“How do I start with lifting weights?”
I get this question over and over again. It’s probably the question women ask me the most.
So I’m taking a brief detour from talking about the myriad benefits of strength training for women (and men) over 40. We’ll come back to those, because there are lots more to cover. But given how often this question comes up, I think it requires some attention.
I’m convinced that intimidation/confusion holds far too many women back from lifting (along with myths like “I’ll get big and bulky” and “I’ll hurt myself”.)
If you’re already strength training, I’ll bet you know someone else in this position and have gotten the same question. If you’re not already lifting, maybe you’ve heard enough to decide it makes sense to start, but aren’t sure how to go about it.
There is no “right way” to start with lifting weights
Contrary to what people may tell you, there is no single “right” way to start strength training.
There is only a right way FOR YOU.
The “right way” is the one that causes the least friction and makes it easiest for you to get started NOW. Because strength training is quite literally a lifesaver.
The number one concern for most people when they contemplate getting started with strength training–and certainly the thing that family, friends, and even many fitness professionals will throw at them–is fear of injury.
I’ve been having a bit of a laugh reading about the growing number of injuries resulting from pickleball–90% of which occur in people over 50.
Not because the injuries are funny. Injury sucks.
It’s the irony I find amusing (and infuriating). Tell your friend or your doctor that you’ve started playing pickleball and they’ll give you a high five. Tell them you plan to start lifting weights and they’ll either frown and warn you to be careful not to hurt yourself–or worse, warn you off altogether.
Meanwhile, the risk of injury from pickleball is vastly higher. And from running, and cycling, and aerobics, and just about every other sport in existence. Lifting weights actually has one of the lowest rates of injury of any type of exercise.
And let’s leave aside comparisons of strength training to other sports. Doing nothing is infinitely more risky than lifting weights when it comes to overall health, wellness and longevity.
Finding YOUR way
As with anything, whether you’re using barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, machines, or bodyweight (and ideally you’ll use all of them eventually), lifting involves a bit of a learning curve.
It’s not that steep, though, and you can do it a little bit at a time, so don’t let that stop you. Driving and cooking are actually much harder to learn, but you’ve probably learned how to do both of those. (Then there’s baking. If you can bake, I bow down to you. I learned the basics of lifting in a couple of months watching videos in my basement, but after 50+ years on this planet, I still can’t bake to save my life.)
So how do you start with lifting weights?
As I said earlier, the trick is finding a way to do it that feels right and works FOR YOU.
As you no doubt know, people learn in dramatically different ways. My kid can look at a diagram and build a computer. I look at a diagram and I’m lucky if I can put an IKEA table together.
Some people learn well by reading, others by listening or watching, and still others by actually doing the thing.
Then there are other factors to consider: personality traits, introversion vs extroversion, financial resources, geographic location and proximity to facilities… These all play a role as you consider the best way for YOU to start picking up heavy objects.
Before we get into choosing how to get started, there’s one key thing we need to address up front.
Regardless of which method you choose: you’ll need either a gym membership or access to a few basic pieces of equipment.
Some of the options we’ll discuss include that access by definition, but not all.
Yes, it IS possible to strength train at home, using substitutes for weights. You can use bodyweight, or bands, or fill gallon water jugs and sandbags and use those and other heavy stuff around your house.
But while it’s possible, deriving real and ongoing benefit from that approach is actually MORE complicated than simply using weights and equipment designed for strength training (as millions of gym-goers will tell you after having to improvise ways to train at home through the first year or two of Covid). In fact, doing it that way could probably sustain a whole blog all by itself.
What about bodyweight exercises?
People often ask if they can just use bodyweight for strength training. This, too, is problematic.
The most basic principle of strength training is the concept of progressive overload. This means that as your muscles and bones adapt to the work you’re demanding of them, you must increase that work over time.
That work can be increased by doing more repetitions at lower weight, resting for shorter periods of time, and moving more slowly… but at some point along the way, it does become necessary for the weight to increase as well.
For a complete beginner, bodyweight can be quite effective for a short time, because the individual is not trained. Therefore, anything more difficult than normal activity will challenge their muscles.
Bodyweight can continue to work well for upper body training. We don’t get out of bed or walk up stairs on our arms or chests, so things like pull-ups and push-ups tend to challenge beginners and even intermediate lifters for a long time.
But for your lower body, progressive overload is much more difficult to achieve with bodyweight alone, since your legs are already accustomed to holding up and moving your bodyweight on a daily basis.
So, if you live off the grid in the Alaskan wilderness or for some reason just can’t either join a gym or acquire some basic equipment, drop me a note and I’ll help you find some good info about how to get started lifting despite those limitations.
Everyone else… assume you will need to figure out the best way for you to get access to some weights. Again, as you’ll see, many of the methods we’ll discuss for getting started assume/include that access anyway.
Five ways to get started
The landscape for training with weights can feel very confusing and overwhelming to a beginner.
The fitness industry and social media don’t help; lots of people are trying to make a buck, and they all have something to say and a method they claim is THE best way to learn how to lift.
Cutting through the noise can feel impossible.
When we step back, though, we can actually boil the options down to five broad approaches. I’m going to start with the most hands-on method and work backwards. You can click on any of these to jump straight to that section, if you like.
- Live personal training/individual coaching
- Live group training
- Remote coaching/training
- Self-taught/programmed using an online program or app
- Self-taught/programmed using independent resources
We can quibble about whether remote training and live training should be lumped together or treated separately. I’ve chosen to treat them separately and I’ll discuss why in a minute.
Now, let’s tackle each of these to better understand what’s entailed.
1. Live personal training/individual coaching
Of all the ways to get started lifting weights, this is the most hands-on and high-touch approach. It’s also the most expensive.
I’m starting here because I think for many people, it’s the easiest way to get started, assuming one has the necessary financial resources and access. Of course, not everyone does, which is why we’ll also discuss many other effective ways to get started.
Professional trainers and coaches typically work with clients either at a public gym or in a private space dedicated to that purpose. Either way, you will get access to equipment by default, although you will usually have to purchase a gym membership if the trainer is based at a public gym.
Working one-on-one with a knowledgeable professional has obvious benefits. As this article says, “The benefits to hiring a personal trainer are pretty significant, especially if you have minimal experience…. a personal trainer is going to specifically avoid programming, technique, and recovery slip-ups that could cost you valuable time in your pursuit of your goals.”
- Customized programming. A trainer or coach will evaluate your specific needs, challenges, and existing knowledge. Then they’ll design a strength program to help you progress toward customized and realistic goals. As you progress, they can then quickly observe how your body is responding to the program they’ve created for you and adjust as needed.
- Real-time instruction and correction. A professional in a live setting can not only teach you the exercises involved in strength training, but also observe you from all angles while you execute what you’re learning. They can see where you may be struggling and provide ideas and give advice to help you make real-time corrections to form.
- Encouragement and motivation. A good coach or trainer can make a big difference when the going gets tough or you’re feeling discouraged. It’s a lot easier to keep going when someone is watching and urging you on.
- Accountability. If you’re someone who tends to blow off exercise, you may find it useful to know you’ve got someone there waiting for you who will charge you if you cancel! (There are less expensive ways to create accountability; this is just an additional benefit.)
- Cost. The biggest downside of working one-on-one with a coach or trainer is the expense. Prices vary widely, but nationwide in the U.S., personal training averages $65/hour.
- Access/convenience. It can be difficult to find qualified trainers or coaches in less populated areas, and going to train with one can entail a lot of transit time. Is that extra time worthwhile? That’s a decision each person must make for themselves.
2. Live group training
While there are obvious benefits to working with a coach or trainer one on one, you can get many of the same benefits at a lower cost with small group strength training.
Group training typically involves 5-15 clients and one or two coaches or trainers. Your group learns exercises and form together and trains together.
Note, I am NOT referring here to some of the very popular group fitness classes that incorporate weights. These classes fall in the category of cardio and/or HIIT. They primarily work your lungs and heart, and to a lesser extent muscular endurance.
There is nothing wrong with those and I’m not discouraging anyone from doing them. They can have great health benefits. But they’re in a different fitness category. The weights they incorporate do not progress appropriately over time to build significant muscle strength, and that’s what we’re after when we talk about the benefits of strength training. Maintaining and creating sufficient muscle and bone tissue to fight sarcopenia and osteoporosis requires progressive overload (demanding more work of muscles over time).
A group setting offers many of the same benefits as working one-on-one with a live professional: they can provide hands-on instruction, have their eyes on you while you’re lifting and help correct and refine your form.
- Camaraderie. Many people find the energy of training with others very motivating. You might even consider signing up with a friend or two, which will add another social component, accountability and moral support to the experience. Research shows that when it comes to exercise, there’s literally strength in numbers.
- Lower cost. Group training costs significantly less than one-on-one training. Depending on where you live and what’s available, group training will probably run somewhere around half to two/thirds the rate of private training.
- Less personalized. Group training lacks the full attention and complete customization that comes with private training.
- Accessibility. Group strength training tends to be harder to find than private training, so you may not be able to find this option, or may have to travel further to access it.
- Lack of privacy. Some people simply don’t enjoy group dynamics, or prefer not to learn new things in front of other people.
One last note: many women who lift got their start doing CrossFit. CrossFit is quite different from traditional strength training. Its pros and cons have been widely discussed and you can research those elsewhere. But while its goals and methods are different, CrossFit does include strength training with progressive overload and live instruction, which technically makes it a group option that can be on your list as you consider how to get started. (Some CrossFit gyms, or “boxes,” also offer one-on-one coaching, so that’s something to add to your research if you’re looking around for private training options.)
3. Remote coaching/training
The last decade or so has seen an absolute explosion of options to work with a trainer or coach remotely. This approach is also called “virtual” or “online” training/coaching (good to know for Google purposes). This means that you do not train with the professional physically in the room; in fact, they may live in another city, another state, or even another country.
Remote professionals can provide instruction/feedback in one of two ways:
- Synchronous training: They work with you in real time on a Facetime or Zoom-like platform. This is very much like regular personal training, you’re simply doing it online (similar to the virtual medical appointments many of us experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic).
- Asynchronous: They provide a program and often some instruction via videos they record and direct messaging. You train on your own time and film yourself doing the assigned exercises and send those videos to the coach or trainer. They then review the footage, provide feedback, and update your training program according to your progress.
Remote coaching can work very well for more experienced lifters and in fact has become the most common way for competitive powerlifters to train. In fact, my own coach lives on the other side of the country. It’s not a common way for beginners to get started, but it’s an option to consider if you feel strongly about having guidance from a professional but don’t have physical access to one.
- Accessibility. If you live someplace with a very low density of personal trainers/coaches, you simply may not be able to find a viable live training option. Remote training is an alternative way to work with personalized input from a professional.
- Convenience (for asynchronous). With asynchronous remote training, you are not wedded to someone else’s schedule. YOU dictate when and where you’ll train.
- Cost (relative to in-real-life live training). While the cost is not low, asynchronous remote coaching is still significantly lower than in-person coaching or training, somewhere in the range of $100-250 month depending on the professional. Synchronous (live but remote) training will be much closer in cost to in-real-life training because you’re still paying for the professional’s dedicated time.
- Not truly hands-on. While a remote coach or trainer provides guidance and programming, you may find that it takes longer to learn the basics this way if you are a complete beginner. In fact, many coaches and trainers will want you to have some lifting experience before they’ll work with you remotely. That’s because video has its limitations. Whether the professional is watching you lift in real time or not, they can only see so much on video, which can make teaching a novice more difficult.
- Technology learning curve. On top of trying to master new movements and learning how to use lifting equipment, you have to use some technology to communicate effectively with a remote trainer or coach. If you find getting on Zoom meetings frustrating or don’t feel comfortable with direct messaging/texting, using apps or shooting video with your phone, this option probably isn’t for you.
- Less assurance of quality instruction. When gyms hire a personal trainer, they typically require at least basic certification and some experience. The internet requires nothing but a social media account or a website. There are a lot of unqualified people out there calling themselves coaches; it’s much easier to get away with hanging out a shingle if you’re just swapping videos with a client or sending them a program by text. Therefore, you as a consumer need to be extra careful about qualifications with this option. Make sure a trainer or coach is qualified and ask for references (and actually communicate with those references) before you hire someone.
4. Online program or app
For the individual who feels comfortable learning without direct professional guidance and has access to equipment, online solutions can work very well while also being much less expensive than working with a trainer or coach.
Learning and training this way demands a certain degree of body awareness, the ability to learn and refine movements by looking at pictures or watching videos, patience, and a lot of internal motivation.
There’s no shame in NOT being that person, but not everyone is. If you’re not, you may find trying to learn this way somewhat frustrating.
The best online programs and apps include:
- a structured, progressive list of exercises for each day of training, so you know what you’re going to do each time you work out (and in the case of apps, the workouts will often be customized to some extent)
- high-quality instructional resources, typically via a video library
- an interactive component via access to an online community, form checks from the program’s creator(s), or both
There are many programs and apps out there, so if you want to start this way, you’ll almost certainly be able find one that feels like a reasonably good fit.
- Low cost. This method is almost the least expensive on the list. Leaving equipment costs aside–again, we will assume you have either a gym membership or home equipment–you’ll probably pay no more than $25 a month, and that’s on the higher end.
- Flexibility/convenience. Learning with an app or program is highly flexible and convenient in the sense that you’re doing it on your own time, so you can train whenever you choose.
- Accessibility. Again, assuming you have access to some basic equipment, you can learn and do strength training anywhere, anytime using this approach.
- Lack of feedback can make progress slower. As mentioned earlier, if you’re brand-new, a lack of professional eyes on you can make it more challenging to master form and technique.
- Requires self-motivation. I know experienced lifters who still choose to work with a professional in real life because they need someone to push them and motivate them. The best online program in the world won’t make you stronger if you don’t get into the gym and train. If that’s you, think twice about a self-directed method, or consider signing up with a friend and being gym buddies so you can hold each other accountable and provide mutual support and encouragement.
Some people worry about injury with this type of approach. Here I feel compelled to say that as long as one consults one’s physician prior to starting (as one should do with any form of exercise), follows the instructions provided in a good program or app and progresses at the appropriate speed, lifting is much safer than just about any other form of exercise.
Few people think they need to work with a trained professional to start running or cycling or playing racquetball, but all of those carry a far greater likelihood of injury (even WITH professional guidance!) than self-taught strength training.
I myself actually used an online program (with no prior experience) to get started with strength training at the age of 48. I had never picked up a barbell, and I have never worked in-person with a trainer or coach.
I did the online program for two and a half years before deciding I wanted to compete in powerlifting. After that, I decided to start working remotely with a specialized powerlifting coach.
If you’re a complete beginner and feel intimidated at the thought of starting completely on your own, consider investing in a few months of either one-on-one or group training to learn the basics and lay a solid foundation.
At that point, you can decide whether it makes sense to go off on your own.
5. Self-teaching with independent resources
A decade or two ago, we would have called this category “Self-teaching with books.”
The internet changed all that; whether you’re trying to build a car or become a master gardener, you can find all the expert help you need for just about anything on YouTube and other websites.
This holds true for strength training as well. YouTube offers literally thousands of hours of free video for everyone from complete newbies to very experienced lifters.
Print is NOT dead, though. There are many excellent books on strength training, full of diagrams, photographs, and programs.
A resourceful individual who feels comfortable learning this way and has access to equipment can piece together an effective beginner program using a combination of these methods. It’s the same basic learning strategy as the previous one, but lacks the built-in structure and progression of a program or app, and therefore requires more work to be effective.
- Extremely low cost/free. This is arguably the lowest cost of all methods, since theoretically you can do it for free with YouTube (again, leaving gym access/equipment out of the equation).
- Flexibility/convenience. As with option 4 above, no one is the boss of you here. You decide whether to train at 4 a.m., lunchtime, or midnight, and you can do it wherever is most convenient for you.
- Lack of structure, more room for error. The downsides of this approach are the same as those of an online program or app, but with a potential lack of structured programming built in. There are generic template programs built into some of the books and YouTube options out there that will provide structure with good progressive overload–but the onus is on you to proactively make that one of the pieces of the puzzle.
- Potentially intimidating. Like any DIY endeavor, this method requires confidence, independence, and willingness to go through significant trial and error on the way to mastering a skill. On the flip side, this method can feel extremely empowering to a DIY-minded person!
What’s the best way for YOU to start strength training?
I’ve provided a lot of information here, which may feel overwhelming. So to try to boil things down a bit, here’s a graphic representation of some of the biggest factors to consider in deciding the best approach for YOU to get started with strength training.
Just do it!
When something new feels complicated, like getting started with strength training can, we tend to procrastinate, or even convince ourselves it’s impossible.
But lifting weights is actually quite simple, especially if you’re able to get a little bit of help learning it (especially at the beginning).
So make a commitment right now to take one step to get started with lifting weights. Make an appointment with yourself to research personal trainers in your area. Check out some online programs. Look up starter videos on YouTube. Order a good book on strength training and commit to reading it.
Start thinking of yourself as someone who lifts weights, even if you haven’t actually started yet.
Whichever approach you choose, remember that you can always switch methods at any point if the one you’re using isn’t serving you.
Remember that anything new takes time to learn, and it’s ok to be a beginner. You’ll get it eventually.
Because–and this is what I want you to remember most of all—you’re a badass!
Note: You should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting any fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs. This is particularly true if you (or your family) have a history of high blood pressure or heart disease, or if you have ever experienced chest pain when exercising or have experienced chest pain in the past month when not engaged in physical activity, smoke, have high cholesterol, are obese, or have a bone or joint problem that could be made worse by a change in physical activity. If you experience faintness, dizziness, pain or shortness of breath at any time while exercising you should stop immediately. This site offers health, fitness and nutritional information and is designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on this information as a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other health-care professional. Do not disregard, avoid or delay obtaining medical or health related advice from your health-care professional because of something you may have read on this site. The use of any information provided on this site is solely at your own risk.