A 2022 16-study review out of Japan concluded that strength training is associated with a 10-17% lower risk of mortality across the board with some of the most common life-shortening ailments: cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
In addition to helping carve out a muscular physique and movable body primed for life, lifting weights is also just very healthy when done safely. While an intimidating practice to start, with the right guidance and equipment strength training can be incredibly beneficial to both the mind and body.
For those new to strength training, the practice can be easy to swell into something rife with heavy equipment, intimidating movements and injuries if the wrong goals are put into place. The goal is not to beef up like Arnold in two months. The goal is dynamic, safe, resistance-based movements that get results. Thankfully, there are plenty of those out there.
The main thing to look for with strength workouts is compound movements over isolations. As satisfying as an arm day can be, strength comes from big lifts, not hyper-specific ones that make your biceps bulge.
Luke Zocchi, Head Trainer at Centr and Chris Hemsworth’s personal trainer sat down with SPY to talk all things beginner strength. He had this note for those just starting out. “My advice for anyone starting in strength training would be to start with body weight first, learn the movements with correct form, and then look to add any further weight,” said Zocchi.
“Keep workouts to 45 minutes and under – you are going to be putting your body under stress that it is not used to. Start with 3 sets per exercise and gauge your reps by how good your form is, making sure to only do reps with good form to prevent injury.”
The Best Strength Exercises for Beginners
According to Zocchi, the “key” lifts you want to start with to establish a good strength training foundation are “the squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press.”
“These lifts are probably the most complex because they are compound exercises and they use multiple muscles at the one time. Again, the safest way to learn these lifts is by starting out with bodyweight only at first. The most important thing to keep in mind is to do all these lifts with your core braced and your back and head in a straight and neutral position. Build up slowly.”
Speaking of compound movements, one of the other trainers we talked to, TJ Mentus, an ACE-Certified Personal Trainer and Certified USA Weightlifting Coach, mentioned that “the best strength movements for beginners are compound movements. A compound movement uses multiple joints to perform the exercise. By focusing on these as the main part of the workout it helps the body to coordinate the muscles to work together and be able to lift a heavier load.”
Mentus also said that both squats and deadlifts are essential movements for everyone to keep in their workout rotations. That’s because “These two movements will build a strong lower body and core. In addition to building overall strength, they are also fundamental movements that will transfer to other activities and exercises.”
One of the great things about weightlifting is that what works for beginners will also work for experts. Lifting things carefully with good form will always have a good effect on your body, so you don’t have to worry about throwing in backflips halfway through the best strength workouts, well, unless you want to.
The deadlift is one of the most effective strength training moves available. It works nearly the entire body at once, and with proper form and consistency can be incredibly effective at building strength.
Boyce explained “The deadlift is actually my favorite overall lift as it’s a true measure of strength. The deadlift is where the lifter reaches down to grasp the barbell and bring it from the ground up to the hip level with the torso perpendicular to the floor.”
He added that “The deadlift works the same muscles as the squat, but with a greater emphasis on the hamstrings, glutes, and upper back.”
The deadlift can be done with a barbell or a set of medium/heavy dumbbells by a beginner. You can grasp the bar or hold a dumbbell in each hand and lower them and lift them off the floor to practice the exercise, bracing your core and engaging your hamstrings the entire time. Traditionally, the deadlift is supposed to involve lifting the weight off the floor with each rep, hence the “dead” part coming from dead weight, but you can lower the weight to mid-way up your calves and achieve a similar effect.
Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells (Pair)
The Bowflex SelectTech Adjustable Dumbbells are excellent for deadlifts and perfect for beginners who need adjustable weights for progressive strength building. Each of these goes up to 52.5 pounds each and can be changed in 5-pound and even 2.5-pound increments.
The squat is one of the key strength training moves for the lower body, and a great move for beginners because you can do it without any weight at all.
Josh Gardner, NASM-certified personal trainer, CEO and Co-Founder of Kickoff, a remote personal training platform, explained that squats are a “compound exercise” that works many of the major muscle groups in your body, making it super effective. “These include: core, abductors, adductors, quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves.”
Phil Arrellin, Digital Group Exercise Manager at Chuze Fitness gave some form cues including “Knees should always track in line with the toes, and hips sit back and down, just like sitting down in a chair. Holding some weight during execution is an excellent option for a more advanced squat.”
He went on to explain that depending on how the feet are positioned, the move can target slightly different muscles in the legs.
“In addition to the high and low options in the squat, there are also options for adjusting the squat to target different muscle groups. Beginning with the feet just outside of hip width, the main target of the work will fall on the quadriceps. Stepping the feet wider, outside shoulder-width, will move the focus of the work into the glutes and the sides of the leg.”
Bench press might look like a more advanced strength training move, bit it can certainly be done by beginners as long as a safe introductory weight is selected.
Zocchi recommends beginners “Start with bodyweight and once you can do 12 -15 reps comfortably with good form, then increase slowly.”
He added that anyone new to the exercise shouldn’t “be in a rush – it tends to only lead to injury and then you won’t be getting anywhere very quickly.”
Brian Boyce, 8X National Qualifier in NPC Men’s Bodybuilding and Classic Physique, and Fitness Writer at FitRated.com, noted that “The bench press is another compound barbell movement where lifters lay on the bench and grip the barbell in a horizontal position, lowering it to the chest, then pressing it upwards.”
He added that “Like the overhead press, this lift works the deltoids, trapezius, triceps, pectorals, lats, and forearms, but with a greater emphasis on the chest and upper back.”
Boyce explained that the overhead press “is an upper-body movement where either the barbell or dumbbells are pressed upright. This can be performed either seated or standing and is a compound movement, meaning multiple muscle groups are activated. In this case, the muscles activated include the deltoids, trapezius, triceps, pectorals, and forearms.”
There are also multiple variations of an overhead press — straight, wide, and even a combination of the two, nicknamed the “Arnold” press, after Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Tricep Dips, Bicep Curls and Hammer Curls
All of these movements can be done in conjunction as accessory work to larger lifts as a way to work your upper arms, shoulders and triceps. A tricep dip can be done by lifting weights overhead, bending at the elbows and lowering the weight to the nape of the neck, and raising it back up again. This move works the back of the arms, and should be started with very light weights.
Fit Simplify Resistance Loop Exercise Bands with Instruction Guide and Carry Bag, Set of 5
If the idea of using weights is still too daunting, then picking up some resistance bands is a good way to help add resistance. They can be especially effective when doing curls too, because the resistance increases as the muscles hit the peak of the movement making it that much more effective.
Planks suck, but they are excellent core work and a great way to work the entire abdominal chain at once.
Gardner noted that planks are also a very useful, effective compound exercise that works “the shoulders, trapezius, triceps, lats core, quads, glutes and hamstrings all in one go.”
He went onto say that “The advantage of doing planks is that there are many variations and challenges you can add to make it more difficult as well as the ability to start off with a shorter duration for beginners and build up as you progress.”
Push-ups are an incredibly popular strength training exercise preached as strength gospel in middle school P.E. for a reason: they’re an efficient compound movement for working the entire body.
Arrellin explains that there are plentiful options for beginners, including “variations for push-ups that can be worked into your workout routine. Beginners can start with their first push-ups on a wall or countertop, then move to the floor with knees down or in the tabletop position.”
Just like the squat, the form of a push-up can target different muscles in the arms depending on where the hands are positioned. Also, placing the feet wider apart can make the move easier, and putting them closer together can be more challenging.
“Bringing the hands in underneath the shoulders will target the triceps. While chest and triceps may be targeted muscles, there is so much more going on at the same time! Core activation and stabilization occur by pulling the belly in and maintaining a flat back, and level hips, shoulders, and back are helping to lift and lower the load,” said Arrellin.
Hovers/ Forearm Plank
Arrellin explained “To set up a great hover, place forearms on the floor with elbows right below shoulders, flatten out your back, level out your hips, and draw your belly button up toward your spine. Now, make it even more active by pressing your forearms into the floor and feeling a little space open up between your shoulder blades. If you’re on your feet, push your heels back and squeeze your quads. Your whole body is working!”
He added that “By adding movement, you can make hovers more exciting. Tap your feet out alternately side to side, lift one foot at a time, or drop one knee at a time towards the floor; all are great options. During your hovers, you can also incorporate oblique work. By lifting a single are and opening your chest to the side, stacking shoulders and hips, you’ll feel the side body closest to the floor squeeze tight when the muscles engage.”