Last Updated on January 20, 2023 by Jeff
Taking up a new exercise can be a scary and intimidating process. It’s hard to know where to start, and there are usually a million and one pieces of advice, often conflicting. If you are looking to take up weight training, we’ve broken down the benefits and the best way to get started so you can not only increase your strength without getting injured, you can become more agile and increase your mobility over time.
Why Weight Train?
While cardio exercises like running, swimming and HIIT workouts are a necessary part of a workout plan, lifting weights has a plethora of benefits. Cardio certainly burns a lot of calories and improves heart health, but weight training does both of those things and more. Adding weights to your routine a couple days a week will help you build more strength, which will improve your cardio workouts. Increased muscle mass also protects your bones, lowers your BMI and fat percentage and boosts your metabolism. In fact, increased muscle that comes from weight lifting helps your body burn more calories after you finish a workout, even when you’re sitting still. Strengthening your muscles will help prevent injury by protecting your bones and tendons. Not to mention, that increased muscle will tone your body and make your progress even more noticeable.
Preparing to Lift Weights – What to Consider
Now that you’re convinced to start weight training, you need to know how to go about it safely. First, decide what kind of weight lifting regimen you want to do. Do you want to use weight machines at a gym or would you prefer using hand weights at home? Once you figure that out, read up on some basic exercises that target the major muscle groups, such as your legs, glutes, core, arms, chest and shoulders. Many machines work to build these muscles, but there are also basic body weight exercises you can do for them as well. After you’ve made a plan to incorporate some of those moves into your routine, make sure to learn proper form and alignment. Proper form will help you avoid an injury and make the exercises more efficient so you can get stronger faster. If you’re unsure of how to perform an exercise, ask a trainer at the gym to demonstrate or even watch a how-to video online.
Getting Started and Staying Safe
When you’ve done your research, figure out how to incorporate weights safely into your routine. Start with two days a week, and then increase to three once your body adjusts. You can even do more days a week by splitting up muscle groups. You can add a few minutes of weight training at the beginning or end of your normal cardio workout. For example, you can do lower body one day, core one day and chest and arms on another day. If you’re doing a full body strength workout, try to stick with two exercises per muscle group.
As with cardio, you should always warm up before a strength workout. When you do various exercises, figure out how much weight you can handle for each move. You should be able to complete two reps of any given exercise while maintaining good form, but it should still feel like a workout. In order to get the full benefits of a strength workout, it should be intense enough to raise your heart rate, but not so intense you lose proper form. Make sure to stretch after a strength workout, and get plenty of rest. If your muscles feel so sore you’re in a lot of pain, ease up and take a few days off.
They say that strong people are harder to kill. I’d add that they’re also less likely to get injured, in any capacity. Strength is the foundation of a body fit for anything. Be that running, team sports, obstacle races, or just daily life.
There’s a right way to do strength training in this context. The 220lb bodybuilder might well be as solid as a rock – but he’s not particularly athletic or mobile. Fortunately, you can be strong; without being huge and un-athletic.
To take that some steps further below, I’ll lay out the key do’s and don’ts for getting not strong and bullet-proof; but also faster, more agile and flexible.
Free weight training for stability
Free weights are going to challenge the bodies stabilizing muscles where machines will not. Machines will make the primary mover stronger, but not the supporting muscles. This actually increases the injury risk in many cases – assuming separate work is not done to strengthen the supporting muscles that are not active during the machine exercise.
For example, a machine chest press will make the pecs bigger and stronger, but will not help the function and strength of the rotator cuff muscles around the shoulder that create stability and allow for free and safe movement around the shoulder.
On the other hand, a dumbbell chest press will challenge the stability muscles as well as the prime mover (pecs), lead to more balanced development and safer, stronger shoulders.
Full range of motion movements
Using a full range of motion is actually more effective for strength and muscle growth anyway. Leave the ego at home and do your exercise through the full range of motion. However, here it is relevant because injury tends to happen at extreme end ranges of motion.
People get hurt because they are in a weak position with little leverage, and their muscles are not strong enough in that position to sustain the force applied to them. Something has to give.
As an example, if you watch a gymnast you would expect them to rip their shoulders out of the socket regularly – most people sure would. But gymnasts have incredible strength and joint integrity in extreme ranges of motion and they are able to take a high degree of force, in positions most people could not.
Loaded or weighted stretching is somewhat an extension of the previous point. It is building strength in an extreme range of motion, where a joint or muscle is under a large stretch. With loaded stretching you are also increasing the range of motion. You’re creating a buffer where your body is comfortable going beyond what is the general range of motion requirements for a joint.
This means you always have some spare room to play with This is the importance of mobility (active flexibility). As an example, if you can perform weighted splits, you are never going to get in a position where you land from a jump and overextend your hips, because you have so much additional range of motion you can access. The risk of injury drops significantly.
Loaded stretching not only increases range of motion, but will be increasing strength in the important extreme end range too.
Blend low, medium and high rep ranges
To achieve a fully balanced and strong body you need to use a mixture of rep ranges. Pure strength is built in low rep ranges, and it can be tempting to think doing lots of strength works is the best way to get strong.
Unfortunately, it’s not that black and white. To achieve maximum strength, you will also need to increase the size of muscles, which is generally mid-range reps (6-12). To support all of this, you also need to build strength in the tendons and connective tissue, which is best done with higher reps.
Powerlifters want to be as strong as possible, to lift a maximal weight once. The bulk of their training on the main movements – squats, deadlifts and bench press – will be done at low rep ranges. However, assistance work will all be done in mid and high rep ranges. This is to build joint integrity and ensure the skeletal structure is capable of supporting the large weights they are lifting in the strength building exercises. 50+ rep sets are not uncommon when looking to build supporting musculature.
Bringing this back to you, assuming you’re not a powerlifter but you do want to be strong, you should focus on a mixture of rep ranges. Start with lower rep strength work and then do assistance exercises with higher reps, focusing less on moving the weight, and more on creating tension in the muscles.
Use unilateral bodyweight movements to correct imbalances
Left-right imbalances are a common source of faulty movement patterns that cause injury. The best cure for this is unilateral (single side) exercises. This will immediately show up any difference side to side, and also stop the stronger side from taking over and doing the bulk of the work, which may happen on bilateral exercises.
Using squats as an example, if one leg is stronger than the other, it will do more of the work on a squat and maintain the imbalance. If you do a pistol squat (single leg squat), each leg has to do the work on its own. You will see straight away if you find it easier on one side than the other.
The other benefit of this is that it challenges the stabilizing muscles much more than doing a squat on both legs. In a team sport, for example, you are rarely stood on both feet. You’re usually running, with one leg in contact with the floor at any given time. That means training on one leg is better going to prepare you for the sport you’re going to be doing. Decreasing the likelihood of injury.
Even if you’re not a ‘gym person’ and just enjoy your sport, the benefits of doing some strength training in injury prevention and performance enhancement are vast and I would encourage you to fit a couple of sessions in to your routine.
Weight training can look like a scary, intense workout only for body builders and serious gym rats, but with the right tools and mindset, anyone can safely add strength training to their workout routine.