We believe that everyone should lift.
The physical and mental benefits of regular resistance training are so life-changing that it’s an incredibly positive life habit to form.
But if you’ve never been to a gym before, or lifted a barbell in anger, the world of the gym bro can seem confusing and overwhelming.
To help you with the basics, and hopefully encourage you to enter the gym and get started, we’ve set out a weight training 101.
This post covers the what, the how, the different types of training and the basic gym bro lingo you’ll need to get on your way.
Read on to begin your muscle-building journey.
What is weightlifting?
Weightlifting is a form of resistance training, the more grown-up sounding term for the act of repeatedly lifting heavy objects and putting them down again.
There are actually a few different disciplines that sit under the broader term of resistance training. All of which require quite different training methods.
But, for most of us, the principal aim of any form of lifting is to build muscle and get stronger.
The basic method to achieve this is to exercise often enough and at a high enough intensity to force your body to adapt. Hopefully growing muscle and strength in the process.
The science (witchcraft) bit
When we lift weights we aim to cause muscle fibre hypertrophy.
In simple terms, this means an increase in the size of the component parts of our muscle fibres. For the nerds out there, the sarcomeres and myofibril.
Muscle hypertrophy occurs in response to a stimulus (your training) and when the rate of protein synthesis within your body exceeds the natural rate of breakdown.
Protein synthesis is your body’s process of breaking down the protein and other food you consume and then using the constituent parts to build new body tissues.
Provided you’ve delivered a sufficient stimulus, that is you’ve trained hard enough, your body will use protein synthesis to repair and then build new muscle tissues.
Given enough time, training sessions, adequate nutrition and recovery, this can lead to an increase in muscle strength and size.
In summary, you stress, stimulate and even damage your muscles through regular bouts of resistance training. You then consume the right nutrients in adequate quantities to support your body to repair and regrow muscles in a stronger and bigger state.
From your body’s point of view, this means you are better placed to handle the stresses the next time you encounter them, i.e. future training sessions.
This constant dance of stressing and then supporting your muscles, through adequate nutrition and recovery, is the ongoing life of a lifter.
Progressive overload - lifting more than you did last week
This continuous game of stress and adaptation also highlights why the concept of progressive overload is so important.
Progressive overload is an increase in your workload over time. Or, more succinctly, lifting more than you did the week before.
More could be an increase in the weight you lift, the number of reps/sets you perform, a change in lifting tempo or simply an increase in your range of motion.
Consistent increases in the stimuli you apply to your muscles forces continued adaptation, pushing them to continually grow bigger and stronger.
This is important because if your body feels it is already strong enough to cope with your workouts, it won’t feel the need to grow additional muscle.
Being the incredibly efficient machine it is, your body won’t expend the energy to build new muscle if there isn’t a strong demand for it.
If, however, you change up your workouts, by increasing the weight you lift or the number of times you hit the gym, you create a new or ‘novel’ stimulus that your body is once again forced to adapt to.
This, in basic terms, is the principle behind progressive overload.
The benefits of regular resistance training
Regular resistance training has been shown to actively reverse some common signs of ageing, such as loss of muscle mass and bone density and slowing metabolism.
Indeed, regular training actually improves bone density in adults of all ages. It can also help with both glucose and insulin homeostasis, which helps resist type 2 diabetes.
Resistance training increases your lean weight while reducing fat weight i.e. your body composition changes to a more positive state.
Plus, it will improve your functional independence (i.e. you can do more, more easily) while helping reduce both lower back pain and arthritic discomfort.
And, although perhaps less of an impact than more cardio focused training, weight training will help reduce resting blood pressure and improve vascular conditioning.
It has also been shown to increase walking speed (along with general functional independence) which in turn has the knock-on impact of further supporting reductions in blood pressure and improving general fitness and mobility.
And it’s not just physical benefits but improvements in mental wellbeing too.
Multiple studies have shown that those who participated in regular resistance training report decreased symptoms of depression.
Plus, regular gym goers also report increased self-esteem and physical self-concept.
We all feel better if we think we look better. Losing a bit of weight, toning up, or building visible muscle is a great way to achieve this.
Gym goers even see improved cognitive ability too (must be all that repeated counting to 12 and working out percentages of our 1 rep max).
Spend time to make time
Ultimately the benefits of regular resistance training, and exercise in general, are so overwhelming it’s mind-blowing that so many of us have become so good at not doing it.
We very often hear complaints about not having the time to exercise or the time to prepare healthy meals from scratch.
The irony, however, is that by taking the time to exercise and eat healthily we actually create more time. Anything up to 7 extra years.
That’s over 2500 days.
And this isn’t just extra years at the end of your life frail, these are gains of disability-free years of life.
Also, the relative risk of death is approximately 20% to 35% lower in physically active and fit persons compared to that in inactive and unfit persons.
By exercising you are not only prolonging your life, giving you more time, but you also greatly reduce your chance of dying.
When you consider that so much of our life is geared around saving time or having more of it, it’s crazy to think we have a proven method of generating more of it but so many of us chose not to use it.
It’s more than just lifting up lumps of iron - your nutrition matters too
It’s important to also stress that as important as the hard work in the gym is, it will all be for nothing if you don’t work equally as hard on your nutrition.
The amount you eat and what you eat matters.
This means you must give your nutrition the same attention, dedication and consistency as your gym sessions.
It helps to understand the following basic principle: you need a base level of energy to live and additional energy to fuel both your workouts and to grow new muscle.
This energy comes from the food you consume and is measured in calories.
A calorie is a unit of energy.
When you hear something described as containing 100 calories, it’s a way of describing how much energy your body obtains from consuming it.
Your body need a minimum amount of energy (calories) each day to keep up your core functions – breathing, moving, thinking, repairing cells, keeping warm and a whole host of other essential activities that keep you alive and well.
The amount of calories needed each day to sustain these core basic bodily functions is referred to as your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Importantly, your BMR is the minimum you need to keep your body running. If you want to do more, for example, lift weights and grow muscle, you need additional energy to facilitate this.
In really simple terms the amount of calories you need to be consuming each day to build muscle is a total of your BMR PLUS the calories required to fuel your workouts PLUS the calories required to repair and build new muscle tissue.
This total figure is often referred to as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or, TDEE.
Strictly speaking, your TDEE is a maintenance figure. That is, consuming calories equal to your TDEE would maintain your current weight.
To increase your weight, or build muscle, you would need to consume calories above your TDEE.
Conversely, if you wanted to lose weight, you would need to consume less calories than your TDEE figure.
Though you need excess energy to build muscle (that is, you need to be in a caloric surplus), the amount is relatively small in terms of extra daily calories.
Just 200-300 extra per day is enough to start with. And, when just starting out in the gym, many of us are carrying excess body fat. This means the extra calories needed can be even lower as we have sufficient energy stores already via this excess fat.
Despite this there are countless articles online promoting mega high calorie diets.
For the vast majority of us, however, these diets are neither necessary nor sustainable and often end in excessive fat gain.
High calorie bulks are followed by weeks of ‘cutting’ to try and get rid of this excess fat, usually to end up back where you started with minimal actual muscle gain!
Similar myths and over complications surround weight loss.
There are numerous articles claiming magic weight loss results and/or that carbohydrates are evil and must be eliminated with an equal number saying the same about fats.
The truth is both absolutely have their place in a healthy diet and the number one rule for losing weight is to ensure you are in a caloric deficit.
That is, you are burning more calories than you are consuming.
We have a more detailed article on nutrition for muscle gain here which covers in more detail how many calories you need and how to track your progress.
But, for now, it’s good to appreciate that your nutrition is every bit as important as your training and requires as much attention, dedication and discipline.
And, yes, you will need to get very acquainted with the gym bro’s best friend, protein!
The different forms of resistance training
Although they all fall under the umbrella of resistance training, there are distinct lifting disciplines that require quite different training.
As a new or relatively inexperienced lifter, you don’t need to worry too much about religiously following a specific discipline. Whether you follow a more strength or hypertrophy (size increase) focused regime you will see gains.
You will benefit from trying the various forms of resistance training, however, to see which you enjoy and/or the type which best meets your goals.
As you become more experienced you’ll find you need to specialise and tailor your training accordingly. This is especially so for those practising powerlifting or Olympic lifting where your primary focus must be on the featured lifts.
Similarly, if you are more interested in bodybuilding and aesthetics your training will look very different to that of a powerlifter. Involving many more lift variations and likely much higher training volume and frequency, but with far lighter weights.
Bodybuilding is focused on size and aesthetics. Increasing strength or hitting one rep maxes is not the primary goal, the goal is to build as much lean muscle mass as possible.
Your training and diet are geared towards growing each and every muscle as big as possible. And then trying to cut all your excess body fat to reveal an uber chiselled physique reminiscent of a Greek sculpture.
When most of us think of resistance training, a bodybuilder is the image that generally comes to mind. Think Arnie in his prime or any of the gazillion YouTubers/Instagrammers of today with washboard abs and boulder shoulders.
As bodybuilding is primarily focused on building muscle mass, rather than strength, the training adopts techniques best suited to muscle hypertrophy (increasing muscle size).
This means multiple days in the gym each week with high volume sessions seeing you hit individual muscles with multiple sets and exercises.
The goal is to lift as much as you possibly can across 2 very specific lifts, the clean and the snatch, both of which are overhead pressing moves but that require your full body to maximise.
As an Olympic lifter you need to follow a very specific training regime to maximise your performance in the 2 prime lifts. And the technique is every bit as important as overall strength due to the complexity of the aforementioned lifts.
Aesthetics and how you look is not a primary consideration.
That said, you can absolutely get jacked through Olympic training (just check out some of the top Chinese lifters) but you’ll most likely lean more towards a powerlifter/strongman physique than a bodybuilder due to the requirements to consume so many calories to maintain the strength and energy levels required to lift such hefty weights.
Powerlifting involves lifting as much as possible across 3 key lifts, the squat, the deadlift and the bench press.
Similar to Olympic lifting, powerlifting is a competitive resistance training discipline (should you want to compete) and involves not only maximising your strength but also your technique across the aforementioned key lifts.
Powerlifting training programmes focus very much on strength rather than increasing muscle size. With programmes built around the 3 big lifts and seeing you workout out less often than a bodybuilding plan and with lower overall volume.
The weights you lift will be far higher, however, with you undertaking multiple working sets in the 1-5 rep range at around 80-95% of your max lift.
As with both Olympic lifting and strongman training, you have to eat a lot to both build strength and to get you through the strenuous workouts. To this end appearance and aesthetics are less of a concern and you will very rarely see a powerlifter with a 6 pack!
Strong man involves lifting as much as humanly possible in quite often bizarre ways. I.e. pulling a truck/train/aeroplane, repeatedly flipping tractor tyres, throwing beer kegs over a pole vault bar, covering yourself in glue and lifting boulders onto increasingly higher pedestals (Atlas stones).
Strong man training is kind of a combination of all the disciplines above. You’ll do lots of more general weight training to build up your overall strength (i.e. deadlifts, shoulder pressing etc.) but then have to train for the specific events too, such as atlas stones, pulling a truck etc, that have very specific technical quirks.
It will likely be quite hard finding facilities to train strongman as few gyms have the appropriate gear and set up. They do exist, however, and you can still benefit from more standard weight training until you find a suitable venue/gym.
Both the training and diet are uber extreme for top-level strongman competitors. If you take it seriously, you’ll spend far more time eating than actually lifting weights. And the sheer amount of calories needed to build the size and bulk required to properly train means you ain’t gonna be on the cover of Men’s Health showing off your abs.
Ok, I’m sold on the benefits - how do I get started
Practice over preparation. Finish reading this and then get your ass to the gym.
Most gyms will offer you a free or short term trial (so you don’t get legged up by annual memberships) and any worth its salt will offer an induction so you know how to use the various bits of kit.
Machines are a safe way to get started and absolutely have their place. But in most cases free weights (i.e. barbells and dumbbells) are a better way to go and where you should aspire to be.
Again, provided you’ve sourced a decent gym, the resident PTs (personal trainers) should be able to provide you with a basic workout template and show you how to perform the various free weight exercises and use the machines.
As a beginner, a 3 day per week full-body programme that utilises the big compound lifts is an excellent place to start.
Compound lifts are those that require multiple muscles to perform. They are a great way to work out as they require a huge amount of strength and energy to perform thus promote all over strength and muscle gain plus help to burn off the calories.
The most common compound lifts that will form the basis of your workouts are the squat, the bench press, the deadlift and the row.
The way you perform your exercises and the way you structure and carry out your workout programme matters too.
There are a few key principles you need to adhere to if you want to see results. Namely:
- Hitting each major muscle/muscle group 2-3 times per week
- Performing approx 10 – 20 working sets per muscle/muscle group per week
- Making use of progressive overload to increase workout intensity over time
- Fuelling properly to provide energy for both your workouts and muscle growth
- Getting enough sleep to aid recovery between gym sessions and to allow your body to do the actual growing bigger/stronger part
We touch on progressive overload and nutrition above, and won’t bog you down with the details and science behind workout frequency and volume just yet. But an effective workout plan will cover the concepts and ranges outlined above.
If you do want the detail now, click here to scroll down to a list of our other beginner friendly articles that cover the key muscle building concepts in greater depth.
We provide a great 3-day starter programme on our site that utilises the big compound lifts and all the key principles of effective muscle gain. But we would still urge you to get some direct coaching along with it so you know how to perform the moves outlined safely.
At the very least, go to a reputable instructional YouTube channel to see how you should be performing the moves (bodybuilding.com has an extensive library that will show you the basics and YouTube supremo Jeff Nippard has excellent in-depth technique videos for the lifts listed above).
You don’t need any special equipment other than well-fitting shorts and a t-shirt that allow you to move freely. Specialist lifting or Crossfit trainers aren’t required. But trainers with a flatter sole are better (think converse) but anything that fits you well, is comfy and provides good grip is fine to start.
Awesome, so this time next month I’ll look like the hulk?
No, sorry to burst your bubble but you won’t be looking hulk-like anytime soon, if ever.
We don’t write this to put you off but need to stress that building muscle is a long and slow process, and one that requires dedication over many years to not only your training regime but also your nutrition and recovery,
Plus, genetics plays a huge role in how you grow and show muscle.
If you went out and kicked a football for a few years would you expect to be as good as Ronaldo or even the average professional player? No, of course not.
The pro sports stars you see are statistical anomalies who’ve won the genetics lottery both physically and mentally and been dedicated to working their ass off for years.
The Mr Olympias and YouTube fitness stars are no different.
Even if you mimicked their training, nutrition and general lifestyle exactly, you are still very unlikely to look the way they do.
Again, we don’t write this to put you off but must provide some perspective and realism.
Everybody can build an incredible physique with enough hard work, dedication and sensible programming. And you should never use perceived genetic limits as an excuse. But it is somewhat harder to look the way trainees do on Youtube.
And bear in mind that when your income depends on you looking like a freak the temptation for ‘enhancements’ is strong.
That said, you should take inspiration from the YT stars and any super ripped guys and girls in your local gym, but don’t compare yourself to or compete with them.
Success in the gym shouldn’t be about lifting more than anyone else or having the most chiselled pecs. It should be about being a better version of yourself than you were the week before.
Not to mention the numerous physical and mental benefits we listed above!
But what if I don’t want to look like the hulk!?
Again, don’t worry, you won’t.
Indeed, very few people will ever look like the guys you see in Mr Olympia or many of the YouTube and Hollywood stars.
And for any women concerned with getting bulging muscles where they perhaps don’t want them….
Head to your local gym and take a sneaky look at the other gym goers. We’ll wager that there is a broad range of body types and 99% of them are not rippling hulks in vests way too small for them (OK, the vest thing may still be a common occurrence).
The reality is that building muscle is a slow and steady journey and you won’t suddenly wake up with boulder shoulders and massive thighs.
So, don’t be scared of performing the big lifts (e.g. squats, deadlifts rows, etc.).
Due to the sheer amount of healthy stress these big compound moves place on your entire body they are excellent whole body muscle builders and fat burners.
We are completely sold on the positives benefits, both physically and mentally, of regular resistance training. Hence our mission to get the world to lift.
That said, we get that the gym can be intimidating and that the online fitness world can often over complicate the process of building muscle.
This post aims to show that it’s simple to get started, with just a few key principles to follow.
And it doesn’t require a huge amount of time to see great results. Just 2-3 hours per week following a full body split will deliver an incredible body transformation.
However, while the actual process is straightforward you shouldn’t underestimate how much effort and persistence is needed. To this end, like forming any life habit, it’s best to start small and build up and to keep things simple.
Ultimately you just have to be smart with your training and be patient. Do the basics right and the results and gains will come.
And, every step you take, every session you smash, is one more step towards all the benefits covered above and a healthier better version of you.