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How to Lift Weights at Home Whether You’re a Fitness Newb or a Strength-Training Pro

Zoe Weiner

Zoe WeinerMay 26, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/ Deagreez

One of the biggest myths in the entire fitness world (aside from the fact that you need to get 10,000 steps every day and that you should be modifying push-ups to your knees) is cardio alone is an A-OK way to work out. It’s not. In reality, adding weights into the mix is an important part of any strength training routine. And since hitting the rack at the gym isn’t quite an option right now, we asked trainers to, well, weigh in on how to lift weights at home.

“Bodyweight exercises are great for maintaining strength gains or focusing more on muscular and cardiorespiratory endurance, but if your goal is to add strength or muscle mass, using the added resistance of weights is essential,” says Theodore Savage, the fitness training director at Planet Fitness. “When you use weights, you are actually breaking down the muscle fibers and when they repair themselves, they become stronger and more resilient.” This, he explains, is what promotes hypertrophy in the muscles you’re targeting, helping them to get stronger.

Whether you’re using dumbbells, bands, or two bottles of wine, adding resistance to your workout takes it up a notch. “Our arms are used to reaching overhead with only the weight of our arms to lift, so when you add even the lightest amount of weight you challenge the moving muscles, which now have to hold the weight and resist it from dropping straight to the ground,” says Bethany Stillwaggon, ACSM CPT and Master Coach for Row House. Simply put, if you want to get stronger, you’re going to need to add a little weight.

Here, trainers guide us through exactly how to lift weights at home, whether you’re a next-gen Arnold Schwarzenegger or picking up a set of dumbbells for the first time.

How to lift weights at home

1.Start with bodyweight exercises

Before you even begin to integrate weights into your routine, you’re actually going to want to start by building strength with bodyweight-only exercises. These moves are the “building blocks” of an effective at-home strength training routine, says Savage  and will set you up for success once you’re ready to add weights.

“Anytime you’re using some type of external load, you’re adding complexity and the possible risk of injury,” says Steve Stonehouse, NASM CPT and Director of Education for STRIDE. Bodyweight movements, he explains, eliminate that weight-induced complexity and reduce the risk they add.

“Test your body mechanics with basic movements and exercises,” says Savage. “Test how low your hips and ankles allow you to go in a squat, whether or not you can hold a plank and for how long, how long you can balance yourself on one leg or in other unstable conditions.” You want to be sure to test your body’s functional movements—like bending, hinging, twisting, extending, flexing, balancing, and stabilizing—so that you won’t hurt yourself when you add load.

Spend some time getting comfortable with bodyweight moves, and when those start to feel easy, it’s time to add some load.

2. Select your weights

The obvious next step is to grab some weights, but you’re going to want to put some thought into exactly what you’re lifting. “If your goals are to add muscle mass and increase strength output, I would look for a good combination of dumbbells, free weights, kettlebells, weighted functional accessories and items that would add load to your targeted muscles,” says Savage.

In order to be sure you’re lifting the right amount of weight, there are two factors that come into play: How many reps you’re able to do, and how fast you’re able to get those reps done. Grab a starting set that feels right, and see how quickly you’re able to do 10 to 15 reps with them. If it’s fairly quick and easy, level up for your next set. You’ll also want to consider that the weights you use for upper body won’t necessarily be the same size as the one’s you’ll use to work your core and lower body, which is why it’s important to have a full set.

According to Stillwagon, your best bet is to invest in a set of free dumbbells that come in a variety of sizes. You can either go with a multi-weight set that includes a range of light to medium weights, like the PAPABABE Dumbbell Set ($370), or an adjustable barbell, like the Topeakmart 66LB Adjustable Dumbbell Weight Set ($140), which allows you to get multiple weight options in a single pice of equipment. 

“Be watchful of dumbbells with different sized grips,” says Stillwagon. “You want one about the size of a broom handle. It’s proven that the larger the grip, the more challenging this is for us and will tire our muscle more quickly, almost feeling as if we are lifting a heavier weight than we are.”

With all of that in mind, it’s also worth noting that you don’t necessarily need to invest in a fancy weight set to reap the benefits of an at-home lifting workout. “You can use pretty much any item you have at your disposal,” says Savage. A few go-tos that you likely already have hanging out in your house? Canned goods, water bottles, gallon jugs, flour bags, and laundry baskets.

3. Warm up

To get your muscles prepped and ready for weights, it’s important to perform a good dynamic warmup. Flexibility is also very crucial to weight training properly,” says Savage. “So a dynamic warm up is one that consists of active stretches that mimic how the body will move during your routine.” A few of his go-to moves?

1. Bend and reach: Standing with your feet hips-width distance apart, raise your arms overhead to reach toward the sky, then bend forward to fold them to the floor. Repeat this motion quickly to begin to raise your heart rate.

2. Torso trunk twist: From the same standing position, extend your arms out to the side so that they’re perpendicular to the floor. Twist your upper body from side to side without moving your feet, hinging at the waist to get a full rotation.

3. Windmill: Spread your feet slightly wider than your hips and extend your hands up toward the sky, creating an “X” with your body. Reach down to touch your opposite hand to opposite foot, then return to start and repeat on the other side.

4. Jumping jacks: Standing with your feet together and arms by your sides, jump your feet out wide and raise your arms to touch overhead, then jump your feet back in and lower your arms to your starting position.

5. Butt kicks: Standing straight up with your core engaged and head, neck, and shoulders lifted, kick your butt with alternating feet as quickly as possible.

6. High knees: From the same position, run in place with your knees lifting straight up in front of you, as high as you can get them to go.

4. Start slow and Focus on form

When it comes time to do the actual workout, there are a few things to keep in mind. First things first, you want to start s-l-o-w so your body can adapt to the new routine and you can avoid getting hurt. “If you add everything all at once and experience some trouble, it’s harder to identify what the issue is. Is it improper form? Is the weight too heavy? Should I choose a different set of exercises altogether? It’s a lot to work through all at once!” says Stonehouse.

Form and technique should be top of mind during any fitness routine, but are especially important when weight training at home. “One of the downsides to lifting from home is that usually there isn’t anyone there to tell you when you are compromising your form by trying to do too much,” says Savage. “So start slow, listen to your body and avoid injury by focusing on your body mechanics instead of how much weight you’re lifting.”

5. Cool down

Unlike your warmup, your cool down stretches should be more static, which means you want to be still. Savage recommends the following to leave you feeling limber:

1. Seated hamstring stretch: Sit on the floor with one leg extended out in front of you and your other bent to create a “figure-four” position in which the sole of your foot is touching your inner thigh. Reach down toward your extended foot, keeping your neck and back straight, until you feel the stretch in the back of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides.

2. Hip flexor stretch: Lie on your side with your knees bent at a 90-degree angel, and place the foot of your bottom leg inside the loop of  a yoga strap. Grasp the other end of the strap with the same hand, and place the other hand around the ankle of your top foot. Extend your upper leg back as far as you can, contracting your glutes and hamstrings. Move through the stretch slowly and repeat for 30 seconds, then switch sides.

3. Triceps overhead stretch: Raise your arms up over head, and bend one arm at the elbow to reach your hand down your back. Use the other hand to grab that elbow to extend the stretch until you feel it in your tricep. Hold each side for 30 seconds.

4. Cobra stretch: Lying on your stomach, bend your elbows and place your palms down underneath your shoulders as you hug your elbows in toward your body. Extend your legs back behind you, pressing the tops of your feet into the mat. Press the pubic bone down, and then pull your hands back towards your front hip points, inhaling as you lift your chest up off of the floor. Extend or straighten through the arms as you bring your shoulders down your back. Hold for 30 seconds.

At-home weight lifting moves we love

Upper body

1. Shoulder press

2. Front shoulder raise

3. Lateral shoulder raise

4. Reverse Fly

5. Overhead tricep extension

6. Tricep kickback

7. Bicep curl

8. Hammer curl

9. Bent row

Core

1. Weighted sit-up

2. Weighted Russian twist

3. Weighted double crunch

Lower body

1. Weighted Squat

2. Alternating front and lateral lunges

3. Calf raise

4. weighted Glute Bridge

5. Weighted step-up

6. Single Leg Bulgarian Split Squat

7. Curtsy squat

8. Single leg deadlift

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