Woman lifting dumbbells

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New to Lifting? Here's What to Know Before Reaching for Your Weights

If you're wondering how to properly lift weights (or why you should), our experts have answers.

By Jenny McCoyMarch 25, 2024


If you’re brand new to weight lifting, there's a ton to consider: Which weights should you use? How often does a beginner need to lift to achieve results? And how do you know if you’re even doing the exercises correctly?

Good news: You can build a manageable weight lifting routine that advances at a comfortable pace, and you don’t have to lift ultra-heavy out of the gate (or ever) to make substantial progress. But in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of lifting, you have to use the proper equipment and form. 

To help you prepare for your first session, we asked three experts, including Peloton instructor Logan Aldridge, to share their advice on weight lifting for beginners.

What Is Weight Lifting? 

Weight lifting is a type of strength training that involves using an external source of resistance—in this case, a weight—to perform exercises. Weights can come in various forms, such as free weights (think: dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells) and weights that are fixed in place, like those connected to a machine or cable system. Lifting these weights places stress on your muscles, which builds and strengthens them over time.

There are several different types of weight lifting, including Olympic lifting and powerlifting, but to keep this article beginner-friendly, we’ll focus on weight lifting for general fitness.

Logan Aldridge Lifting Dumbbell

The Benefits of Weight Lifting

Lifting weights can benefit your mental and physical well-being throughout different life stages. Here are some of the ways this type of movement can positively impact your body and mind.

1. Weight Lifting Increases Strength and Lean Muscle Mass

“Weight lifting is a powerful tool for building strength and muscle mass,” Logan says. And having more lean muscle mass can lead to a stronger immune system, an increased metabolic rate, and a lower risk of developing certain chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym or lift every single day to experience these benefits. In a 2012 review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, researchers found that numerous studies have shown that adults can increase muscle mass by consistently doing as few as two brief resistance training sessions (12 to 20 exercises) each week.

2. Weight Lifting Builds Stronger Bones

Our bones tend to weaken as we age (hence the increased risk for bone fractures in people, especially women, over 50). Although many different types of exercises combat bone loss, researchers have found that resistance training is particularly effective in preserving bone and muscle mass. “Weight-bearing exercises, like weight lifting, promote bone health and reduce the risk of osteoporosis,” Logan explains.

3. Weight Lifting Boosts Brain Function

Multiple studies have linked resistance training, including weight lifting, to preservation and improvements in cognitive function, particularly in older adults. Although existing studies suggest that lifting weights can boost brain function, more research is needed to understand exactly how weight lifting impacts our brains.

4. Weight Lifting Eases Acute Anxiety and Delivers a Quick Hit of Confidence

Like many other forms of movement, resistance training can positively impact your mental health. A 2020 study published in Study Reports found that eight weeks of consistent resistance training significantly improved acute anxiety symptoms in young adults. 

“It also boosts confidence,” Logan says. This type of exercise isn’t easy, especially for a beginner, so it’s extremely gratifying to progress to a heavier set of weights or perfect a move you struggled to complete weeks earlier.

5. Weight Lifting Promotes Better Sleep

Struggling to fall asleep or regularly waking up in the middle of the night? Consider weight lifting as a remedy. A systematic review of 13 studies published in Sleep Medicine Reviews suggests that chronic resistance exercises can boost your overall sleep quality and quantity (although further research is needed to better understand the relationship between acute strength training and sleep). 

6. Weight Lifting Protects You From Injury

Lifting may seem like a risky activity (especially if you’re working out with heavy weights), but as long as you prioritize your form and ease into your routine, this type of movement can actually reduce your chances of getting hurt. Because weight lifting strengthens your bones, muscles, and connective tissues, it helps protect your body from injuries before, during, and after your workouts.

Rules for Safe and Successful Weight Lifting

Weight lifting is generally safe for most people, as long as they do it correctly. “The only people who should avoid it are those who were advised against it by a doctor,” Ava Fagin, the assistant director of sports performance at Cleveland State University, says. Even with a medical professional’s go-ahead, it’s important to respect your body’s limits and adhere to the following safety guidelines.

  • Consider starting with a personal training session. Working with an expert can help you get comfortable with the basics, like how to properly grip a dumbbell, and reduce your risk for injury. Sometimes one or two expert-led sessions is all it takes to give you a solid foundation before transitioning to weight lifting on your own. At that point, self-guided strength workouts demoed by experts (like the ones in Peloton Gym) are helpful since you can move at your own pace without having to worry about choosing exercises or doing the correct number of sets and reps.

  • Focus on technique. “Before worrying about lifting heavy weights, focus on mastering proper form,” Logan says. Drilling in the basics not only helps you avoid injury in the moment, but he says it’ll also create a “solid foundation for future progress.” 

  • Prioritize consistency. “Consistency is more important than intensity when you’re starting. Establish a regular workout schedule and gradually increase the intensity as your strength improves,” Logan says. Also, be realistic about your goals. You probably won’t feel amazing during every single workout, but showing up is what matters most— especially when you’re in the beginning of your weight lifting journey.

  • Let pain be your guide. If you’re weight lifting properly, your muscles will feel taxed, but they should never hurt, according to Brendan Overlid, a Colorado-based physical therapist at UCHealth. “Pay attention to how your body responds to weight lifting. If you experience pain beyond normal muscle soreness, it's crucial to rest and recover. Don't push yourself too hard, especially in the beginning,” Logan says.

Weight Lifting for Beginners: The First Exercises You Should Try

Before beginners start a weight lifting routine, they should familiarize themselves with the four key movement patterns: hinging exercises, knee-bend exercises, pushing exercises, and pulling exercises. Together, they make up a well-rounded workout that targets the front and back sides of your upper and lower body—all while mirroring motions we do in our daily lives.

  1. Hinging exercises, which involve pushing your hips back and then bringing them forward while maintaining a flat back. Examples include traditional deadlifts (which Logan says are “excellent for developing overall strength and promoting good posture”), Romanian deadlifts, and glute bridges

  2. Knee-bend exercises, which involve bending and straightening your knee joint. Examples include squats, lunges, and step-ups.

  3. Pushing exercises, which involve pushing a weight away from your body. Examples include bench presses (a move that Logan says “helps build upper body strength and muscle mass”), and overhead presses

  4. Pulling exercises, which involve pulling a weight toward you. Examples include rows and pull-downs.

In addition to these four movement patterns, “try to work in core-specific exercises where you can,” Fagin says. Movements like the farmer carry are great for beginners. 

Those who are new to weight lifting should experiment with different movements to see which ones feel best for their specific body. The above examples are primarily compound movements, meaning they simultaneously work multiple muscles and joints. Overlid recommends compound exercises for beginners rather than isolation exercises, which are moves that only target one specific area, because the former tend to translate more to daily tasks. Plus, they’re more efficient since you work multiple muscles during each rep.

And of course, regardless of your workout’s duration, Logan says you should “always ensure proper warm-up and cooldown.”

Building a Weight Lifting Program: How to Change Workouts Over Time

So how do you put these foundational weight lifting movements together to create a seamless routine? Fagin recommends starting with two full body, 30-minute workouts per week. You can find plenty of expert-led options in the Peloton App, or you can try this simple workout formula from Fagin:

  1. Pick one exercise from each movement pattern above and tack on one core exercise. For example: deadlift (hinge), chest press (push), squat (knee bend), row (pull), and farmer carry (core). 

  2. Perform the exercises in the following order (keep reading for guidance on the number of sets and reps):

  • Hinge

  • Push

  • Core

  • Knee-bend

  • Pull

Whether you choose to do instructor-led or DIY workouts, pencil in at least 48 hours of recovery time between sessions. Once you’ve maintained this schedule for two to three months, you can add in a third day. Here are more tips for building a safe and effective weight lifting program:

  • Start with two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps for each exercise. Fagin recommends this volume for beginners to build muscle endurance, or your muscles’ ability to sustain movement over a period of time. 

  • Aim to work your muscles close to failure in every set. Strive to finish each set feeling like you could only manage about two more reps with good form. If you’re able to bust out four or more reps, Fagin says “you're likely not challenging the muscle enough to see change.”

  • Recovery is just as important as your workouts. When you strength train, you create tiny tears in your muscles, which means they're not actually growing and becoming stronger in that moment, Fagin explains. Growth comes when those microtears repair and build back stronger, which happens with a combination of sleep, a nutritious diet, and adequate rest. So, aim to wait 48 hours before working the same muscle group again.

  • Lower down slowly. “An easy way to make weight lifting exercises more safe and effective is to slow your pace during the eccentric phase,” Overlid says. That’s the part of the exercise when your muscles are lengthening under load, like when you’re sinking down into a squat or lowering a dumbbell during a bicep curl. Controlling that part of the movement will reduce your risk for injury while also really stimulating muscle strength and growth, he explains. “You get more bang for your buck.”

How Do I Choose the Right Weight to Lift?

Finding the right weight for you can take some trial and error, Overlid says. Opt for light weights to start, since that’s safer than lifting too heavy. “It's better to start with a lighter weight and gradually increase as your strength improves,” Logan says. The weight you choose should allow you to “complete the desired number of repetitions with good form while still challenging your muscles.,” he adds.

If you finish your reps feeling like you could knock out three or four more, Overlid says it’s a sign you need to go heavier. Conversely, if your form starts breaking down before you finish the set, pick up lighter weights.

Is Weight Lifting Good for Your Heart?

You might think of biking, running, or other forms of aerobic exercises when it comes to heart health, but strength training deserves a spot on that list, too. In a 2017 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers analyzed data from more than 35,000 women and found that those who engaged in strength training had a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. And as we said before, weight lifting helps increase lean muscle mass, which supports a variety of processes linked to better heart health.


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