The Beginner’s Guide to Weight Lifting
The weight room doesn't have to be overwhelming. Here's everything you need for a successful lifting practice, plus a foundational total-body workout to get you started.
For outdoor athletes, the weight room can feel like uncharted (and slightly befuddling) territory. It also might be the last place you want to exercise on a sunny afternoon, especially if the alternative is a trail run, bike ride, or sport climb. But most active people could stand to spend a few more hours in the weight room each week.
“Strength is the mother of all athletic qualities,” says Chase Karnes, a Kentucky-based certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Endurance, speed, agility, power, balance, flexibility, and stamina all improve when you get stronger. Your risk of injury decreases, too.”
As a climber, runner, and certified strength and conditioning specialist myself, I can confirm this. Every time I send a boulder problem, I’m relying on the single-leg squats, deadlifts, and vertical pulls that I’ve perfected in the weight room. And when my clients come to me with runner’s knee, mobility restrictions, or muscle imbalances, targeted strength training is part of our solution.
But where to start? If you’re a rookie, or simply stuck in a rut with your strength-training routine, here’s everything you need to know to navigate the weight room in the name of better, safer outdoor performance.
Hit the Basic Movement Patterns
The human body’s intrinsic movement patterns—the basic ways it bends, bears weight, and generates power—include the push and pull, rotation and anti-rotation, squat, lunge, hip hinge, and carry, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Aaron Karp, who practices at the Hospital for Special Surgery’s Tisch Sports Performance Center in New York City. “The best programs are built on foundational lifts,” Karp says. And while any outdoor sport will work most of these to a certain degree, it’s often not in the right combination to support total-body balance.
For instance, when you run, you’re moving through a continuous lunge pattern, resisting rotation through your core with every stride but doing very little lateral pushing or pulling—and zero pushing or pulling with your arms overhead. When you climb, you’re doing a lot of vertical pulling but relatively little pushing. By making sure that your strength-training program both reinforces your sport’s required movements and compensates for movement patterns that are underused in your sport, you can improve your total-body strength and function while minimizing your risk for injury both in the gym and on the trail, Karp says.
Know Your Reps and Sets
Sure, it’s all called strength training, but training maximal strength is different than lifting for muscular endurance, mass, or body composition. In the end, your rep and set scheme—along with the weight you use for each exercise—will determine the benefits you gain from that exercise.
Building strength: To increase the maximal force the body can produce, you must train near that max. Perform two to six sets of six or fewer reps, using the greatest weight possible for that rep count. Heavy weights are ideal for compound exercises such as squats and deadlifts, rather than isolation exercises such as biceps curls and triceps extensions, as they distribute the weight across multiple joints and muscle groups to reduce the risk of injury. Rest for two to five minutes between sets, which allows you to recover and hit each set strong.
Building endurance: On the opposite end of the spectrum is endurance—how long a muscle can produce low-level contractions before tuckering out. To reduce fatigability, perform two to three sets of 12 or more reps using the greatest weight possible, with 30 seconds or less between sets. Exercises performed with such protocols will rely heavily on aerobic metabolism, or oxygen-requiring processes, for fuel.
Building muscle volume: Hypertrophy, the technical term for muscle size increases, requires lifting with high volume (reps multiplied by sets multiplied by weight). Lift three to six sets of eight to twelve reps using the maximal weight possible, and rest for 30 to 90 seconds between sets. This allows for high-volume training while also clustering the sets close enough together to trigger changes in the hormones that help muscle growth. This rep range involves aspects of both maximal strength and endurance, and research shows that it is also associated with fat loss.
Know Your Equipment
The number of tools available in some weight rooms is staggering, but the main ones worth noting are free weights, fixed machines, resistance bands, and cable machines.
Free weights refer to any load that you can move in all three planes of motion, like dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and medicine balls. They’re highly functional because they require that you stabilize yourself and the weight throughout the entire exercise, says Karnes, who notes that compound free-weight exercises should make up the bulk of any athlete’s weight-room program.
Fixed machines limit your movements to a predetermined path, generally in only one (or sometimes two) planes of motion. This reduces the need for the body to stabilize throughout the exercise while also increasing how well you can isolate a given muscle, Karp says. Isolation work is important for addressing muscular imbalances, such as weak hamstrings.
Cables and resistance bands allow your body to move in all three planes of motion, depending on your setup. They’re unique in that they provide constant tension to the muscles being worked, and the resistive force can be horizontal or diagonal rather than straight up and down. (Remember that with free weights you’re really working against gravity.)
Ready to Get Started?
This foundational strength-training workout will set you up for a successful lifting practice. Perform eight to twelve reps of each exercise for three to six sets, resting for 30 to 90 seconds between each set. Focus on using a weight that allows you to perform all reps with proper form but that doesn’t leave any gas in the tank at the end of each set. Once you’ve nailed your form, you can tweak your reps, sets, and weight based on your goals to keep your body progressing, Karp says.
Stand tall, with your feet hip width apart, and hold a dumbbell in each hand with an overhand grip in front of your hips. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and together, and brace your core. Slowly push your hips back behind you, allowing your knees to bend slightly, to lower the weights down your thighs. Pause when the weights are just past your knees, then drive through your heels and squeeze your glutes to thrust your hips forward and return to a standing position.
Lie on your back on a flat bench, and hold a dumbbell in each hand straight up over your shoulders, with your palms turned toward your feet. Brace your core. Lower the weights toward the outsides of your shoulders, your elbows flaring out from your body. Pause, then press the weights up and together to return to start.
Stand tall, with your feet hip width apart and a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing your body. Take a slow, controlled step backward with one leg so that you’re in a large, staggered stance, your weight distributed equally between both legs. From here, lower your body straight down toward the floor as far as is comfortable. Pause, then press through the heel of your lead leg to return to standing. Perform all reps, then repeat on the opposite side.
Stand with your feet hip width apart, and hold a pair of dumbbells with your hands just wider than shoulder width apart, palms facing each other. Push your hips back to lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Brace your core. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and together, and pull through your arms to raise the weights to your waist. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start.
Stand tall, with your feet just wider than shoulder width apart, and hold a dumbbell vertically against the front of your chest, with both hands cupping the top end of the weight and your elbows pointing down. Brace your core. Push your hips back, and bend your knees to lower your body until your elbows just touch the insides of your knees. Pause, then slowly push through your heels to return to stand.
Sit tall on a bench, and hold a pair of dumbbells just outside of your shoulders, with your palms facing forward. Brace your core. From here, press the weights up and together until your arms are straight but not locked out. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start.
Stand tall, with a single kettlebell on the outside of one foot, and squat down to grab the weight with a neutral, palm-in grip. Keeping your chest up and your core braced, stand up. Walk forward for as long as possible, keeping your torso upright and without leaning it to one side to counterbalance the weight. Squat back down to return to start. Switch sides.
Grab a lat pull-down bar, with your hands shoulder width apart and your palms facing away from you. Sit down at the pull-down machine so that your knees are tucked under the stability pads. Brace your core, and lean your torso slightly back. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and together, then pull through your arms to lower the bar to your collarbones. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start.
Attach a D-shaped handle to a cable station, and set it to navel height. Clasp your hands around the handle, and step out until you have tension in the cable. Stand perpendicular to the machine in an athletic position, with the handle against your torso. Push the handle straight out from your torso until your arms are straight. Hold, and don’t let your torso rotate to one side. Pull it back to your chest. Perform all reps, then repeat on the opposite side.