The first question you may want to ask yourself is what level am I currently at, and what am I trying to achieve?
Am I just starting out?
Let’s start with a complete novice. When lifting weights the basic movement patterns you need to master are the squat, hinge, push, pull, press, alongside mastering some trunk control. Below are some basic exercises that are a good starting point. The best way to test the weights you need is trial and error, so start light and add weight. You will surprise yourself.
Goblet Squat – Feet shoulder width apart, hold a dumbbell into your hand, sit back as if you are sitting on a chair, keep a big chest and breathe into your belly on the way down and out on the way up.
Kettlebell deadlift – stand with soft knees. Fold forward from the hip (knees stay still) until you feel a stretch down the back of the legs. Keep your chest up, the back should remain straight.
Swiss ball chest press – Lie with your shoulders on the ball, knees at right angles and hold your trunk level with the shoulders. Start with the weight in line with your nipples and elbows at 45 degrees. Press up straight and touch at the top.
Single arm row – Assume the position above with back straight, and pull the weight up so the back of the weight is just in front of the hip. Pull the elbow as high as possible.
Standing shoulder press – As above, this should be self explanatory, just make sure you don’t lean back and arch the lower back.
Side plank and plank on a ball — For both of these exercise’s the aim is to keep the body in a straight line. If you get pain in the lower back you may need to get some advice on how to control your trunk.
If you are at this point and you still feel a little clueless, I would recommend you spend some time with a professional to get your technique correct and get some advice on the subject. A small investment of a couple of hours with a professional will give you the confidence to load your body safely and correctly and will save you time and prevent injury in the future. This will give you a great starting point and a clear path of how to step it up a level when you get more confident and capable. This time is really exciting as you will see really big changes very quickly, your weights will fly up and you will be unstoppable.
If you are comfortable with the technique, and relatively competent the gym, let’s try and answer the second question, what am I trying to achieve?
Am I trying to get bigger and stronger?
This blog is not designed to get too heavily into sets and rep ranges, but some basic ranges to build strength qualities would be –
From this, you should be able to decipher which of these qualities you are trying to build and choose which rep ranges suit your goals. Once this has been decided, you should refer to the table put together below by Mladen Jovanovic. This table gives the number of reps that you can expect to perform when lifting a specified percentage of your 1 repetition max. To avoid confusion, I would use the Dan Baker column for the repetitions.
If you don’t know your 1 rep max and you are not confident to try, Try and get a 5 rep max and multiply it by 1.15.
Alternatively, you can use a submaximal test using velocity measures, which are available at Pure Sports medicine.
You can download a guide of how many reps to perform, when lifting a specific percentage of your 1 repetition maximum here.
So for example, if your squat 1RM is 100kgs
Am I trying to get stronger and look more athletic?
From experience training females you would use exactly the same rep ranges and weights as above, however, females tend to recover much more quickly than men, and therefore need less rest. This would mean during strength training you could drop the rest for maximal strength to 2 minutes and strength to 90 seconds, which will allow you to get through more volume during the session. In my opinion, women can handle slightly less weight, but a lot more volume during strength sessions.
Also, women will tend not to increase muscle size like men, due to their lack of testosterone, so using high rep ranges will build a little muscle tissue to improve tone. This will also trim a little fat, as higher volume sessions need more energy to complete. Weights do not make women bulky, just athletic and awesome.
Am I trying to improve running endurance?
Strength training is often overlooked for running performance, however, strength training increases your body’s capacity to deal with the repeated high impacts of running without becoming injured.
The general thought process for a runner is that they need a certain amount of heavy strength work, alongside ‘strength endurance’ to improve the ability to produce consistent force over a long race, which I agree with in principle but not in practice.
Heavy strength training can follow the same template as above and will benefit you hugely. Some of the benefits of strength training would be
To solve this I would swap the sets and reps, so instead of 3 x 8 – 12, why not do 8 – 12 x 3. This keeps the volume the same, but you are lifting a much heavier load, therefore getting some real strength benefits alongside the endurance, a win-win. For this type of training, I would use 75 – 80% of your 1RM, keeping the rest to ≤1 minute. An easy way to do this is use an EMOM template (Every minute on the minute). To do this you lift at the start of every minute and rest for the remaining part of the minute.
Am I training to become more powerful?
This is where things become a little more complicated and is a blog itself, so to keep things (relatively) simple for now.
Force = Force x Velocity (speed)
In essence, this means you can improve your power by increasing the amount of force you can produce, or the speed at which you move. Force can be improved by using heavy resistance exercise’s, and speed by using a lighter resistance moved quickly, or by jumping, bounding and sprinting, as well as some more complex techniques. Different people rely on force and power in different ways, and some people have a deficit on one side of the equation (force or speed). If this is something of interest this can be tested at Pure Sports Medicine, and specific programs put together to work on specific weaknesses, but the intricacies of this training can make up a blog for the future.