Few things are more intimidating to rookie weight lifters than a room full of muscular fitness fanatics, tossing around huge weights like they’re Nerf balls. Before you get gym-timidated away from those barbells, we’ve got some tips to help you learn how to build muscle without looking like a total newbie.
Ben Booker, DailyBurn trainer and founder of Second Chance Lifestyle, says the first step for beginners should be setting up a session with a personal trainer, or joining a workout program, to learn how to properly train. “It’s really important to come into the gym with a plan,” Booker says. “If you just show up and start walking through the weight room, that doesn’t get you anywhere.”
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The second step? Picking the right weights. Here’s how to figure out whether your weights are too light or too heavy — and how to maintain the perfect form for your basic line-up of lifts.
Test Your Strength
You’ve adequately warmed up with some foam rolling and mobility exercises. Next up: Deciding between barbells and dumbbells. That’s going to depend on the lifts you’re doing, according to Booker, who recommends using a combination of both pieces of equipment in your workouts. “If you’ve had shoulder injuries, I generally recommend dumbbells for shoulders and chest. It takes more work to control them…therefore you’re using more muscles,” Booker says. “Use the barbell for squats or deadlifts.”
As a rule, you’ll want to work with a lighter set and a heavier set of dumbbells during your workouts. Heavy weights will help build muscle mass, while lighter will, “stabilize the muscle, which supports joints and tendons,” Booker says.
To figure out which size dumbbells are best for you, there’s a simple test that anyone can use. It involves a bicep curl — but it will help you determine the size of the weights you’ll be using for just about any dumbbell exercise.
The Dumbbell Test
Booker suggests women generally start with a set of two 5- to 10-pound weights, and men start with a set of two 10- to 20-pound weights.
How to: Stand with a weight in each hand, near hips, palms forward. Shoulders and elbows should be pinned against the wall. Without moving upper arms, curl weights up until dumbbells are shoulder level, then lower to starting position. Aim for 14 to 22 reps with good form (shoulders flat against the wall, raising arms for a count of two and lowering them for a count of two).
“What we try to do is fatigue that muscle to the point where you feel the bicep really straining. Your form might start to give just a little or you cant quite get to the rep range,” Booker says.
If your muscles fail or you can’t maintain form before reaching 14 reps, pick a set of weights five pounds lighter. If you can easily do more than 22 reps, pick a set five pounds heavier. This determines your lighter set of weights. Add 10 pounds, and that’s how much you should be lifting when reaching for a heavier set of weights.
Master the Moves
Ready to get ripped? The secret to building muscle efficiently and safely is fairly simple. “You always need to maintain solid, proper form,” Booker says. “As soon as you start to get out of that form, no matter what lift you’re doing, adjust by either dropping weight or stopping.”
Booker says he likes clients to try to aim for four sets of 6 to 15 reps (the former if you’re lifting heavy, the latter if you’re lifting light).
“With sold form if you are barely able to get to the lower end of the rep range when you hit close to full, or full muscle failure, then lower your weight,” Booker says. “The same goes for the high end. If you can easily do the max rep range in good form, then add weight for the next set.”
Here’s how to execute four fundamental movements:
If lifting were comparable to cooking, mastering the squat would be like learning how to crack an egg — it’s a basic move everyone should master.
How to: Start with just your bodyweight, or a barbell across the back of your shoulder blades, feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing either straight ahead or slightly out. If you’re using a barbell, grip it wider than shoulder-width. Sit back into your heels, sending your butt and hips back and down, keeping knees over the toes, shoulders and chest tall. At bottom of squat, press through heels and return to standing position.
2. Glute Bridge Chest Press
Meet the chest press, the key to awesome pecs and stronger chest muscles.
How to: For alternating arm chest press in a bridge, lie down on the ground, knees bent, feet firmly planted on the ground, one dumbbell in each hand. Push up through your heels and raise your lower back and butt off the ground. Keeping torso and upper legs aligned, push dumbbells up above chest, perpendicular to your body, arms shoulder-width apart, palms of hands facing away from your face. Bending one elbow so arm creates a 90 degree angle, lower dumbbell down to your chest, keeping the other arm raised. Push dumbbell back to starting position. Repeat with the other arm for one rep.
“If the weight gets squirrely, and you can’t follow [a smooth motion] up, and down, then drop weight and get the form right,” Booker advises.
3. Dumbbell Tricep Extension
Ideal for building arm definition, the triceps extension is a must-try move — and it’s pretty easy, too.
How to: Sit on a flat bench or box. Hold one dumbbell in each hand directly overhead, palms facing each other, arms straight, elbows near ears, chin up. Lower dumbbells behind head, keeping elbows in place. Straighten arms and return to starting position.
Pro tip: If your elbows start to float out as you lift, it’s a sign you need to improve flexibility in your shoulders. “Always make sure there’s no pain in your neck or pain in your shoulders and if there’s not you can continue to work on that form,” Booker says.
4. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
If you’re looking to simultaneously strengthen your back and shoulders for better posture, the row is the way to go. Plus, it’s a fairly easy move to master.
How to: Stand behind a box, feet shoulder width apart, dumbbell in right hand. Bend your left knee and place it on top of the box, and extend your right leg back behind you, knee slightly bent, toes on the floor. Lean over at the hips and place your left arm on the box in front of your knee to help brace yourself. Pick up your dumbbell with the right hand. Keeping your back flat, elbow close to your body, lift the weight up towards the right side of your chest, while simultaneously squeezing your shoulders together. Slowly lower dumbbell back down. Complete prescribed amount of reps, then switch to the other side.
Over time, you may find your “heavy” set of weights feels lighter to you as you master your lifts and build muscle. Congrats: Now, start adding more weight, in five-pound increments. “It’s called progressive overload; you’re going to slowly add weight and it should be done within a targeted rep range,” Booker says.
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Originally posted October, 2014. Updated July, 2021.
All images except for the cover via Daily Burn. Cover via Shutterstock