How to Start Lifting Weights to Get Lean and Strong

·9 min read
Photo credit: Commercial Eye - Getty Images
Photo credit: Commercial Eye - Getty Images


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From building muscle to improving mood and posture, lifting weights is one of the best things you can do for your body. Since lean muscle mass naturally declines with age, making the effort to strength train on a regular basis can help you preserve and enhance your muscle mass. But most importantly, it's never too late to start and there are strength training benefits at nearly any age.

"Setting out to start strength training is a commitment not everyone makes, so first be proud of yourself for starting," says Certified Personal Trainer Jennifer Jacobs, Founder of the J METHOD, Beachbody Super Trainer and creator of the Job 1 workout program. But if you're new to lifting weights, you might not know how or where to begin.

That's why fitness experts in the Good Housekeeping Institute Wellness Lab teamed up with Jacobs to answer all of your questions about strength training for beginners. Here is everything you need to know as you start your weight lifting journey, including a complete workout plan and equipment essentials. Before starting any fitness regimen, be sure to consult your healthcare practitioner.

What are the benefits of lifting weights?

Besides the obvious main benefit of building muscle, strength training offers a variety of incredible holistic health advantages. Liftings weights can:

  • Strengthen bones and joints

  • Increase lean body mass

  • Enhance flexibility

  • Improve sleep

  • Promote better posture

  • Improve blood sugar control

  • Reduce cancer risk

  • Boost body image

  • Improve cardiovascular health

  • Reduce depressive symptoms

  • Assist with weight management

What do you need to start lifting weights?

A great first piece of equipment to purchase is a good set of dumbbells, Jacob says. She recommends having at least three different sizes (light, medium, heavy) in order to challenge yourself in a variety of exercises and target a variety of muscle groups. "Everybody is different, so the exact weight of the dumbbells depends entirely on you, your current strength and stamina, and your goals," she says.

Resistance bands are also a great addition to your home gym or for exercising on the go since they provide an effective workout that is low impact and joint-friendly, Jacobs says. As you progress in your weight lifting journey, you can incorporate other pieces of equipment including kettlebells and larger weight lifting machines.

How often should you lift weights?

"Research shows that the sweet spot of strength training is two to three times per week," Jacobs says. "Typically, I recommend that most people strength train three days per week to ensure that they are creating enough of an adaptation stimulus in each muscle group to optimize growth." Adaptation involves your body reacting to new exercises or loads by increasing its ability to handle that new movement or load.

Although building muscle won’t happen overnight, Jacobs says that with the right fitness and nutrition regimen you can see results in just four weeks.

Will strength training make you bulky?

In short, no. In fact, Jacobs notes that this is a common myth and misconception. "You need to eat to bulk in addition to strength training in a way that supports hypertrophy (muscle growth)," she says. "Building muscle is a gradual process. It can take years to put on the type of mass that bodybuilders have." Unless you're specifically training to do so and that is your goal, Jacobs says that strength training will not make you “bulky."

Weight Lifting Beginner Tips

Jacobs says that having a plan or training program in place is a great way to start strength training since you'll have something to follow to keep your sessions safe, effective and motivating. Here are some additional beginner tips to keep in mind:

  • Find your "why": Before you start a strength training program or purchase any equipment, Jacobs says it's important to ensure that you are training with a purpose in each session. Setting goals at the start and throughout your journey is also an important accountability component.

  • Warm up and cool down: Build in time for a proper warm-up before you start breaking a sweat. This can help decrease the risk of injury and even minimize muscle soreness. Once you begin lifting, start with lighter weights and then progress to heavier weights as your body warms up. Gentle stretching after your session is especially important to optimize recovery.

  • Go slow: Jacobs says a common mistake she sees with beginners who are strength training is lifting too heavy too soon. "Start with your bodyweight to master proper form, which is key to maximizing your results and minimizing your risk of injury," Jacobs says. "From there, you can move on to weights, resistance bands and other equipment that will allow you to gradually increase your load."

  • Don't sacrifice form for more weight: It can be tempting to go heavier if you're feeling good while lifting weights but be sure not to sacrifice proper form and technique. This can lead to significant injuries and burnout too.

  • Learn from an instructor or trainer: Finding someone who can teach you how to perform strength training exercises correctly can be a huge help. Proper technique and form are important to get the most out of the movement and avoid injury. If you aren't able to meet with a trainer or instructor in person, virtual programs like Jacob's Job 1 workout can be a great way to learn techniques at home.

  • Recover smart: You'll need to build in rest days to your workout routine, and it's always important to prioritize listening to your body. But recovering does not mean being completely sedentary. In fact, sitting all day can actually delay muscle rehabilitation, as it can lead to tightness in the hip flexors and hamstrings. Light, gentle movement like a brisk walk or an easy yoga flow can help improve circulation and promote muscle recovery.

Beginner Strength Training Workout Plan

Try this workout sequence created by Jacobs that is perfect for lifting weights for beginners. Prior to beginning this workout, she advises taking a few minutes to warm up your body with movements like hip rotations, arm circles, air squats and reverse lunges.

  • Perform the exercises back-to-back as a circuit, resting 20 seconds between them.

  • Once you complete all of the exercises, rest one minute, and then begin the circuit again.

  • Perform the circuit three times total.

1. Dumbbell Press-Out

Photo credit: Thomas Barwick - Getty Images
Photo credit: Thomas Barwick - Getty Images
  • Stand tall holding a medium dumbbell by the ends in front of your chest with your elbows bent, knees bent slightly, and feet hip-width apart and parallel. This is the starting position.

  • Keeping your core engaged, extend your arms straight out in front of you so that they are parallel to the ground. Pause, and then return to the starting position. Repeat for 40 seconds.

2. Archer Row

Photo credit: Halfpoint Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: Halfpoint Images - Getty Images
  • Grab a light to medium resistance loop and check it for wear and tear so that you know it’s safe to use. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and parallel, holding the loop in both hands with your arms extended straight in front of you as if you were gripping a steering wheel. This is the starting position.

  • Keeping your core engaged, simultaneously step backward with your left foot and draw your left elbow back, pulling the band toward your right shoulder as if you were an archer pulling a bowstring. Return to the starting position and repeat, this time stepping back with your right foot as you draw your right elbow back. Continue alternating sides for 40 seconds.

3. Hammer Curl

Photo credit: FatCamera - Getty Images
Photo credit: FatCamera - Getty Images
  • Stand tall holding a pair of light to medium dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides (palms facing in) with your feet hip-width apart and parallel. This is the starting position.

  • Keeping your core engaged and elbows pinned to your sides, curl the dumbbells toward your shoulders. Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Repeat for 40 seconds.

4. Single-Arm Triceps Pulldown

Photo credit: South_agency - Getty Images
Photo credit: South_agency - Getty Images
  • Grab a light to medium resistance loop and check it for wear and tear so that you know it’s safe to use. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding the loop securely against your right shoulder with your left hand. Grab the bottom of the loop in your right hand.

  • Keeping your core engaged and your right elbow pinned to your side, extend your right arm downward until it’s straight and pointing toward the ground. Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Continue for 40 seconds, and then switch sides and repeat.

5. Suitcase Squat

Photo credit: vitapix - Getty Images
Photo credit: vitapix - Getty Images
  • Stand tall holding a pair of medium to heavy dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides with your palms facing inward. Make sure your feet are hip-width apart and parallel. This is the starting position.

  • Keeping your core engaged and back flat, push your hips back and bend your knees, lowering your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Pause, and then drive through your heels to return to the starting position. Repeat for 40 seconds.

6. Romanian Dead Lift

Photo credit: SrdjanPav - Getty Images
Photo credit: SrdjanPav - Getty Images


  • Stand tall holding a pair of medium to heavy dumbbells or one kettlebell at arm’s length in front of your thighs, palms facing back. Your feet should be hip-width apart and parallel, knees bent slightly. This is the starting position.

  • Keeping your core engaged and back flat, lower the dumbbells to mid-shin level without increasing the bend in your knees. Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Repeat for 40 seconds.

7. Z Chop

Photo credit: TRBfoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: TRBfoto - Getty Images


  • Grab a medium dumbbell and grip the middle of the weight in both hands. Extend the dumbbell straight out straight in front of your chest so that the dumbbell is vertical. Step your feet wider than your hips and keep them parallel.

  • Begin to draw a “Z” shape in the air with the dumbbell while allowing your knees to bend, moving up and down with each swipe. Focus on keeping your hips forward, arms straight, and feet flat on the ground. Repeat for 45 seconds.

Why trust us?

Jennifer Jacobs holds a combination of eight fitness and nutrition accreditations from some of the top certifying agencies in the country. In addition to being certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) as a personal trainer, nutrition coach and fitness nutrition specialist, she is also a certified indoor cycling instructor through Schwinn and the Athletics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA). A former senior Peloton instructor known for her functional training workouts and heart-pounding cycling classes, Jennifer helps clients stay accountable and unleash their best selves.

Stefani Sassos has been working in the fitness industry for the past 10 years, specializing in indoor cycling and strength training. As a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer, she uses her expertise and exercise science knowledge to create informed fitness content for the Good Housekeeping Institute. From vigorously testing exercise equipment to curating workout plans for GH readers, Stefani is passionate about leading an active lifestyle and inspiring others to do the same.

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