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If you’re brand new to strength training, you’re in luck: we asked a bunch of movement experts, including Chris Hemsworth’s personal trainer, what the best moves are for beginners. As you’ll read in the article below, with any new movement or exercise, it’s important to take it slow, master basic moves first and then move on to heavier weights. Your first time picking up a pair of dumbbells? Don’t go for the 45 pounders and attempt to sling them over your head 20 times in a row. Maybe start with bodyweight, build your way up, and before you know it you’ll be surprising yourself with how strong you’ve gotten.
In this article we’re going to cover:
- How to start strength training
- The importance of compound movements
- The best strength workouts for beginners
- How often beginners should strength train
- The best strength training equipment for beginners
We consulted experts across the fitness field, from personal trainers to equipment reviewers to CEOs of fitness brands and professional weightlifters. If you’re brand new to picking up weights and find the whole process a bit intimidating, you’re not alone. Below you’ll find expert advice and must-have equipment recommendations if you’re looking to expand your home gym equipment collection. Note: quotes have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Keep reading to learn more.
How to Start Strength Training
The hardest part of many workouts? The very beginning. Getting yourself to the gym, choosing the right weights, knowing how many reps to do — getting your bearings set so you can start strength training can be tricky. Before we talk any specific exercises, we wanted to set you up with a few crucial best practices to get the most from your training and avoid injury.
Thankfully, we had the chance to sit down with Luke Zocchi, Head Trainer at Centr and Chris Hemsworth’s personal trainer 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.”
“Two of the most important movements for strength that everyone, not just beginners, should master are squats and deadlifts. 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,” said Mentus.
“Every time we stand up and sit down we are performing a squat. A proper deadlift is teaching the body how to be strong while picking something up off the ground. You cannot avoid these movements so it is best to make yourself as strong as you can in them.”
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.
You start standing, and bend at the knees keeping your chest lifted, hinge at the hips and lower your butt until it’s below the knees. Then you use your glutes, hamstrings and calves to lift yourself back up, squeezing your butt at the top.
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 onto explain that depending on how you position your feet, 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.”
A plank is a great bodyweight strength exercise for beginners just starting out all the way up to advanced lifters warming up. You muscle up unto a high push-up position and stay there, pushing your hands into the ground, tucking your shoulders back and down, bracing your core and flexing your calves and hamstrings towards the sky. A great way to engage your entire body is to imagine your pulling your hands towards you feet, without actually moving them in that direction.
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.”
One of the most popular and well-known strength training exercise is the push-up. It’s a super effective bodyweight move for your upper body, lower body and core.
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 your arms depending on where you position your hands. Also, placing your 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.
Bench press might look like a more advanced strength training move, bit it can certainly be done by beginners, as long as you start with proper weight for your capabilities. It’s called “bench press” because it’s done, you guessed it, lying down on a bench. It might sound compromising, but it can actually be very empowering when done properly.
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 should “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.”
The deadlift is one of the most effective strength training moves you can do. It works almost your entire body at once, and with proper form and consistency can be incredibly effective at building strength.
Boyce explained how it goes, noting that “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 if you’re 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.
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.”
The great part about the overhead press is you can use a barbell or dumbbells, and you can use smaller dumbbells and increase your reps to tone rather than strengthen your upper arms.
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
I decided to combine all of these upper body movements into one since they can all be done in conjunction, and all work your upper arms, shoulders and biceps. A tricep dip can be done by lifting weights over your head, bending at the elbows and lowering the weight behind you to the nape of your neck, and raising it back up again. This move works the back of the arms, and should be started with very light weights.
Bicep and hammer curls are both done by holding one weight in each hand at your side, bending at the elbow and curling the weight up towards your shoulder. The standard bicep curl is done with the weights facing up towards the ceiling, and the hammer curl is done weigh the weights turned inward, facing each other.
Hovers/ Forearm Plank
Arrellin also explained a favorite move of his called a “hover,” which I know as a forearm plank. It’s a variation on a regular plank, where your forearms and elbows are on the floor, positioned below your shoulders.
He 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.”
How Often Should Beginners Strength Train?
Alright, you’ve got some moves you’re interested in trying. Now the question becomes — how often should you be strength training as a beginner? How often should you practice these moves in order to see results? Can you overdo it and injure yourself? The answer to that last one is almost definitely “yes.”
Zocchi noted that “For people starting out I say 3 times a week is perfect as it gives you a day off in between to recover and if you are feeling good on your non-strength day you could do cardio.”
“So if you are progressing nicely you could alternate one strength day and one cardio day and have one day of rest per week.”
What’s the Best Strength Training Equipment for Beginners?
“I would say dumbbells are a great starting block – they are so versatile as to how they can be used. As you progress, move on to a barbell as that’s when you can really start to increase the weight,” said Zocchi.
Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbell
Adjustable dumbbells are one of the best tools for strength training because they’re 15-20 sets of dumbbells built into one machine that you can easily switch between mid-workout. Instead of buying a bunch of pairs of weighted dumbbells and taking up space in your home gym, these Bowflex adjustable dumbbells adjust between 5 and 52.5 pounds in 2.5 pound increments, and easily flow from one weight into the next. They have durable molding build around the metal plates for smoother transitions and quieter workouts overall.
NordicTrack 55 Pound Select-a-Weight Dumbbell Pair
These adjustable dumbbells from NordicTrack function very similarly to the Bowflex pair, with 15 different pairs of dumbbells built into one tool. The set includes weight between 10 and 55 pounds, and you can move up in 5-pound or 2.5-pound increments. The set also comes with a fitted storage tray and is clearly marked with weight identification that’s easy to read. They have a durable construction of steel and hardened plastic and can be used for a variety of movements.
FLYBIRD Weight Bench
A weight bench can be used to do many of the movements above and is a great addition to any strength training setup at home. This one, designed by FLYBIRD, has a super affordable price tag and a 700 pound weight capacity, so you can lift heavy knowing it’ll hold you up. I has seven different back positions and three seat positions to choose between, and both are filled with soft foam padding for support.