For full transparency: This post contains affiliate links. If you buy through a link I would earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Only personally used or thoroughly researched products are recommended. Learn more.

12-Week Beginner Weight Lifting Routine: Complete Guide with Videos

Finding a safe, enjoyable beginner weight lifting routine that actually produces results is not easy. 

I’ve introduced literally thousands of people to weight training, refining the approach I’ll share with you here. This experience comes from almost 20 years as a personal trainer and collaborating with other PTs from owning my own gym. 

I’ll explain the what, why and exactly how to start weight training with specific exercises, reps and sets included.

There are coaching points and videos along the way to make sure you make serious progress.

I’m going to cut through jargon about weight training and ease any anxiety you may have about it. By the time you’ve read the article, you’ll feel confident that you know what and how you need to approach your workouts.

Beginner’s weight lifting routine overview

A beginner workout plan needs to be simple. 

The goal isn’t to overwhelm you with complex exercises. The workout plan here will cover the entire body across 2 main workouts used over 12 weeks.

Workout 1

ExerciseSetsRepsStart Weight*End Weight*
Squat***3575200-270
Bench Press3555120-150
Barbell Row3555120-150
Lateral Raises3107.5**35-50
Skull Crushers31010**35-52.5
Chin ups3Max reps

*Example starting weight (it could be more or less) with the weight you will lift when you finish the 90 days (in lbs)

**Weight of the dumbbell in each hand (lbs).

*** I’d recommend starting with goblet squats (3 x 10) as shown in the video below if you are new to squats and cannot perform them with good technique.

Workout 2

ExerciseSetsRepsStart Weight*End Weight*
Squat3575200-270
Overhead Press3545110-140
Deadlift15130250-320
Bicep Curls31210**35-52.5
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press31020**45-62.5
Lunges320 (10 per leg)40**65-82.5

You’ll perform three workouts a week making it simple enough to stick to, with enough flexibility. It will look something like this…

WeekdayMonTueWedThuFriSatSun
Day1234567
Workout1Rest2Rest1RestRest
Day891011121314
Workout2Rest1Rest2RestRest

You won’t need a huge amount of equipment for this program either. You can get by with the following gear: 

With this selection of equipment, you’ll be able to build a really strong and athletic body.

You can click on any of the links above to check out our in-depth buying guides. They include equipment recommendations from hundreds of hours of testing and research. There’s an option for everyone’s budget and ability in there.  

If you think it costs too much to build your own effective home gym, then check out our guide on how to build a home gym on any budget here.

Understanding weight lifting terminology

There are specific terms and names used to explain what should be done in a workout. It basically helps you to read the workout a bit like a recipe, so you know exactly what you should be doing.

Here’s a quick guide to the basic gym terminology… 

Reps: This is a single complete repetition of an exercise. For example, a single repetition of a push-up is when you lower yourself from a straight arm position until your face is an inch or two above the floor, then press back up to the start. One whole down and up is a single rep.

Sets: This is a group of repetitions. You may have to do more than one ‘set’ of repetitions of an exercise in a workout. For example, 3 sets of 10 would mean you do 10 repetitions, rest, a second set of 10, rest and then a final set of 10 repetitions.

Rest: This is the time taken between sets to rest. If you see a workout with 30 seconds rest prescribed, that means you should rest 30 seconds between sets. The shorter the rests, the higher the workout intensity.

Weight lifting key terms

You may see a workout program written like this…

‘Squats: 4 x 10, Rest 60 seconds’

What that means is that you should perform 4 sets of 10 squats, with 60 seconds of rest between each set. 

You’ll perform every set and rep of an exercise before moving on to the next one. 

How much weight should I be lifting?

One of the most commonly asked questions I get asked by beginners to weight lifting is “how much weight should I lift?”

You find this out on your first workout by going through a very simple process. Once you’ve done this the first time, you won’t need to repeat it because you’ll have all of the information you need.

To figure out what you should be lifting, perform your first set of an exercise with a weight you know will be very easy. Then build up the weight on subsequent sets until you’re lifting a suitable weight.

In practice, it looks like this…

Example: Your workout needs you to squat 3 sets of 5, but you’ve never done a squat before so don’t know what weight to lift.

  1. Perform a warm-up set with an empty barbell (44lbs is a mens Olympic barbell).
  2. Add a little weight (around 5lbs) to the bar and complete 5 reps.
  3. Repeat this until you reach a point where you can’t manage a set of 5 reps with good form.
  4. Make a note of the last weight you could perform the full reps with good form.

This is your ‘working weight’ and will be the basis of your training going forward. Here’s an example of what a beginner client achieved in their session to work out their starting weight…

Repeat this process for each of the exercises you do in a workout. That will give you the information you need. 

Always start easy, lift with good form, and don’t over-exert yourself in the beginning.

Every exercise will be different because of the body parts used. For example, you’ll be able to squat more than you curl. Exercises using your legs and back will require more weight than exercises using just the arms. 

Therefore, it’s wise to add the smallest amount of weight for isolation lifts like lat raises compared to squats or deadlifts.

The Beginner Weight Lifting Routine at Home

The best beginner workout program is one that contains the most effective exercises without being too complicated. 

There are certain lifts in the fitness space that are widely recognized to add more muscle mass than others. This program consists of these movements as well as some others.

The 5 ‘main’ lifts used in this workout are: 

  • Squat
  • Bench press
  • Barbell row
  • Overhead press
  • Deadlift 

These are the same lifts as the 5×5 Stronglifts routine. That’s because these compound exercises are very important to build strength and muscle mass. However, they are harder to perform to failure, especially if you lift alone due to the heavier weight involved. 

There is plenty of research that suggests that beginners build muscle faster from exercising to failure or close to failure (1, 2, 3, 4). In fact, Greg Nuckols, MA, found that 162 beginner lifters from 4 studies had almost twice as much muscle growth by lifting isolation movements to failure or close to failure…

New lifters gain more muscle exercising to failure

Whereas, he went on to find that experienced lifters benefit from stopping short of failure (1, 2, 3, 4). 78 participants with at least 1.5 years of experience of lifting didn’t see much difference in muscle growth from lifting to failure. In fact, most of these studies, which involved compound lifts, showed the opposite.

Seasoned lifters can more muscle exercising shy of failure

This is why I’ve included some supplementary ‘isolation exercises’.

Collectively these will cover all of the major muscle groups across a range of repetitions. This will allow you to lift close to failure more safely. It will also help you to add weight to the heavier compound lifts, which are vital lifts for building muscle mass.

Workout 1

  • Goblet Squats: 3 sets of 10 repetitions (3 × 10) [this can become normal back squats once you have the technique sorted].

  • Barbell Row: 3 x 5 

  • Bench Press: 3 × 5 

  • Skull Crushers: 3 x 10

  • Lateral Raises: 3 x 10

  • Chin-Ups: 3 x max reps

ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Squat351-3 Minutes
Bench Press351-3 Minutes
Barbell Row351-3 Minutes
Lateral Raises3101 Minute
Skull Crushers3101 Minute
Chin-ups3Max reps1-3 Minutes

Workout 2 

  • Squat: 3 x 5 

  • Overhead Press: 3 x 5 

  • Deadlift: 1 x 5 

  • Bicep Curls: 3 x 10 

  • Dumbbell Incline Bench Press: 3 x 10

  • Lunges: 3 x 10 

ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Squat351-3 Minutes
Overhead Press351-3 Minutes
Deadlift151-3 Minutes
Bicep Curls3121 Minute
Dumbbell Bench Press3101 Minute
Lunges320 (10 per leg)1 Minute

Adding weight every workout

These workouts may look very simple, but in truth, they’re actually very progressive. Because you should look to increase the weights by 2lbs – 5lbs each workout, depending on the exercise.

This is what you should try to add to every workout:

  • 5lbs to the big barbell exercises (squats, deadlifts, presses, row) 
  • 2.5lbs to isolation exercises such as curls and lat raises. 

This isn’t an exact science by the way, so if you can add more, do so! Likewise, if 2.5lbs is too much to add, don’t worry! Add less weight, or none at all until you’re ready.

If you fail to complete the full sets and reps above then you should stick to the same weight on your next workout. 

Never sacrifice form for weight. 

If adding weight forces you to lift with bad technique, don’t add it! 

These workouts will train you across a wide variety of rep ranges, which is important for improving overall fitness. 

If all you do is train in the same rep range, all you’ll do is get better within that narrow focus, but your overall strength and fitness will suffer.

Research shows that muscle building is generally linked to higher rep ranges, whereas strength and power are improved when you lift heavy weights for very few repetitions. By mixing them up, you benefit from both strength improvement and muscle size.

The bottom line is…

When you improve your strength, you can lift more weight. When you lift more weight you will put on muscle mass. 

Why days off are important

You may think that training more frequently is a good thing, but there’s a limit. You also need to make sure you allow your body to rest and recover.

If you train at a very high intensity every day, your injury risk increases significantly. By taking alternate days off exercise you allow both your muscles and connective tissues time to repair. You also maintain motivation to keep exercising – when it’s new, you may be full of enthusiasm but you don’t want to burn out quickly!

Taking a rest doesn’t mean sitting on your sofa eating junk food either – it means taking a day off heavy strength training. There’s nothing wrong with a walk or gentle bike ride on your ‘rest’ days. If anything, it can even help your recovery. 

Why you should train your whole body every workout

A lot of people will follow what is known as a ‘split routine’, which is where they divide the body into different sections to train each day. The thinking here is that you train an area of the body very hard, then allow it time to rest, recover and grow before training it again.

Science has since progressed and the research now suggests that frequent, whole-body workouts are more effective for muscle growth.

The weight training routines in this article are whole-body workouts, done frequently and with progressively heavier weights. This is to maximize strength improvements and muscle growth.

How to warm up for this weight lifting routine

Before the squat, bench press, and overhead press use an empty barbell with 2 sets of 5 reps. For the deadlift and barbell row, you may want to add some weight to the bar so it can lift the bar off the floor. 

Add 25 lbs on each side of the bar (total 50lbs) and perform 3 reps. Add another 50lbs and perform 3 reps. Repeat this until you reach your lifting weight for that workout. There’s no need to rest between your warm-up sets as it’s lighter weight.

Warming up for beginner weight lifting routine

If you do this you do not need to do any cardio for a warm-up as it gets your body moving and the blood flowing. It also helps to practice your form for the heavier lifts to come. 

It also will help the lifting weight not seem so heavy by slowly progressing up to it. 

By the time you reach the isolation lifts your body will be warmed up and ready to go. 

Some people think this warm-up will take too much time. But you can go from an empty bar to 175lbs of weight in under 5 minutes like this. It also gets your body much more prepared for lifting than jumping on a treadmill will do. 

Why start with squats every workout? 

Squats are the king of all exercises. 

They are super important to build muscle and strength. It doesn’t only work your legs, but it also works your abs, upper back, and arms. 

But most people hate squats and simply never do them!

The reason squats are first for every workout is that you are much more likely to skip the squats if you leave them to the end. Do them first every workout as it will get your whole body warmed up.  

But make sure you work on your form here. 

Aim to get your bum lower than your knees on each rep. It’s been proven that full squats help to build more muscle and reduce knee pain than partial squats. 

7 weight training final tips 

Before I leave you to start, here are a few final tips to help you make the most of your training…

Beginner Weight Lifting Routine Tips

1. The workouts should be hard

You get out of exercise what you put in.

If you coast through your workouts and don’t put much effort in, you won’t see any results. You should be challenging yourself to get fitter and stronger every time. In this weight training program, you should be looking to increase your weights by 2lb – 5lb every session.

The last rep should be hard to lift. Push yourself to lift that last bit every time.

2. Maintain your intensity – limit workouts to 1 hour

Keep your rest periods between sets short. Your goal is to recover enough to perform your next set, not have a complete break. Aim for a rest period between 1 and 2 minutes. 

Use the full 3 minutes if you are doing heavy compound movements and starting to struggle to hit the reps required. 

Any longer than that and you’ll lose your training intensity.

3. Focus on your workout – ignore your phone during workouts

It’s important that you retain your focus during your workouts. 

You should be concentrating on your technique throughout each rep (especially when you’re new to training). Lapses in concentration can lead to injury and chatting to people or checking Insta causes distractions.

You can socialize and check your phone before and after these 45 minutes. 

4. If you miss a workout, don’t miss the next one

It’s easy to end up on a downward spiral when you miss a workout. 

My best advice is to break this cycle as soon as you possibly can by forcing yourself to do the next workout. If missing workouts becomes a habit, it’s a very difficult one to break.

There are more “rest days” every week than workout days so it’s possible to catch up on one missed session. It’s very hard to catch up on two missed sessions. 

5. Make exercise a habit (even on rest days)

Being active doesn’t mean you have to push yourself to your max. In this program you have 3 workouts per week – they’re designed to be tough. Outside of those, I’d encourage you to still move your body. Go for a walk, a gentle bike ride, or something similar. Shoot for 10,000 steps per day, every day.

I have a pull-up bar mounted in my office door frame. Any time I walk in or out of my office I’ll do a handful of pull-ups. Across the span of a day, I can rack up a lot of pull-ups! 

Try to find ways to make exercise easy i.e. have workout clothes ready or make your workout space inviting.

6. Find an accountability buddy 

One of the best ways to maintain an exercise habit in the early days is by finding an accountability buddy. Having a reason to show up, even if that’s just so you don’t let your buddy down, is key to maintaining an exercise regime.

Even just messaging or sending updates to your buddy can help. So even if you train at home, get yourself a personal trainer or share this with a friend to make it work!

Pro tip – find a buddy who trains regularly. If they are lazy, you’ll find yourself at the bar more often than the barbell!

7. Drop your ego and the weight- focus on form

Don’t try to lift weights that you cannot control. This just leads to injuries and prevents you from progressing.

If you find it hard to complete a set with good form then you should lift less weight.

Using the full range of motion with good form will help you to lift more weight and build more muscle in the long run.

Beginner weight lifting routine: The bottom line

When you’re new to weight lifting you can be confused by the sheer amount of conflicting advice and opinions on the topic. This article is designed to cut through the nonsense and set you on the right track.

If you follow this training program for the next 12 weeks, managing 3 workouts per week with progressively heavier weights, I PROMISE you’ll be significantly fitter, stronger, and more muscular by the end of it.

When the 12 weeks are up, come back and you’ll be able to perform a follow-on routine from us at Strong Home Gym. 

In the meantime, if you want any help and advice on building your own home gym, take a look at our in-depth home gym guide.

by Steve Hoyles
Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

Leave a Comment