January is the month of Fitness New Year’s Resolution and despite gyms being closed in most countries, the number of people jumping on the exercise and weight-loss train is higher than it has ever been.
Most people that are afraid of going to the gym have been converted to home-training over the pandemic (most of you Lifehack readers might even have purchased my Busy Yet Fit Home Workouts video course) and now—hungry for quicker results—are stocking up with dumbbells and barbells to add some juice to their home-workouts.
Adding beginner-friendly weight lifting exercises to a simple bodyweight routine is the next logical step to stimulate muscle growth, burn more calories, and increase overall strength.
The other side of the coin is that poorly executed exercises with weights can lead to serious injuries, and some exercises might not be very effective, ending up wasting your time doing something that doesn’t really bring you any benefits at all.
For the above-mentioned reasons, I’ll share with you my 5 favorite and most effective weight lifting exercises that every beginner should master before jumping into complicated routines.
Note: Nothing compares to having a trainer screening your movements. Most times, when I enroll a new client in my programs, I have to spend a lot of time addressing dangerous movement patterns or stiff and achy joints. If you are worried about your posture or have lower back, shoulder, or neck pain, please don’t try to lift heavy weights without guidance.
Weight Training Basics You Need to Know
Here are a few basic “gym jargon” you should familiarise yourself with if you want to lift weights.
One lift of weights or completion of an exercise movement is called “repetition” or “rep” for short. A series of repetitions is called a “set of reps” or a “set” for short.
A common exercise recommendation for beginners is to do three sets of ten repetitions of an exercise, often written as 3×10—for example, three sets of ten squats.
When starting, try one or two repetitions with a low weight to get the feel of the procedure. Then, try up to 10 repetitions consecutively (one set).
Try lighter or heavier weights for comfort with useful intensity. If you can only do less than eight reps, then you may be lifting too heavy a weight. If you can do more than 12 reps without too much effort, say 20, you may need to weight up a little, although some programs for strength endurance use this many reps. This applies to all exercises described.
You should rest between sets so that your body replenishes its energy system for the next round. Time taken between sets can be as short as 60 seconds or as long as five minutes depending on the intensity and weight. One to two minutes is usually adequate rest time for a ten rep set of moderate to low intensity.
Safety Basics You Need to Know
When doing intense workouts, especially weight lifting exercises, you have to be cautious because improper practices may lead to injuries.
Exercises like the squat, leg press, and deadlift require movements that place the spine under pressure in ways that can precipitate injuries, particularly to the lumbar or lower spine. In such exercises, the importance of keeping the back straight or slightly arched in the neutral position cannot be overemphasized, especially for beginners. No rounded backs, please.
Hyperextension means pushing a joint beyond its normal range of movement. This may produce injury when excessive joint movement stresses ligaments and tendons too much. This concern has led to the common advice not to lock out the arms at the elbow or the legs at the knees when doing any number of exercises with weights.
Okay, enough with the boring stuff. Now, let’s get to the meat—or should I say “let’s get to the iron.”
These are the main exercises you would usually perform with a bar or with dumbbells. They are called compound movements because they involve several joints at once, and they engage a large number of muscles, making them your go-to exercises.
Every good weight lifting exercise program for beginners will focus mainly on compound movements to build a solid base of overall strength and muscle mass.
Equipment Needed: Barbell or 2 Dumbbells
The squat lift exercise is arguably one of the best overall weight lifting exercises for building lower body and leg power and strength. Because this is a compound exercise that engages multiple muscles and joints at once, it takes some instruction and practice to master safely.
Squats build lower body muscle strength, endurance, and power. Additionally, they engage the core and improve strength and stability in the trunk and upper body.
2. Chest Press
Chest, arms, shoulders
Equipment Needed: Dumbbells, barbell
This exercise targets the main muscle of the chest—the pectorals. It also uses the anterior deltoids of the shoulder and the triceps brachii of the upper arm.
Building chest support and definition is desirable for a fit look, but building this muscle is also functional. You need strong pecs for power for sports where you swing a bat, racket, or club. The chest press also helps you with any daily activities that require pushing or carrying.
Barbell Chest Press
Dumbbell Ches Press
Full body, hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteals, lower back, trapezius
Equipment Needed: Barbell or Dumbbells
The deadlift is a great way to build good-looking legs and backside. In a deadlift, you lift the weight from the ground to thigh-level using primarily your leg and hip muscles but with the assistance of most of the large muscle groups of your body.
The deadlift is usually performed with a bar and plates or a fixed barbell but can be done with dumbbells. It is a specialty of powerlifters that shouldn’t be ignored in general fitness weight training. To build muscle and functional fitness, make the deadlift part of your strength training workouts.
4. Overhead Press
Equipment Needed: Dumbbells
The dumbbell overhead press increases strength throughout the shoulders and engages the core for stability. It can be done in either a sitting or standing position and with dumbbells held horizontally at the shoulders or rotated in a hammer grip. A sitting position helps stabilize the back, while a standing position works a wider range of muscles.
Beginners should pick light weights to start, increasing it until you find a weight that you can lift with good form for 10 repetitions but feel fatigued at the final rep. Women might start with 5-pound dumbbells and men with 10-pound dumbbells. You can use this exercise in any upper body strength workout.
Barbell Overhead Press
Dumbbell Overhed Press
5. Lat Pulldown (if you can’t perform pull-ups)
Equipment Needed: Cable pulley machine
Most beginners won’t be able to pull themselves up, therefore, the Lat Pulldown machine offers a good starting option to build some back muscles. The pulldown exercise works the back muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi or the “lats.” It is performed at a workstation with adjustable resistance, usually plates.
While sitting with your upper thighs restrained under a thigh pad, you pull a hanging bar down toward you to reach chin level and then, release it back up with control for one repetition. This exercise can be used to achieve a V-shaped back.
What About Body Sculpting Exercises?
I often get asked questions on the line of “how do I get rid of my flabby arms?” or “how can I reduce my inner thighs or love handles?”
The brutal truth is that focusing on small body parts doesn’t bring results despite vigorous efforts. As a beginner, spending a lot of time training your biceps, stomach, or obliques won’t get you the body of your dreams.
Focusing on building a lot of strength and a solid base of muscle with compound movements while adding some postural corrective exercises will guarantee long term improvement. That’s why the five weight lifting exercises I listed above should be your main focus for the first 6 to 12 months of weight training.
More Weight Lifting Exercises for Beginners
Featured photo credit: Sam Sabourin via unsplash.com