Beginner Weight Lifting Routine

By Alan Frost, updated January, 2014
inclined dumbbell press
Inclined dumbbell press

If you are a beginner looking for your first weight lifting or resistance training routine, you will find a lot of confusing information out there. So in this article, I will share with you one of the routines that I have used for many beginners, with great success. In my opinion, there are several mistakes beginners make:

  1. They jump straight into the heavy weights without conditioning their bodies and strengthening their core musculature.
  2. They do not choose the right exercises (for more on this see Free Weights vs Machines)

The routine I will share has been designed by me, but it is in no way revolutionary. It is based on a few basic principles:

  1. In order to avoid injury as you progress, and also to maximize performance, you need a strong core and stabilizer muscles.
  2. The most effective exercises are compound, free-weight exercises. If done correctly they not only generate better results, lower the change of injury & overtraining, and provide you with functional strength, but they also allow you to train more effectively in a shorter period of time.
  3. It is generally accepted that the best approach is to progress from lower to higher intensities. This workout will therefore be fairly low intensity.

The Routine

My beginner weight lifting routine is based on two full-body workouts (A and B) that you alternate between. Each workout will hit all your body's muscle groups, but with different areas being focused on. Most beginners should be able to do this 3 times a week, leaving at least one day between workouts. So it might look something like this:

  • Mon: Workout A
  • Wed: Workout B
  • Fri: Workout A
  • Mon: Workout B
  • Wed: Workout A
  • Fri: Workout B
top position of squat
Top position of squat

Alternatively, if you find that this is too much for you, or if you do not have the time to train more frequently, it is also possible to train just twice a week, e.g.:

  • Mon Workout A
  • Fri: Workout B

You should take about a 1 minute long break between sets and 1-2 minutes between exercises. Remember it is best if you stay on your feet and maintain some movement in the joints/muscles you exercised, as it helps your recovery.

Below, I indicate next to each exercise the number of sets times the number of reps or rep range (e.g. 3 x 8-12). The goal is to pick a weight that you can comfortably do within that rep range, aiming for the higher end of the rep range, and stopping at a point when you could still do another 2 reps. You really want to avoid training to failure; instead focus on getting the right form and technique.

DB stands for dumbbell and BB stands for barbell.

Workout A

  • Warm-up (general): 5 minutes light cardio (e.g. bike or treadmill)
  • Warm-up (specific): 2 very light squat sets for 8 reps
  • Squat 3 x 8-12
  • Romanian Deadlift 2 x 8-12
  • BB Bench press 3 x 8-12
  • DB shoulder press (standing) 3 x 8-12
  • Narrow grip cable pull-downs palms facing 3 x 8-12
  • Air bike crunches 2 x 10-20
  • Superman 2 x 10-20
  • Plank (can use balance ball if too easy) 2 times holding as long as you can
  • Stretching
the plank
The plank

Workout B

  • Warm-up (general): 5 minutes light cardio (e.g. treadmill)
  • Warm-up (specific): 2 very light deadlift sets for 8 reps
  • Deadlift 3 x 8-12
  • Incline DB bench press 3 x 8-12
  • DB Rows 3 x 8-12
  • Narrow grip BB bench press 3 x 8-12
  • Crunches 2 x 10-20
  • Lying leg raise 2 x 10-20
  • Side plank 2 times on each side, holding as long as you can
  • Stretching

For all the ab exercises that rely on moving your own bodyweight, it is very difficult to indicate a good rep range because the fitness levels in beginners differ so drastically. In some cases it will be necessary to substitute exercises if too difficult for some beginners to perform. For instance, I recently trained someone who could not do a single crunch, and it was necessary to use cable crunches instead. There is nothing wrong with this mind you, we all start somewhere, the important part is to assess your abilities and find solutions. If you do have to change exercises, make sure you get help to maintain the balance of this routine.

From experience I know that some people (typically guys) may be tempted to add more arm work. I would advise against it. Apart from the indirect use of the arms in most of the compound exercises, the narrow grip pull-down and the narrow grip bench press tax the biceps and triceps (respectively) very heavily. With the focus here being on conditioning, you do not need more arm work at this stage.

Once again, proper form is crucial. I highly recommend getting a session or two (or more of course) with a personal trainer who can show you how to do everything right. In future articles, I will provide instructions with video content on how to perform exercises correctly, but even so seeing it on screen is not the same as realizing what you are actually doing. There really is no substitute for having your form critiqued as you are performing the exercise.

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