Weightlifting Basics

Learn the essentials of weightlifting, from definitions such as 'reps' and 'sets' to how to design your own custom routine.

Warm-up and Stretch

Reduce injury through proper warm-ups and stretching.
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Understand 'Reps' and 'Sets'

Learn the jargon and choose rep schemes that reflect your goals.
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Design Your Routine

Learn how to design a weightlifting routine that meets your needs.
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Changes To Your Routine

Learn when you should make changes and what types to make.
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Fix Plateaus

Quick fixes for the most common causes of weightlifting plateaus.
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Warm-up and Stretch

Terminology

  • Warm-up - Any activity done to prepare your muscles for exercise
  • Cardio Warm-up - A warm-up which is designed to "loosen up" and "warm up" the muscles but not necessarily prepare them for your workout. For example, going for a 10 minute run.
  • Dynamic Warm-up - Warming up by activating the muscles in a way that is related to the challenge ahead. For example, squatting with reduced weight to warm-up your muscles for squats.
  • Dynamic Stretching - Stretches that activate the muscle in a way that prepares them for the challenge ahead. For example, doing deep lunges before squatting.
  • Static Stretching - These are the "bend and hold" type of stretches. For example, the Cobra stretch in yoga.

Cardio Warm-up

Before your weight lifting workout you will want to warm up. Some people will benefit from a cardio based warm-up before weights. For example, if you were sitting before the workout, you may want to loosen up your muscles, or if you were walking outside in the cold, you may want to warm them up a bit. If you choose to do a cardio warm-up, keep it to 10 minutes or less (just enough to get the blood flowing, and not enough to cause fatigue).

Dynamic Stretching

After any cardio warm-up, you may wish to do some dynamic stretching. Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretches can help you reduce your risk of injury. Examples of dynamic stretches are arm circles and bodyweight only lunges.

Dynamic Warm-up

After your optional cardio warm-up, and any dynamic stretching you wish to do, you need to do a dynamic warm-up. For the first exercise of each muscle group in your workout, you should add in warm-up sets before your working sets. Warm-up sets are intended to warm-up the muscles in addition to preparing them for the load by increasing it slowly. They reduce risk of injury, and can even help you lift more when done correctly. The warm-up sets should NOT fatigue the muscles. I recommend keeping just 8 reps per warm-up set to ensure this. If a program says "do 3 sets", any warm-up sets will be in addition to those 3 sets.

For your warm-up sets, I recommend starting with ~60% of the weight you intend to use for the exercise, and increasing by about 20% each time until you reach your target weight. Here are a few examples:

  1. Target weight 30# dumbbells (note that 66% of 30 is 20)
    - do 1 warm-up set with 20# dumbbells, then move on to your working sets
  2. Target weight 80# barbell (note that 60% of 80 is ~50)
    - do warm-up sets at 50#, and 65#, before moving on to your working sets
  3. Target weight 110# barbell (60% of 110 is ~65)
    - do warm-up sets with 65#, 80#, 95#, then working sets.

Static Stretching

After your weightlifting workout is complete, you can do any static stretching you wish to do, or any yoga.

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Reps, Sets, and Rep Ranges

A repetition (rep) is one complete movement. A set is a series of these movements without rest. Between sets there is a rest period. You have progressed when either your reps or weight have increased. You have plateaued if you can't increase in reps or weights.

If you are a complete beginner, I recommend starting at either the 12-15 or 8-12 rep range and concentrating on form, for the first 2 months. Then, increase your intensity by decreasing your rep range to either 6-10 or 4-8 (if your primary goal is bodybuilding). If your primary goal is strength, spend at least 2 months at a moderate rep range (6-10 or 4-8), and then decrease to using below 6 reps a set (the 5x5 system is an example of a strength protocol). If you have to increment by a large percent when raising your weight on an exercise (for example, going from 12 lb dumbbells to 15 lb dumbbells is a 25% increase in weight), you may have to use a larger rep range in order to progress on that exercise (eg. 6-12, or 8-15).

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Rep Schemes and Rest Periods

Here, I would like to explain different rep schemes. There are two basic ways to go about progressing on reps. Use whichever you prefer. The first way is to use a rep range (eg. 6-10 reps, for 3 sets). In this scheme, you will up the weight on the next set, if you could do 10 reps on the previous set. When you are a beginner, you may be able to increase your weights rapidly, but after a while, increases of just 2.5% to 5% will be good. An example progression would be:

  • Week 1: 90# 6,6,6
  • Week 2: 90# 8,8,7
  • Week 3: 90# 10 95# 6,6

The second way, is to aim to get all of your sets at a specific rep level (eg. 3 sets of 10, or 5 sets of 5). An example of this would be:

  • Week 1: 90# 6,6,6
  • Week 2: 90# 8,8,7
  • Week 3: 90# 10,9,8
  • Week 4: 90# 10,10,10
  • Week 5: 95# 6,6,6

Your rest period should be longer between sets of greater intensity to allow for partial recovery. Too short of a rest period will result in subpar strength. Too long of a rest period allows the muscle to recover too much, and reduces the effect of the exercise.You may wish to keep track of rest periods with a watch. Suggested amounts of rest between sets by intensity:

  • 8-12 reps - 1.5 minutes rest
  • 6-10 reps - 2 minutes rest
  • below 6 reps - 2.5 to 3 minutes rest

Designing Weightlifting Routines

Terminology

  • Pull Muscles - those muscles that involved in pulling. Specifically, the back (both upper and lower) and biceps.
  • Push Muscles - those muscles that are involved in pushing. Specifically, the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
  • Horizontal Plane Exercises - denotes the exercises that work muscles in the horizontal plane - pushing and pulling forward and back. For example - cable rows, bent-over rows, push-ups, bench press.
  • Vertical Plane Exercises - denotes those exercises that work the muscles in the vertical plane - pushing and pulling up or down. For example - pullups, lat pulldowns, shoulder press, shrugs.

Rest Between Workouts and Rest Days

Larger muscles such as back, chest, glutes and hamstrings typically need 2-3 days to recover adequately between workouts. This means that if you exercise legs on Monday, you will wait until Thursday to exercise them again. Smaller muscles such as the arms, shoulders, and calves need 1-2 days between workouts. This means if you exercise arms on Monday, you can exercise them again as early as Wednesday. The higher the workout intensity (lower reps, heavier weight), the more you will feel that you need that extra day to recover.

Putting the workouts too close together can increase risk of injuries. On the other hand, putting them to far apart will result in lost gains. Try to be consistent with workouts so that the time between two workouts stays the same.

You should try to work in at least 2 days per week where you are not weight training, with 1 day having no weight training or cardio. This will reduce the chances of overtraining, and burnout.

Choosing Exercises

Your routine should be focused on compound movements (those movements which work more than one muscle at a time), as these will induce the most growth. Have at least 2 compound moves for each isolation move. Free weights are favored over machines since they work your body as a unit (not parts) and work your stabilizer muscles. As well, the average woman has too small of a frame for the average machine - which seem to be built to fit men best.

For each large muscle you want to work on a given day, choose 2-3 exercises. For smaller muscles, 1-2 exercises is sufficient. A few popular routines styles are:

  • Full body - Do the same exercise 3x/week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Mainly for beginners.
  • Full body split - Exercises the whole body 3x/week, but varies the muscle focus. For example, alternating between horizontal plane and vertical plane for upper body; and alternating between glutes/hams and quads for legs.
  • Upper/Lower Split - This can be done alternating on Mon/Wed/Fri, or with Upper Body on Mon/Thurs, and Lower body on Tues/Fri.
  • Upper/Lower Split with varied muscle focus - ie. Monday - Horizontal plane Upper; Tuesday - Glutes/Hams; Thursday - Vertical plane Upper; Friday - Quads.

Want some help picking exercises? Go to bodybuilding.com exercise demonstration.

Limit yourself to 6 exercises a session plus abdominal exercises. Doing too much in one session will result in a suboptimal training session, as you will be very fatigued before the end of your workout. Intensity is more important than quantity.


Changes To Your Routine

Do not change your routine too frequently. It is hard to track progress if you are always changing things. For example, if you want more muscle mass in your legs, and you switch from squats to lunges as your primary exercise, you can't track increases in strength by increases in the weight you can lift. You should give any new routine time to work. Don't expect changes to happen overnight. Increases in muscle mass take time. Visible changes to your physique should happen at most monthly.

It is usually sufficient to make small changes every 3 months. A change could involve your rep range, number of sets, rep scheme, exercises, and/or split.


Fix Plateaus

Cause 1: You are overtrained, and your body is no longer healing properly

Fix: If you are the kind of person who is very consistent with your training and has a very intense routine with few rest days, you will need to add in intentional breaks periodically. This will allow you to recover from any overtraining. It is usually sufficient to take a week off every 2-3 months.

Cause 2: You have a mental block which is preventing further progress

Fix: Try visualizing yourself completing the lift successfully, prior to the attempt.

Cause 3: You have a lagging body part.

Fix: Prioritize that body part in your split. You can do this by putting exercises for it first on a given day, or by having two days that work that muscle per week.

As an example, if you have weak triceps, your bench press may stop progressing, due to early fatigue of the triceps. In this case, you would want to do isolation work for the triceps, either on a different day from your bench press, or prior to your bench press.

Cause 4: Increments of weights are too high (eg. more than 2.5% to 5%)

Fix: Make yourself some microloading chains

General Fix

If these tips fail, drop the exercise on which you have plateaued for a period of time, swapping it with one or two that hit the same body part.