A Beginner's Guide to Weight Work

Weight training is just as important as cardio.

green dumbbells on orange surface
Photo: Iryna Veklich / Getty Images

Lifting weights has a host of benefits, which include strengthening your core and building up muscle strength through your legs and arm, but getting started can be overwhelming, especially if your routine is cardio heavy. Switching to a different fitness format always feels intimidating at first, so to help mitigate any apprehension, we spoke with Kaley Hatfield, a certified fitness instructor, to find out exactly what beginners need to know about weight work.

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Don't forget to warm up.

Before you lift any amount of weight, warm up your body, says Hatfield. "Stretching helps blood circulate to our muscles and wake them up," she says. "I also advise elevating your heart rate for five to 10 minutes. Take a brisk walk, run, or jump rope."

Be conscious of your body.

Whatever the workout, always check in with your breathing, practice core engagement, and prioritize posture, says Hatfield. When you begin lifting, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth during the push or pull portion. "During the curl motion of your bicep curl versus the drop portion," she clarifies, noting to exhale during the stand-up portion of your squat, as opposed to the drop. Here's where your core comes in: Every movement you make is initiated from your abdominals, which is why it's so important to "ground yourself and stay connected," she says. "Drive your belly button into your spine."

Lastly, stand as tall as possible by keeping your shoulders rolled back and stacked over your hips and your neck in line with your spine. "When it comes to the lower body, the rule still applies," she says. "Keep knees tracked over the toes and your hips over your knees, keeping everything connected starting at your core."

Start with light weights.

For beginners, Hatfield suggests light dumbbells. "Lifting with light dumbbells is a great first step, but also a great foundation to come back to if you've been away from lifting for a while," she says. "Exercises using a set of dumbbells are very functional and extremely similar to our everyday body-weight movements." Think of the motions you go through when you get into your car, reach for something on a shelf, or bend over to pick up your kids—all of these movements can be replicated with standard weights. The only difference? You have a little more resistance, which strengthens the muscles you use the most.

Understand when it's time to upgrade.

After you establish a weight-training routine, how do you know when it's time to upgrade to a heavier piece of equipment? According to Hatfield, a sign that you're ready to level up is a sense of ease: If you make it to 15 repetitions of an exercise and still feel like you can do more at the end, consider adding more weight. "The last two to three reps should always be hard to complete," she says.

Manage your expectations.

If you're just starting out, give yourself time to build strength. "Don't set your expectations too high," Hatfield says. "Start with a little weight a few times a week and once you're comfortable with that, kick it up a notch." Just make sure you're beginning with small, straightforward moves that you enjoy doing—that way, you're setting yourself up for a sustainable and healthy lifestyle.

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