So You Want to Start… Strength Training

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Of all the habits that I help people learn, the one that might be the dearest to my heart is weight training. I have been teaching people how to pick up heavy things since 2008 and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Kettlebell instructor since 2010. I have taught hundreds of people the basics, but my favorite clients have always been the very new and the very skeptical. Most of them have been female, between the ages of 45-80 years old, and never been to “that side” of the gym before. So here are my tips for making a habit out of picking up heavy things.

Why Strength Training? 

The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends strength training 2-3 times a week for all adults and the same benefits have been shown in studies with people as old as their mid-90s. And while there are lots of qualities that people can train themselves to be better at in the gym such as flexibility, stability, power, speed, posture, and hypertrophy, strength is the one quality that allows all the other physical qualities to flourish. Brett Jones, a Master Coach in the Strong First Group says, “Strength is the glass. Everything else, all the other physical qualities, is the liquid inside the glass.” The bigger the glass, the more of “everything else” you can do.

The caveat of this metaphor is that most people new to the gym associate “stronger” with “bigger.” The majority of my clientele are women between 45 and 80 years old who have never trained for strength and the first time I say “stronger” they think Arnold. So it’s important to note that I am talking about the quality of strength, the ability for your body to safely and efficiently deliver or resist force, not the very different quality of having big, oily muscles (called “hypertrophy”). Strength is the answer to the question “can you pick up that heavy thing, move it, and carry it around?” Who doesn’t want to be better at that?

How to Start

Step 1: Ask your doctor, and I’m not just saying that for liability. If you have pain in your hip and want to start strength training to make it feel better, the least you can do is ask your doctor if it’s safe. An email could end up saving you a lot of time, energy, pain, and grief.

Step 2. Learn the basics in the most fun way possible. This is as easy as hiring a personal trainer for a session or even asking a keen friend, but in order to make it more fun, I suggest getting together with a few friends and doing it as a group. Invite a coach to come to your backyard and learn how to do push ups over lemonade and cookies. Learning with friends means you’ll be less nervous than showing up alone to a strange place in spandex. It’ll also be significantly cheaper and it will help you remember that this isn’t work; it’s learning how to use your body in a new way.

Step 3: Keep Showing Up. My motto in strength training is an old Woody Allen joke: “80% of life is showing up.” However you decide to strength train for the next year (yes, year), you’re going to get stronger as long as you listen to your body and do it consistently. So instead of worrying about “muscle groups” this and “sets and reps” that, put 100% of your focus, dedication, and creativity into figuring out how to show up and get a little better at picking up heavy things. Start small. Even a single push up every day will make you stronger.

Here are some suggestions you might not have thought of for ways to make strength training a habit:

  • Get a group and learn together. Whether in person or online, nothing works better than a community of people who are working toward the same thing.
  • Make it as convenient as possible. Gay, Saunders, and Dowda (2011) found that no matter how motivated people were to start an exercise program, the mitigating factor to their success was always convenience. So think outside the gym, and challenge a coworker to do squats together every day in the parking lot at lunch. Or squat your baby and put it on Instagram!
  • Have a Loaded Carry Party. If you want to get stronger in the most convenient and fun way possible, invite a bunch of friends over to a park on a Sunday and ask them to bring something heavy. Anything heavy. Books, bricks, dogfood. Anything that you can get your arms around, stuff into a canvas duffel bag, or dump into a cheap, plastic sled. Now carry them! Carry them on your back, wrapped in your arms, or drag them on the sled. Make a it a contest out and celebrate at the end with a beer! Just make sure you all agree to meet the next week and try it again.

Coach Stevo is the nutrition and sport psychology consultant at San Francisco CrossFit. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and is finishing his MA in Applied Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University. His specialty is habit-based training and he contributed  to Intervention by Dan John in 2012. His website is http://coachstevo.com.

  • Amanda

    Thanks for these tips! I’m trying to get into strength training myself, and these are good foundational principles to keep in mind.

    • Coach Stevo

      Thanks Amanda! Remember that the best are the best at the basics. Start small and keep getting better!

  • Heather Margaret

    When I lift weights with my arms, the pain makes me nauseas, so I quit and give up. What am I doing wrong? I’m starting with small weights, like 5 lbs…

    • Coach Stevo

      Heather, I am sorry that you experience so much pain when you lift with your arms. As a strength coach, when I hear the word “pain” I immediately think “out of my scope of practice.” When people are in pain, that is a sure sign the people they need to talk to are their General Practitioner or a competent physical therapist because as a strength coach, I do not have the proper skills or tools to assess, diagnose, or treat “pain that makes me nauseas.” I highly recommend telling your doctor that you experience pain when lifting more than 5 lbs. She or he will be able to help you get to strength training faster than any strength coach or personal trainer.

  • thimbelinda

    I joined a gym last month and have been doing the circuit machines. I have felt improvement in my strength and the amount I can lift has increased. My confusion is that I don’t feel the burn in the muscles that are highlighted in the directions listed on each machine. Am I doing something wrong or would something else be more effective?

    • Coach Stevo

      I think it’s great that you went out on a limb, tried something new, and that you’re experiencing strength gains! The amount you can move has increased so you are definitely getting stronger. As for where you feel it, the human body is much more complicated than the cartoon drawings on the sides of fitness machines and burn doesn’t matter as much as just plain getting stronger (which you’re doing!). If you are worried you are using the machines incorrectly, any personal trainer at the gym who’s not busy with a client should be able to check your form for you in a jiffy. And without a doubt, the most important ingredient in a strength training program is consistency. I’d worry less about “optimal” and more about “probable.” Keep doing what you’re doing and worry about change when you plateau, you have a new goal, or you just want to try something new.

    • Coachebert

      once you get over the initial soreness of working out and your muscles adjust to what you are doing you should not feel soreness after every workout.

      • Coach Stevo

        Indeed, Coach Ebert, and thank you for contributing. Soreness is newness and should dissipate quickly as one gets used to the movements.

      • Betsi

        this is good to know. i thought if i wasn’t sore then I wasn’t doing it right.

  • Gwen

    Can you recommend a DVD for weight training?

    • Coach Stevo

      Gwen, do a search for “Dan John DVD” on Amazon. I recommend any and all of those.

  • SpecialSundae

    Great advice, although perhaps using a Woody Allen quotation is in poor taste at the moment?

    • Coach Stevo

      I didn’t even think about that because I so strongly associate that quote with my parents. It’s been the Ledbetter Family Motto since it appeared in a New York Times article before I was born. Sorry to offend as that quote has such a different association to me.

  • Irene

    Steve, do you have any tips for someone like me who has arthritis in her feet (yes, you heard right, my feet!) and has a lot of trouble balancing to do things because of pain? And yes, I HAVE talked at length to my doctor and he wants me to strengthen my upper body and also all my upper leg muscles to help my kneecaps to track properly.

    I’ve got some resistance bands to help with the legs, I also own kettlebells and my son has weights and a cage in the garage, so there’s plenty of equipment around – I just need help with WHAT to do.

    • Coach Stevo

      Irene, I have your responded to your post, but it seems to be stuck in moderation. I’ll see what I can do to get my original response from yesterday approved.

      • Irene

        Steve, thanks for the reply but there is one big snag to your suggestion – the pain in one of my feet (the right one), makes it nigh on impossible for me to balance on that one for very long, much less actually do a proper squat (which I used to do regularly before any of this ever blew up on me).

        Would squats be any less effective if I leaned against a wall or rolled down a wall with a Swiss ball at my back? It’s only the matter of balance and not staying on that foot too long. I am supposed to be having surgery on it eventually, but I still have about 20 pounds to lose before the surgeon wants to go ahead.

        Believe me that last 20 pounds is really hard to shift when you can’t (not won’t, can’t) take proper exercise….

        • Coach Stevo

          Irene,

          What matters is the movement, nothing else. I am a fan of anything that gets you doing the movement of squatting without pain! Squatting with a BOSU ball on a wall is actually how I have taught many clients to squat (including a few 80+ year olds). I also recommend “six point rocks.” These are when you get on your hands and knees and push your butt back to your feet. If you loo at it from 90 degrees, it’s a squat (except gravity is acting in a different direction). I do these every day. I have also watched my mentor and friend Dan John to go from having a full hip replacement to winning a state weightlifting meet in a year by doing six point rocks every day and slowly working his way onto his feet after a few months (including some time with a BOSU ball). What matters is the movement! For more ideas on ways to squat without squatting, here is a great article from Dan about squat regressions. Just scroll to the part that says “Squat Regressions”

          http://www.t-nation.com/training/high-performance-no-bs-correctives

          Good luck, and just keep moving! You’re doing great!

          Coach Stevo

          • Irene

            Excellent – thank you!

          • Metalsmith

            “If you loo at it from 90 degrees”. Do that and you’ll most likely make a mess, to say nothing of it being ducedly awkward.

  • vibesgirl

    Steve, This is a timely log for me. I just started MFP and I am fascinated and gravitate towards the posts about heavy lifting, and the success stories, wow! Anyways, my question is, I just started trying to lose weight and get in shape. I am considered obese (80 pounds overweight) but I am healthy and am doing cardio and 30ds. Should I try to lose some of the weight before starting to try heavy lifting? You are right, all I can think is that I will get “bigger”

    • Coach Stevo

      I’m so glad to hear you’re on your way to your goals! If your doctor has cleared you, I think you’re probably safe to start lifting. I have worked with clients starting in similar places and learning to move properly and under load only seemed to accelerate their fat loss. Plus the preponderance of evidence points to heavy lifting being a huge benefit for people who are trying to lose weight. And the fact is, if you are eating in a caloric deficit you will not “get bigger” lifting weights. You might retain a little more water in the short term, but definitely not any more fat. HOWEVER. Doing steady state cardio, the high intensity metabolic work, and lifting weights is a LOT of stuff. When people do that much they tend to start thinking about how hard they are working and sneaky thoughts like, “I’m working so hard, I totally deserve some cake” start popping up. A few of those a week and many people find themselves out of a a caloric deficit and back into old habits. My suggestion would be to think about weight training as “skill building” or “that fun thing that I’m learning” or “that awesome thing I do with those people at the gym” rather than as “exercise.” When someone practices the piano, they don’t often think about how many muffins they’ve earned. I suggest you try and approach weight training in the same way: as practice for how you want to move in the future.

  • Neha

    Hi there,

    I suffer from cervical spondylosis and lower back pain… So all the doctors have advised not to do strength training… But my muscles are so weak that even carrying a 2 kg bag makes them hurt ….. how can i get started with strength training…

    • Coach Stevo

      Neha,
      Your doctors know a lot more about your condition and your personal history than I can, so I ethically cannot contradict their recommendations. I will suggest that another doctor’s opinion might be helpful. They might not tell you what you want to hear, but another doctor might take the time to help you understand what the limits of your diagnosis might be.

  • NanaGettingFit

    I lost 40 lbs, and have been within a 5 lb maintenance range for over a year now. I started working out on machines at the gym and have made improvements in my strength. I borrowed a standard 45 lb bar and some plates from my son and have experimented with squats and deadlifts at home. I really would love to get into this more, but am so intimidated in that section of my gym, and while I can do 95 lb deadlifts at home – I can’t get the bar over my head with much weight for squats without a rack to put the bar on! Will I do just as well to stick with the machines at the gym? My gym offers a lot of classes (Body Works Plus Abs) that use small hand held weights with more reps – which doing these classes, I find that my muscles are sore afterwards, so something is working. I guess I’m not sure which direction to head – I want to develop LONG TERM exercises that I will stick to for years (I am 55). Can those classes possibly count as “strength training” and need rest days in between? So many questions! Also, the “trainers” at my gym just seem to want to push you to do all this boot camp type stuff – which isn’t for me!

    • Coach Stevo

      Hey Nana, I’m so glad that you have made it so far on your fitness journey! You’re an inspiration! It sounds like you’re really eager to get started with that barbell and I think that’s fantastic. As for how to get over the hump of actually learning what to do with the damn thing, have you asked your son to take you to the gym and show you? Squats and deadlifts are fantastic for a long term exercise program (my 80yo clients ALL squat and hinge daily), but I had to get them over the hump with a lot of smiles and empathy. Which is also the same way that I taught my mother when she asked me :) If your son is unwilling to teach you, then I suggest getting a friend or two and ganging up on one of those bootcamp trainers! There’s power in numbers and if a bunch of awesome 55yo women cornered me in the gym and ask to learn to squat and deadlift, I’d be more than happy to teach them!

  • wind

    I am just starting 30 min. a day walk/cardio. But I would like to do some 5lb. wghts. to mix in in my walking or separate. What do you recommend and , Thanks for the great answere below. I am starting slow and steady. (I have lupus and fibromyalgia which have made me weak these past few years. THANKS

    • Coach Stevo

      Wind, skip the weights and SQUAT. Or actually, you can use the weights to squat too :) I do not seem to be able to post video, but do a search for “youtube dan john goblet squat” for a great, cheesy, funny guide about how to start squatting.

  • Gretchen Hill

    Awesome tips! I do strength training by myself and these tips help me how to start proper training and a foundational principle to keep in mind.

    • Coach Stevo

      Thanks, Gretchen!

      • Gretchen Hill

        Your welcome Coach Stevo!

  • Rick

    What is the best workout for losing weight and defining muscle. I am looking for a workout that lasts no more than 40 min a day on my lunch break. I do cardio at home after work.I am not interested in getting big but i would like to be defined and cut. I need to lose 20 LBS by mid april and have been doing low carb, 30-40 minutes of cardio a day and lifting weights 4 days a week. I am feeling pretty firm now everywhere but around the middle.

    • Coach Stevo

      The best workout is the one you do consistently. It sounds like you are definitely doing the right things and might only need to see them through. In fact, it sounds like your week is full enough! Listen to your body and dedicate your efforts to being consistent. Most fat loss goals can be met with a simple diet of whole foods and about 5 hours a week in the gym. The biggest barrier that most people have to their goals is the patience to see a program through until the end! I will also tell you what any other competent coach will tell you and what every kinesiology scientist in the world will tell you: There is no such thing as spot fat loss. I will say it again: There is no such thing as spot fat loss. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something.

  • dotty

    Hi there we just bought a juicer, any idea how to calculate the calories into your fitness pal. we tried kale, apples , beets peppers

    • Coach Stevo

      Measure out how much of each whole foods you used to juice and then enter that number in grams. Most of the weight left over in the juicer will be fiber which has little to no caloric value (although is really awesome for keeping your blood sugar stable and your belly full).

  • Melanie McIntosh

    Hi Steve. I am trying to lose weight and also tone up at the same time. I love doing exercise classes rather than going to the gym on my own. If I do go to the gym on my own it is only because I cant fit in a class and is for around 30 mins. I tend to stick to cardio interval training on treadmill/cross trainer/bike. The classes I do are Spin for cardio and Kettlebells, Body Pump, CXworX and sometimes TRX for strength training. Should I be looking to a heavy lifting program maybe once or twice a week in the gym instead of the classes or stick to what I enjoy? I should also mention that I have around 30lbs to lose. Thanks.

    • Coach Stevo

      You should absolutely stick to what you enjoy. I love picking up heavy things and teaching it so I know that there are classes out there that will meet your criteria for a strength-training group. Keep looking and hopefully you’ll find one that works out for you but until then, keep up to great work and keep having fun!

  • anne

    I do you have any tip for me. I had my first baby in July 2012. I lost almost all the baby weight . But I have this little poochy belly I can’t get rid of . I m 24 .5’10 166 lbs. Thanks

  • Shona

    Hey Coach,

    Quick question…

    I have started weight lifting rescently and am really enjoying it. Only problem is that I suffer DOMS really bad the 2nd day after training, especially after squats! I always warm up and down and I always stretch during both. I stay as hydrated as I can, but nothing seems to help. A couple of lads I know tell me to “just do more squats”… Like it’s just that easy. The DOMS is so bad I can barely even walk, and stairs make me want to cry! Ha ha.

    Any advice you could offer on combating this problem would be very much appreciated!

    Kind regards,

    Shona.

  • ArmandoSanchez8233

    Hey Coach, I’m currently working out between 4-5 days a week for 30 minutes, doing compound exercises, and cardio treadmill walking for 30 minutes a day 7 days a week. I’m currently at 360lbs, I use the MyFitnessPal app to track all my calories, and I try for a calorie deficit of 350-525 calories a day, since the app says I should have a caloric intake of 3200. My goal is to be around 180lbs, do you have any advice on what to cut out from my diet? I try to eat whole grain wheat bread, eat enough fruit, and I really try to limit soda and sweet tea. Any help would be welcome.

  • Debbie Block Davis

    Steve, I need help. I started working out at a local gym and also doing group classes. I was losing weight but somehow ended up tearing my meniscus and having surgery. I couldn’t exercise and gained 25 lbs “ouch”. It has been 6+ months now since surgery and I have started walking but the weight is stubborn this time around. I also started juicing at least twice aday. What should I do next or more of to get this weight off. I am a 50y/o female. I weight 180lbs with a goal weight of 140. I am 5’6. I have been released to work out. I think I have a little arthritis in that knee.

    Thank for your help

  • Bea

    Hello Steve,

    I’m 60 year old female who has been lifting heavy weights for quite a few years. I’ve worked out with some fantastic personal trainers so I know the correct forms and all. My husband and I use to work out together everyday and we spotted each other. I had hand surgery last year on my left hand for a couple trigger fingers and carpel tunnel. After I healed I went back to lifting heavy then I started having a few incidents where I felt like my fingers might lock up again. Went back to my orthopedic and he told me I had to stop lifting heavy. He said women especially my age and older start getting thinner tendons in their hands as they get older. When he told me to stop I felt like he had just ripped something in me. So I’ve been doing some women’s classes like power pump, Zumba and stuff like that five days a week plus an hr of cardio on the elliptical. I’ve got bad knees, both had muniscle tears so one knee they took it all out so it’s bone on bone so that’s why I do elliptical. My dr told me I could lift weights but I had to go very light with more reps. I have not done that cause I feel it’s a waste of my time cause it will not get me stronger. Any recommendations would sure be appreciated.

  • Rochelle

    Hi coach! I just joined a gym and got a personal trainer. I m a 300lb 6ft female in desperate need to loose at least 100 lbs. I get on the treadmill and do 45 minutes at 3.5 speed and tgen i get with a personal trainer and do strength training. Howrver, i believe he us not training me tge right way. I have never worked out before n the first day he had me doing 3 sets of 30 withstarting weight of 25lbs and after each set he added 10lbs. This is upper body n lower body. The next day i am literally paralyzed my muscles are so soar i can barely do basic necessities. Is this normal and is he doing to much to fast?

    • Digits

      I am a personal trainer and I believe you should be careful of this trainer. When starting to get into exercising you should feel soreness, but, as mentioned above by Stevo and Ebert, you should not feel this way after each workout. Fast gains as you have mentioned are more for building muscle than anything and I would recommend this only for experienced weight lifters. As for the number of sets and reps, I typically recommend 3 sets of 12-15 reps, all at the same weight, possibly adding 5-10 lbs if you feel you are not being challenged enough by the exercise. To add 30 lbs to an exercise in the course of one day is going to be counterproductive and will do you more harm than good. A good rule of thumb when increasing the intensity of an exercise (either reps or weight) is never to increase by more than 10% at a time, and do not increase more than once a week.

      Not to undermine you here Stevo I just wanted to add my opinion for this gal’s consideration. Rochelle, good luck with your weight loss, and again, please be careful of this guy. I would seriously consider hiring a different trainer and if you do, make sure they are certified or find some way to make yourself sure that they know what they are doing.

  • Cheryl

    Steve;

    I have always felt my shoulders are my main weakness but even when I used to make an effort to improve strength I felt the gains were minimal for the amount of effort expended. When I got a dog I dropped my gym membership because I need to exercise her twice a day and I work full time and I don’t want to leave her home even longer. I have some light dumbbells at home (I have pairs of 1 lb, 2 lb and 3 lb as well as some configurable dumbbells) What would you suggest I work on to improve shoulder strength?

    Thanks!

  • Donna

    Hi Irene,
    I like you also have very bad arthritis in my feet. I have had awful pain while walking for years which has caused my hips and knees to become affected. I have also babied my feet for many years because of the pain. I decided to try crossfit figuring I wouldn’t be able to do much because of my feet. Guess what? While initially some of the things did hurt, the more I went, the less my feet hurt! I am actually able to run (short distances) and I can even do a few box jumps now. I think if at all possible just try doing any type of exercise you may like and you may be surprised .Good Luck!

  • Meg

    Ok, so I weight train 3x weekly and cardio 3-4x weekly and fitness model diet 5-6 days a week, and I’m seeing GREAT results dispute my many physical hiccups…what can one expect to burn, calories wize doing 60 min of weight training? Myfitnesspal allows me to put in my exercises, but does NOT shoe calories burned. It’s frustrating :/

  • goodbodies

    so in the goblet squat…i hear nothing about being careful about letting your knees go out past your toes when u squat down…Very dangerous, esp if u are holding heavy weights…any thought on this?