I still remember the first time I ever stepped foot in a real gym.
George W. Bush was still in his first term, Toby Maguire was still Spider-Man, and talking about George W. Bush and Toby Maguire were still perfectly normal things to do.
I had been making use of a few scant pieces of at home workout equipment for months because I was too intimidated to subject myself to the glaring eyes of people at the gym.
On my inaugural trip to the gym I was totally and utterly terrified of what people would think—partly because I harbored the misconception that other people at the gym would actually give a shit about what I was up to, and partly because I had no damn clue what I was doing.
Learning the (Unnecessarily) Long and Hard Way
Even though I threw myself into it full bore, by the time I actually figured out how to build real strength and muscle, Barack Obama was president, Andrew Garfield was Spider-Man and – well, by that point talking about Toby Maguire was definitely not a normal thing to do. (Dude definitely peaked with Seabiscuit.)
Since you probably don’t want your own muscle-building efforts to take the better part of a decade, I thought I’d share a few pieces of advice I wish someone had given me.
So in no particular order, here are 10 beginner weight lifting tips I wish someone had told me when I was first starting out.
Scroll down to learn how each one can help you build a stronger and more muscular body – ideally before Toby Maguire gets cast as Tom Holland’s Uncle Ben.
Beginner Weight Lifting Tips
10 Things I Wish I Had Known About Strength Training
1. Have a Plan of Attack
Looking back on it now, the first few months that I spent in the gym were basically a total and utter waste of time.
Alright fine, maybe not a total and utter waste of time, but at least a partial and sorta waste of time.
The reason my time was spent so ineffectively is because it was spent haphazardly. In those early days, I would basically do whatever I thought made me look cool.
I would pick up some dumbbells and do a few biceps curls, head over to the leg press and crank out a couple reps there, hit the mat and do some crunches. All of it was designed to make me look like I knew what I was doing (an effort which most certainly failed), not to actually build muscle and strength.
A Man With a Plan
(and a shot in hell at building muscle)
It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a full workout plan in a fitness magazine that I started making real progress.
That first plan was a full-body muscle-building training split that hit every muscle group in the course of a week, and while none of the moves it recommended were particularly novel, the combination of a well thought-out plan and repeated effort on my part finally started to move the needle for me.
Fortunately, today the fitness industry has exploded and there’s no shortage of blogs, websites and magazine articles recommending muscle and strength building programs.
But of course, if you’re looking to start – and stick to – a workout plan, I have to recommend (shameless plug alert!) you check out this post I wrote about how to do just that.
Use it to find a plan that you think you’ll like, and stick to it for a couple weeks. If you like it, keep at it, and if not, find a new one and switch it up.
Having any plan is about 1,000 times better than having no plan at all.
2. Nutrition is King
It doesn’t matter if you want to build muscle, burn fat, or some combination of the two: the truth is that a body is built in the kitchen, not the gym.
This is something that I think a lot of us learn pretty early, whether from fitness magazines, blogs (including this one) or personal trainers, but don’t really internalize.
Tough to Take on Board
There are a few reasons why it’s hard to really believe that nutrition trumps fitness.
For one, fitness produces much stronger imagery. Peruse any fitness magazine or blog and you’ll see countless images of guys with huge biceps and shredded abs flexing in the gym, giving you the impression that more workouts – not more vegetables – will get you the results you want.
Secondly, very few of us work out as much as we’d like to, or as much as we think we should. As a result, when you’re assessing why you don’t have the body you want, it’s easy to point to one obvious thing you’re not doing: working out enough.
But the truth is that, in all likelihood, you’re also not eating well enough – even if you think you are. Building muscle requires you to eat inordinate amounts of lean protein and vegetables to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients to not just replenish your muscles, but increase their size.
Burning fat likewise requires an almost obsessive attention to what you put in your body; food companies like to sneak sugar and salt into damn near everything – including so-called “health” foods like protein bars – making it extremely difficult to eat clean.
What this means is that even if you’re extremely disciplined in following a workout routine, you still won’t get the results you’re looking for unless you’re at least as disciplined in your nutrition plan.
Focus on nutrition and the results will follow; ignore it, and they’ll never come at all.
3. Proper Form is Paramount
This is something that took me far too long to accept and acknowledge, but led to radical results once I finally internalized it.
Just as cheating on a test in school might get you a good grade without actually teaching you anything, cheating on your lifts might allow you to look like you’re working hard, but won’t actually get you results.
Before trying any new move, invest a bit of time making sure you know how to perform it properly, then focus on maintaining proper form while you’re at it.
Results will come much quicker, not just because you’re performing each move more efficiently, but also because by doing so you’re far less likely to injure yourself and have to forego gym time as you recover.
4. No One is Watching You, and They Don’t Care What You’re Doing
Most of us work out because we want to look good.
What we don’t often admit to ourselves is that we don’t just want to look good as a result of working out, we also want to look good while working out.
This is something that especially plagues introverted guys, who are prone to overthinking and even stressing about what other people might be thinking of us.
As a result, we try to lift heavier than we should (and, as mentioned, break proper form to do it) and focus far too much on whether or not what we’re doing in the gym looks good – and not enough on whether or not it’s effective.
But after more than 10 years as a gym rat, I can tell you with some confidence that no one in the gym really gives a shit what you’re up to.
For one thing, they’re far too busy focusing on themselves. For another, they probably don’t know that much more about fitness than you do.
If you’re worried about making mistakes and looking silly, it stands to reason that they’re worried about it too.
So don’t fret about what other people might be thinking. You probably only have an hour or so to workout each day, and you should focus on using that time as effectively as possible.
The strong, muscular physique that comes as a result will speak for itself. So on the off chance that anybody is watching you, the only thing they’ll think will be “Wow, that guy’s pretty fit. He must know his stuff.”
5. Go Slow to Grow Big
Don’t forget that part of maintaining proper form means lifting at a slow, steady and controlled pace.
One mistake beginner weightlifters often make is to throw the weights around quickly, pumping out as many sets and reps as they can.
While there’s a time and a place for that kind of exercise – usually during fitness classes designed not to build muscle, but burn fat – it’s not advisable during a muscle-building session.
For one thing, it’s highly likely that you’ll hurt yourself or pull a muscle if you’re swinging weights around too quickly. For another, it’s not actually going to help you build muscle – in fact, it’s more likely to burn calories that could result in a net loss in weight.
Focus on Your Muscles, Not Your Ego
If you’re on a muscle-building mission, lift slowly – at least two seconds up and two seconds down, unless otherwise stipulated by your personal trainer or workout plan. If you can’t manage to lift at a slow, controlled rate with the weight you’re using, then move down a few pounds until you can.
The gains you make from using proper form will more than offset the sacrifice your ego makes by using a slightly lighter dumbbell.
6. Warm-up Sets are Worth It
While we’re on the subject of speed, don’t think that you can shorten your sweat sessions by skipping the warm up sets and stretching.
“Most guys shortchange their strength with a crappy warm up before they even start their actual workout,” according to Men’s Fitness. “Ramping up is the only way to prime your body for strength and muscle gains.”
Take the time to learn how to warm up properly, then make sure you carve out enough time in the day to perform both your workout routine, and the requisite warm up.
7. Building Strength ≠ Building Muscle
Have you ever watched the powerlifting event at the Olympics, or those strong man competitions that air on the Outdoor Life Network, or, like, ESPN 8 “the Ocho”?
If you have, you’ve probably noticed that the guys who train solely to lift as much weight as humanly possible don’t exactly look like magazine cover models.
This is because, while they’re of course related, there’s a difference between training to build lean muscle and training to build raw strength.
So before you start a weight training program, get clear on what your goals are – and be honest with yourself. We all, of course, want to be stronger. But if what you really want is to look more muscular under your clothes (guilty!), you’ll need to find a workout plan that caters to that specific goal.
Check out the links below to learn more about the difference between strength training and muscle-building, and find a program that best suits your goals.
8. Leg Day is Not Optional
Let’s be honest here fellas: when it comes to our fitness goals, we’re all looking to increase the size and improve the shape of our glamor muscles – our chests, shoulders and of course, our arms.
As a result, it can be tempting to focus intensely (if not exclusively!) on these highly visible muscle groups, to the detriment of all the others.
But the truth is that you build a body the same way you build a house: from the ground up. And you can’t really build a strong upper body without a strong lower body as your base.
When you train your muscles, your body naturally creates and releases human growth hormones, which flood your system. Because the largest muscle groups in your body are found in your legs, you get the biggest (natural) dose of HGH when you work on your wheels.
That’s why guys who compete in bench-pressing competitions never skip their squats, and Olympic gymnasts who have gigantic arms also have hefty quads and hamstrings.
So do yourself a favor and resist the urge to skip leg day. It doesn’t matter if you want to get bigger, stronger or both: squats and deadlifts will get you there faster.
9. The Pen is Mightier than the Barbell
This is an amazing little low-tech hack that can have a huge impact on your gains, which I didn’t start using until about year 10 of my training.
(No one has ever accused me of being a quick study.)
The trick? Bring a notebook and a pen to the gym with you. As you work through your plan, record the number of sets, reps and the amount of weight you used, along with any other relevant data like resting time.
Next week – or whenever you return to that same workout routine – you can reference back to see exactly how much you lifted last time, and increase it slightly.
This might sound simple, but trust me: you will not remember the exact details of each workout.
I mean, if today is Tuesday and you’re in the gym doing Day 2 of your five-day training split, that means the last time you did it was… uhhhh, OK you took a day off Wednesday so you guess it was… Monday?
And, let’s see, you started out with 45s but you think you only got through 6 out of 8 reps. Or was it 7 reps? Either way, you’re pretty sure you did perform all three sets – or, wait, did you stop after the first two…?
You get the idea.
If you’re working out regularly, it all kind of blurs together. Writing down what you achieve in each session makes it infinitely easier to ensure you’re progressing properly.
You can use any notebook, but personally I opt for Field Notes. They’re durable, flexible, small enough to fit in your pocket and kind of bad-ass. (Or more accurately: about as bad-ass as a notepad can possibly be.)
10. Fitness Fads Come and Go – So Focus on Principles
Do you guys remember Sweatin’ to the Oldies?
How about Tae Bo?
What about the Thigh Master, the Bow Flex, the Shake Weight or Ab Belts?
Didn’t think so.
All of these – and oh, so many more – were once fitness trends that took the world by storm with promises of revolutionary results and easy application.
And all of them now reside in a vast graveyard of faded fitness fads, along with heaps of money and millions of unmet New Year’s resolutions.
Focus on Fundamentals
Today’s fitness trends may seem a lot less silly and a little more scientific, but don’t be taken in by their flashy marketing and promises of super-charged results.
The cold hard truth is that the fundamental principles of fitness haven’t actually changed in thousands of years. The only way to change your body is to eat clean, work hard and get enough rest. Period.
The ancient Greeks knew enough about fitness and nutrition to build bodies that looked like this:
Admittedly, this was an idealized version of the male form (this is a statue of Hercules), but the only way the Greeks could have had this ideal is if they had actually seen somebody with a body like this.
And I can guarantee you the guy who posed for this statue had never heard of P90X.
So don’t get caught up in the latest trends pushed by fitness magazines and infomercials. Stick to core principles and act in accordance with them, and the results will follow.
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