Weight training is not only an excellent way for athletes to improve performance but it is also a great way to lose weight and tone up. Regular weight training workouts increase total muscle mass which helps to raise metabolism.
Below we take you through the main weight training exercises and then provide a simple starters workout and also a more complex 5 week weight training program which is also designed for beginners.
Weight training is also suitable for both men and women. Although it still has a masculine image (the photo here does not help!) weight training is certainly something women should do to keep in shape. Cardiovascular exercise is great at burning fat but it does not help to tone and shape. A regular weight training workout can give a women slender legs and a toned butt without leading to unwanted bulky muscles.
Upper Body Exercises
The bench press is the main exercise for building a stronger chest. It is also the exercise which most people associate with weight training. To perform a basic bench press you just need to lie down flat on a solid bench and lift a barbell straight up from your chest until your arms are straight, and then lower. Grasp the barbell so that your forearms are vertical when in the lowest position.
You should always use a spotter or supports for safety. Read our full instructions on how to bench press which also provide several variations on the basic barbell bench press.
Bicep curls are possibly the second most popular weight training exercise after bench press. You can perform bicep curls with a barbell, an EZ-bar which is designed to give a better grip position, or dumbbells. Simple grasp a bar or dumbbells with palms facing outwards and curl up towards your shoulders. If you wish to workout using just dumbbells take a look at our page on dumbbell workouts.
There are many variations that you can perform, such as hammer curls where you hold the dumbbells vertically, concentration curls where you rest your arm on your leg, or preacher curls where you use a special bench to rest the backs of your arms to focus the work on the peak of bicep (an isolation exercise). Take a look at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Five Tips For Bigger Biceps for some more tips on bicep training.
Chest flyes are done by lying on a flat bench with 2 dumbbells. Hold them out to your sides with slightly bent arms and then lift them up in an arc until they meet directly above your chest.
Many gyms also have Pec Deck machines where you sit upright to perform the same movement while under resistance.
To target different areas of the chest, then perform incline flyes to target the upper pectorals, and decline flyes to target the lower pectorals.
Lateral raises are best done standing up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. Start by holding the dumbbells by your sides and then lift them both upwards and outwards until your arms a parallel to the floor or your hands just above the height of your shoulders, then lower again. Keep your elbows slightly bent.
An alternative exercise of the deltoids is a front raise done with a barbell. This just involves lifting a barbell from your hip in an arc with straight arms until it is directly in front of you.
You can exercise the rear deltoids by performing a bent over raise. Bend forward, keep your back straight and then lift the dumbbells out to each side.
This is an isolation exercise for the triceps. It is performed by using a cable machine / pushdown machine.
The bar should start at shoulder height, then while gripping the bar with the palms facing down, pull the bar downwards, keeping the elbows still and straightening the arms. An excellent triceps workout.
An alternative is the triceps extension that can be done by holding a triceps bar above your head and then lowering behind. Another method is to lie on a flat bench and grasp a dumbbell with both hands and lower it behind your head.
The shoulder press (or military press) is best performed while seated with a back support to ensure that the pectorals are not engaged by leaning back.
They can be done with a barbell, dumbbells or using a shoulder press machine or Smith machine. Free weights provide the most natural movement.
Simply lift the weight from the shoulders straight upwards, then lower it down again. To isolate further it can be performed one arm at a time with a dumbbell. This compound exercise also involves the trapezius and the triceps. The Arnold Press is a variation of the shoulder press.
Triceps Extension / French Curl
The triceps extension can be done while standing, sitting or laying down on a flat bench. A weight is held above the head (keeping the upper arms motionless), then lowered behind the head, and then raised to the starting position.
This is an isolation exercise for the triceps. It can be performed either with both arms or one arm at a time. This is also known as the French curl.
These can also be done with cable machines. Another variation to target the triceps with a dumbbell is the triceps kickback.
The upright row is performed while standing upright and pulling a weight from the waist to upper chest in a straight line up the torso.
It is a compound exercise that also involves the trapezius and the biceps. The narrower the grip the more the trapezius muscles are exercised.
It can be done with a barbell, dumbbells or using a resistance machine (pulley machine) as shown in the photo.
Lower Body Exercises
The leg curl is performed while lying face down on a leg curling bench by raising a weight with the feet towards the buttocks. This is an isolation exercise for the hamstrings.
This type of exercise requires the use of a specific piece of apparatus. It is very difficult to perform a leg curl using free weights at home.
The leg extension is performed while seated on a leg extension machine. The feet are tucked under a weight (or pulley system) and then the weight is raised out in front of the body with the feet. It is an isolation exercise for the quadriceps.
You should not overtrain on this exercise. Ensure that you are training you legs in a balanced way. Many people make the mistake of overtraining this exercise in a gym because the machine is free and as it is a sitting down exercise it seems like less work! Work the legs with squats, lunges and calf raises to keep the muscles well
The leg press is performed while seated on a leg press machine. A weight is pushed away from the body with the feet. It is a compound exercise that also involves the glutes and, to a lesser extent, the hamstrings and the calves.
This works the same muscles as the barbell squat. However, the leg press machine allows you to isolate the muscles further as you are not engaging the stabilizing muscles. The range of motion is less than that of a squat, but it is a safer way if you are working out alone.
Standing Calf Raises
Calf raises are the only way to develop the calf muscles that run down the back of the lower leg. The two muscles of the calf are called the gastrocnemius and soleus, which form the upper and lower calf muscles. This is an isolation exercise for the calves, and particularly emphasises the gastrocnemius muscle.
Calves are often neglected by amateur athletes and bodybuilders. Arnold Schwarzzeneger famously failed to train his calf muscles in his early bodybuilding days, resulting in many amusing photos of him standing up to his knees in water to disguise his disproportionately developed calves.
Without a calf resistance machine, the easiest way to work the calf muscles is to simply raise your body up on to your toes, squeeze the calf muscles (important to remember the squeeze) and drop back to a stand.
Resistance can be added by either holding two dumbbells at your side, or as you progress by supporting a barbell across your shoulders, as you would in a squat. To work the calves more stand with your toes and balls of your feet on a small step to increase the range of movement when you rise and fall.
When lifting heavier weights, then a two legged calf raise has to be done, but while lifting lighter weights one legged calf raise is ideal, as it ensures that you work both calves equally.
The leg muscles (gastrocnemius, soleus, tibialis anterior and posterior, fibularis longus and brevis) are made up of the slow twitch fiber muscles and therefore it is generally thought that higher rep ranges should be performed to help build more leg muscle. However, there is still a big debate over what works best, higher or lower reps. Two sets of 8 reps should be sufficient to make good progress so long as the weight is such that the final raises are hard work. Just experiment until you find which rep range gives you maximum gains.
Seated Calf Raises
If you wish to isolate the calves further, then the seated calf raise does this.
Unlike the standing calf raise it requires a specific piece of equipment.
The seated calf raise is performed by flexing the feet to lift a weight held on the knees.
This is an isolation exercise for the calves, and particularly emphasizes the soleus muscle.
Squats are possibly the most important weight training exercise. They work the largest muscles of the body and are important in sports, athletics and martial arts. They are also the muscles which tone the backside, so a very good exercise for women to do. There are many variations on squats so they have their own article here: How to Squat.
Back extensions are done while lying face down partway along a flat or angled bench, so that the hips are supported and the heels secured by bending down at the waist and then straightening up again.
It is a compound exercise that strengthens the core and also works the glutes.
It can be done on the floor with your hands held either side of your head (not touching your head). For the greatest range of motion use a dedicated back extension bench like the one shown in the photo.
Bent Over Row
To perform this, support yourself on a workout bench with one knee and one hand. With the other hand lift a dumbbell from the floor to your side, until your upper arm is just beyond horizontal or at the height of your back. This is then lowered until your arm is extended and shoulder stretched forward.
A variation of this exercise can be performed using a barbell, by bending forward and pulling the barbell towards the chest. Keep your knees slightly bent and look forwards during lifting to ensure good form.
Deadlifts are one of the most important exercises and as a result require a whole article on the subject. Basically a deadlift is performed by lifting a weight from the floor to your hips, keeping your arms straight and legs just slightly bent. The lift is from the lower back and is powered through the hips initially. Read the article on How to Deadlift to learn more.
The pulldown is a compound exercise that works the upper chest, biceps and rear deltoids.
It works the same muscles as chin-ups / pullups, but uses a resistance machine (cable machine or pulldown machine) to allow you to work with weights lighter or much heavier than your bodyweight.
The pulldown is performed while seated by pulling a wide bar down towards the upper chest. Your knees should be tucked in under the supports so that you are not lifting yourself off the bench.
The exercise can be varied to work the lower lats harder (close grip pull downs) or the biceps (reverse grip pull downs).
This is the classic abdominal exercise. It is performed while lying face up on the floor with knees bent and curling the shoulders up towards the pelvis.
This is an isolation exercise for the abs. For extra resistance and to build stronger abdominals use some weight, either by holding a weight disc or dumbbell to your chest or by using a crunch machine. Also a cable machine can be used by kneeling, facing away from the machine.
To work different areas of the abs perform the twisting crunches – this targets the obliques. Bicycle crunches are considered to be one of the best abdominal workouts.
Leg raises are done by sitting on the edge of a weight lifting bench with your legs straight out in front of you. Lean back slightly to balance, then draw your knees to your shoulders.
These work the hip flexors and lower abs. They can also be performed by laying on the floor, holding onto a support behind your head (a partners ankles is ideal) and then lifting your legs up to a vertical position. If you wish to work the lower abs harder then lift your hips off the floor when your feet are at their highest point. The video below shows the basic leg raise.
To take the exercise further, perform hanging leg raises. Hang from a high horizontal bar (such as a pull up bar) and then raise your knees to your chest. Use ankle weights to increase resistance.
Putting the Exercises Together
You do not have to perform the exercises in this order. However, generally the large muscles of the lower body are trained before the smaller muscles of the upper body, because these exercises require more mental and physical energy. The core muscles of the torso are trained before the shoulder and arm muscles that assist them.
Exercises often alternate between “pushing” and “pulling” movements to allow their specific supporting muscles time to recover. The stabilising muscles in the waist should be trained last. Review the muscle diagrams to learn which muscles are worked with each exercise.
Although you could go through all these exercises in one gym session it really would be better to focus on just a few. There are many ways to put together a workout of your own.
One way would be to take 2 upper body exercises, 2 lower body exercises, a back exercise and a core exercise. Then for each of these 6 exercises perform 3 sets of 8 – 10 repetitions. You could do this twice a week, changing the exercises each session and also aiming to increase the weights every 2-3 weeks to build strength.
Another way would be to work on each body section separately with an upper body exercise day, then a lower body day and finally a back and core day. You could then add some cardio exercise into each workout and have 3 workouts a week with a cardio warm up and resistance training for the main workout. This workout is based on this principal: Full Body Weight Training Workout.
Once you learn the basic weight training exercises you really can just create your own routines based on your personal preferences. For general fitness and weight loss you do not need advanced training schedules.
Simple Beginners Weight Training Routine
This routine provides a good basic foundation for both men and women who wish to start building some all round strength. There are eight different exercises, but none are done intensively. The warm up set should not be difficult for you to do, it is purely to ensure the relevant muscles are warmed up and the blood is flowing a little. The work reps should be more challenging, but to start with aim to be able to do two sets of 10 reps. Ideally you should be finding it difficult to complete the last set, but still have some reserves.
Ensure that you rest between each set, and rest a little longer between each set of exercises. Generally two minutes rest between is recommended, and then a few minutes more between sets of exercises.
This beginners routine concentrates on compound weight training exercises, i.e. exercises that work more than one muscle at a time. These types of exercise produce athletic, functional muscle tissue, and are also a great way to boost the metabolism and reduce body-fat.
|Barbell Squat||20||2 sets of 10|
|Barbell dead-lift||10||2 sets of 10|
|Barbell shrugs||10||1 set of 10|
|Shoulder press||10||2 sets of 10|
|Bench press||10||2 sets of 10|
|Bent over rows||10||1 set of 10|
|Barbell curls||10||2 sets of 10|
|Triceps extensions||10||2 sets of 10|
Once you have been doing this routine for a while, you should start to recognize your weaknesses, or identify some new goals. It is good to set mini goals when weight training, as it is important that your goals are attainable over a short period of time, as well as challenging.
Beginners Weight Training Plan – 5 Week Cycle
There are many ways to lift weights for fitness and strength and almost every bodybuilder and athlete has a different opinion on how to lift for the best results.
Some sensible bodybuilders will suggest that beginners keep their workouts simple. No split workouts, no pyramiding or high intensity training. Just a simple workout that is easy to follow but still challenges you each time.
You can perform this beginners workout for a long time, some people follow this type of strategy for over a year before deciding to adopt some new technique. It is a volume approach to training, which is good for several reasons:
- You will be lifting lighter weights than some people may suggest, this should reduce risk of muscle injury.
- Each week you will perform the same set of weight training exercises 3 times.
- For each workout in a single week you perform the same number of reps (individual lifts) but reduce the weight. So you start with the heaviest workout on a Monday, then get lighter through the week with the lightest on a Friday.
- Each week you increase the reps of each set by 1, so you are lifting 4 more reps in each set on the final week.
- Every 5 weeks you will increase the weights that you are lifting then return to the starting rep limit.
It may be better to explain it like this:
Each week you will ideally lift on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In week 1 you will perform each set of a single weight training exercise 4 times, and in each set you will lift the weight 8 times. You will also perform a warm up before each of these sets.
The warmup should use about 1/4 of the work weight and lift double the reps. So in the first week, a warm up for squats would be 12.5 kg lifted 16 times.
For each subsequent workout during a week you reduce the weight, first by 10% then by 20%, for example (see below) if you start week 1 by squatting 50kg on a Monday, then you will reduce it to 45 kg on Wednesday and then 40kg of Friday.
In the second week you repeat the same workout with the same weights (same for work sets and warm up sets). The only difference is that you perform one more rep in each set, so lift the weight 9 times each set instead of 8. This means that each week you are actually lifting the weights 28 more times, as you will be doing 7 exercises in each session.
Here is a table of the first week to help explain it better:
|Week 1||Day 1||Day 2||Day 3|
|Overhead Barbell Presses||4||8||25.0||20.0||20.0|
So Day 1 is generally Monday, Day 2 Wednesday, Day 3 Friday. You can of course start on any day you like, so long as you do not do the workout on 2 consecutive days you will be OK. So you could exercise Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday if you preferred.
In the week 2, you will do the same workout as above, only you will perform 9 reps in each of the 4 sets. The warm up will be 18 reps at 1/4 of the weight.
This is a volume training. It builds muscular endurance as well as helping to grow bigger muscles. It also burns a lot of fat as you are working more – 50 kg lifted 32 times burns more energy than 80kg lifted 16 times (many standard weight training workouts suggest 2 sets of 8 reps for beginners).
The final week should look like this:
|Week 5||Day 1||Day 2||Day 3|
|Overhead Barbell Presses||4||12||25.0||20.0||20.0|
As you can see, the routine is the same, with same exercises and same weight used on each of the workouts. The only difference is that the reps have progressed from 8 per set to 12 per set.
Week 6 starts with a heavier weigh (unless you struggled to manage all the reps in the first 5 weeks). Weight should be increased by 10%, so in this example the next round will involve squatting 55 kg.
This does not sound much to start with, but by the time you get to the 10th cycle (completing 1 year of the beginners bodybuilding workout) the 50 kg squat will increase to 117.5 kg.
Here is the progression for squats, using a start weight of 50 kg (each time the weights are rounded down to the nearest 2.5 kg:
Of course, this is really just a guide, a target to try to achieve. If you are not gaining enough strength to lift 10% more after 5 weeks (failing to complete the 4 sets of 8 at the new weight will show this) then you reduce the weight to find a level that you can work at. In an ideal world though you will make a 10% strength gain every 5 weeks.
Remember that in addition to lifting, diet and rest are both absolutely vital. You have to eat well to get adequate protein to help muscle repair and growth. You will also need more healthy carbohydrate as you progress to fuel the muscles. Sleep really is vital too, try to get a minimum of 8 hours sleep every night, ideally a little more.
Final Points on Starting Weight Training
If you set you goals too high, you may soon become frustrated at your perceived slow progress. Some simple goals to set early on can include: aiming to perform a 10 set bench press at your current 1RM (one rep maximum) or to squat your own body weight, if you cannot already. It is good to set some targets, but don’t set them too high or you will only disappoint yourself. It is also good to supplement your weight training with other exercises such as triceps dips, press ups and sit ups which ensure you develop good core body strength.
If you are a martial artist or do circuit training then you probably already do these exercises each week, but if not they are great exercises to add to your weekly routine. Once you build up your strength, and if your objectives are for bigger muscles (bodybuilding) then you can start concentrating on specific body parts.
One final point – while you can learn much from a website, book or video, it can sometimes pay to receive some personal instruction so that you learn proper weight lifting techniques – good form prevents injury and increases muscular development.
Useful weight resources: