How to Start Weight Training, the Right Way
Experts' tips on first steps to take and then how to build up
Exercise — like walking, biking or swimming — is great for us and crucial as we age. But what about weight training?
If these two words scare you or conjure up images of Charles Atlas getting sand kicked in his face and then becoming a body-building king, know this: You’re not alone, and you don’t need pecs like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Many people grapple with fear of injury or the unknown when it comes to weight training,” says Keaton Ray, a physical therapist in Portland, Ore., and co-founder of physical therapy clinic Movement X. You don’t have to “be the guy in the corner grunting at the gym” to weight train, she says. And the benefits are worth it.
“Strength training as you age is instrumental in maintaining independence, optimizing bone density, improving your balance and keeping you doing all the activities you love,” Ray says.
"Once you hit a plateau or a stall in progress, it's time to change something."
But wait, there’s more. “Progressive resistance exercises have been shown to increase strength, bone mineral density and endurance as well as to decrease fall risk, blood pressure, osteoarthritis-related knee pain and disability,” explains Dr. Jessalynn Adam, a fellowship-trained sports medicine physiatrist (a physical medicine and rehab physician) at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Not sure how to begin? Read on.
What’s Up, Doc?
Before getting started, consult your doctor. “It’s always good to check with a health care provider prior to beginning a new activity in order to rule out any pre-existing conditions that may contraindicate certain activities,” says Darci Jo Kruse, director of education at the National Exercise Trainers Association. “There may be certain movements that need to be omitted or modified due to history of illness or injury.”
You might also want to consult a personal trainer, certified strength and conditioning coach or physical therapist familiar with strength training.
Types of Weight Training
A trainer can help you identify specific goals, determine a course of action and learn proper strength training form and technique. He or she can also help you decide which kind of weight training is best for you — machines, free weights or resistance bands.
“I like machines for older adults and beginners because they are easy to use,” says says Mike Kneuer, a personal trainer and nutrition coach in Boca Raton, Fla. “They reduce the risk of injury because they require less instruction and coordination than free weights. I especially like machines for those working out without a trainer because you don’t need a spotter, and the machines usually have pictures showing how to use them.”
“Free weights require more control and, as a result, are more challenging and involve more of your stabilizer muscles,” Kneuer says.
Free weights can mimic everyday activities, like lifting a suitcase, moving boxes or even unloading the dishwasher. Because using them can be more difficult than machines, Ray suggests getting initial instruction from an exercise professional to be sure you’re doing movements correctly.
Resistance bands are good for people who are intimidated by free weights, Kneuer says. One benefit is that you can increase or decrease the resistance mid-exercise simply by moving closer or farther away from the attachment point.
How Much, How Many, How Often?
Kneuer recommends beginners start with light weights and 12 to 15 repetitions. “Trying to ‘max out’ and lift as much as you can for one rep at age fifty is going to be rough on your joints. It’s safer to go with a manageable weight for fifteen reps,” he says.
Beginners should start with an easy schedule. Perhaps two to three times per week with 24 to 48 hours of rest in between sessions.
“If your body is not primed to life weights, it’s likely that you will have muscle soreness and fatigue in between lifting days, and you don’t want to risk injury by pushing yourself too quickly,” Ray says.
He adds that it’s best to keep moving during your off days from weight training. Walk, bike, do yoga, stretch or do something that works on balance, such as Tai chi.
When do you increase your weights? “As the body gets stronger, and the muscles adapt to the current ‘stress’ or weight being lifted, it’s important to increase the stressor in order to see continued progress and not plateau,” Kruse says. “When the current weight can be lifted more than the recommended repetitions without fatiguing, it’s time to step up to a heavier weight.”
Weight Training Past the Beginner Stage
Ready for more? “Once you hit a plateau or a stall in progress, it’s time to change something,” Kneuer says. “That can be adding more weight, adding more volume with another set or finding a new program to follow,” he says.
“If you have been weight training safely for a while and are ready to take your training to the next level, I recommend incorporating complex or dynamic movements into your routine,” says Ray. “Be sure to consult an exercise professional who can make sure you are using the perfect body mechanics for these moves.”
Progressing from a beginning weight training program may also depend on your personal goals.
“Individuals can add difficulty by combining planes of movements. For example, going from a forward lunge to a forward lunge with a rotation, or by adding a balance element such as performing standing exercises with a narrower base of support, on a balance board, or BOSU. This will require stabilizer muscles to work harder,” Ray explains.
No matter your level at weight training, Kneuer says, make sure you know why you’re doing it.
“Is it to live longer, be able to play with your grandkids or get out of a chair without grunting?” he asks. “Keep it in mind twenty-four/seven. Exercise can be hard. Starting a new program can be scary. There will be times you want to quit — probably a lot of them. But remembering your ‘why’ can get you through almost anything.”