I started lifting weights in my early 20s, fresh out of Army Basic Training and desperate to get stronger after realizing just how weak I was compared to my male counterparts. Trying to walk 12 miles with a 35-pound rucksack while wearing a suffocating weighted vest and carrying my rifle was more difficult than I had imagined. I knew I had to do something to improve my physical fitness before my first deployment to Iraq and doubling down on cardio was not the answer.
Everyone has their own reason for stepping outside their comfort zone and picking up a barbell for the first time. There’s always fear and awkwardness for a beginner. I personally had no idea where to start and I was convinced that I knew it all after reading a few “How to Lift Weights” articles online.
Since transitioning careers from soldier to personal trainer, it’s easy for me to look back and identify the things I was doing wrong back then and, in hindsight, what I wish I had known before I started. I also realize now that I probably should have invested in working with a personal trainer to build a strong foundation and a better plan.
To help you avoid some of the mistakes I made, here are the top things I wish I knew about lifting weights when I first started.
1. You don’t need to spend as much time lifting weights to see results as you think you do.
A two-hour weightlifting session six days per week may feel like a proper dedicated routine, but it's just too much for most people. I used to log endless hours at the gym, thinking the sweat dripping from my body and mental exhaustion was an indication of my hard work. But tracking progress by time spent lifting rather than increases in the weights I used for each lift limited my progress. That’s because lifting too often for too long can actually be counterproductive to building muscle and strength.
The fact that you’re able to lift for so long probably means you’re not lifting heavy enough to challenge your muscles and efficiently build strength. To use resistance training effectively, you need to put a decent amount of stress on your muscles, causing fatigue and ultimately muscle growth. If you don’t challenge your muscles with enough weight, you won’t stimulate this process. (Over time, the weight that challenges you will progressively increase.) Using too-light weight may allow you to train for a longer time, but is more likely to improve muscular endurance than help you get stronger.
So, how can you tell how heavy is heavy enough? A good guideline is to lift heavy enough that the last 2-3 reps on each set feel challenging to complete but not so hard that you can’t do them with proper form. After the last rep, you should feel close to maxed out with enough energy left to do however many sets you have left. If you’re lifting heavy enough, you probably don’t need to lift for more than an hour. I’d suggest planning to do five to seven exercises, 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps of each. Once you feel your performance declining, you will know it's time to wrap up your workout for the day. Don’t ignore that feeling!
When it comes to the question of how many days a week you should train, that really does depend on your goals. Anywhere from three to five days is a good number (as long as you are resting enough in between sessions—more on that later). I typically do two upper-body days and three lower-body days per week. If you are training less than four times per week, a full body split (meaning, sticking to total-body workouts most days instead of breaking it up) is probably a better approach.
Lifting for too long can also increase the chances you’ll overdo it. If you are lifting heavy weights and really challenging yourself, you’ll get pretty tired toward the end of your workout. Pushing past this state of fatigue for too long could lead to injury, and eventually overtraining, leaving you constantly exhausted and sore and even potentially messing with your sleep.
2. Being extra sore doesn’t necessarily mean you got a better workout.
If you have heard the phrase “no pain no gain” or “if it doesn't hurt then you didn't work hard enough” then you may have fallen into the same trap I did of using soreness as an indicator of a good workout. I used to look forward to the pain I would feel climbing the stairs after a strenuous leg day, but this also made it difficult to get through my next workout.
Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is muscle damage caused by strenuous physical activity about 24 to 72 hours after training. On one hand, muscle soreness is normal and will happen occasionally, especially if you are new to a specific exercise or type of workout. However, chasing muscle soreness is more likely to lead to a decrease in the quality of your workout, hinder motivation, and even lead to injury. If you always have significant DOMS, it could be a sign you’re going too hard and need to dial it back.
Instead, I suggest keeping a training log to track the weights you used and increases in strength, rather than judging progress by how hard it was to walk up the stairs the next day.
3. Compound exercises are some of the best ways to spend your time at the gym
One of the biggest fitness mistakes I made is underestimating the importance of compound exercises and spending too much time on exercises that isolate one muscle group at a time, like bicep curls and calf raises.
While there are hundreds of weight lifting exercises to choose from, you get the best bang for your buck by focusing most of your energy on compound movements that work multiple muscle groups at once, such as the squat, deadlift, hip thrust, shoulder press, back row, and bench press. It’s more efficient, and more functional, meaning you’re strengthening your body in the ways it moves in everyday life.
Exercises that focus just on one muscle group, such as leg extensions, bicep curls, and lateral raises, can and should be used to complement compound movements and enhance muscle growth and strength, but they shouldn’t take up the bulk of your workouts if your goal is to get stronger and fitter overall.
4. Recovery is just as important as actually lifting heavy weights.
Recovery and rest are critical components of strength training. Resting gives your body the time it needs to rebuild the muscle you have broken down—and yes, that’s how you actually get stronger.
It is easy to become obsessed with lifting weights and neglect self-care outside of gym time. I know, because I used to do that. But it does’t matter how hard you train in the gym if you don’t prioritize recovering from your workouts.
There is no specific one-size-fits-all method for proper recovery, because everyone responds to training differently. However, some general guidelines I give my clients are to get about 8 hours of sleep each night, and take a day off from lifting at least 1-2 days per week. Generally, it’s a good idea to take a rest day after a particularly intense or hard workout. But you should listen to your body to determine when it’s best to schedule your rest days—if you are tired or feel like your strength decreases the day after a certain workout, then that is an indication your body needs some time away from the weights to fully recover.
If you don’t want to completely rest, there are plenty of active recovery workouts you can try that’ll keep you moving while still giving your hardworking muscles the time they need to recoup. You’ll be glad you showed your body some TLC when you feel well-rested and strong on your next lifting day.