Learning to lift weights correctly doesn’t just build muscle – research suggests it makes you healthier, happier and better able to cope with life. Writer Lucy Fry finds out how to get it right without causing injury.
The word ‘weightlifter’ used to conjure up images of dumbbell-pumping men and impossibly bulging biceps. Thankfully, in the last decade, attitudes have changed a bit – and now, people of all abilities and ages are using weights to work their way to a happier, healthier body.
What are the benefits of weight lifting?
Weight training – training your body against resistance – increases your strength by causing tiny tears in your muscle fibres, which become stronger when they heal. This is good news for our health – and not just from a muscular perspective. Research suggests that training this way regularly (from 2-5 times per week depending on ability and experience) can reduce the chances of developing Type 2 diabetes and improve brain function. Studies show that training with weights boosts mood and body confidence; it also raises metabolism, builds bone density, and keeps the ligaments and tendons that support all-important joints (shoulders, hips, knees, ankles) strong.
But perhaps the most valuable benefit of weight training is that it enables you to function better in everyday life, says London-based fitness coach Dani Gaskell. ‘You can carry shopping, pick up your children, move furniture with ease,’ she says. ‘But best of all, it helps make you healthier mentally, too: building confidence and increasing happiness. It’s also an incredibly empowering feeling when you realise you are able to lift heavier weights than you previously thought was possible!’
How to adapt your weight lifting routine
For more experienced weightlifters, personal trainer Jamie Monk advises changing your routine regularly. ‘Change the number of repetitions you are doing: if you did X amount two weeks ago, try and do X+2 today. Another option is to increase the weight or the sets, instead of the repetitions.’ Working to a tempo can challenge you more too; a squat that is done with a strict three-second down and one-second up is much harder than a one-down-one-up squat, for example.
But if you’re new to weightlifting, he recommends a gentle start. ‘Anyone who is new to weights should start slowly, otherwise you might get injured, excessively sore or become so fatigued that you don’t enjoy it at all,’ he says. He also recommends considering your fitness aims. ‘If you want to develop more endurance, you need to do higher reps and fewer sets (12-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets), whereas to more specifically build muscle, do fewer reps and more sets (8-10 repetitions for 4-5 sets). To decide what weight to use to build muscle, try the “tank principle” – at the end of your set you should feel like you’ve got one more repetition left in the tank!’
If you’re unsure whether your body is ready to lift weights, it’s best to check with your doctor, especially if you haven’t exercised in a while or have a medical condition. Don’t push yourself unless you know it’s safe to do so. But once you’ve made the commitment, be consistent, and train at least twice a week. Dani Gaskell recommends investing in kettle bells: ‘They’re brilliant for beginners. I’d start with two – one 12kg and one 8kg.’
Want more advice? Here are Jamie Monk’s tips to get you started…
Weightlifting top tips and advice
- Begin with weight training twice a week but after a month or two go up to three times, at least 30 minutes each. It’s normal to feel sore for 24-48 hours after training whenever you are doing something new and challenging.
- The completely uninitiated should start working against your bodyweight for a couple of weeks before using weights. Air squats, press ups, lunges and planks are a good place to start.
- Next, start lifting light weights while you master some fundamental movements like the squat and deadlift. You’ll need some coaching with a personal trainer or group exercise instructor to ensure you are doing these with good form. If you don’t have access to a PT, try the Peloton app, which has lots of strength classes to choose from and will help beginners with technique.
- Beginners may need to modify movements as they develop their mobility. Goblet squats – where you ‘cup’ a kettle bell in front of you, arms outstretched – are great exercise for novices. However if you struggle with a squat, try placing a chair behind your bottom to start with, tapping it lightly before you come back up. Film yourself to take a look at your form or, even better, ask a trainer to watch you move.
- Make sure you take rest between sessions. Although this doesn’t have to mean do nothing; yoga and walking are good options on recovery days. They will also help to reduce injury risk by stretching out tight muscles.
Ready to start using weights in your workout? If you’re just starting why not keep the weights low and incorporate into an AMRAP workout!
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