Peloton's Ultimate Guide to Strength Training for Beginners
Discover why strength training may be what your fitness routine is missing.
By Team Peloton•
If you’ve ever been at the gym and wished you knew exactly what to do with those racks of free weights or how manage a barbell, you’re not alone. Strength training can feel daunting for beginners, but it truly is something just about anyone can take advantage of. Whether you incorporate it into your existing routine as a cross-training tool, or make resistance training your go-to physical activity, strength training has long-lasting benefits that will have you feeling ready and able to tackle your next goal, in or out of the gym.
In this guide, we’ll help you find confidence in understanding and building a strength training routine that works for you. We’ll also lay out some of its many benefits and dive into the types of strength training to choose from. Additionally, we’ll discuss the differences between cardio and strength training, confirm if strength training actually burns fat, touch on functional strength training, and lastly, walk through some popular exercises you can try at home.
To help us get you started on your strength training journey, we called on Peloton instructor Matty Maggiacomo to weigh in on some of the roadblocks you might encounter and provide encouragement along the way. The key to success will be to lay a strong foundation to build on, so let’s get started!
Strength Training for Beginners
If you’re approaching strength training as a complete beginner, welcome! Starting a strength training routine with a clean slate is the best-case scenario, as you’ll have no bad habits to unlearn. Sooner than you think, you’ll feel confident in your ability to target your workouts to your specific goals and needs.
For starters, if you’re going to embrace strength training, you don’t need to commit to it every single day. In fact, when it comes to this type of exercise, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The Department of Health and Human Services released physical activity guidelines suggesting Americans should aim to train all major muscle groups at moderate or greater intensity two or more times a week.
Rather than workout every day, aim to add strength training into your routine two or three days a week when starting out. This ensures your routine will be sustainable in the long run. By setting your weekly goal low, you’ll find your rhythm and add or remove workouts according to your schedule and needs.
Matty encourages strength training beginners to simply get started: “Do it now! Well, first make sure you're cleared by a doctor if you've had previous injuries or any health conditions. The first few weeks can be challenging, but it's all about getting in tune with how your body moves. It can be daunting at first but you'll really be happy with the payoff. Think about joining Peloton’s Beginner Strength Program with me and Olivia Amato.” (Psst: You can find this and more beginner strength training classes on the Peloton App.)
Another strength training myth we’d like to bust is that you have to lift super heavy weights in order to see results. The good news is, you don’t have to push your body that way, and you don’t have to commit to endless sets for strength training to be effective. According to the Mayo Clinic, a single set of 12 to 15 repetitions with the proper weight can build muscle efficiently in most people and can be as effective as three sets of the same exercise. As long as you work the muscle to fatigue—meaning you can't complete another repetition—you’re doing the work necessary to make the muscle stronger. And you can use a lighter weight (or even your own bodyweight) with a higher number of repetitions to feel the burn, which will make it easier to find and maintain the correct form when you’re just starting out.
You may be tempted to push yourself too hard when first starting out, but as with all new exercise habits, that would be a mistake. Give yourself ample time to warm up and cool down, and take things slow. In fact, Matty says the first step for beginners should be bodyweight-only work. “Do not jump right into weights before you spend at least two weeks moving through a bodyweight strength and balance routine,” he warns. Then, you can integrate light weights, although when asked if you have to use weights while strength training, Matty says you absolutely do not. Bodyweight work is incredibly effective and a perfect first step.
It’s also of paramount importance to focus on your form and posture, not on how much weight you can lift or how quickly you can complete a set. Poor form can lead to injury, and can even be counterproductive. Matty says that too many people end up grabbing the wrong weight and repping it out as fast as possible with terrible form, which can lead to injury. “Be a tortoise, not a hare,” he encourages. Want some extra help perfecting your form? The Peloton Guide transforms your TV into an AI-powered personal trainer to give you visual feedback on your form and even counts your reps while you work out.
If you’re curious about how a strength training session differs from other workout types, the primary difference is in the routine itself. In other popular forms of exercise, there tends to be a flow when moving between exercises or poses (as in yoga). There is also typically a set time to complete the workout. But in a strength workout, you’ll typically work through somewhere between 10 to 15 reps per exercise, and repeat them in circuit. There is much less focus on how fast or slow you work through the reps; instead, there’s a heavy emphasis on form and body integrity to avoid injury and maximize effectiveness. Strength training takes the progressive overload approach as you put your muscles under more tension and load in shortened positions to grow stronger.
As with any form of exercise, there are certain terms and phrases associated with strength training that instructors often use. These are a few key phrases you may hear during a strength training session:
Reps: Short for “repetitions.” The number of times you will perform an exercise during your set. Typically you’ll start with 10 to 15 reps for each move.
Set: A collection of reps, with short breaks in between to help you effectively pace yourself.
Circuit: A combination of exercises that are done back to back. In strength training there will typically be a lower body circuit, an upper body circuit, and a full body circuit.
Muscle Mass: The amount of muscle on your body. The goal of weight training is to increase the overall mass of all the body’s muscle groups.
Barbell: A bar with weighted plates at each end that can be detached and changed depending on the exercise.
Dumbbell: A small handle with static weighted ends.
Kettlebell: An weighted iron or steel ball with an integrated handle.
Resistance Band: An elastic band that may have handles on either end and comes in light, medium, and heavy resistance to assist in exercises.
Form: The proper way a movement or exercise is meant to be done in order to avoid injury and improve performance. The goal of good form is for there to be consistency and integrity in each exercise.
Intensity: How much effort is required of the body during exercise. Typically, strength training exercises are classified as low-, medium-, or high-intensity, based on the degree of effort required to perform them.
Extension: A physical position referring to the angle between two body parts. Extension occurs when the angle between two parts increases.
Flexion: A physical position referring to the angle between two body parts. Flexion occurs when the the angle between two parts decreases.
Time Under Tension: The total amount of time a muscle/muscle group is being activated. Greater time under tension, can improve muscle growth.
Resistance: The weight or force that your muscles work against in order to increase strength. Resistance can be delivered through free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, and bodyweight exercises.
Another point to touch on is how important it is to rest between strength training sessions. Remember how we mentioned that you should start with a goal of strength training twice a week? That’s not just because it can be hard to fit exercise into your schedule. It’s also because you need to give your body time off between sessions, especially as a beginner. Your muscles need time to recuperate, and the reason might surprise you: Strength training causes tiny tears in muscle tissue, and while these tears aren’t harmful, they are important. Muscles grow stronger as the tears repair themselves, so you should always give your muscles at least 48 hours to recover in between training sessions.
Finally, keep in mind that every single strength training enthusiast started out as a beginner. It’s not a skill people are born with. It takes practice and dedication just like any other form of exercise.
Benefits Of Strength Training
So what results can you expect from strength training? “Well, for starters you'll get stronger,” Matty says. “You'll start to see that you’re progressively able to lift more weight, or at the very least, you're able to accomplish more reps in less time. If you're looking for an aesthetic effect, you will likely see your muscles grow or tone up as well.”
The benefits of strength training go beyond building muscles. Studies have shown it’s highly effective at preserving bone density. It also improves heart health, since your cardiovascular system engages more to pump blood to your growing muscles. It improves mental and physical endurance as well as joint stability and balance, especially as your core becomes stronger. Strength training reduces your risk of injuries, and time and again, studies have shown it to be an effective way to reduce body fat mass and percentage.
It’s also a great stress reliever, as it pumps up your endorphins and can lead to a sense of deep accomplishment as you feel your body growing stronger every day. Strength training builds resilience and teaches you how to embrace fatigue and find it within yourself to overcome it.
Types Of Strength Training
We’ve briefly touched on the different ways to strength train, but here we’ll delve into them a little deeper, so you can better understand the differences and decide what the best type of strength training is for you. Don’t think you have to commit to just one method. Some of the most experienced strength trainers rely on a combination of types to create a well-rounded routine. The key is to adopt a strength training habit that works for your body, challenging it enough that your muscles will build, but not pushing it too far simply because you think you should.
1. Weight Training
This type of strength training is probably the first that pops into your head when you think about this form of exercise. It relies on weights—dumbbells, barbells, weight machines, medicine balls and kettlebells—to create stress on your muscles that will build them over time. The goal is to start with lighter weights until you’ve built your endurance and strength enough to add more weight, as your body adjusts and becomes accustomed to the exercises.
If you’re nervous about lifting heavy weights, just remember that the satisfaction of building up to a heavy lift and realizing how strong your body is can be immensely rewarding.
2. Resistance Band Training
Using resistance bands during your strength training circuits is a great way to create tension on your muscles without stress. Resistance band workouts utilize oppositional force to train your muscles, and you can get them in light, medium, and heavy degrees of tension in order to switch things up during your workout.
If you think using resistance bands will be easier than weights, think again. They’re designed to build strength and to challenge your muscles while you move through each exercise and can be just as effective as lifting weights. One other benefit of resistance bands? They’re easier to travel with and extremely convenient, so if you don’t want to drag your weights around or worry about their storage, this is your answer.
3. Bodyweight Training
You might be tempted to think that relying only on your own bodyweight for strength training won’t lead to results, but it can be an ideal way to strength train, especially for beginners. Bodyweight training is highly effective because it gives you even more opportunities to tune in to your form and posture. Plus, with no equipment necessary, you can perform exercises just about anywhere, anytime. There’s also more variety available when using your own bodyweight for strength training, making it highly effective for full body workouts.
Bodyweight workout types include:
Traditional Strength Training
Any move you can imagine being done with weights can be done without them, and there are some that shouldn’t include weights at all. The list of popular bodyweight moves includes planks, pull-ups, lunges, squats, push-ups and more. It may take a little longer to hit muscle fatigue with your own bodyweight, but trust us, it won’t take as long as you think.
Barre is a combination of big and small movements, isometric holds, and pulses designed to target the full body and strengthen the core. The goal of barre is to hit precise muscle groups and exhaust them with small-range movements designed to make even the fittest of us feel the burn. While barre can be done with entirely your own bodyweight, sometimes it also includes light weights.
Pilates is meant to improve control, flexibility, strength, alignment, and awareness through repetitive, focused movements. It’s a mind/body exercise designed to strengthen the core, support the spine, and target the full body. It isolates the muscle groups with controlled movements originating at the core, and sculpts and strengthens the muscles.
Yes, you read that right! Yoga is a form of bodyweight strength training. Depending on the type of yoga you choose, you’ll experience increased mobility, flexibility, and strength. As you move through the yoga flow, you’ll rely on your balance and core to hold your body as you breathe into the poses. While yoga emphasizes a mental or internal focus, don’t make the mistake of thinking it won’t make you stronger. If you assume yoga is just stretching, we encourage you to try a power yoga flow, and then thank us once you’re done.
Cardio vs. Strength Training
Whether you want to up your fitness level or add interest to your current routine, odds are you’ll want to incorporate something that will mean maximum benefits for your health. That said, what makes more sense—more cardio or strength training? Which is better?
The short answer is, your body needs both. Cardio and strength training are not interchangeable when it comes to the effects they have on your body, so you need to determine how to incorporate both into your routine and decide how much time to devote to them, based on your goals.
So, what are the health benefits of these two types of training, how do they differ, and how should they be combined? One study comparing the effects of cardio versus resistance training on cardiovascular disease risk factors concluded that, in general, aerobic exercise results in greater cardiorespiratory fitness, whereas resistance exercise mainly affects muscle strength and body composition, such as muscle mass and bone density.
To break it down a little further, cardio improves your body’s ability to deliver blood and oxygen to your muscles. It’s going to strengthen your heart and lungs, allowing you to use oxygen more efficiently while burning fat. Strength training will help you build muscle, boost your metabolism, and enhance your coordination and ability to carry out everyday activities.
The truth is, the benefits of strength training and cardio tend to be reciprocal. Matty says that strength training will help your cardio routine get easier. Combining both cardio and strength workouts in your routine helps your body tap into new ways to output power, improving overall cardio performance and endurance under fatigue, and can build strength and full body fitness levels in a well-rounded way.
What Is Functional Strength Training?
Functional strength training attempts to mimic the specific physiological demands of real-life activities, with an emphasis on practical movements that help you move better throughout your day. The end goal of functional strength training is not just to grow stronger, but to grow stronger for the purpose of improving on real-life movements, like lifting things, climbing stairs, and moving throughout everyday life.
Functional strength training is sometimes used interchangeably with resistance training or weight training, but differs from methods like bodybuilding, which is specifically designed to grow muscle size.
Functional strength training creates resistance through the use of free weights, weighted fitness machines, bands, or bodyweight exercises to contract the muscles in order to build strength and endurance. The goal is to increase your overall strength and muscle mass by taking a functional approach that will improve your mobility, safeguard against injury, and make moving through life easier.
Does Strength Training Burn Fat?
This is one of the most commonly asked questions we hear, and the answer is a resounding yes—strength training does burn fat and calories. A recent study concluded that, when combined with a healthy diet, resistance training led to a reduction in body mass as well as a significant increase in lean muscle mass. The more muscle you build, the higher your metabolic rate should be, which will help your body burn more fat. This means that even after your strength training workout is complete, your body is still building muscle and burning calories throughout the day.
But more importantly, as we’ve discussed, your body is building muscle that will help make everyday life easier and more enjoyable. The stronger your body’s muscle groups are, the more you’ll benefit, especially as you age, and the more likely you’ll be to avoid injury doing basic tasks.
Furthermore, the mental benefits of a great strength training workout may rival the physical perks. If you start your fitness routine in a bad mood, you just might feel a whole lot happier on the other side of a challenging workout. The strength and endurance you build through regular exercise can only be achieved if you’ve got a committed mindset, so don’t discount the powerful effects that positive thinking can have on your workout. Allowing your strength training workout to build mental health and fortitude will mean more in the long run than any amount of calories burned in the short term.
Strength Training Exercises
So where to begin if you want to start your strength training routine? Matty’s favorite strength training exercises are any type of compound movement that pairs lower and upper body, like a reverse lunge with a bicep curl or a squat press. He’s also a huge fan of 10-minute core classes on the Peloton App and tries to do one each day. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a few strength training exercises that are perfect for beginners.
Squats are a workhorse of a move, but it’s important to make sure you’re doing them the right way. Using either your own bodyweight or a medium dumbbell, stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing forward. Hold your arms out straight in front of you or hold the weight at chest level, then slowly start to bend your knees, pushing your hips back and keeping your chest up while you squat down. Keeping your weight in your heels, push yourself back up into a standing position. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
Muscles worked: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core.
2. Reverse Lunges
This is a great single-leg move to help even out the strength in each leg and strengthen your core so that you can maintain your balance. You can use your own weight or hold a medium dumbbell in each hand. Begin standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Step back onto the ball of your left foot, keeping the heel off the ground. Slowly bend both knees to 90 degrees, keeping your hips tucked in and your core tight. Shift your weight into your right foot as you slowly stand up straight and back to your starting position. Repeat on each side 10 to 15 times.
Muscles worked: Glutes and core.
This exercise will help tighten your core as you use your own bodyweight to build strength and muscle. You can modify the exercise by doing it against a wall, or by staying on your knees for the duration of the hold. Begin on your hands and knees and then push your body into a plank position with your palms flat and wrists under your shoulders. Keeping your core engaged and your eyes on the floor, slowly lower down by bending your arms at the elbows until you are hovering over the floor. Then push back up to straighten your arms. Repeat 15 times.
Muscles worked: Chest, shoulders, triceps, and core.
4. Tricep Dips
This is a tried-and-true move that will make your arms stronger than ever. Sit on the edge of a stable workout bench, or modify the exercise by sitting on the floor with your arms behind you. Place your palms face down with your fingers pointing forward. Keep your legs out in front of you, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Slowly scoot yourself forward until your body is suspended and held up by your triceps. Bend your elbows and dip your hips down until the tops of your arms are parallel to the floor, keeping your elbows tight to your body. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
Muscles worked: Triceps
5. Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows
The key to this exercise is keeping your core engaged and your knees slightly bent to avoid strain on your lower back. Start with a dumbbell in each hand, hinge from your hips to lower your body until it’s almost parallel to the floor, keeping a slight bend in your knees. Hugging your elbows close to your ribcage, pull the dumbbells up in a rowing motion while squeezing your shoulder blades together, then lower them slowly and in a controlled manner until your arms are straight. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
Muscles worked: Upper and middle back, biceps, shoulders, and core.
6. Glute Bridges
This is a hip extension and it’s sneakily effective. You can do glute bridges with your bodyweight, with a resistance band placed right above your knees or hips, or with a dumbbell in each hand, resting at your hip bones. Start on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Squeezing your glutes, slowly lift your hips up off the floor, keeping your core tight. Hold, and then slowly lower your hips back down. Repeat 10 to 15 times
Muscles worked: Glutes, hamstrings, and core.
Time to Get Started
So, ready to get stronger? You only stand to gain physically and mentally once you start on a strength training path. Remember, when it comes to results, repetition and consistency are key to growing stronger. Strength training is an acquired skill, and it may take some trial and error to figure out the best tools, weight, and exercises for your body and goals. But the longer you commit to it, the more you’ll realize that a well-rounded strength training routine is worth the effort.