Now that we’re familiar with the basic weight lifting philosophies and the basic equipment, lets move on to the basic exercises. I will be approaching this from a strength-building philosophical standpoint rather than a body-building one, as that is what I focus on in my own training and that of my clients. Both philosophies will increase strength and produce aesthetic results. It’s really a matter of personal preference.
There are really only a few you need to know to get started. Once you’ve got those down, it’s easy to pick up new exercises, as most of them are variations on the basics I’m going to discuss today. Most exercises fit in to one of four categories, which are as follows:
1. Upper Body Pushes
These exercises rely primarily on the anterior (front) muscles of the upper body to push a load away from you. The press and it’s variations (including pushups) fall into this category.
2. Upper Body Pulls
These rely primarily on the posterior (back) muscles of the upper body to pull a load toward you. The row and it’s variations (including pullups) fall into this category.
3. Lower Body Pushes
These rely primarily on the anterior muscles of the lower body to push a load away from you. The squat and it’s variations fall into this category.
4. Lower Body Pulls
These rely primarily on the posterior muscle of the lower body to pull a load toward you. The deadlift and it’s variations fall in this category.
The simplest place to start is with these four basic motions. So that’s what I’m going to cover today. Doing one exercise from each of these categories will give you a full body workout that works all the major muscle groups (including your core).
The two main variations of the press are the Bench Press and the Shoulder Press. Both can be done with either dumbbells, cables or a barbell. Click on the links to see a brief tutorial for each exercise. Pushups also fall under the Press category and are an extremely effective exercise for building strength and muscle mass.
Two main variations of the row are the Bent Over Row and the Upright Row. These can be done with dumbbells, cables or a barbell. Pullups fall into the Row category and, like pushups, are very effective for building strength and mass.
The Squat is one of the most effective and versatile exercises for building lower body strength and muscle mass. There are dozens of variations, but lets focus on the basic Squat form for now. Start with just your own body, and as you build strength you can add weight in the form of dumbells or a barbell.
Everyone loves the Deadlift because it builds a killer booty! Start with dumbbells and work to get your form solid. When you are confident with your form, move to a barbell. You can also do Single Leg Deadlifts.
Putting a Workout Together
As I said, simply doing one exercise from each of these four categories gives you a very effective full body workout. When you are just getting started with weight lifting, this really is all you need. Sticking to the basics will give you a very solid base of strength and skill, and once you are competent with these basics you can add more variety and intensity.
I have my clients start with a basic 3 x 8 format: 3 sets of 8 reps. We stick to this for a couple months to establish that basic foundation of strength, and then begin to mix up the reps and sets. Here’s how I determine the proper weight for each individual:
Begin with a very modest weight and do a set of 10 reps of the exercise you’re working on. If that is easy, do a second set with a slightly heavier weight. Keep adding weight until you find the weight you can do 8 reps with, but fail before reaching 10. That is your ‘working weight’. Work with that weight until you can do 3 sets of 8-10 efficiently, and then add weight the next workout. This will happen quickly in the beginning. As you progress in fitness, your strength gains will slow down – this is normal.
So to recap: a basic beginner workout will include one exercise from each of the four categories I listed above. Start with a rep/set format of 3 sets of 8. You do not need to do dedicated core work if you don’t want to, as all of these exercises will strengthen your core by forcing it to do it’s job – stabilize your spine while the rest of your body performs a task (you’re welcome to include dedicated core work if you want, though. It certainly won’t hurt!)
Start slow and prioritize getting your form down solid. If you feel unsure of your form, consider hiring a personal trainer for a session or two to troubleshoot. Youtube can be a great resource for learning form.
If you’d like a more formal program, there are several I recommend. Nia Shanks has several really effective plans. Stronglifts 5 x 5 is simple, straightforward and effective. Starting Strength is pretty much THE bible for strength training basics. There’s also my First 100 Days and Basic Lifting Programs. Any one of these will give you an effective, simple foundation. You don’t need a formal program though. The fundamentals will get you really far! I always say, the basics are called basics for a reason: they work. And ultimately, they’re really all you need to get stronger and build functional and beautiful muscle mass.