10 Things All Beginning Lifters Should Know

Every experienced lifter out there can remember the first time they moseyed into the weightroom, full of fear, confusion, and insecurity. Though most of us make it past these initial stages, some lifters never do. Some lifters quit training, mostly because they don’t understand it. If only there was a seasoned lifter at every gym who could talk to beginners and educate them on what things are important and what things aren’t very important. Below are the more common sources of confusion and misunderstanding that newcomers to resistance training share.

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1. The Exercises Become Easier Over Time

Starting out, nothing seems to feel natural. Asymmetries are abound, rhythm is lacking, and coordination is terrible. This is especially true for compound, multi-joint lifts. Maintaining good mechanical form is incredibly difficult, especially as load and effort increase. The ability to contract certain muscles or feel certain muscles working during movements can be challenging at first, and cues like, “stay tight” don’t seem to make much sense early on. Going to failure leads to terrible break-down in form, as does performing anything heavier than a 5RM. Don’t worry, this all changes over time.

The good news is that every single training session, you’ll be rapidly increasing your stability and coordination. Every week, the lifts feel more and more natural. In 2-3 months, most of the lifts will feel right, and in a year, you’ll feel quite confident in your form and exercise competency. You’ll be able to get much more out of heavy lifting, and you’ll be able to hold much better form when taking a set close to failure. Make sure you consistently use strict form – your nervous system will be grooving motor programs so they become roughly automatic, and you want these memorized motor patterns to be solid.

2. Sweating is Overrated

Beginners seem to feel that they should be performing circuit training when they first start lifting, and this tendency appears more common with women. I suppose that this desire to ramp up the metabolic rate and get a big sweat going makes logical sense; it is natural to want to work hard and give a workout your all. But while circuit training can definitely be effective, it’s not the best way to build a great physique.

You need to get comfortable with resting in between sets. Now, the amount of time you rest will vary depending on your inherent recovery ability, the exercise you perform, and your goals. For example, women recover faster in between sets than men, squats require more rest time between sets than curls, and strength athletes will usually rest a bit more in between sets than physique athletes.

However, in general, you’ll want to wait around 120-180 seconds in between sets of intense compound lower body exercise, 90-120 seconds in between sets of intense compound upper body exercise, and 60-90 seconds in between sets of isolation exercises. Exceptions can certainly be made, but the point is, you shouldn’t just bounce from one exercise to the next without resting at all in between sets. Learn to cherish the rest time, as it gives your muscles time to recover so that you can perform higher quality sets, gain more strength, and build a better body.

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Now, maybe I shouldn’t have said that “sweating” is overrated. You will definitely sweat while you lift weights. But the goal isn’t to just jack up your heart rate as high as possible and maintain this elevation throughout the training session, nor is it to sweat as much as humanly possible. An amateur equipped with a whistle could give you a very challenging workout by just having you do non-stop push-ups, burpees, mountain climbers, and jump rope, but this strategy would fail to maximize your physique enhancement. Building a stronger body over time should be the long-term goal, not collapsing in the floor in exhaustion.

3. Soreness is Overrated

Many lifters gauge the effectiveness of their workouts on how sore they are over the following couple of days post-workout. This, too, is short-sighted. Soreness is a decent indicator of muscle damage, but muscle damage is just one of three primary mechanisms (and probably the least important) of muscle hypertrophy. Moreover, exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) is more related to strain than activation, meaning that you can just do a ton of exercise that stretches the muscle to long lengths without highly activating the muscle and you will create damage. Finally, novelty leads to greater soreness, so if you were hell-bent on getting sore, then you could just do a bunch of new exercises.

However, these strategies aren’t ideal for building muscle, building strength, or shaping the body. Some soreness is good, but the law of diminishing returns applies. Excessive soreness prevents you from achieving quality workouts on subsequent days. If you perform full body training sessions several times per week, then soreness will prevent you from gaining strength. Many of my clients who have seen the best results typically experience very little soreness but gain tremendous strength over time. Building a stronger body over time should be the long-term goal, not crippling yourself so that you can barely move the following day.

4. Cardio is Overrated

Sure, cardio is great for your health and stamina. But so is strength training. Ever wear a heart rate monitor when you lift? If so, then you’re well aware of how effective plain old resistance training is for stimulating the cardiovascular system. But I know what you’re thinking – cardio is vital for fat loss. Is it really?

Think about this. Two twins weigh 200 lbs and are 25% bodyfat. They want to get leaner. Twin A does cardio all year long. By the end of the year, he loses ten pounds. Five of the pounds lost are fat and five are muscle. Now he weighs 190 lbs and is now 24% bodyfat. Twin B lifts weights all year long and consumes some additional protein each day. By the end of the year, he too loses ten pounds. However, he ended up putting on 5 lbs of muscle while simultaneously losing 15 lbs of fat. He’s now 190 lbs and his bodyfat percentage has dropped to 18%. Twin B looks much better than twin A.

Kristen

Lifting weights is incredible for improving body composition over time, but you have to gain strength and engage in progressive overload. You want to get as strong as possible in all rep ranges in a variety of movements at a given bodyweight to maximize your aesthetics. I have amassed numerous case studies such as Kristen to demonstrate the efficacy of just strength training on body composition and shape. This isn’t to say that you should never do cardio, especially if you like it. But in most beginners overestimates cardio’s effects on body composition changes and mistakenly believe that if they don’t do their cardio, they’ll get fat (or they won’t lose fat). Some lifters mistakenly believe that cardio gives them the right to binge on junk food (of they think that a quick cardio session will “undo” a binge). This is definitely not true, and the best physiques in the world usually belong to those who prioritize strength training and eat properly.

5. Strength is Underrated

It’s not just about going to the gym and doing the exercises. Showing up and simply “going through the motions,” will not yield fantastic results. You have to push yourself on many levels… push yourself to maintain sound technical form when the going gets tough… push yourself to squeeze out another rep… push yourself to add 5-10 more pounds to the bar… push yourself to master new exercises and variations.

There will be times when your strength gains stagnate. You’ll have to analyze your form, analyze your training program, and consider everything else outside of the gym (diet, sleep, stress, etc.). But if you’re dialed in on gaining strength, you will prevail. Every year, your body will be stronger than it was the year before, and your physique will continue to improve. Strength creates curves and shapes the body. The same cannot be said for cardio and stretching. Prioritize progressive overload and your body will thank you for it.

6. Consistency is the Name of the Game

I know you’re gung-ho. You want to fast-forward your results and do everything possible to expedite your progress. However, more isn’t better. Training four hours a day, seven days per week won’t help you reach your goals more quickly, quite the opposite. It could easily lead to overuse injury, which would stop your progress dead in its tracks. You don’t need to combine every method under the sun. Trust me, we all read about new exercises and new regimens. We see the headlines just like you… sprinting for fat loss, plyos for power, grueling conditioning workouts to get you shredded, and various stretching movements for “long, lean muscles.” The temptation to train for hours on end is there for all of us, but it didn’t work for us, and it won’t work for you.

What you need is not endless exercise or crash diets, but consistency in the gym. It takes time to create adaptation. Strength training will create a denser body. If mass stays the same, this means less volume or overall size, which explains why clothes typically start hanging off of people even though bodyweight on the scale might not change. Bones will become denser, tendons and ligaments will become stronger, and muscles will start to reveal their shape. Fat will be shed and body composition will markedly improve over time, as will functional strength.

However, the rate at which these adaptations occur is rather slow. You will not get the body of your dreams overnight. In fact, you won’t get the body of your dreams in 30-days. In a year, you’ll be very pleased with your progress, but it is very likely that you still will not be completely satisfied. Building your best body is a work in progress that takes years to achieve. Consistency is the name of the game. The tortoise always beats the hare in the iron game, and there’s no better way to improve your physique than plain, old resistance training. Your goal should be to lift weights 3-5 days per week for 50 weeks out of the year for five straight years. If you do this, I guarantee that you will see great results.

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7. Neural Improvements Precede Hypertrophic Improvements

During your first couple of months of strength training, you’ll likely be asking yourself, “What in the heck is going on – I’m gaining tons of strength, but my body isn’t changing much?” This is normal. During your first six weeks of training, your strength will rapidly increase, but these improvements will be brought upon largely by the nervous system. Your brain will figure out what you want it to do and will begin to coordinate the muscle actions and activate the proper muscles in the proper timing sequence more effectively. After a month or two, the primary cause of strength gains begin to be brought upon by hypertrophy. Your muscles will now begin to grow, and your shape will start improving. Make sure you stick it out during these initial times so you can reap the rewards of your hard work.

8. Hypertrophy is Your Friend

In case you didn’t already know, the word hypertrophy refers to muscle growth. If you’re a male, then chances are you don’t need any convincing about the merits of strength training for hypertrophy. However, if you’re a woman, then you might be on the fence. Perhaps you just want to get skinny and don’t want any appreciable gains in muscle mass. This is all well and good, but just know that your diet largely determines whether you gain weight, maintain weight, or lose weight. Exercise certainly helps, but not as much as most people assume (at least not in the amounts that most people perform).

At any rate, in a caloric surplus, strength training will cause the weight that you gain to consist of a higher proportion of muscle and a lower proportion of fat. At a caloric maintenance, strength training will cause your body to recompose so that you gain more muscle, lose fat, and improve your bodyfat percentage. At a caloric deficit, strength training will cause the weight that you lose to consist of a higher proportion of fat and a lower proportion of muscle.

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This is important, as you want to maintain your muscle as you lose weight. First of all, muscle mass influences your metabolic rate, so holding onto your muscle will keep your metabolism elevated. And second, holding onto muscle will allow you to retain your curves. Nobody ever says, “My goal is to get skinny-fat.” If you get skinny but you have little muscle, flabby glutes, and 30% bodyfat levels or more, then I’m almost certain that you won’t be pleased with your physique. When you lose weight, you rarely just lose fat for weight loss. You have to do everything in your power to preserve the muscle and whittle off the fat.

As you can see, strength training is “pro-anabolic” training when gaining weight and “anti-catabolic” training when losing weight. It helps no matter what your goals are and what your diet is like.

9. You Can’t Out-Train a Crummy Diet

Diet is equally, if not more important than strength training for physique purposes. The person who consumes a nutritious, healthy diet and stays active will have a better physique than the person who trains hard but eats complete crap, even if this person doesn’t lift weights. You need to make sure you’re regularly consuming the proper number of calories and the proper ratios of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Many women don’t consume enough protein, and this negatively impacts their rate of physique improvement. Many individuals regularly consume too many calories, too much sugar, and too much saturated fat. Don’t get me wrong, a healthy diet has room for sugar and fat, but you can’t just eat whatever the heck you want and expect to possess a great physique. That is, unless you have elite genetics or you rarely crave junk food. Good nutrition and training go hand-in-hand, so make sure you don’t sabotage your gains by eating poorly.

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10. Suffering and Progress Aren’t Linearly Correlated

Many lifters mistakenly believe that the more they suffer, the better results they’ll see. Sure, strength training is challenging. Sure, you will have to sacrifice in order to make progress. Sure, you will have to abstain from eating too much of certain foods. As you gain experience, strength, and conditioning, your workouts become more and more rigorous and demanding, which can be daunting. However, life doesn’t have to absolutely suck in order for you to see excellent results. You can get in and out of the gym in around an hour, you can and should take days off from training, you can season your foods, you can incorporate the foods you love into your diet in proper amounts, you can enjoy variety in your diet and experiment with new recipes, and you can plan ahead of time to allow yourself some wiggle room at social gatherings so you can splurge a little bit. You need to create a regimen that’s flexible and sustainable, so make sure your training and diet isn’t so grueling that it’ll cause you to quit in a couple of months. Start thinking about longevity and learn to enjoy your healthy habits.

Conclusion

So there you have it – ten things that all beginning lifters should be aware of. Lifting weights is tough. Stepping inside of a weightroom for the first time is intimidating. Changing your daily routine takes determination and dedication. But you must stick with it, as the rewards are numerous.

Strength training leads to the maintenance of functional ability, the prevention of osteoporosis, sarcopenia, lower-back pain and other disabilities, a reduction in insulin-resistance, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, falls, fractures, and disabilities, cardiovascular demands of exercise, and depression, an improvement in metabolic rate, glucose metabolism, blood pressure, body fat and central adiposity, blood-lipid profiles, gastrointestinal transit time, cognitive function, and quality of life, and an increase in muscle and connective tissue cross-sectional area, strength, power, endurance, hypertrophy, flexibility, joint stability, posture, mood, and self-esteem.

In other words, lifting weights makes you look good, feel good, and function well. But you need to know what you’re doing. Hopefully this article has shed some light on what things are critical in allowing you to reach your full potential.

24 Comments

  • Mirna Alsharif says:

    Fantastic article !!! Perfectly said and inspirational. I will definitely share it with my clients.

    Mirna

  • Tim says:

    Pure awesome Bret. A must read for everyone entering the strength/fitness game.

  • Jeff says:

    Thank you for writing this!

    What if a woman has “extra-chunky” thighs, how would you recommend programming strength training in this case?

  • Alexandra says:

    Excellent article!

  • Rolan says:

    Good read!

  • Chuck says:

    Very good article Bret. This is something everyone should read. I wish I had this advice when I started my quest to get in shape a few years ago.

  • Amy says:

    I would love to get a trainer to show me some basics. Any recommendations for trainers who train like you do, in Los Angeles? Thanks

  • Sian says:

    Best top 10 lifting points yet.
    Hey Bret,
    when you flyin’ to Hawaii and paddling w/us?

    Thx for all you hard work.
    Sian

    • Bret says:

      Sian, I’ve never surfed before, I bet I’d suck at it haha! When I finish my PhD next year, I need to rectify this problem immediately. Glad you liked the article, and I freakin’ love Hawaii.

      • Good stuff Bret! I wish I would have had this one about 20 years ago!
        Yes, surfing just looks so amazing and is a must do on my list too. I kiteboard and that is awesome! Highly recommend it. Just get the PhD cranked out 🙂 (I got tired of hearing that all the time too, like it is a walk in the park)
        Mike N

  • Thea says:

    Being a beginner, I really want to thank you for this thought: “The tortoise always beats the hare in the iron game”. Excellent.

  • Reilly says:

    What a great presentation of such important points. Thanks Bret!

  • Rick says:

    Good list, but I would disagree with #4. Not because I want to overrate cardio, but you should know that the HR-VO2 relationship does not hold during resistance training and that the increased HR during resistance training is generated by a different physiologic mechanism than during cardio. Increased HR during resistance training is not evidence of a cardio training effect.

    • Charles says:

      Re VO2 check out this one: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11556-013-0120-1

      I saw these mentioned somewhere but have not read:

      Schuenke, et al. Effect of an acute period of resistance exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: Implications for body mass management European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2002;86:411-417.

      Scott, et al. Misconceptions about aerobic and anaerobic energy expenditure. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2005;2:32-37.

      Re aerobic process produced by resistance training: I have read with Doug McGuff that built-up lactic acid is converted back to pyruvate during recovery, which is metabolised aerobically…

  • Ken says:

    Fantastic article. Spot on and very informative.

  • Charles says:

    Thank you for more solid thought leadership.

    Did you maybe slip up on the standard “too much saturated fat” line?
    Are there any studies to show the detriment of consuming too much saturated fat?
    From what I understood it is our polyunsaturated fat intake that is way higher than many pre-industrial diets. While our saturated fat intake is lower and has been dropping since the 1970s – exactly when some of the bigger health problems started.
    Can you have a look thru the following site and tell me how these studies stack up?: healthydietsandscience.blogspot.com
    Perhaps the most common sources of saturated fat in the US are not good food options (processed cheese, cheese on pizzas, and desserts), but I am not sure it is because of the saturated fat 🙂

    • Bret says:

      Good call Charles. What I should have said is that we eat too much saturated fat in combination with sugar. A low carb diet could be very high in saturated fat yet not lead to any deterioration in health parameters, and a low fat diet could be high in sugar (especially with endurance athletes) and not lead to any health problems. So context is important. People should not fear saturated fat or sugar, they just need to keep things in proper balance. Thanks for chiming in!

  • mceh says:

    i love this article! it’s a great summation and reminder & very motivating

  • Christopher Jaros says:

    Bret – super article – I have a question – when I read your articles I see nothing about the AGE issue.

    I’m a personal trainer and while I feel comfortable with many of your methods for my clients in their 20s I cannot say the same about those above 40.

    Would love your take on training for over 40 versus under 40 Thanks

  • […] 10 Things All Beginning Lifters Should Know – The good news is that every single training session … Don’t get me wrong, a healthy diet has room for sugar and fat, but you can’t just eat whatever the heck you want and expect to possess a great physique. That is, unless you have elite genetics … […]

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