Weight Training Basics: Find Your Best Workout Plan

We see lots of sculpted bodies in the media.  There are many people telling us to do what they do and we'll look just like them: sculpted, lean, and with a beautiful member of the opposite sex hanging off of us.  But do we trust the marketers?  What's the best way to workout if you're just starting a weight training program?  I've got your answers. What is weight training? Weight training is any exercise that uses body weight or resistance to create tension in muscles. It could be something simple like a pushup (your own body weight) or something structured like a circuit training system in a gym (machines to push and pull) or it could be mind/body like yoga or Pilates (a combination of body weight and pushing and pulling). How often do I need to do weight training? There are studies with different findings from two days a week to five days a week.  There are quite a few muscleheads out there who will tell you to train each body part one day per week but at a very intense level, and then there are folks who will tell you twice a week is plenty.  I'm in the two to three times per week camp myself. Twice a week will greatly improve your strength, your resistance to injury, and give you the muscle tone that you're looking for.  If you train three times per week, you'll get to where you want to be about 20% faster.  It's a nice bump, but not one that is going to make or break you.  If squeezing in a third weight training workout seems impossible then twice a week is just fine. How should I start? More than cardio, you want a little guidance with weight training.  There's a reason why gyms always offer two or three free personal training sessions when you join.  They want to make sure that you know how to work the machines and that you have a program that is effective for you, that is tailored to your needs.  If you can afford it, work with a trainer to develop a routine.  If that's out of the question then look for a book that covers the basics.  Try to find one written by a physical therapist or doctor to stay as safe as possible.  Avoid weight lifting magazines!  Unless you'd like to join the musclehead tribe, there's no point to reading these, and you'll get sucked into all those supplement ads.  Just avoid them! When will I see results? What I love about weight training is that you'll start to see changes right away.  Within two weeks you should start to see more tone or notice that your clothes fit a little better.  It's one of the best bangs for your buck in the fitness world and getting a quick response is great for keeping you motivated. Is cardio more important than weight training? Think of it as three legs of a stool; you need good nutrition, cardiovascular training, and weight training.  Good nutrition and cardio will keep you slim and healthy but weight training will fight muscle atrophy as you age, help maintain joint mobility, and help prevent injuries, all very important to quality of life. How long does it take? A bare-bones, full-bodied weight training routine is about 10 - 12 exercises and takes about 20 minutes to do start to finish.  Think of things like squats, lunges, pushups, ab crunches, oblique twists, back rows, bicep curls, tricep extensions, shoulder work, and side leg work.   More sophisticated workouts can take about an hour and will hone in on more specific muscle groups.  For instance, instead of working your "shoulder," you'll work your anterior, medial, and posterior deltoid (I know big words ... but I'm an anatomy geek).  Don't get me started on the teres group; I'm a big fan! What about the mind/body stuff? I'm a big fan because it's a two-fer; you get both a great weight training workout and a meditative one.  Yoga is the obvious example here, but so is Pilates or Tai-Chi or other Asian movement disciplines.  It's efficient, you get stronger, and you leave feeling toned and mellow.  What's better than that?  I recommend incorporating at least one mind/body workout per week if you can. What's my workout routine? I'm a Pilates instructor so I have a clear bias, but I'm a big fan of variety in my weight training program.  I mostly stick with Pilates for my weight training but I alternate between the machines (more extremity and posture work) and a mat class (more abdominal and stretching work).  I'll bop through a circuit at the gym about twice a year for kicks and giggles.  Maybe once a month I'll do free weights at home for variety and I'll go to a yoga class every once in a blue moon.  I don't have any specific goals other than to make sure my back stays healthy and that I'm relatively happy with how my jeans fit.   If I have a big event to go to I'll do extra arms to make sure they look good in my little black dress. ~~~ Do you have any questions for me?  Ask away and I'll be happy to answer.  Here are 5 Tips for Free Weights.  Did you know that it's one of the top reasons people wind up in an emergency room? If you like what I'm doing, I'd appreciate it if you'd sign up for my newsletter.  I send out lots of tips and "behind the blog post" gossip to help you get to the next level of fitness.  Just fill out the box in the right hand column ------->> Thanks, Lisa

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.

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9 Responses to Weight Training Basics: Find Your Best Workout Plan

  1. Kris O'Connor September 29, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    Great post Lisa! You know I love my weights **giggles** – but I’ve totally changed from what I used to do and am a convert!

    Compound exercises is where it’s at in my book – lunges w/ medicine ball chop, squats w any upper body move (curl, chest press, shoulder press, tricep), squats + row w cable. First of all, it’s efficient (makes sense to me). Secondly, working those big leg muscles raises the intensity and gets me breathing harder ;-)

    And I’m growing to love the old school stuff – dips, push ups – etc. I actually do them during my boring conference calls LOL

    The teres group? Oh dear…a-googling I will go.

    Thanks again ~ Kris

  2. Matt (mg3rewinder) September 29, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    I have been working out with weights most of my adult life. It is good that you are laying out information for the novice.


  3. Lisa Johnson September 29, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Thanks Matt :-) I try … L–

  4. Lisa Johnson September 29, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    Kris, the Teres group rocks, teres major and teres minor attaches on the humerus and back onto the rib cage. It’s amazing for posture!

  5. Doug Millington October 1, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

    I am currently only doing cardio and have changed my eating habits to eliminate trans fat, saturated fat and refined sugar. I’m looking to add strength training to my workouts and have a couple of questions:

    Should I skip my daily cardio if I do strength training that day?

    Are free weights better than resistance bands?



  6. Lisa Johnson October 1, 2010 at 9:46 pm #

    Hi Doug,

    You don’t need to skip your cardio on weight training days. They have different purposes and you can do both. That being said, it’s also totally ok to only do one if that’s what time allows and also if your body feels that’s what right for it. I frequently tell my clients to hop on the treadmill for 20 to 30 minutes before their Pilates class. Doing cardio first will help keep the heart rate elevated during the strength conditioning part of their workout and you’ll burn slightly more calories and also be warmed up and limber.

    For your second question, they are both resistance devices and would both be fine. The question would be how good is the program that your following with the tools you have. On a personal note I prefer free weights because my forearms get tired with a full band routine but I’ll do the band here and there to mix things up.

    Hope that answers your questions … nice blog by the way. I checked you out.


  7. Mark Bitman June 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    I need help designing a program. I am 29/M in decent shape. I can run a mile in approx. 10 min, bench my weight (135) and suffer from no major injuries. My goals are to turn the flab around my waist into muscle, bulk up or at least enhance my muscle definition. I want to boost my cardio activity and work on preventative injury exercises. I don’t want to bulk up too much since I’m only 5’4” so I don’t want to get too round or stocky. I eat a fairly healthy diet. I also want to incorporate yoga/meditation. Can someone help with a 3 – 4 day plan. I have gym access.
    Thank you thank you…

  8. Sam October 11, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Great information Lisa. However I would like to suggest you consider changing your recommendation about the order of cardio and weight training. For years I did what you suggested above – I did cardio before my weight training. Then I worked with a trainer who had me shift it up/ I wanted to build muscle while maintaining fitness. He suggested doing a dynamic stretching warm up, then lifting weights while I was fresh so I could put the most intensity into the weight training. The lifting would deplete glycogen so when I did cardio later I’d be in more of a fat burning mode. It seemed to work better for me and I thought you might want to consider that approach.

    Mark, there are a lot of good programs out there. You may want to try high intensity bodyweight style training or check out Bill Phillips Body for Life

  9. Lisa Johnson October 27, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    Sam if switching the order worked great for you then by all means keep doing it. I can definitely understand the thinking of your trainer … BUT no stretching before a workout! You can actually have a less productive workout afterwards and do microtears to the muscle which again, won’t help your workout. Check out Gretchen Reynold’s book “the First 20 Minutes” there’s a whole chapter that explains it quite well with lots of studies/sources.

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