Hope you don’t mind me answering this one publicly as it’s a question I do get asked reasonably often.
First off, thank you for all the ~lovely~ compliments. And I am usually in the gym for about an hour. I don’t time my training or rest between sets or anything like that, I just rest for however long I need and take however long I want.
Secondly, below is what I would recommend for an absolute weights beginner:
- Start on the machine weights if you’re comfortable. So all those weird contraptions all commercial gyms are full of. These are less intimidating for beginners as there’s less risk - it’s a basic movement and you’re not going to drop anything on yourself or look like a fool. Watch other people use them and then use them yourself. You will feel sore after training on machines when you’re new. But the big mistake newbies often make is never going past that. They think doing a circuit on the weights machines 3x a week is going to get them the results they want - it most likely won’t. The movements are almost entirely isolation movements - that is, you isolate one specific muscle/group. That kind of strength doesn’t really translate into functional strength. But it has its place in a training program and is a good place to start, if you feel safe with it.
- Start with 8 reps per set. Use the highest weight you can do 8 reps with while maintaining correct form. So that 8th rep is still executed properly, but you literally cannot do a 9th. (Don’t get hung up on this, if you pick the wrong weight and realise ~~omg I could’ve done a 9th rep~~ it really doesn’t matter, I’m just saying pick a challenging weight). I would start with 3 or 4 sets per exercise. There are infinite combinations of sets and reps, low rep vs high rep debates, pyramid sets, dropsets etc etc. Don’t worry about that, there’s plenty of time to research it all later. 3x8 has been my standard accessory work configuration for ages and I think it’s a good place for beginners to start, it’s not extreme in any direction.
- I recommend resting for as long as you feel is necessary between sets. Again, this is debatable, some people strictly monitor rest times and stick to 30seconds or 1minute or whatever. I have never monitored rest time (except when circuiting or supersetting) and clearly it hasn’t phased me. Obviously mileage may vary and you could find you like monitoring rest - that’s fine, but for an absolute beginner, don’t even worry about that yet.
- You need to have some idea of how often you want to strength train per week, so that you know how to split up your exercise days. If you want to strength train twice, for example, you could do an upper body day and a lower body day. Three times a week could be an arm/chest day, a core/back day, and a leg day. Whatever. But it’s good to have an idea of what you want to do in a week so you can have that in mind when you decide what exercises to do when you show up at the gym. When I first started lifting I had a 4 day split. A leg day, a chest/tri (tri as in triceps, the back of your arm muscle) day, a back/bi (bi as in bicep) day, and a core day. If I was to advise someone, I wouldn’t bother with a core day. You don’t need to work your abs so heavily that it has it’s own session, unless you want really ripped cut abs. Adding in some core work to any of the other days is enough, and I feel that it’s more beneficial to do abs in small quantities multiple times a week rather than hitting it for a whole session once a week (again, unless you want big ripped abs). Remember you can’t spot reduce so if you’re trying to get a flat tummy, you need to lower your body fat overall. Abs cannot be revealed with bodyfat over a certain level. An overweight person is far better off doing 27mins of cardio +3mins of ab work than doing a 30min ab session.
- You want to pay some attention to making sure you’re equally working your muscles. For example, on leg day, you want to make sure you’re working quads, hamstrings, your glutes, and your calves. So what I mean is, in the most basic terms, you want to feel the burn in every muscle, not just some. (This is also why compound movements are better in general, but for machine use, just pick machines that use different muscles).
- Add in other strength training things that don’t need machines, as these are also not threatening. So traveling lunges (with dumbbells), planks, tricep extensions (dumbbells), curls (dumbbells), whatever gets you comfortable with being in the free weights area. Dumbbells are not scary. You can pretty much do anything with a dumbbell and people aren’t really going to question it (seriously I’ve seen people do the weirdest things with dumbbells but I’m just like okay sweet). For a female, you will likely feel more comfortable starting with smaller dumbbells, that’s fine. It’s equally as fine if you want to go a bit heavier to start. The issue is more that people get stuck and don’t push themselves to go higher. If you really haven’t strength trained before and you’re petite, maybe a 2kg dumbbell (4lb) actually is going to challenge you. That’s FINE. Don’t be embarrassed and screw anyone who says otherwise about small sized weights. But don’t stay there. “Newbie gains” are a real thing. It means you gain strength faster at the start. Always push yourself to go up a weight. One week use 4kg, next week try 5kg. If you can’t finish the 3x8 with 5kg, go and swap and finish your sets with 4kg, that’s still progress. The main thing is you never stop pushing to go further, never settle. (It’s easier than you think to stop trying to go up with weights, we get complacent).
- Don’t linger too long on the machine weights and isolation exercises. It’s a good introduction and will help you feel comfortable but it’s not the most efficient use of your time. You want to get into barbell exercises and compound (multiple muscle) exercises. Watch these three form videos, for a start: Bench, Squat, Deadlift. I watched these videos probably hundreds of times. Watch other form videos on youtube. Read about the lifts. Watch examples of what NOT to do. Start practicing these lifts with dumbbells, just to get the feel for it. Use a broomstick handle to practice squatting with a bar on your back. It’s going to feel really foreign and weird at first. It took me months and months to get comfortable with my squat, and I am still tweaking my form and improving now (although now I get told my squat form is perfect by my gym owners and other weight trainers ~~booyah~~). If you have trouble keeping your weight back over your heels, try putting something an inch or so high under your heels. Work on mobility (stretching, foam rolling etc) if you find the movement a real struggle. I started watching videos and reading about squats & deadlifts for a month or two before I actually worked up the courage to do them. If you have the facilities, get a personal trainer (look for one who you’ve actually seen squatting and deadlifting, or training someone to squat and deadlift, and actually looks like they know what they’re doing). Tell them straight up that you want to learn how to squat, deadlift and bench press. Trainers are notorious for giving girls/women programs full of air squats, lunges, cardio and sit-ups. That’s fine and traditional and non-threatening but it’s not what we’re after here (and I don’t believe gets anyone the results they really want). If you see others in the gym squatting and deadlifting like in those videos, talk to them! Seriously. They’ll probably be flattered. Just say hi and ask them how they got started and the conversation will flow and maybe they can give you a hand. Remember that there are lots of gymbros out there with ideas and advice that might not actually be correct (things I am typing right now would be up for argument with some people). Don’t believe what anyone tells you just because they have big biceps and grunt loudly. You can take their opinion on board (I recommend it) but come home and do some research. Someone tells you not to deadlift, it’s bad for your back - okay thanks, that’s interesting. Come home, read about it from some verifiable sources, and make your own mind up. If you really want to go far in training, of any kind, you have to put that time and effort in. You have to want to know about it, rather than just be told.
- Get into those barbell exercises. Now you have the form down, so many doors open. Barbell complexes, oly lifts, supersets, dropsets blah blah blah. Start googling how people train. Get ideas. Find what excites you. Change your lifting splits. I always centre my training around those big 3 lifts. So I warm-up, I do my squats, then I consider accessory work - lunges, leg press, calf raises, isolation machines, glute bridges, whatever. But always the big lift in the centre of my mind. I measure my strength progress by how heavy I can go on my big lifts, because that is functional strength. I CAN put a boar on my back and carry it. And my squat training allows me to do that. Does sitting on a machine and doing a leg extension mean I can carry a boar? Nope, it doesn’t. It just means that in isolation, my quad can do 8 reps at X amount of weight. Cool story.
So, an example of an absolute beginners program (this is heavily biased towards what I like to do. There are so many ways to strength train, honestly, but I am writing this from MY perspective so this is my suggestion). Using dumbbells and machines only (Remember: barbell is where you want to end up. Try your best to graduate to using the barbells as soon as you feel comfortable). This is largely targeted at females, with goals for their appearance and strength, but obviously there’s no reason males couldn’t do this kind of program as well. This is clearly not a program that’s going to get you massive and muscly, it’s basic and introductory. I’m going to include what cardio and non-strength exercise I would do along with this too:
Monday (leg day):
10-20mins warm-up on cardio equipment - bike, elliptical etc
4x8 squats with dumbbells in hands (remember, as heavy as you can manage)
3 sets of walking lunges with dumbbells in hands (find a space where you can do traveling lunges for about 8 lunges in each direction. There & back counts as one set, so 16 lunges per set, 8 per side).
3x8 calf raises with dumbbells in hands (find a platform to stand on with the front of your foot. Lower and raise yourself)
3x8 leg extension machine
3x8 leg curl machine
Wednesday (chest/tri day):
10-20mins warm-up on cardio equipment
4x8 dumbbell bench press (bench, google how to do a dumbbell bench press. Heaviest you can manage for 8 reps)
3x8 push-ups (do incline push-ups (so hands on something higher than ground level, toes on ground, body rigid) or knees on the ground if you can’t do a full push-up)
3x8 tricep pushdowns (this uses a cable machine. You can use the straight bar or rope attachment. Again, google it to see)
3x8 dumbbell flyes (dumbbells + bench. You can do this on a flat bench or on a decline or incline, whatever you like)
3x8 chest machine presses (machine. this is where you’re seated and pushing two arms of the machine out in front of you)
3x8 tricep extensions (dumbbells)
Thursday (HIIT & abs):
Choose a cardio machine. Warm-up for 5-10 minutes at a comfortable pace. Then, start doing intervals. You can 30 seconds hard to 30 seconds easy, or 20 seconds hard to 40 seconds easy, any combination works (as long as you challenge yourself).
What you do is put the machine on a high level and sprint. Lets say level 8 (remember levels change between machines so this number is arbitrary, basically pick a challenging level). Sprint your absolute guts out. It’s only 30 seconds, you can do anything for 30 seconds. Then drop down to a comfortable level (lets say level 4) and catch your breath for 30 seconds. Repeat. Do this for 10-15mins. If you can go longer than 15mins, you haven’t been sprinting hard enough. (HIIT is extremely effective for fat loss. For the thousandth time, google it ;))
3 planks, as long as you can hold them
4x8 leg raises (lie on the floor flat on your back, holding your legs straight you raise and lower them without your feet touching the ground)
3 side planks, as long as you can hold them
Friday (back/bi day):
10-20mins warm up on cardio equipment
4x8 lat pulldowns (machine. This is the one where you’re seated and pulling a bar down to your chest. Again, google it)
4x8 hyperextensions (for this you need a roman chair. This is where you prop yourself up in the “chair” and bend at the hips, lowering and raising yourself back up)
3x8 rear delt flyes on machine (this uses the same machine as chest flyes. You adjust the machine so the arms are at the back and then facing into the machine, push the arms backwards. Google it)
3x8 bent over row (dumbbells & bench)
3x8 bicep curls (dumbbells)
3x8 assisted pull-ups (machine. Use however much assistance you need, again, always with the aim of using less and less assistance until you can do a pull-up).
Remember you can add or subtract from this whatever you want. Go on runs, go swimming, whatever. It’s just an absolute beginners program that I feel is quite inclusive and will get someone feeling comfortable with the free weights area and strength training in general.
Again, the big thing is, do not stay using the same weights week in week out. I see women doing that a lot. The same exercises, the same dumbbells, the same routine. Push yourself. Change your split, change your routine. Yes you will stall sometimes, so you vary your program, but never stay comfortable, never settle. When you move to barbell exercises, do not get scared of big weight. 1) Even if lifting did make women bulky, that’s fine, women can be bulky if they want, but that takes YEARS of hard work, so don’t discredit their hard work by fretting that doing 50kg squats once a week is going to make you bulky. 2) You only get the real results, real muscle definition & strength progress, from heavy lifting.
Once you add in barbell exercises things are going to change but at that point you’ll (hopefully) be passionate and excited and will research everything on your own. It gets more complex and I’m not going to attempt to tell you how to train at that point. Some good barbell lift progression programs that I’ve tried include Stronglifts 5x5, Starting Strength, and 5/3/1. But focus on form before worrying about any of that. It takes time and commitment but the results (& fun) are so worth it.
I personally do minimal ab work and minimal bicep isolation. Both of those things get trained with the compound exercises and I find them boring to train. But without those big lifts in your program, I think it is okay to spend some time on ab work and bicep work if you feel that you want to.
Get in there and have a go and start reading watching & learning from all sources you can get your hands on :-)
This is an answer I wrote a few months ago. Note that it’s my opinion based on my experiences and there will be things in here others disagree with (for example, needing to end up doing barbell exercises, and viewing barbell exercises as superior to machine and dumbbell exercises - but I still believe barbell exercises are more efficient and where you build the most strength and see the most aesthetic progress). You came to my blog for my opinion and advice so here it is!