Getting comfortable with a steady running routine is definitely something to be proud of, but when you’re on that cardio grindday-in and day-out, you might be ready to change things up and take on a new challenge. Time to throw some strength training into the mix. It can be a little intimidating at first if you don’t know where the hell to start, but understanding the basics can help you feel confident in your refreshed fitness routine.
Of course, cardio is an important part of fitness too, but the benefits of strength training are major. Strength training helps build muscle, and lean muscle is better at burning calories when the body is at rest, which is important whether you’re trying to lose weight or maintain it. It also helps strengthens joints and bones, avoid injury, improve your muscular endurance, and will help you give it your all during your other workouts, whether that means setting a new PR if you’re a runner or pushing (and pulling) a little harder with your legs during your favorite indoor cycling class.
Still, the barrier to entry can feel higher than that pull-up bar when you’re not exactly sure what to do. So, here are 10 things you should know about strength training before you jump in.
Related: The 10-Minute Workout You Should Do Before Breakfast
1. You can start with just your bodyweight.
Put simply, “strength training means using resistance to create work for your muscles,” says Hannah Davis, C.S.C.S. and author of Operation Bikini Body. So even if your mind jumps straight to those hardcore machines and massive weights, there are a lot of ways to create this resistance that require minimal equipment (or none at all). Bodyweight workouts can be an incredibly effective way to strength train. Squats and push-ups FTW. You can also use tools like dumbbells, medicine balls, TRX bands, resistance bands, kettlebells, and slider disks, to help get the job done, explains Davis. But if that sounds like gibberish don’t worry about it. Keep it simple and focus on equipment-free routines first. No matter what you do, the most important thing is to find something that challenges you, says Davis.
2. Begin with two days a week and build up.
“Start with two days for two to three weeks, then add a third day,” says Davis*.*”Ideally, you should strength train three to five days per week, but work your way up—starting off at five days a week might shock your body.” Here’s a comprehensive three-day-per-week plan to get you started. Aim to complete 20-minute sessions, then gradually add on time in ten-minute increments until you’re working for 45 to 60 minutes, suggests Davis.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should skip cardio. “I defer to the CDC recommendations for aerobic exercise—150 minutes of light-to-moderate work or 75 minutes a week of high-intensity work,” says Davis. Ultimately finding the right mix of workouts will depend on your specific goal.
3. Prep your muscles before you start.
A proper warm-up is an important part of an effective strength workout. Start by foam rolling your muscles to wake ’em up. “Foam rolling loosens up tight muscles so that they work the way they’re designed to,” says Davis. A dynamic warm-up is another important part of your pre-workout routine, it preps your muscles for the work they’re about to do and helps increase your range of motion. Increasing your range of motion allows you to go deeper into those squats and fully extend those bicep curls, which means more muscle recruitment and better results. “These two combined reduce your risk of injury and allow you to push harder during your workout,” says Davis. Get started with this five-minute warm-up.
4. Pair an upper-body move with a lower-body move.
You may have heard hardcore lifters talk about things like “leg day,” but when it comes to a beginner strength workout that’s only a few days a week, a full-body workout is often the way to go (rather than splitting your days up by body part). “Full-body workouts maximize your caloric burn and the muscles worked each session,” says Davis. The best way to do this is to pair one upper body exercise with one lower body exercise. “This way, the lower body has time to recover while the upper body works and vice-versa,” says Davis. You should also aim for a balance between movements that feel like pulling and ones that feel like pushing. For example, Davis suggests pairing these exercises together:
- Squats + push-ups
- Walking lunges + lat pulldowns
- Romanian deadlifts + overhead press
- Mountain climber + bench row
5. Aim for 15 reps and three sets per exercise.
When you’re just getting started try to keep things simple. Performing 15 reps (repetitions of the movement) and three sets of each (doing those 15 reps three times) is a good place to start, explains Davis. You can mix it up as you get more comfortable with the moves and need more of a challenge.
So, for example, with the moves above you’d do 15 squats followed by 15 push-ups. Take a little breather then repeat that two more times. Then you move on to your walking lunges and lat pull-downs (and repeat those three times total, too). You can really do anywhere from eight reps to 15 (and even just two sets, if you don’t have time for three), but “it’s not a bad idea for beginners to start with a 15-rep range to get comfortable with the exercises,” says Davis. And while there’s some debate over whether three sets of an exercise is really best, “it’s a great beginner model,” says Davis. Don’t overcomplicate things when you’re just getting started.
6. When you’re using weights, here’s how much weight you should start lifting.
Different exercises will require different weights, but there are some markers that can help guide you towards the right resistance, whether you’re using dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. Go for a weight that feel heavy enough to challenge you, but not so heavy that you sacrifice your form. For example, if you’re doing 15 reps, you should feel pretty fatigued by the time you hit rep 15. If you can breeze through all your reps, though, that’s a sign you should up the weight.
7. Stick to the same moves each day when you’re starting out.
While seasoned lifters may choose to do different exercises every day during a week-long period (and repeat the same moves the following week), there’s no need to follow this type of program when you’re just getting comfortable, says Davis. “Stick to the same basic moves two to three times a week to build a basic level of fitness and strength,” says Davis. “Why complicate things if you don’t have to? Great results can be made by repeating the same workout but increasing weights as you become stronger.” Switching things up can help you avoid a training plateau, explains Davis, but so can increasing weights while doing the same exercises.
8. Fit in a post-workout stretch if you can.
Now that you’ve got the training part down, it’s time to stretch it out. (Can you say ahhh?) Stretching while your muscles are warm can help improve your flexibility, says Davis, not to mention it just feels phenomenal after you’ve pushed yourself hard. A light cool-down is also great for calming the nervous system. While dynamic stretches should be your go-to during a warm-up, the cool-down is where static stretching comes in—this means holding a stretch for 20-30 seconds. These four passive stretches will do nicely.
9. Refuel with water, carbs, and protein.
After a tough sweat, it’s important to rehydrate your body: “Drink lots of water and thank your body for what it was just able to accomplish,” says Davis. A balanced post-workout snack is also a good idea. Go for one with carbs refuel your glycogen stores (one of your body’s main energy sources) and about 10 to 20 grams of protein to help build and repair your muscles. “Don’t overcomplicate it,” says Davis. If you’re lifting and weight loss is one of your goals, though, it’s still important to keep calories in mind—a post-workout snack shouldn’t be more than 150 to 200 calories. Here’s a guide to how many calories you should be eating for weight loss.
10. Take rest days when your body tells you to.
It’s OK to be a little sore. Your muscles might feel achy or tired the day after a tough training session thanks to DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. When you strength train you’re causing microscopic damage to the tissue that will be repaired, that’s how you build stronger lean muscle. Speaking of repair and recovery, though, rest days are important. “If you constantly break down muscle without a recovery period, you won’t give the muscle fibers a chance to repair and build back stronger,” explains Davis.
At the end of the day, you have to focus on how you feel. “Listen to your body,” says Davis. “It tells you when it needs a day off.” As a rule of thumb, take a rest day if your perceived pain is above a seven on a scale of 10, Davis advises. Or, focus on a different body part (say, if your legs are sore, focus on upper-body moves). Can’t stop, won’t stop—at least, till your next rest day.