How to Start Strength Training

Couple lifting weights
Couple Lifting Weights, Image Courtesy of Ambro,

The terms “weight training” and “strength training” are often used interchangeably. However, strength training can include working with free weights, weight machines and resistance bands, as well as doing exercises that use the body’s own weight, such as sit-ups, push-ups and squats.

Getting Started

It is a good idea to consult your doctor before beginning a strength training program if you have any medical conditions that could be aggravated by weight training. The next step is to join a gym or a community center with a fitness room, or to purchase free weights that you can use at home.

Choosing a Fitness Center

When choosing a gym or fitness club, spend some time getting to know the place. Go for at least one trial workout to ensure that the equipment and social ambiance is right for you. Don’t let yourself be pressured into signing a contract or purchasing sessions with a personal trainer until you’ve had time to think about whether or not this is a place where you would feel comfortable working out.

Free Weights or Exercise Machines

The advantage of beginning in a gym or community center is that most have weight machines, which tend to be better for novices because they stabilize the body and ensure the correct range of motion. However, in the long term, exercises using free weights are better for more advanced weight trainers, with machines used only as a supplement or to do exercises that cannot easily be done with dumbbells and barbells. The exception to this is those who have injuries or mobility limitations. Machines enable the performance of exercises that work one set of muscles without straining others.

How to Choose Your Exercises

Ideally, when you start training, you should speak to a trainer at your gym regarding your fitness goals. Do you want to lose weight and streamline your body? Are you trying to add muscle quickly? Are you seeking to improve your overall fitness or your performance in a particular sport? If you are weight training in order to become a better skier, for example, building strength in your legs may be more important than adding upper body strength. If you are interested in weight loss and building endurance, it is better to do more repetitions (12-15) with a slightly lighter weight, whereas to build muscle faster, it is better to use a weight that you can only lift 8-10 times to start, and increase the weight when you can do 10-12 repetitions easily.

Supplementary Strength-Training Exercises

In addition to working with weights, other strength-training exercises provide benefits ranging from increased muscle mass to weight loss to improved endurance. Supplementary strength training exercises include sit-ups, squats, chin-ups, push-ups, triceps dips, step-ups and other exercises that use body weight to promote muscle growth. If you are away on vacation and do not have access to a gym, such strength training routines are a good way to stay in shape so that you do not injure yourself when you return to your regular training.

Well-Rounded Programs

The best fitness programs are well-rounded, incorporating many different types of exercise that increase strength, balance, cardiovascular fitness and flexibility. A good fitness program includes strength training, cardiovascular exercise and stretching after workouts to prevent injury and muscle soreness and enhance flexibility.

Target Your Weaknesses

Assess your weak areas and make correcting these weaknesses part of your fitness goals. Weaknesses may be specific muscle groups where you lack strength, areas that have been weakened by injuries or overall poor endurance. In the case of injuries, a good strength training program can build up the muscles in the problem area, decreasing pain and improving strength and flexibility; however, it is important to consult your doctor or physical therapist when training for injury mitigation to ensure that you don’t make the problem worse by doing the wrong exercises or overworking the injured area.

Listen to Your Body

Your weight training should be difficult, particularly the last couple of repetitions of each set, but it should not be painful. If you experience pain, you are pushing your body too far. Either you are lifting too much weight or you have an injury that needs to heal before you work that particular body area. Injuring yourself will slow your progress.

Have a Training Partner

It is often beneficial to have someone who wants to start a strength training program with you, or an experienced weight trainer who can show you the ropes. Either way, having a buddy can increase motivation.

It’s Never too Late

A Boston nursing home study of 100 people between 72 and 98 years of age found that strength training three times a week for two-and-a-half months generated muscle strength gains of 113%, as well as increased walking speed and additional benefits. Other studies have found similar results, indicating that weight training reverses many aspects of aging, such as bone and muscle loss, and can be started at any age.

For more strength training, general fitness, and health articles, see the main Mind/Body Health page.


    • Fahey, T. (2005). Weight Training Basics. New York: McGraw-Hill.
    • Weil, R., MEd, CDE. (2007). “Weight Lifting.”

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