The second you walk into the weight room, you’re faced with a million questions: How much weight should I lift? Once I actually find a dumbbell I can pick up, how many reps should I perform? How many sets? Does it even matter? If you’re a newbie, either to weightlifting or exercise in general, figuring this stuff out can feel as intimidating as the no-necks grunting over there by the squat rack.
Well, those questions do matter. The pattern of sets and reps you use to structure your strength workout can make the difference between wasted gym time and awesome progress. But before we get started, know that mastering proper form is key, regardless of how heavy or light you’re lifting. If you’re truly a first-timer, we’d recommend setting up a session with a trainer so you can master the basics (here’s how to find the right personal trainer for you).
Now, follow these guidelines to get the most out of every rep.
Dumbbells for Rookies
“You’ll make great gains in the beginning. The best gains you’ll ever make.”
First day in the weight room? Congrats! The key to getting started is to find weights light enough to successfully perform two to three sets of 12 to 17 reps, says strength coach Dan Trink, C.S.C.S., owner of Trink Fitness. But before you start ripping through a workout, you aren’t actually going to perform that many right off the bat. Aim for two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps, Trink says. The goal is to have two to five reps “in the tank,” meaning you could perform two to five more reps if you had to, after each set.
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Why? Contrary to the “go big or go home” mentality, especially in the beginning, you don’t want to push your muscles to their max. That’s largely because, when you start a strength training program, you are training your mind just as much as you are training your body, Trink says. And we don’t mean that in a “mind over matter” way.
Your brain, spinal cord and motor neurons — which trigger groups of muscle fibers to contract and help lift your dumbbells — all have to work together to perform any movement. When you perform the first rep of a given exercise, your neurological system doesn’t know what the heck it needs to do to. (That’s why your first bench press rep can look so sloppy.)
Performing exercises in a pattern somewhere between 2×12 (two sets of 12 reps) and 3×10 (three sets of ten reps) allows you to really concentrate on every motion. Your neurological system will learn which muscle fibers need to contract and which need to relax. Plus, your muscles’ proprioceptors (which gauge how fast your muscles contract and how much pressure they’re under) will learn to adjust to the workload, Trink says.
Squats and Deadlifts for First-Timers
Compound movements like deadlifts and squats are way more complicated than, say, bicep curls. And your neurological system knows it. So, if you find that your form starts to suffer on your last few reps of these bigger, more complex movements, your neurological system may have hit its limit, Trink says. Try performing fewer reps per set. The goal is to really focus on your form so that your body learns the proper technique as early on as possible. You don’t want to have to learn to fix your form later on.
“After eight weeks, you’ll need to start lifting more weight. A lot more weight.”
To ensure proper form, you’ll want to give yourself between one and two minutes in between sets, says certified personal trainer Dell Farrell. However, if you wait too long, you’ll waste time and not get as much out of every rep. So, if you’re still struggling even with a full two minutes of rest time, you probably need to lighten your weight.
Starting off with a weight that’s lighter than your max effort is vital to preventing injury in the beginning phases of your strength program, Trink says. Luckily, since you are performing a lot of reps, you are still going to see improvements in your muscle tone.
“You’ll make great gains in the beginning. The best gains you’ll ever make,” he says. Still, fight the urge to skip ahead. You should keep your strength workouts structured like this for eight weeks, moving up in weight as you feel comfortable.
Your formula: You should be able to increase your weight by two to five percent each week, he says. Keep a strength training log with your number of reps, sets and pounds lifted to track your progress and see growth.
Lifting Heavier (Without Getting Hurt)
After eight weeks, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to “tone up,” get in shape for a 10k, or put on sizeable muscles, you’ll need to start lifting more weight. A lot more weight. “If you keep doing the same thing there is a point of diminishing returns. Progression is key,” Dell says. (And no, women won’t “bulk up” by lifting heavy weights. Their hormonal makeup doesn’t allow them to put on muscle size the way guys do, Trink says.)
During this next phase of your training, which can last up to six months, you are going to lift more weight, getting closer to your one-rep max (aka your 1RM, the most you can lift for a single rep). You’ll perform fewer reps in a row, and you’ll perform more sets. Three to four sets of eight to 10 reps is a good range, Trink says. Start off closer to 3×10 (three sets of ten reps, which is about the same as you were lifting before) and every six to eight weeks, subtract reps and add sets.
“The lower-rep range will force your muscles to adapt to the heavier weight,” Dell says. You should aim to have one rep in the tank after each set, she says. And, remember, you should be keeping up the killer form you learned during your first months in the weight room. Fight the urge to use momentum and give yourself two minutes or more between sets, she says.
When you plateau — meaning you stop seeing gains in that strength training journal of yours — it’s time to update your program, Dell says. Work on progressing to higher weights and fewer sets, capping your reps at six and above per set, Trink says. This will guarantee you aren’t lifting more weight than you’re truly ready for.
Taking Your Strength Training to the Next Level
After you’ve mastered strength training for beginners, your progression will depend on your goals. Maybe you’ve noticed a muscle imbalance and want to shore up your weak spots. If so, you should add exercises focused on those muscles to the mix, starting all the way back at step one.
Or, perhaps you want to lift more weight than you ever thought possible. Performing four sets of six reps — so you can just barely squeeze out the last rep with proper form — will help you hit a new 1RM, Trink says. Want to work on your endurance, or just have a little fun with your workout? Altering the weight and number of reps during each set (in what’s known as ascending, descending and triangle pyramid training) are all solid options, Dell says. As long as your workout structure is changing every six to eight weeks, you’re progressing. Oh, and don’t forget to take a moment to flex and admire the fruits of your efforts.
Originally published May 2015. Updated October 13, 2016.