conversely, bodyweight training might seem convenient and easy to start now, but if you can’t motivate yourself to work out at home, you might be better off joining a gym.
So let’s get you a workout program!
As we cover in our “How to Find the Perfect Workout Plan (for you)”: MOST beginners will be best served by following a “full-body” or “total body” routine, 2 to 3 times per week, with a day of rest in between each workout.
This full-body workout will have 4-5 big compound movements.
A compound movement is an exercise that recruits LOTS of muscles simultaneously and forces your body to work in unison. These compound exercises are considered multi-joint exercises meaning that they involve more than a single muscle group.
An example would be the barbell squat, which recruits every muscle in your core, butt, and legs to work together to lift the weight.
This is WAY more efficient – and effective at building pure strength – than doing 5 different isolated leg exercises.
Why do 5 exercises when 1 exercise will get you better results in 20% of the time?
To answer your next question, let me tell you about how many sets and reps you should do as a beginner!
As we explain in our “How Many Sets and Reps” guide:
Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength.
Reps in the 6-12 range build equal amounts of muscular power, strength, and size.
Reps in the 12+ range primarily build muscular endurance and size and also cardiovascular health.
If you want more, Coach Jim breaks down different set and rep ranges in this video:
Many beginner strength programs will encourage you to keep things simple, doing just 5 sets of 5 reps for each exercise.
Personally, I encourage people to aim for a weight that they can lift for 8-10 reps. This gives you a chance to really work on your form and lift safely!
The max lifts will come later, my friend. You gotta learn to walk before you can run!
“Staci, which workout plan is best for me?”
It depends on your goals!
If your main goal is general fitness and fat loss, doing a circuit training workout will likely help you reach your goals (make sure you see our section below for “strength training for weight loss”).
TRUTH BOMB: ANY strength training workout will help you reach nearly any goal provided you do two things:
Eat correctly for your goals too. How you eat will account for 80-90% of your success or failure when it comes to weight loss or bulking up.
Increase the difficulty of your workouts. This is that “progressive overload” stuff we were talking about earlier. Doing 1 more bodyweight squat, lifting 5 more pounds, or completing your circuit 10 seconds faster than last workout. By forcing your body to constantly adapt, your muscles will never get complacent and have to keep burning extra calories and rebuilding themselves stronger.
Depending on your current situation, and how quickly you’re looking to cut through the “trial and error” and get expert guidance, I might have an interesting solution for you.
We have a pretty killer 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program here at Nerd Fitness. You’ll work with a coach that will build a workout program for your body type and goals, check your form to make sure you’re doing them safety, and even help plan out your nutrition too.
The 5 Best Beginner Strength Training Programs
“Alright Staci, are there any ‘out of the box’ beginner workout programs I can start following now?”
Yup! Let me share with you some of our suggestions:
Here are 5 resistance training workouts you can follow TODAY. Pick the level that you feel most comfortable with, and then level up when you feel ready:
#1) BEGINNER BODYWEIGHT WORKOUT:
Our Beginner Bodyweight Workout has a variety of rep ranges to promote endurance, strength, and cardiovascular health.
Complete one set of each exercise and then moving directly to the next exercise:
20 bodyweight squats
20 walking lunges
10 dumbbell rows (using a gallon milk jug)
30 Jumping Jacks
Repeat for 3 rounds
Otherwise, you can move onto weight training when you feel comfortable!
#2A) BEGINNER NERD FITNESS DUMBBELL WORKOUT
If you are just getting started with dumbbells and you’re looking for a beginner workout program to follow, this is our Level 3 Gym Workout, “Dumbbell Division”:
10 goblet squats
10 dumbbell rows per side
I knew you’d ask, so here is Goblet Squat video explanation (from Nerd Fitness Prime):
And here is our video on how to do dumbbell rows:
#2B) BEGINNER NERD FITNESS KETTLEBELL WORKOUT
Our Beginner Kettlebell Routine is a workout you do anywhere you have room to swing a kettlebell.
So, probably not in a phone booth or a closet or a bathroom stall. But other than that, pretty much anywhere else.
Complete 3 Kettlebell Workout Circuits:
8 Halos (each side)
10 Goblet Squats
8 Overhead Presses (each side)
15 Kettlebell Swings
8 Bent Over Rows (each side)
6 Front Rack Reverse Lunge (per side)
#3) BARBELL TRAINING: 2 DAY WORKOUT SPLIT
As we cover in our “How to Train in a Gym” guide (where we take you from “lost sheep” to “barbell badass”), this routine is a much more focused weight training, strength building workout that gets your feet wet with barbell training. Click on ANY exercise to learn how to do it properly.
NF BEGINNER BARBELL STRENGTH WORKOUT: DAY A
Do 3 rounds of:
NF BEGINNER BARBELL STRENGTH WORKOUT: DAY B
Do 3 rounds of:
WHAT ARE SOME OTHER POPULAR STRENGTH TRAINING PROGRAMS?
#1) “Starting Strength” is considered the gold standard beginner barbell weight training program by many. We highly recommend you pick up the actual book if you are serious about barbell training – it’s one of the most important training books you can ever read.
#2) Strong Lifts 5X5: A solid workout program that starts you out very slow, with just the barbell, and helps you master form before you get too heavy. It also keeps things VERY easy with “do 5×5.” Strong Lifts has been around for a long time and is a solid program.
#3) Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1: This program allows you a little more freedom to do exercises that you enjoy, or work on personal weaknesses, because you choose some of the assistance work.
Note: You can modify any of the barbell training programs to be done with dumbbells, if that’s what you have at home!
Lastly, you can always write your own workout plan! I wrote my own workouts for a decade and it taught me a LOT about training and health.
We do have our own 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program where you’ll work with a coach that will build a strength training workout program for your body type and goals, check your form on each exercise via video, and even help you plan out your nutrition too.
How Much Weight Should I lift?
We have a FULL resource on how to determine your starting weight for lifting, but I’ll give you the gist here.
The simple to learn but tough to implement answer: lift enough so that you can get through the set, but not too much that you have NO fuel left in the tank at the end.
And then, try to lift sliiiightly more than last time.
Here are two common questions on strength training:
#1) How much weight should I start with?
If you are using dumbbells or a kettlebell, always err on the side of “too light” versus “too heavy.” You want to learn the movement correctly and build correct form.
If you are training with a barbell, ALWAYS start with JUST the bar, no matter the exercise (By the way, a standard barbell weighs 45 pounds).
#2) How fast should I add weight to the bar?
Here’s what we teach all of our coaching clients: add the minimum amount of weight each week you can, even if you THINK you can lift more. It’s better to finish a workout full of momentum and say “I can do more!” than defeated and saying “that was too much, crapola.”
Think of it this way, even if you are adding just 5 pounds per week to the bar, within a year you would be lifting 300+ pounds!
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends a similar approach:
For less trained people (i.e., beginners), it is recommended that for upper body exercises you increase the load by 2 – 5 pounds and by 5 – 10 pounds for lower body exercises.
For more trained people (i.e., advanced), it is recommended that for upper body exercises you increase the load by 5 – 10 pounds or more and by 10 – 15 pounds or more for lower body exercises.
So go SLOW. Even slower than the NSCA recommends if needed.
Team NF’s Steve even bought little half-pound weights and increases many of his lifts by just 1 pound per week. It’s a big part of how he transformed (jokingly) from Steve Rogers to Captain America.
And if you are looking for this content in easily digestible form, make sure you download our free Strength 101 Guide when you join the Rebellion below:
Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
The 9 Best Strength Training Exercises to Learn
If you’re new to all this “strength training” stuff, hopping into a program and going from zero to sixty might be a recipe for failure.
Instead, be patient, and take the time to learn these movements first.
I’m going to share with you the 9 best strength training exercises that every beginner should master (scroll down for full video and explanations!):
1. Push-up: uses every push muscle in your body (chest, shoulders, triceps)
2. Bodyweight squat: uses every muscle in the lower body (quads, hamstrings, glutes, core)
3. Bodyweight row: works every “pull” muscle and helps prepare you for a pull-up!
4. Pull-up or chin-up: the best “pull” exercise in history! Everybody should have a goal to get their first pull-up.
5. Bodyweight dip: advanced “push” movement that targets your push muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) in a different way than push-ups.
6. Barbell squat: the best bang for your buck on muscle building. recruits nearly every push muscle in your whole body, and great core workout.
7. Barbell deadlift: the favorite exercise of every coach at Nerd Fitness. Uses every “pull,” leg, and core muscle in your body.
8. Barbell benchpress: as basic and powerful as they come. Uses every “push” movement in your upper body and can get you strong as heck!
9. Barbell press: press the bar above your head! Targets shoulders and triceps more than the chest.
All of the exercises listed above are considered functional (closed-chain) exercises. That means they relate to our everyday movements and can be used to predict our success in sports, recreational and occupational activities, and activities of daily living.
When attempting all of these above listed exercises, aim to master the movement and perform the exercise through its entire range of motion (ROM).
Because it will decrease your risk for injury, activate all of the appropriate muscle groups, and result in greater muscle hypertrophy.
Let’s go over these now.
Click on any of these exercises to get a FULL explanation of the movement, step-by-step:
1) The Push-Up: The best exercise you could ever do for yourself when it comes to using your bodyweight for push muscles (your chest, shoulders, and triceps):
2) The Bodyweight Squat: This exercise serves a dual purpose: it is the foundation for building strength AND helps build proper mobility. If you are going to ever do barbell squats, you need to work on hitting proper depth with a bodyweight squat first!
3) The Inverted Bodyweight Row: Until you can get your first pull-up or chin-up, these exercises are GREAT to start building your pull-muscle strength: your back, biceps, and forearms.
4) The Pull-Up and Chin-Up: Once you can support your bodyweight above the bar, the world becomes your playground. No strength training routine should be without pull-up or chin-up work! (Click here if you can’t do a pull-up or chin-up yet?)
5) The Bodyweight Dip: As you start to get stronger with push-ups and need to find a way to increase the challenge, consider doing dips – warning: these are very advanced, but incredible strength building exercises.
And now we’re into the best weight training exercises:
6) The Barbell Squat: Probably the best exercise when it comes to building strength and muscle throughout your whole body. It also burns crazy calories and makes life better. This is a MUST:
7) The Barbell Deadlift: Maybe the best exercise of all time. Actually no, it IS the best exercise of all time. It’s certainly the most primal: “pick the weight up off the ground. Done.”
This is a very technical lift, so make sure you read our article on how to do it with proper form:
8) The Barbell Press: Press a barbell above your head. This recruits all of the muscles in your chest, shoulders, and arms in order for you to lift the weight over your head.
As a bonus, you need to really flex and brace your core, which gets those muscles working too.
9) The Barbell Bench Press. Lie on a bench, and lower a barbell until it almost touches your chest. Pause, and press it back up towards the sky. Repeat! And get strong.
NOTE: All exercises were explained according to the guidelines that have been established by the NSCA.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: commit to trying ONE of these movements in the next week. Use 20 seconds of courage, recruit a friend who has lifted or trained before, and try your best.
And if you want somebody to help you put these into a workout program, teach you HOW to do these movements properly, and have the confidence to know you’re training correctly for your goals…
How to Know You’re Doing a Strength Training Movement Properly (Form Checks)
Always start out with just your body’s weight and make sure your movement is correct!
If it’s a barbell movement, use a broomstick (or PVC Pipe).
If it’s a dumbbell movement, use two sections of PVC or something else that is light and small to simulate a dumbbell.
When it comes to movements like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, bench press, your form is crucial. Develop good habits with lightweight and you will save yourself months of frustration later and will protect you from injury.
If you’re struggling with certain elements of a movement, don’t get frustrated! Remember, proper communication between your neuromuscular systems needs to develop.
Things will start to improve.
How do you know if your movement is correct?
Do regular video form checks! Record yourself and watch the video.
Alternatively, an expert reviewing your specific movement can be invaluable.
If you’re looking for someone who can do video form checks, provide feedback, and adjust your workouts based on your progress, you can check out our 1-on-1 Online Personal Training!
I’ve had an online coach for 4 years and it’s changed my life.
You could also get expert guidance in person: Look around at your local strength and conditioning gyms and see if you could hire a coach (here’s how to find a good personal trainer) for one or two sessions just to go over the basic movements.
If you can’t do either of those two options, no big deal! Videotape yourself and compare it to the videos here in the articles. You can also post your video to the form check section of the Nerd Fitness Forums.
When I started, I really liked practicing all of the movements at home because I could watch a video online at the same time as I was watching myself do it in a mirror. Studies have found this can actually help!
Strength Training for Weight Loss
So you’re looking to lose weight, and tired of hours of cardio (me too).
And you’re wondering if strength training for weight loss – by following one of the workouts in this guide is a viable solution.
Or, gasp – will strength training make you too bulky? (SPOILER: it won’t)
Yes, Strength training will help you lose weight IF you do two key things for effective weight loss:
As we point out in our “Cardio vs Intervals vs Weight Training” article, strength training is the MOST efficient method for weight loss.
Not only that, but you can find study after study after study that shows you the benefits of strength training for weight management when combined with “calorie restriction.”
As we cover in our “Why Can’t I Lose Weight?” article, here’s why eating a caloric deficit and strength training is SO magical when combined:
When you strength train – by picking up something heavy – your muscles are “broken down” during the exercise itself, and then they rebuild themselves stronger over the next 24-48 hours.
Guess what happens during those 24-48 hours?
Your body will divert as many calories consumed as necessary to “Rebuild Muscle!”
It also diverts additional calories to “Burn as Fuel” to handle this increased “muscle rebuilding” activity.
This means two amazing things:
Your metabolism is revved up for this time period, burning more calories than normal.
Rebuilding muscle is a calorie-taxing activity!
Not only that, but when you eat a caloric deficit, your body doesn’t have enough calories to fuel all the day’s activities. In these instances, your body will pull from your stored fat to make sure all the work still gets done.
This is the trifecta of physical transformation victory:
You get stronger and keep the muscle you have.
You burn through the fat you’re trying to get rid of.
You’re decreasing your body fat percent and keeping your muscle = look good naked.
In other words, strength training + eating right is the BEST path for weight loss out there! And yes, in certain situations, you can actually lose weight AND build muscle at the same time.
Coach Matt explains how to gain muscle WHILE losing fat in this video:
So how do you put this into practice? Pick one of the strength workouts in this article. Calculate your daily caloric needs. Learn about healthy eating. And start.
In other words…
Pick up something heavy, and eat a vegetable.
These are the types of things we work on with our 1-on-1 Coaching Clients: helping them lift weights confidently and eat correctly for their goals! Let us help you:
“Just Tell Me What Strength Training Program to Follow!”
Okay! Unless you are collecting underpants, you should now have a workout program you want to try out!
“Staci, this is a lot, can you just TELL me what to do?”
Here are the steps again for you:
STEP #1: PICK YOUR WORKOUT PATH:
A) If YOU ARE TRAINING AT HOME. Pick one of these 3 based on what equipment you have:
B) IF YOU ARE TRAINING IN A GYM: Amazing! I love gyms.
STEP #2: TRY A NEW EXERCISE: In addition to following a workout program, I’m gonna push outside of your comfort zone – that’s where real growth happens.
Learn ONE new movement this week.
Pick one of the exercises below and try it out!
Here are 42 bodyweight exercises you can do too.
STEP #3) HIRE A YODA: If you are somebody that just wants to be told exactly what to, how to train for your goals, and are good at following direction, consider hiring a coach.
I’ve been working with an online coach since 2014 and it has changed my life – and I do this stuff for a living!
STEP #4) JOIN THE REBELLION! If you like how we do things around here at Nerd Fitness, we’d love to have you in our community of misfits, mutants, and rebels!
Sign up in the box below and I’ll send you our free Strength 101 guide:
Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
No matter what you do today:
Don’t be afraid of doing anything wrong – truth be told, the majority of the people in the gym don’t have any idea what they are doing, and are just as nervous as you are!
Muster up your 20 seconds of courage if you need to, and let me know in the comments how it goes!
What questions do you have about getting started?
So, what’s the biggest thing holding you back from starting strength training?
PS – Check out the rest of the articles in our Strength Training 101 series:
Strength Training 101
Strength Training 101: Finding the Right Gym
Strength Training 101: How Much Weight Should I Be Lifting?
Strength Training 101: How to Build Muscle Quickly
Strength Training 101: How to Squat Properly
Strength Training 101: How to Deadlift
Strength Training 101: How to Bench Press
Strength Training 101: How to Do a Pull-Up
Strength Training 101: How to Do a Bodyweight Row
Strength Training 101: How to Do a Dip
Strength Training 101: How to Overhead Press
photo source: LEGO bench pres, tonobalaguer © 123RF.com, Stormtroopers lifting, Chris Christian:Strongman, W_Minshull: Stormtroopers in Gym, Lego Lifting, Rainstorm, Kristina Alexanderson: Teddy Love,
This is a post from NF Team Member Staci.
If you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness for a while, you know that we are huge proponents of strength training.
If you know me, then you know I also love cats. Which is why we’re starting this post with a picture of a cat and dumbbells.
Anyways! You’ve read Strength Training 101, you know the equipment, and you know how to find the right gym. If you’re a woman, you know that you won’t get bulky. You know that strength training will help you meet your goals, no matter what they are.
You know that strength training can be the most efficient path to weight loss.
You know that a strong body is a healthy body.
You know you SHOULD be getting stronger, but let’s be honest: starting a whole new way of working out can be daunting. It’s the reason so many people stick to the same old habits (that don’t work).
Today we’re going to go over exactly howto get started with strength. No more hours of mindless cardio, no more aimless wandering in the gym – we are going to get healthy in a fraction of the time and teach you exactly what to do.