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.

Strength Training for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

Finding good information about strength training for beginners is like a minefield.

I’ve been a personal trainer for nearly 20 years. I’ve helped a lot of people get started on their strength training journey using the methods I’ll share with you here. 

This plan is the best way to teach the movements and the progressive approach to strength training that we know is effective.

In this article, I’m going to cut through a lot of the jargon when it comes to strength training. I’ll explain what strength training is, why you should be doing it and how to start. You’ll be left with a beginner strength training program that will help get you started safely and effectively.

Beginning Strength Training – An Overview

Strength training is a term that includes all aspects of training with ‘resistance’ to make your body stronger or more muscular. The resistance can be provided by anything that makes an exercise more difficult. Examples include your body weight, a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, or machines.

An effective strength training program can use one, a mixture, or even all of the different types of resistance. 

Benefits of Strength Training

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say strength training is one of the best things you can do for your health [see this National Library of medicine study].

The health benefits of regular strength training include…

  • Strength improvement – which can help for all types of daily activites such as carrying shopping, lifting children etc.
  • Muscle building – to look better in (and out of!) your clothes
  • Improves posture – reduces chances of back ache
  • Fat loss – which can help for a number of health problems and again helps you fit better in your clothes
  • Injury prevention – strength training strengthens muscles and connective tissues such as ligaments and tendons
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness – reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes
  • Enhanced mental health – to just be happier and the best version of yourself each day!
Benefits of Strength Training

By introducing regular strength training into your life you will make significant improvements to your health and fitness.

If you want to learn more on the topic, check out our in-depth article where we focus solely on benefits of strength training.

How Do I Start Strength Training?

The beauty of strength training is that you don’t need much in the way of equipment in the beginning – you can even start with just your body weight. This means you can get started instantly. 

It also means you can train anywhere at any time – whether you’re at home, on the road, in a hotel, or in the gym, there’s a type of strength training you can do.

What equipment will I need to start strength training?

At the very beginning, you can even start with a basic bodyweight circuit. This is good because it helps you to learn technique in a very safe way (there’s no weight to lift) and it’s not too taxing, so you recover quickly.

The issue with bodyweight training alone is that you will quickly outgrow it as a challenge, so it’s only really suitable in the very beginning.

Once you progress from bodyweight movements, you’ll move on to training with dumbbells and barbells. You’re probably familiar with these already, but in case you’re not, here’s a basic description…

  • Dumbbells are a short-handled bar with a weight at each end. They’re designed to be held by one hand. They come in both fixed and adjustable weights.
  • Barbells are longer bars with the weights at each end. They are designed to be lifted with two hands and in the majority of cases the weights are adjustable. Barbells come in a variety of lengths, usually 5, 6 and 7 feet long. They usually weigh between 12kg and 20kg depending on the style.

In our guide to building a home gym, we also explain some other equipment that will be helpful such as:

Some people prefer an all in one home gym, but this is not the route I would suggest for most people. Unless you get something like the Force USA machine you see below, which includes a squat rack!…

Force USA G3

Where to do strength training: Home vs in a gym

There are pros and cons to strength training at either home or in the gym. There’s no “best”, it just depends on what you’re looking for…

Strength training at home…

  • You’re more comfortable in the environment
  • Don’t have to wait for equipment
  • You can take your time
  • Listen to the music you want to 
  • Left on your own – nobody to ask for guidance or spotting
  • Limited kit and space

Strength training in the gym…

  • There’s generally more kit in the gym than at home
  • Heavier weights are generally available
  • Often more space to exercise in
  • There are people to help you learn technique
  • You can lift heavier weights because you’ll more likely have a spotter
  • You can’t listen to your own music
  • You may have to wait around for equipment
Home gym vs Gym

The best place to train is the one where you feel most comfortable and able to do your workout to the best of your ability. Thanks to the quality and availability of home gym equipment, many people are preferring to build their own home gym now

Understanding strength training terminology

You may be confused about terms such as sets, reps, rest, and the like, but don’t worry – I’m going to clear those up for you right now!

Weight lifting key terms

Weight: This is obvious. It’s how much you’re lifting! It could be your body weight or a prescribed weight. Generally, weight isn’t prescribed 

Reps: How many repetitions of an exercise you perform. For example with push-ups, each full push-up (lowering yourself towards the floor and pushing yourself back up) is a single rep.

Sets: A set is a group of reps. If you were to do 10 push-ups, it’d be one set of 10. If you were to rest then do another set, you’ve done two sets of 10.

Rest: This is the time taken between sets to recover. For example, if the workout program says… ‘3 x 10 push-ups, 60 seconds rest’, you should perform 3 sets of 10 push-ups with 60 seconds rest between each set of push-ups.

How do I know what weight to lift?

This is the $64,000 question and it’s impossible to answer with a straight figure because we’re all so different.

Some people are big and strong naturally.

Others have a much smaller frame and won’t be as naturally strong.

In the first few weeks of this program, you won’t need to worry – your body weight provides the resistance. As you move onto the second phase, you’ll have to follow the process below…

To find the weight you should be lifting, you have to experiment a little bit.

You start with a very light weight (usually an empty barbell or very light dumbbells). Build up the weight until you reach a suitable level for training.

Say your workout tells you to do a set of 10 shoulder presses. You’d start with an empty barbell or light dumbbells and perform the 10 reps. You’d then lift progressively heavier weights until you reached a point where you could only just manage the 10 reps.

That is your working weight. Make a note of this weight, because this is what you should be lifting. 

Obviously, not all working weights will be equal.

For lower body exercises you’ll be lifting heavier weights than you would for upper body exercises. This is because the muscles in your lower body (legs, lower back) are generally much bigger and stronger than the upper body.

For bodyweight workouts, you won’t need to go through the process of finding the weight you will be lifting. Your body weight provides the resistance you’ll be lifting against.

Strength Training for Beginners Workout Fundamentals

When you’re just starting out with strength training, your focus should be on improving your technique. Don’t worry about weight at first. When you have got to grips with the movements, you can progress to adding weight and variations of exercises.

To start with though, we’re going to focus on bodyweight versions of the exercises.

There are 6 movements the body is capable of. These are…

  1. Push (i.e. push up)
  2. Pull (i.e. pull up)
  3. Squat (i.e. squat)
  4. Hinge (i.e. deadlift)
  5. Lunge (i.e. lunge)
  6. Carry (i.e. farmers carry)
6 functional movements patterns

A beginner strength training program will cover all of these movements. It’ll also improve your technique and your understanding of how your body moves. You’ll build strength across the major muscle groups. 

You’ll work in a variety of rep ranges. This makes the workouts tougher and improves your general fitness.

Frequency of training (and why rest days are important)

In the early days of strength training, you may be tempted to rush into a daily workout, but that’s not particularly wise.

Training is hard work and your body needs time to recover. It’s during your recovery that your muscles actually get bigger and stronger, so if you train every day and don’t allow for recovery time, you’ll limit your progress.

In these workouts, you’ll be strength training 3 times per week. On your rest days, I’d encourage you to still be active, just don’t do any strength work. For example, go for a walk, a bike ride, play a sport – just don’t lift weights! Give your muscles time to rest and recover. 

Your first workout

Workouts should always start with a warm-up.

There are lots of ways to do this, but the best way is a short (around 5 minutes) gentle cardio start, which improves blood flow around the body. If you’re in a gym you could use a rowing machine, a treadmill, cross trainer, ski-erg etc.

If you’re at home, some shadow boxing or jump rope would serve the purpose. The idea is to simply get the body moving, not exhaust yourself with a high-intensity start. It helps to warm up the muscles and joints, making the workout easier and safer.

You then move into your workouts. Make your movements slow and deliberate, maintaining good form throughout each exercise. Check your technique in the mirror (gyms have mirrors so you can check your form, not admire yourself!) and make sure your reps are performed well. 

Working out at home is the favorite choice for some people. If you want to read more about it, take a look at our beginner exercises to do at home.

Strength Training for Beginners Workout Plan

A good place to start for anyone interested in strength training is with a bodyweight training program. Follow this for 4 weeks to build up strength and learn the movements. The only equipment this workout need is a suspension trainer (link to preferred choice).

Beginner strength training programme – weeks 1 to 4

These workouts are to be done alternately, so one week you’ll do workout 1 twice and workout 2 once. In the following week, you’ll do workout 2 twice and workout 1 once.

It may look something like this…

WeekdayMonTueWedThuFriSatSun
Day1234567
Workout1Rest2Rest1RestRest
Day891011121314
Workout2Rest1Rest2RestRest

Bodyweight workout 1

ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Air Squat31530 secs
Push Up31030 secs
TRX Row31530 secs
Lunge320 (10 per side)30 secs
Band Lat Raises31230 secs
Dorsal Raises31030 secs
Plank3Max (or 1 min)30 secs

Air Squat

Push Up

TRX Row

Lunges

Lat Raises

Dorsal Raises

Plank

Bodyweight workout 2

ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Air Squat32030 secs
Shoulder Push Up31230 secs
TRX Rows 31530 secs
Dorsal Raises31030 secs
Band Curls31230 secs
Calf Raises31530 secs
Russian Twists31230 secs

Air Squat

Shoulder Push Up

TRX Row

Dorsal Raises

Curls

Calf Raises

Russian Twists

After 4 weeks of following this program, you’ll be able to execute the movements effectively. You’ll have built up strength and workout confidence, which will springboard you onto the next level of strength training.

That’s where the additional equipment comes in. 

Workout with weights – dumbbells and barbells

dumbbell vs barbell

It doesn’t take long for you to progress beyond bodyweight exercise. As soon as you know some basic movements, it’s time to start adding additional weight to your training. This will give you more exercise variety and the opportunity to build strength and muscle mass.

As this is a beginner strength program, we’ll focus on the basic weight training equipment, barbells, and dumbbells.

The movements stay similar to the ones you’ve already learned, but with some weight added for the additional challenge. There’s also a mixture of dumbbell and barbell versions of the exercises to challenge you even further!

Follow this program for a further 6 weeks, with the same pattern as before – alternate each workout with 3 sessions per week plan. It means you’ll do workout 1 twice in a week and workout 2 once, then the following weeks you’ll do workout 2 twice in a week and workout 1 once.

As before, train slowly and make your movements deliberate. You want to feel each exercise as you go through it. We know that slower rep speed increases the time muscles spend under tension, which is helpful for muscle growth.

Dumbbell workout 1

ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Dumbbell Squat3151 minute
Dumbbell Bench Press3101 minute
Dumbbell Shoulder Press3101 minute
Dumbbell Lunge320 (10 per side)1 minute
Dumbbell Lat Raise3121 minute
Bent-Over Row3121 minute

Dumbbell Squat

Dumbbell Bench Press

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Dumbbell Lunge

Dumbbell Lat Raise

Bent Over Row

Barbell workout 2

ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Deadlifts3101-2 minutes
Barbell Shoulder Press3101-2 minutes
Barbell Lunge320 (10 per side)1-2 minutes
Barbell Bicep Curl3151-2 minutes
Calf Raise3201-2 minutes
Farmer Carry310 (10 meters)*1-2 minutes

*Perform your Farmer Carry last set until failure.

Deadlift

Barbell Shoulder Press

Barbell Lunge

Barbell Bicep Curl

Calf Raise

Farmer Carry

Suggested equipment

To begin with, you’ll need only a few major items of equipment:

The goal here is to buy the bare minimum equipment for a fantastic workout.

For more information on equipment, you should visit our amazing page on building a home gym. It’s the most in-depth guide on the web. 

Warming up for Weight Training

Before you start any exercise you should make sure your body is ready and warmed up to avoid injuries.

Many people think that warming up is a waste of time, but if you get a little tweak in any of your joints or muscles it can prevent you from working out for a week or worse, which is a much bigger waste of time in my opinion.

Before a bodyweight workout I would recommend some simple, quick mobility exercises such as:

  1. Inchworms
  2. 90/90 stretches
  3. Rolling crucifix
  4. Table twists
  5. 3 way lunge and reach
  6. Hamstring pulses
  7. Hamstring reaches
  8. Can openers
  9. Dead shoulder circles
  10. Ankle breakers

You can watch Jeff explain these to you if you are not sure what any of these are…

But if you are warming up for a weight lifting routine I would recommend warming up with weights like this…

Warming up for beginner weight lifting routine

Starting with some lighter weight compared to your working weight means you are warming up the exact target muscles and joints. But it also gives you chance to work on your form and is far more effective than running on a treadmil for 5 minutes!

Strength Training for Beginners FAQs

How long before I see results from weight training?

Gaining muscle from weight training takes around 4-6 weeks. You’ll see strength improvements within 2 weeks, fitness improvements within 4 weeks and visible changes within 6 weeks. By the end of the first 10 weeks, you’ll be significantly stronger and more muscular. 

How often should a beginner strength train?

A beginner should use strength training 3 times a week. You can train more often than 3 times a week if you’ve recovered. More isn’t always better though – you need time to rest and recover. It depends on your goal and training program. If you’re feeling good the next day after following the program above, go ahead and train if you want to get faster results!

When should you increase weight or reps?

You should increase the weight when you manage all reps on an exercise. In the early stages, you’ll likely be adding weight every session, or at least every week! Always use good form and aim to increase the weight regularly to build more muscle and strength.

Is it normal to have muscle soreness after a workout for beginners?

After your first weight training sessions, you should expect some post-exercise stiffness. This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). You can help this go away by eating good quality protein, drinking lots of water, getting plenty of good quality sleep and doing some gentle exercise such as walking or cycling. 

What to expect when you first start lifting weights?

You can expect these effects to happen to your body when you start lifting weights:
-Strength improvement
-Muscle building
-Improves posture
-Fat loss
-Injury prevention
-Improved cardiovascular fitness
-Enhanced mental health

Summary and final thoughts

Strength training is an incredible thing to do.

Not only do you make yourself physically and mentally healthier, but you also learn brand-new skills. A strong body is an excellent foundation stone for a fantastic life. You’ll be more injury resistant, fitter, healthier and happier. 

If you’d like to learn more about building your home gym, visit our guide to building your own gym regardless of your budget.

Photo of author
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