The Ultimate Strength Training Guide for Beginners

Strength training, weight training, resistance training – call it what you like but picking up heavy stuff is good for you! Often overshadowed by cardio, strength training is an important part of any well-rounded exercise routine and is incredibly beneficial but only if you do it right. But before we get into all that good stuff, it will make your “zero to hero” strength training journey much easier if you get a good grip on the language that is commonly used when discussing this type of exercise…


Strength training has a language all its own which can often seem impenetrable. This is one of the reasons that some people are put off strength training. To help you decipher this and subsequent strength training articles, here are the most common and important terms used.

  • Repetitions – reps for short. This a single movement of an exercise and usually comprises of a lifting phase followed by a lowering phase or vice versa
  • Set – a group of repetitions
  • Resistance – the amount of weight to be lifted
  • Tempo – the speed at which repetitions are performed
  • Recovery – the rest period between sets
  • Program – a group of exercise to be performed in a specified order
  • Periodization – a series of workouts that get progressively more challenging as your fitness and strength increases
  • Freeweights – objects that can be lifted in a wide variety of ways and including dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells
  • Strength training machines – devices which target specific muscle groups which usually use rods, levers and cables to guide your movements
  • Muscular failure – the point at which you are unable or unwilling to do any more reps because of local muscular fatigue
  • Training variables – you heard it in math class

Now you have mastered the lingo of strength training, let’s move on to the underlying principles that you need to know to get the most from lifting weights…

The principles of strength training

Making progress in resistance training requires that you adhere to certain physiological principles. The best way to think about these principles is as rules for success. If you follow these rules, you are much more likely to see noticeable benefits from your workouts. There are five main principles…


Your muscles adapt to the stresses placed on them. If you lift a 20 lbs dumbbell, your muscle fibers and nervous system will make the necessary physiological adaptations so that, the next time you lift this weight, you will be able to do it more easily. However, when you lift 20 lbs again, this weight no longer provides a stimulus for change. If you want to improve further, you need to increase the degree of overload placed on your muscles. Overload can be applied in a number of ways. These are the so-called training variables:

1) Increase the weight you are lifting
2) Perform more repetitions with the same weight
3) Complete more sets of the exercise
4) Perform more exercises
5) Choose more challenging versions of the exercises in your workout
6) Reduce your rest period between sets

The bottom line is you are only as strong as your last workout and repeated workouts using the same weight/sets/repetitions will only maintain your current fitness level and not improve it.

2. Specificity

As discussed above, your muscles respond positively to the stresses placed upon them. This response is very specific to the type of stress they are exposed to. If you lift heavy weights for relatively low repetitions, your muscles will get stronger. If you lift light weights for high reps, you will increase your muscular endurance. If you lift moderate weights for moderate repetitions, muscles tend to respond by getting bigger – a process called hypertrophy. All of this means that if you have a specific training goal in mind, there will be a specific load and repetition range you should be using.

Repetition ranges are commonly prescribed as a percentage of your one repetition maximum or 1RM for short. Your 1RM is the amount of weight you can lift once but not twice and is a true measure of strength. Don’t worry too much about the 1RM percentages – just make sure that the weight you use causes you to reach muscular failure within the specified repetition range.

%1RM85%>85%>67 – 85%<67%
Reps1 to 51 to 5 at speed6 to 1213 to 20
Recovery3 to 5 minutes3 to 5 minutes1 to 2 minutes30 to 60 seconds
(> = greater than, <= less than)


3. Progression and Periodization

The principle of progression ties in with the principle of overload. Sporadically increasing the amount of weight you lift or number of repetitions you perform is not an effective way to improve your fitness. To make progress, you need to increase the difficulty of your workouts on a weekly basis and in a linear fashion. By systematically adjusting the training variables you can make slow, steady and predictable progress rather than stay at the same level of development for weeks on end – known as a plateau.

Progression needs a plan and in exercise and sport, this plan is called periodization. Periodization describes a logical arrangement of workouts designed to build up to a high point of intensity and difficulty. After a short deloading period, the cycle begins again but using slightly greater loads.

Weeks 1 to 4 Endurance – increase repetitions by 1-2, week by week

Weeks 5 to 8 Hypertrophy – increase weight and decrease rest periods week by week

Weeks 9 to 12 Strength – increase weight but maintain repetition count week by week

Week 13 Deload – week of low intensity/low volume training

Week 14 – 17 Endurance using heavier weights than weeks 1 to 4 etc…

4. Reversibility

Sadly, you can’t store fitness. After a few short weeks of inactivity, your body will begin to return to its previously untrained state. Cardiovascular fitness tends to decline faster than strength, but all forms of fitness will dissipate if you stop training regularly. On the plus side, once you have been fit and/or strong, your body seems to “remember” what it needs to do to get you back into shape fairly quickly. Some refer to this phenomenon as “muscle memory”. While this is not strictly true, this expression serves its purpose and explains why people with a history of exercise tend to get fitter faster after a lengthy layoff than people new to exercise.

On the downside, previously fit individuals also suffer from “the mind remembers but the body forgets” syndrome and may attempt workouts they previously found easy which are currently too challenging. Returning to intense training too quickly, irrespective of previous fitness levels and experience, can result in severe muscle soreness and possible serious injury. After a long layoff, remember to make haste slowly!

5. Recovery

Exercise is like digging a hole in the dirt. Your workout takes soil out of the hole and the hole is then refilled when you rest. Once the hole is refilled, you are ready to train again. However, if you want to make meaningful progress, you need to do more than just refill the hole – you actually want to build a small mound. Then, when you train again, the hole won’t be as deep. Training before you are sufficiently recovered is like digging an ever deepening hole that never gets filled in, let alone built up into a hill.

Hard training combined with a poor diet, too little sleep, too much stress and/or a generally unhealthy lifestyle will exceed your recovery abilities so the point that progress is severely hampered. Exercise breaks you down while rest, sleep and a nutritious diet builds you up. The best exercise programme will be ineffectual if you don’t respect recovery. Make sure you plan recovery as diligently as you plan exercise. Include easy workouts, easy weeks of training and monitor your progress. If you aren’t seeing progress from your workouts and you are observing the principles of overload, specificity, progression and reversibility, it’s quite likely that you need to pay more attention to recovery.

The Benefits of Strength Training

If you adhere to the principles outlined above, you should soon start to see and feel your body changing and experience many of the benefits commonly associated with strength training.

Regular strength training will:

  • Increase bone mass and ward off osteoporosis and osteopenia
  • Reduce age-related muscle and strength loss
  • Improve posture and reduce incidences of non-specific back pain
  • Enhance strength and muscular endurance for everyday activities and sports
  • Improve joint mobility, strength and health
  • Improve insulin sensitivity and help control blood glucose levels
  • Increase at-rest muscle tone so your muscles are firmer
  • Develop coordination, balance and proprioception
  • Increase metabolic rate both during and after exercise
  • Trigger the release of endorphins – “feel good” hormones

How to Design a Strength Training Plan

Program design for strength training can often seem pretty complicated; what exercises should you do on what day, how many days a week should you work out, how much weight should you lift for each exercise and how many times should you lift it? You have two basic choices when it comes to designing a strength training program (or three if you let someone else write it for you!) whole body routines and split routines.

Whole body routines, as the name implies, involves training all of your major muscles in a single workout two or three times a week. In contrast, a split routine involves working different muscles on different days. Which one is for you? That’s a good question and the answer very much depends on your training history, your goals, the time you have available for exercise and your personal preferences. Because program design IS kinda complex, you’ll find detailed articles dedicated to designing whole body and split routines elsewhere on this site.

Strength training is not some kind of dark art reserved only for male bodybuilders and weightlifters – it’s good for just about everybody’s body. Male, female, young, old, lifting weights can help you become fitter, healthier, leaner and stronger than you ever thought possible and not only that, it can help you stay that way for many years to come. So, grab a barbell and get lifting people!

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