Taming the Weight Room 3: The Exercises

This is the third in this series. Find the first here, and the second here.

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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 Press

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.

The Row

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

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.

The Deadlift

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.


23 thoughts on “Taming the Weight Room 3: The Exercises

  1. How do you feel about doing one muscle group per day? Lately I’ve been alternating upper and lower body. I’m going to transition from weight machines to free weights today.

    I like your suggestion of doing one exercise from each group, though. Keeps things more interesting than doing leg curls or leg extensions every other day.

    • One muscle group per day is more of a bodybuilding approach. It’s just a different way of doing things. Either way will produce results, like I said in the post it’s a matter of personal preference. I approached it from a powerlifting perspective here because that’s my style. :)

  2. Thanks!! Great post. I appreciate the resources you cited at the end – very cool. Rippetoe’s book is gold. Some of Lou Schuler’s & Alwyn Cosgrove’s books are good too, New Rules of Lifting for Life, you can never get bored.
    Thanks for encouraging women to lift. It boosts self esteem like nothing else will, too, I’ve found…

  3. Hi,
    So I hear mixed opinions on the number of reps to do. I’m currently involved in powerlifting and am training for strength. At the moment I’m doing 3×5 (with 1×5 for deadlifts). I’ve heard women may benefit from doing something more like 8 reps. Is this correct, or am I just overthinking this? Is there a particular reason you have your clients do 8 reps?

    Out of curiosity: What are your lifts at?

    • I have beginners start at 3 x 8 simply because it’s simple and will produce both strength gains and hypertrophy. Other rep/set ranges are great too, and once a client has their form down I begin to mix it up. I do all kinds of stuff in my own training, both high weight low rep and low weight high rep and everything in between. :)

  4. Thanks for posting this. You’ve done a fantastic job of uncomplicating strength training, and also taking the ‘fear’ out of it – which so many women seem to battle with (due to the unknown and/or overload of info I guess).

  5. I am fairly new to reading your blog and I love it! I was wondering if I could have your permission to link to this post in a guest post I am writing for my friends blog, Fitness and Feta. I am writing a guest post on how I got started with heavier lifting and I think these posts would be a good place to guide people if they are interested in doing more strength training.

  6. Weightlifting is really remarkably simple, you need a bunch of gurus to make it complicated

      • I used to go in for that sort of thing and convinced myself that the secret to success was iron discipline and not deviating from the program, DO NOT DEVIATE FROM THE PROGRAM!

        I would get angry if someone else was using a piece of equipment that THE PROGRAM required that I use at that point in my workout.

        Now I just break it down into pushing exercises and pulling exercises, and if someone is using a piece of equipment that I wanted to use, I just go do something else. It’s a much saner approach to lifting weights.

        No programs, just go to the gym and lift something.

  7. You say “Work with that weight until you can do 3 sets of 8-10 efficiently”. If I reach a point with a particular exercise where I can do 3×8, but it’s extremely difficult, does that mean I should stay at that weight for a while doing 3×8 until it gets easier? Or once I can do 3×8 of a particular exercise is it time to increase the weight?

  8. Where do single-leg exercises like lunges or split squats come in? And, do you recommend doing deadlifts and squats on the same day? I’ve been alternating between the two in my 2-3x a week routine.

    Also, I’d love a future blog post about putting together a conditioning/HIIT routine, and how they mesh with heavy lifting. It’s another piece of the proverbial puzzle that the gurus have made me confused about. :)

    Thank you for all you do! You are an inspiration to so many.

  9. THANK YOU for simplifying things for us :) I have a tendency to be a bit Type A about following a plan to the letter. This helps take the pressure off.

  10. Pingback: Guest Post: Getting Started with Strength Training | Fitness & Feta

  11. LOVING this series! Thank you so much for putting this together as you are. I have never come across something so simply explained, without extra fanfare. It has increased my confidence in my workout routine exponentially.

  12. Great post!!! I just came across your blog a few days ago lol but I’ve been reading so much of your stuff.

    All those programs you mentioned are superb. Three years ago I was doing the 5×5 from Mehdi, he’s a great guy and all his stuff got me into this world! Now I do competitive powerlifting :D hehe The 5/3/1 program is also pretty good in terms of including all those movements but I’v found it’s moreso for experienced lifters. I actually wrote my own program using the same principles (basic movement patterns) but it’s ALL bodyweight training for those ppl that don’t want to go to the gym or don’t have access to a gym. http://www.hotandefficient.com/getstronglookhot

    anyway don’t mean to ramble but good work! Glad I found your blog (from zmoore.com)

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