Seven weight-training tips for beginners

Image of a dumbbell rack.I’ve had two spells of weight-training in my life. I started in 1982 at the age of 18 and trained solidly for seven years until I was 25. I was a skinny teen and I was training to bulk up a bit and gain some strength. I never became phenomenally strong and I wasn’t interested in bodybuilding as such, although getting in reasonable shape was a beneficial side-effect of regular workouts.

At my peak I could squat 495lbs (225kg), bench 335lbs (152kg) and deadlift 505lbs (230kg). Those could only be described as ‘reasonable’ lifts in global terms, but they were pretty good in the small, provincial gyms I was training in.

I should add that I was completely natural — I’ve never touched a steroid.

Life then got in the way and I took a 20 year layoff. I didn’t touch a barbell again until I was 45. Restarting was a huge shock to the system. In the layoff years I smoked, I drank, I aged and I gained a chronic neurological problem, so it took a while to get properly back into it again.

I’m 54 now and still training and making progress, although I seem to be maxing out at about 2/3rds of the weight I could lift in my youth. I just don’t think my body’s as capable as it was when I was younger. That doesn’t matter though (okay, okay it does irritate me a bit!) — I train because I enjoy it.

Anyway, over the years I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge about weight-training and here, for what it’s worth, are my top seven tips for beginners.

1. Stick to the Basics

I spent far too long doing fancy routines from magazines when I started out back in 1981. I eventually discovered that workouts based on the squat, bench press and deadlift are the way to go. Add in the bent over barbell row and the standing shoulder press and you have virtually everything you need in those five exercises.

Sure, you need variation sometimes and I do other exercises beyond those mentioned, but the core five exercises form the basis of my workouts. I started to progress much better once I switched to a system based on those exercises.

2. Overtraining is as Bad as Undertraining

When I started out in the 80s, it wasn’t long before I was training six days a week and 90-120 minutes a time. I was working out for anything between nine and 12 hours a week and it was just too much. Eventually the penny dropped and I cut back to training four days a week, 60-90 minutes a time and my progress was much, much better as a result.

These days I just train three or four days a week (I usually train seven days out of 14; three days one week and four days the next, alternating throughout) for 60-75 minutes a time and that’s plenty.

We’re not all the same, though. You have to find out what works for you, but just bear in mind that you might be overtraining and cutting back a bit might prove beneficial.

3. Virtually All Supplements are a Waste of Time

I’ve spend thousands on supplements throughout the years. I now believe that virtually all of them are a waste of time and money.

Obviously you need protein to build muscle and I can see an argument for protein supplements if you can’t get what you need through food. There’s no scientific evidence that more than 0.84g of protein per pound of body weight does any good. Anecdotal evidence might say otherwise, though, so let’s round it up to 1g per pound of body weight just to be safe. Try to get that in your food as much as possible. Eat chicken, tuna, beef and other sources of protein and only supplement if you can’t hit the target through food alone.

The only other supplement that’s had any effect on me is creatine, although I find the benefit of it wanes over time. If I haven’t taken any for a while and start doing so I get a boost for a month or two. It’s a small boost in strength, energy and recovery rates and you could easily do without it, but it’s there (for me, at least). I don’t take it all the time but do so occasionally, usually for 4-8 weeks at a time.

I’ve found everything else to be a waste of money. That’s just my opinion and I’m sure other people say different, particularly the manufacturers of these supplements and all their fake reviews.

4. Persistence is the Key

Some days you’re ill or injured and on other days you’re just lazy. Learn to tell the difference between the two.

With the possible exception of your first 12-18 months, which is when you’ll make your fastest gains, weight-training is a marathon rather than a sprint. You have to stay in the game.

If you’re genuinely ill or injured then of course you must take a layoff, but otherwise avoid unplanned breaks. I have the rule that I’ll always get to the starting position, which means I’ll set the weights up for my first exercise and try a set. I’ll always do that (unless of course I know for certain I’m ill or injured). It’s amazing how often, after getting to the starting position, I’ll carry on even though I was lazy at the outset and didn’t feel like training. Sometimes I even end up having a great workout.

It’s too easy to skip a workout. Then another. And then another. Before you know it you’ve given up.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take planned breaks though. I take a week off every 8-12 weeks and then maybe two weeks for a holiday somewhere once a year. I think planned breaks are beneficial, both from a physical and psychological point of view. Personally, I find it fairly easy to get back into things after anything up to two weeks off. It gets a bit harder after that and I’ll only take more than two weeks off if I’m forced to by injury or illness.

5. Don’t Compare Yourself

Your physiology, genetics and body mechanics are different to everyone else’s. You will progress at a different rate to everyone else. Look for percentage gains compared to yourself.

This is particularly true if you’re a natural, non-steroid user. Don’t go comparing yourselves to juicers. They’ll get bigger and stronger quicker and they’ll be able to train for longer (all other things being equal). I have no particular objection to anyone taking steroids, it’s entirely up to them, but as a natural it’s unfair to make comparisons.

6. Diet and Sleep are as Important as Training

If all you did is train — and didn’t care about your diet and sleep — you’d still make some progress. But for the best progress you need to pay as much attention to diet and sleep as you do to training. The training breaks the muscles down and you need the correct diet and sleep to build them back up again.

We all have different sleep requirements so I can’t tell you how many hours you need. It just needs to be enough so that you’re not unduly tired during your workouts. For me, that’s roughly seven hours. Some people are quite happy with five or six, others need eight or more.

As to diet, it’s worth working out your Total (Daily) Energy Expenditure (TEE or TDEE). Do not use a formula or an app that spits out a number based on your weight. These give you averages and nobody is average.

Weigh yourself and then record every calorie you eat for at least two weeks — a month would be better — and then weigh yourself again. Take your total calories and subtract 3,500 for every pound of weight you’ve put on or add 3,500 for every pound of weight you’ve lost. Divide that total by the number of days you’ve been recording and that’s your TDEE.

Now it’s simple. To gain weight, eat more than your TDEE and to lose weight eat less than your TDEE. Counting calories is enough to gain or lose weight but to make the best progress eat clean too. Eating clean can be made a lot more complicated than it needs to be but it’s just common sense. Try to get 1g of protein per pound of body weight and then eat a balanced diet around that. Eat from all the food groups — meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts etc. — and avoid junk food.

If you plan to take your weight-training to a competitive level you’ll need to pay strict attention to your diet, but if, like me, you’re just training for general health, strength and enjoyment, you can have treats occasionally. It’s about eating well for most of the time.

The best diet is one you can stick to, so keep it simple.

7. There Isn’t Always a ‘Right’ Way To perform an Exercise

Let’s say you want to improve your deadlift technique. You could search for reputable sources on the internet and find a dozen different ‘techniques’ to improve your form, and some of those techniques may even be at odds with one another.

This stands to reason in my opinion. People have different physiologies and different body mechanics and maybe what suits one person doesn’t suit another. The best thing to do is try the techniques and see if they suit you, but don’t fret unduly if they don’t. Just discard the ones that don’t work and keep the ones that do.

There are however wrong ways to do exercises. If you want to be a powerlifter you need to learn the rules for each lift, for example. More damaging, though, is to perform an exercise in such a way that it’s likely to be injurious. This is definitely a ‘wrong’ way to perform an exercise. Good form is essential whichever techniques you use to enhance your performance.

Anyway, this article is getting long now, so I’ll stop there. I hope you find these tips useful.

Good luck with your weight-training.