If you steer clear of the weight room as often as you try to get out of burpees, we have some news: Those big dumbbells and barbells could provide the key to unlocking your strength potential. (Not to mention getting you lean and sculpted!) But because they don’t come with instructions — and asking swole strangers can be downright intimidating — we’ve got your first step to gaining the knowledge and confidence to command those weights. Just grab the heavy ones while you’re at it!
The Case for Lifting Heavy
Whether you’re considered cardio royalty, love light weights and high reps, or you’ve never stepped foot into a gym, we have a strong case for making a heavy change.
For starters, continuously putting greater demands on the body — a training technique known as progressive overload, which forms the base of this plan — translates into better fitness performance and easier everyday movements. “If you want to improve your marathon time, drive the ball farther in your golf game or be able to pick up your toddler, strength training with heavy weights should be a priority,” says Dan Trink, CSCS, co-founder of Fortitude Strength Club (aka The Fort). “When done with good technique and programming, training with heavy weights can improve tendon and ligament strength, too, which helps mitigate injuries whether on the field, the court, the track or just in daily life.”
If you’re still not convinced, consider this: For those stuck in a training rut, heavy loads push you to bust through a fitness plateau by providing a new stimulus your body needs to adapt to over time, says Trink. Better yet, going for some big guns can improve body composition and bone density. Fitter body, stronger bones, easier every movements — heavy lifting is a triple threat.
First Steps for First-Time Lifters
So where’s a newbie iron slinger to start? It can be as simple as mastering a few basic lifts. But before you grab a set of 30-pounders, it’s important to nail down proper form and safe technique with moderate weights. You’ll know you’re at a solid starting weight if you feel like you have two more reps left in you after the prescribed five to six, Trink explains.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to pull a U-ey on your existing workout routine in favor of the weightlifting road. Of the six strength exercises below, Trink suggests working one or two into your training session once per week. You could choose a new one each day or if you’re opting for two, go with one that focuses on the upper body and one lower body. Now let’s get ready to lift!
6 Beginner-Friendly Weightlifting Exercises
These six weightlifting exercises form the foundation of functional movements. As you get stronger, you can keep adding new variations, says Trink. To launch your super strength workout, perform five sets of five to six reps — 25 to 30 total reps of each move. Always take at least a 90-second to two-minute breather between each set.
Keep the reps and sets the same for four to six weeks, but add two to five percent more weight each week. Then, to continue challenging the body (using the principle of progressive overload), grab an even heavier set of weight and drop down to three reps for seven to eight sets. Do this for the next four to six weeks. Remember, what doesn’t challenge you won’t change you.
1. Hex Bar Deadlift
How to: Start standing tall, inside of the hex bar with feet hip-width apart (a). Push your hips back as far as possible, while still maintaining a vertical shin position. Bend your knees until you can grab the bar with both hands (b). With your knees slightly bent, back flat and abs tight, stand straight up, engaging your glutes (c). Hinge at the hips again and lower your chest back down — maintain that flat back — until the weight lightly touches the floor (d). Stand again and repeat. At the end, slowly lower the bar back to the ground, just as you did to pick it up.
Form focus: Keep your chest up and maintain a neutral spine (no arching or rounding the low back) throughout the entire exercise. If you’re using a regular barbell, you’ll follow these same steps, but hold the bar directly in front of you, hands about shoulder-width apart.
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2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
How to: Start in a split stance (one foot in front of the other), back flat and torso leaning slightly forward. Hold a dumbbell in the opposite hand of the front foot. Your other hand should be on a box or bench to support your weight (a). With the dumbbell hanging directly under your shoulder, pull it up toward your hip (b). Lower it back to the starting position and repeat (c). Finish all reps on one side before switching to the other.
Form focus: It’s common to want to shrug your shoulders up toward your ears during this move. But instead, roll your shoulders down your back — you’ll want to hit the opposite position of hunching over a computer.
3. Back Squat
How to: With a barbell in the racked position, stand under it so the barbell is behind your head and resting on your traps (the muscle in your upper back that runs from your neck to just below your shoulder blade). Grasp the bar with both hands just outside shoulder-width (a). Unrack the bar and carefully take one step back with each foot. Feet should be hip-width apart or just slightly wider, toes pointing slightly outward (b). Take a big breath into your belly, tighten your abs and drive your elbows toward the floor. As you hinge at the hips and bend your knees, sit straight down into a squat. Go as low as you can, without your back rounding. Ideally, you want your hip crease lower than the top of your knee (d). Stand straight back up, without locking your knees at the top (e). Repeat.
Form focus: The goal is to sit your body straight down between your ankles, while keeping your torso upright. Keep your weight in your heels and look forward throughout the entire exercise.
4. Overhead Press
How to: Hold a barbell at your collar bones, hands just outside shoulder width and feet directly under hips (a). Engaging your abs, press the bar straight up, passing it close to your face (b). Once the bar passes your forehead, press it back slightly so it ends up over the base of your neck at the top of the movement (c). Slowly and with control, bring the bar back down to just above your collar bone (d). Repeat.
Form focus: “Too many people finish with the bar forward, over the bridge of the nose,” says Trink. This leads to an unstable overhead position, so aim to push it up and just slightly back.
5. Bench Press
How to: Lie on your back on a bench with feet planted firmly on the floor. Your eyes should be directly under the bar (a). Grab the bar, with hands just outside shoulder width. Then unrack it and hold it over your chest (b). Lower the bar to your chest or just above it if you don’t have the full range of motion (c). Drive the bar straight up again (d). Repeat before re-racking.
Form focus: While a slight arch in your lower back is OK, try to keep your back against the bench as much as you can through this move. Also, pull your elbows in toward your ribcage as you lower the bar to keep them from flaring out to the sides.
How to: Start with your hands on a stable bar, about shoulder-width apart, palms facing you and elbows straight (a). With abs engaged, toes pointed and legs straight and slightly in front of your torso, drive your elbows down toward the floor and pull your chest up to the bar (b). Slowly lower yourself back down and repeat.
Form focus: There’s no shame in needing assistance for this one. Grab a resistance band and loop it around your feet to help you pull yourself up.