Weight Training Introduction & Goals

By Alan Frost, updated December, 2013

holding a dumbbellWeight training can be quite confusing. Everywhere you turn, you will find all kinds of advice, sometimes outright contradictory. You will see people training very differently from one another, and you will see some people succeed with routines that do not work for others. In this weight training introduction I am going to start by setting the scene for the following articles that will give you the tools you need to build your own routine (or to assess/customize a routine made by someone else). Then, we are going to look at weight training goals. Your goals will determine every choice you make thereafter, including what exercises to do, how to do them, how frequently to train, and so on. Without clear short and long term goals, your training will be erratic and you are likely to not get the most out of your sessions.

Weight Training Introduction

Weight training is sometimes called resistance training or weight lifting. It basically involves pushing or pulling against some kind of resistance. In this sense, resistance training is probably the most accurate term, as it also includes machines that work with air compression, elastic bands, etc.

In the following articles, I am going to walk you through the basics of weight training, so that you can understand how and why a routine is designed the way it is. The articles are organized as follows:

  • Weight Training Introduction & Goals — Here we set the scene and determine your goals
  • Strength vs Size: A look at the differences in these two very common goals.
  • Training Principles — Here I will identify the most important and most fundamental principles of training. These six simple principles can help you assess every routine you ever come across.
  • Free Weights vs Machines & Compound vs Isolation — In this article you will learn the most effective exercises that you can do.
  • Training Frequency & Cycles — In this article, I will explain how to determine your training frequency and how to cycle your training to avoid over-training and/or injuries.
  • Weight Training Routine — This is where we piece it all together to design your routine. Includes examples for different training goals.

Weight Training Goals

Before you can even begin to start asking what sort of routine you need, how frequently you should train, or what exercises you should do, you must first ask the question: What are my goals?

In the next article called Size vs Strength, I explain the reasons why two goals that most beginners consider to be one and the same are in fact quite different. As you will see, many of these goals are not fully compatible with one another — and by this I do not mean that you cannot pursue several goals, only that they may have to be pursued separately (i.e. in distinct training cycles).

Weight training encompasses a wide range of possible goals, including:

  • General health & fitness: Training for health & fitness is probably what would appeal to most people. For this, you want a challenging routine, but you have a lot of freedom in terms of training frequency and program design. For casual gym goers for whom weight training is a small part of a fitness lifestyle, 2 times a week with 45 minute full body routine may be enough. More serious fitness enthusiasts can design more taxing routines (e.g. something like CrossFit).
Fitness workout with kettlebells
  • Weight loss: For weight loss the important part to remember is that the body is not built to gain one kind of weight and lose another… so the ever so common goal of "lose fat and gain muscle" should rather be phrased as: lose fat while maintaining muscle, then focus on muscle growth once the weight loss period is complete. The simple reason of this is that weight loss requires a calorie deficit and muscle building (or weight gain of any kind actually) requires a calorie surplus. Sometimes beginners think they can do both because during the first few months of training the body gets stronger while they are losing weight — however this is due to adaptations to the central nervous system rather than muscle growth.
  • Size & weight gain: Whether you are a small person who wants to bulk up, or whether you have aspirations towards becoming a bodybuilder, it is all about muscle growth. Typically, training for size means training with more sets per workout than strength or power, and it usually means focusing on training in the 6-20 rep range (most often 8-12).
  • Strength: By this, I mean limit strength, which is the most you can lift once. To train for strength, the focus will be on improving the heavy sets, with rep ranges below 5 (often 1-3). Training for strength involves carefully planned cycles so that the muscles are not over-trained by the very heavy sets. It also usually involves some auxiliary work, which resembles a bodybuilder's training, and training for power (see below).
  • Power: Power means being explosive and producing maximum force at one given moment. Power can be a goal in itself, e.g. if you are into Olympic weight lifting, or it can be a means to an end. Virtually all sports rely on power, whether it is a tackling in football, shooting on goal in soccer, hitting forehand in tennis, or punching someone in boxing. It is never about slow and controlled, it is about speed and explosiveness. To get this from your training, you need to train accordingly, and power training involves exercises that incorporate multiple muscle groups performed with speed.
  • Sport-specific training: This will overlap significantly with power training above, but it may also need to include some muscle gain and specialized exercises designed to help with specific movements in your particular sport.
Bodybuilder training biceps

As I will explain in the article on training principles, a basic principle of weight training is that you get good at what you train. Therefore, if one kind of goal requires a certain kind of training and another goal requires a different kind of training (in terms of rep range, the way the exercises are performed, choice of exercises, etc.) then it follows that one single routine may not be ideal for several goals. This is why the top bodybuilders are not also the best powerlifters and vice versa.

This is important for you to know before you jump in. It is certainly possible to design good hybrid programs, which alternate between different kinds of training or which take a "middle road", but they will not be as effective for any one of the two goals as a specialized program. So be clear on what exactly you want achieve.

Hopefully, this weight training introduction has given you an idea of what you want to do. In the next articles we will talk about how to achieve these goals.

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