How To Lift Weights Effectively

Maybe you're sick of being a 98 pound weakling; maybe you have a sports injury that needs rehab; maybe you want to build bones of titanium or buns of steel; or maybe you just want to do one of the best activities for getting lean and strong. In any case, you've finally gotten enough courage to go into the free weight section of the gym. Now what? How do you make sure that you're getting the most bang for your buck? 

  1. Choose free weights over machines wherever possible. Your body is meant to move freely, in three dimensions, not strapped into a machine that only lets you move your pinky finger. Free movements such as squats, pushups, and rows not only help you get stronger, they also help build balance and stability for sports and the demands of real life - very handy when you're struggling to haul a couch up your narrow apartment stairs!

  2. If you must use a machine, the adjustable cable station machine is a good option. The adjustable cable station machine is one of the few pieces of equipment that's useful, especially if you can adjust the handle attachment position to any height. (Some machines only allow you to clip handle attachments to the top or bottom position.)
  3. Start small, and focus on technique. Free weights come in all sizes from soup cans to big heavy plates and barbells. You don't need to leap into a 300 pound squat on your first day. Focus on learning the movement properly, and practice doing it correctly. A great site with plenty of helpful exercise pictures and descriptions is (
  4. Start with a few sets and build up your endurance. Beginners should start with one to two sets per exercise (one lighter warmup set plus one heavier working set is good), 12 to 15 reps per set. Using lower weights and higher reps at this point helps condition the joints and teach exercise technique. After six months or so, feel free to start going a little bit heavier and adding sets.
  5. Use a full range of movement. Part of good technique involves taking the joints through a full, natural range of motion. Don't stop the movement short in order to lift more weight, but don't overstretch beyond your normal, comfortable range either.
  6. Do exercises that work many muscles at once. Don't waste your time with a bunch of little tiny exercises that only work a muscle or two. Go for the big kahunas, the exercises that hit many parts at once, and involve more than one moving joint. For example, in a seated a leg extension (in which you sit and straighten your leg against resistance), only the knee joint moves, and only the quadriceps muscles are really involved. But if you squat with a barbell on your back, your hip, knee, and ankle joints move, and everything from your upper back downwards is involved. Pretty good deal! Good compound exercises include squats, deadlifts, presses (such as overhead presses, incline bench presses, and pushups), rows, and pulldowns/pullups.
  7. Work your whole body. Don't focus just on a few parts (biceps curl and bench press boys, you know who I'm talking to).
  8. Rest between sets. Organizing exercises in a superset or circuit helps save time. For example, you can do a set of squats then a set of pushups, then a set of squats, and so on, and you'll less rest in between since you're working different types of movements.
  9. Breathe. You'll naturally hold your breath a little during the heaviest part of the movement (try to keep your loud grunting to a minimum unless everyone around you is wearing their iPod). This is quite natural, and helps keep your midsection stable so that you don't collapse like a wet noodle. But don't hold your breath for longer than a few seconds. Exhale as you come to the end of the rep.
  10. Avoid taking a weight set to failure if possible. Failure occurs when you are truly, positively, even at gunpoint unable to lift the weight one more time. Complete each set so that the last rep's form is as good as the first, and leave a rep or two left "in the tank". This will help you recover faster and lower your risk of injuries.
  11. Avoid injuries. Check your ego at the door. Think of weight training as a long term project. Be smart and be safe. Use common sense.
  12. Warm up with moderate cardio and practice sets. Warm up with a few minutes of moderate cardio, and then practice the weights movements, taking the joints gently through their range of motion. Do a warmup set or two with lighter weight before attempting something heavier. This prepares the body for the loading as well as the movement itself.
  13. Save most of the stretching for after your weights workout. Static stretching (i.e. the standard stretch-and-hold type stretching) has been shown in lab studies to weaken muscles temporarily. Contrary to common opinion, stretching before a workout doesn't decrease the risk of injury or post-workout soreness either; in some studies it even increased both of those things.
  14. Save your main cardio workout for after weights.


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