Start Guide: Weightlifting

I talked about weightlifting generally before, but I want to get into a little more detail about how to get started, since it might be a little intimidating if you’ve, say, never taken a class.

You really don’t want to over train a particular muscle group. That can cause a lot of problems in the future. If you don’t have access to a trainer, I would suggest looking up a workout online (you will be able to find them for free). I’ve been using this full-body dumbbell only 3-day workout, for example. Once you’ve picked one, stick with it. Don’t add exercises to it, and substitute with caution. (Though for example I substitute bent row for wide-grip pull-up because I… can’t actually do pull-ups.)

And as always – there is good pain, and there is bad pain. You will have sore muscles at first when you start lifting. That’s a good pain. If your joints start hurting, or you start getting sharp pains instead of aches, that’s bad pain. Stop and consult your doctor.


So you know how I mentioned technique before? That’s the place where you start. Without proper technique you risk hurting yourself, or at the very least you won’t get as much as you should out of exercising. Proper technique means, for example, not cheating by swinging the weights.
Technique first, then worry about the weight. Every repetition should be slow, controlled, and with good form. Watch a video for each exercise you want (Muscle & Strength has a good archive) and pay careful attention to body positioning and how the exercise is executed. If you have access to a mirror, it helps to watch yourself that way. (Though I can totally understand if you’d rather not; I find mirrors painful and distracting.)
This means aiming pretty low for weight to begin with; it’s much harder to maintain good technique when you’re struggling with heavy weight, and if you’re a little shaky on technique to begin with it won’t do you any good. For the first few weeks, until you’re comfortable with technique, don’t worry about lifting to failure or trying to max out or even about feeling a real burn. Just concentrate on doing it right.
Once you’re okay with technique, then start ramping up your weights. It sometimes takes a little time to figure out just how much you should be lifting for a given exercise, how much you can do your sets with that will be challenging but do-able. Give it some time and test out different weights. Once you figure out where you should be, then it’s a pretty simple matter of just bumping up another level of weight once you can do all your sets without struggling.
Quick vocab:
Reps = repetitions. The number of times you do a given exercise in a set. My preference is 6-10 reps in a set, since I’m in the high weight/low reps camp.
Sets = the number of times you do your target number of reps. My preference is 3 or 4 sets per exercise in a given workout.
A note on the high weight/low reps versus low weight/high reps debate. Both technically have their place; it just depends on what you’re trying to do. High weight/low reps is primarily aiming for building muscle strength. Low weight/high reps seems to be where a lot of women gravitate, and often gets sold as “toning.” Rather, it builds muscle endurance. Women are apparently supposed to like that better because they don’t want to “bulk up” with muscle mass. It doesn’t tend to work that way, though. I lifted for strength for two years straight and was on the weightlifting team for my high school, and I never turned into a bulked-out monster (and this even though I tend to put on muscle mass unusually well for a woman); achieving that kind of look requires a hell of a lot more work than any of us is going to be able or likely even willing to put in.
But I would also like to say – what the hell is wrong with a woman having some big muscles anyway? We get sold on low weight/high reps for weight loss, I guess, but it’s better to build up muscle mass for that because it means you burn more calories resting. Muscular is sold as a manly thing, but it’s really a human thing. We all have muscles, even if some of us (like me) cunningly hide ours under layers of fat. Lift in a way that you think is fun, lift because it is fun, and let it be what it’ll be.
Strong is sexy. So is determination.

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