The Beginner’s Guide to Lifting Weights at the Gym

Photo: Getty/Peathegee Inc
If your weight-lifting experience is primarily limited to a 5-minute stint at the end of spin class, picking up a set of 'em at the gym can be intimidating and scary, to say the least. But you'll want to face those fears and do it anyway, since lifting more than 10-pound dumbbells (for most women) builds metabolism-revving muscle, strong bones, and a toned body. If you're wondering how to start weight training on your own but don't happen to have a personal trainer to show you around the weight room (though, for what it's worth, that's not a bad idea), we've got you covered.

“It’s tempting to blow through a huge number reps,” says Rob Sulaver, owner of Bandana Training in New York City, “but grabbing something heavy and doing fewer reps, so the last two are super challenging, can really up your game. If you want to look your best, heavier resistance training is simply more effective."

The first order of business? Choosing the right weights. When assessing the rack, there are 2 things you'll want to consider: How many reps you’re able to do, and how fast you’re able to get those reps done. Choose a starting set that feels right for you, and if you can get up to 10 to 15 reps fairly quickly, grab something heavier for round 2.

Next comes motivation. "My favorite way to motivate myself is by setting goals to test my limits. Being the strongest, baddest, and most hardest-working version of myself is my goal," says Zack Daley, training manager at NYC's Tone House. "I never try to compare myself to anyone because everyone is different in their own ways, but I do have role models and goals I want to hit for myself."

To finish, nail the moves that will truly inspire you to keep on going. Here, the pros share their favorite beginner-friendly sets to help lift the load.

Goblet Squats

What you’ll need: One big dumbbell (shoot for 20 pounds or more since your legs are the primary focus here). Need tips on how to pick the right weight? We've got you.

For this move that strengthens your quads and glutes and engages your biceps and core, you’ll hold a dumbbell at chest height. Keep your back straight and with control, squat down, pushing your butt back like you’re sitting in a chair. Think about spreading the floor apart with your feet so your knees open nice and wide. At the bottom, keep your chest "proud," facing the wall in front of you.

Can’t keep your heels on the ground? Tuck a padded gym mat under them to give you an inch or so of height, and it’ll help your flexibility. Do 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps. Bonus: Because so many big muscles are involved, you’ll notice there’s a cardio benefit to this movement, and it’ll prep you for carrying more weight.

Dumbbell squats and press

What you'll need: Something weighted, like a dumbbells, kettle bells, or a medicine ball

"This is a great total body workout you can do anywhere and with many pieces of equipment," says Daley.  Start off with your feet hip or shoulder width apart, with your toes forward or with slight turn out, and grab your dumbbells at your shoulders while looking ahead. "When starting to descend into squat, make sure knees are aligned with toes. Your knees should not go inward or outward.

Keep descending into squat position achieving at least a 90-degree angle with legs, keeping weight into heels as you drop into hips, keep chest up with dumbbells at shoulder height, squeeze glutes to return back to starting position, fully standing tall," says Daley. "At the top of squat begin pressing dumbbells upward while you lock your legs out, keeping core tight, and biceps close to your head as you fully lock arms out above your head. From this position, control your dumbbells down to return to shoulder height." Repeat for 20 reps.

Ledge rows

What you’ll need: Any sturdy ledge or surface that’s about hip height, and a 12-pound weight or more.

These rows work your lats, biceps, and upper back. Step into a short lunge, and hinge forward from the hip to rest one hand on the ledge. Holding a dumbbell in your other hand, bend your arm to a 90-degree angle. Keeping your elbow very close to your body, bring the dumbbell into your armpit, almost like you're nudging someone behind you.

Squeeze your entire arm and shoulder blade as you pull your elbow back, and no wobbling when you stretch your arm out in front of you. Use your abs and obliques (and your stable lunge) to remain still. Do 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps on both sides. Trick of the trade: If you notice you have a weaker side, start there.

Lunge to bicep curl

What you need: Dumbbells

"This is a great strength exercise that recruits multiple muscle groups, improving balance and coordination," says Daley. Start with your feet parallel and your torso upright with one foot forward and one foot back. "Be sure to keep your front leading foot flat to the ground and find a focus point in front of you," says Daley. Descend into lunge, bending at the knee and keeping your upright position, and as always be sure to keep the knee aligned with the toes, but never let the knee come forward past them.

"As you land into lunge, bring dumbbells upward by keeping shoulders stable, elbows tight to sides, and squeezing biceps. Control dumbbells back down to sides. Push off the ground through the heel of the front leading foot, engaging your glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Returning to start position exhale, reset, and repeat motion with opposite leg," says Daley. One thing to remember? Be sure to switch legs to avoid muscle imbalances and make sure you do an equal number of reps on both sides.

45-degree dumbbell press

What you’ll need: A bench adjusted to a 45-degree angle and two dumbbells of at least 10 pounds each.

This strength-training move, which works your chest, shoulders, and triceps, is nice to have workout buddy spot you for. Click a bench into a 45-degree angle, and ideally position it so you can see yourself in the mirror. Activate your core for a bit of stability, and lift the weights simultaneously from your shoulders, up through goal-post position straight overhead until your arms are locked. Then slowly, and with control, bring the weights back down to shoulder height. Keep your palms facing each other the entire time, and keep your elbows close to your body, as if they're scraping your ribcage. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.

Preacher curls

What you need: An E-Z curl bar or dumbbell of comfortable weight and a bench (either a Preacher Curl Bench or an adjustable bench)

"Preacher curls focus on isolating the bicep by helping you avoid using your other body parts to swing the barbell up to you," says Daley. Stand or sit behind the bench with one or both arms (depending if you're using a bar or dumbbell) on the pad, keeping your arms and chest up against it the pad. Start with the bar at shoulder height and length with palms facing upward. From this position, inhale and slowly lower the bar until arms are almost at full stretch. As you exhale, engage your biceps by curling the bar to you until the bar is at the starting position of shoulder height.

Another reason to grab those heavies off the rack? Weight training can help boost your sex drive. And, bonus—you only have to do it for five minutes for it to be effective. 

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