Help a novice with weight training!
August 20, 2008 3:21 PM   Subscribe

Beginning weight training advice: I have recently begun a cardiovascular exercise program, and want to add weights to my routine. My goals are as follows: 1.) Lose weight 2.) Improve endurance 3.) Increase strength. Any advice re: number of reps/sets...

I have quite a bit of weight to lose, and am not starting from a place of high endurance. My primary goal is to drop weight (in a healthy way). I do aerobic exercise daily, but am a total novice when it comes to weights. Trolling around here, I've found some somewhat confusing info, so please tell me- lower weight/more reps, right? How many sets per machine? Cardio before or after weights? Remember- I'm in no position to become "ripped," just want to add weights to routine. Thanks!
posted by muxnaw to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
My primary goal is to drop weight (in a healthy way)

Lifting is great and contributes to an overall more healthy lifestyle, but losing weight is really 80% diet. Just keep that in mind.

lower weight/more reps right?

Common misconception. To get the best workout you will want to lift the maximum weight that you can . You should get to a point in your rep set where you try to do the exercise and cannot, i.e. hit failure. Ideally you should hit failure towards the end or slightly before your rep set. For example, you can do 15+ reps of a lat pulldown at 90 pounds, or you can do 120 pounds but you fail out at rep 8. It's better to fail out at 8 than it is to keep pumping away with a lighter weight. But either way this is set by you - if the most you can bench press is the bar, then press the bar to failure and next week add 5lbs to it. Don't feel bad about not being able to lift heavily when beginning, just try and find your current max and lift it, whatever it is.

The only exception to this is if adding more weight compromises your form.

Also just as important as hitting your muscles hard to failure is giving them a lot of time to recover and the natural resources to do so (food, esp. protein). You should try not to exercise the same muscle groups within at least 4 days, and ideally a week since doing it last. Because of this you'll find most people organize their workouts into 3 days that target general areas of the body, like 'Back day' on monday consisting of pullups, pulldowns, rows, butterflies, shrugs and biceps, 'Chest Day' on wed. with presses, triceps and flies, and leg day with squats, hamstring and calf raises on fri. You'll see this way while you work out 3x a week, each individual muscle group gets a full week of rest before being used again.
posted by spatula at 3:49 PM on August 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

Lower weights/more reps doesn't really do anything of purpose- people often recommend this for "toning" but all it's really doing is helping you burn calories, which will help you lose weight.

I would focus on doing sets of 10 reps, doing 4 sets each time. Find a weight that you can do comfortably for 3 sets, but that you struggle with for the 4th. Once you can do the 4th set easily, it's time to move up in weight.

Also, remember, when you're trying to lose weight, diet is far more important than exercise.
posted by unexpected at 3:49 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

The general consensus is that you can't really lose weight and gain weight at the same time, because you need to take in a lot of calories to really build muscle, but cut back to lose fat. But in my experience you can change the ratio of fat:muscle simultaneously if you do some intense weight training and get a lot of protein without too much fat/carbs.

I am not an expert but I have been in the same place as you (considerably overweight, no endurance) and I have found that lifting HARD along with cardio is much, much better for fat loss than simply going doing lots of intense cardio. Seriously, adding weight-training to my routine made a huge difference--and heavy weight/fewer reps was noticeably better than low weight/more reps.

When I was losing weight and getting in shape most efficiently, my workout was approximately the following:

1.) 20-30 minutes on an elliptical -- I was out of shape so I'd do interval training -- a few minutes warm up, then alternate 2 minutes FAST AND HARD with two minutes moderate, over and over until my 20-30 minutes were done (the last 2-3 minutes would be a cool down). Supposedly this interval training keeps the heart rate up for longer and allows you to workout better than simply sprinting until you're exhausted. Seemed to work for me.

2.) Then I'd lift weights. I would do a Biceps/Back/Legs workout one day and a Chest/Shoulders/Triceps workout the next (I would do situps and back extensions every day). 2-3 exercises per muscle, 3 sets each. I would use a heavy enough weight that I could only do 10 reps, then 8 reps, then really push to do 6 reps on the last set. (Sometimes it would be 12-10-8). I tried to keep rest time to a minimum (approx 1 minute between exercises) so that my heart rate would stay up through the entire workout.

3.) Then I'd do a 10-15 minute cool down on the elliptical. Not too hard, but not too easy either.

(Some people have told me that it's better to do little/no cardio before lifting, because you want to conserve your energy to do a harder lifting session. There may be truth to that but this way worked fine for me)

I was in grad school and this was summertime, so I had enough time to do this wokout every day, and I lost a lot of fat very quickly--people noticed a real difference in 3-4 weeks. This kind of workout is much harder to fit into a "real" life. I've read "Body for Life" and that seems to be a good plan for maximizing your workout in a shorter daily time committment.

I also like this website, mainly because the guy is just so blunt -- a lot of interesting articles about diet and exercise if you don't mind his shilling for

Good luck, and kudos for adding weight-training to your routine -- you won't be disappointed and you'll feel very good. Now wish me luck getting back into a routine, "real life" has gotten in the way...
posted by Alabaster at 4:10 PM on August 20, 2008

Free weights will help you develop strength, and especially endurance, more quickly than machines. They require you to use more muscles as a result of their less restricted range of motion, and they develop joint stability.

Basically, the more work you do, the more weight you'll lose (assuming you don't increase your eating). So, if you do high reps of low weights, and it's not making your breathe hard, you're not getting much out of it. That's the most important thing, whether you're trying to develop strength or endurance.

If you want to increase your endurance, less weight and more reps (around 15 or so) is what you want to do. But if you're not tired after a few sets of them, the weight is too low, and you're not getting anything out of it. If you want to increase your strength, you need to do something like 70% of the most you can lift in a short set (like 5).

I think that doing weights before cardio is easier, and that's what I do, but for weight loss, it might be better to do weights last because anaerobic exercise burns fat for some time after you've stopped, so maybe you'll burn more overall if you do it in this order.

Here's a good workout to do before (or after) your cardio:

- Five dumbbell snatches on each side.
- Eight dumbbell swings on each side.
- Five dumbell clean and presses on each side.

If you want a bigger challenge to your endurance, try this. (You might want to start with just three sets, though.)

Good luck!
posted by ignignokt at 4:12 PM on August 20, 2008

I'm in the same boat - approximately 100 pounds overweight and sick of it. Joined a gym 2 weeks ago.

You may want to check out Body For Life - it's sort of a diet + workout program (with a portion of 'buy our nutritional supplements', but plenty of people get by fine without it). I started on it a few years ago and really started to see progress, but things happened and I stopped going to the gym and gained even more weight in the interim.

At any rate, the 'plan' goes roughly like this:

- Try to eat 6 meals a day, which usually ends up being more like 5. (breakfast / snack / lunch / snack / dinner / dessert-snack)
- Work out 6 days a week
- Seventh day of the week, pretend you're not on a diet (ie, eat whatever you'd like in order to satisfy that pizza craving you've been having) and don't go to the gym.
- As for workouts, you alternate each day - 1 day, cardio. Next day, upper body weights. Next day, Cardio. Next day, lower body weights. Cardio takes 20 minutes, weight training about 30-45 minutes.

The workouts follow the "High Intensity Interval Training" formula, which, if you were to graph out the weights+reps or intensity of your cardio workout, it would look like a hill or a series of hills.

For weights, you start off with a very easy weight, and do 12 reps. You then add some more weight, do 10 reps. Add more weight, do 8 reps, then add weight yet again and do 6 reps. Then drop it back down to the weight where you did your original 12 and do 12 more. It does take a few times to find your 'sweet spot' - where you can complete the last 6 heavy reps and feel like it kicked you butt. If you finished it easily you probably weren't using enough weight. If you couldn't finish your 6 you started with too much weight. Of course as you get stronger the weights will change but you get the idea.

Here is a link to the cardio workout method.
Here is the weight training workout method, including the types of exercises you can do for each body part as well as a link to a workout sheet if you want to track your weights and whatnot.

For the "levels" in the cardio workout link, it's basically something you have to figure out for yourself. In terms of walking (say on the elliptical machine), a '1' might be a stroll in the park, a '10' would be an uphill sprint. In the cardio workout, you do each level (6-9) for one minute each, repeat four times, with the last round tacking on a level 10 for one minute. I like to call this the 'longest minute ever' minute. But again, it's only 20 minutes and your workout is done for the day.

I may sound like a commercial, but as someone who has been generally sedentary and definitely overweight their entire life, this is the first thing where I ever saw real results and didn't feel like killing myself because of some crappy diet. (Yes, I've tried Atkins, SouthBeach, and all those.) If you're comfortable with your eating patterns you can skip that, but this 'diet' is hardly that. It's more about eating throughout the day rather than 3 meals, and it's about eating better things in the right proportion. Whole wheat instead of white wheat and all that. Making sure you're getting enough protein to rebuild your muscles after working out, etc. You *need* fat, carbs and protein in your diet, it's knowing what kinds, what proportions and in what combination.

The book is roughly 1 part "how our body works" and "why most diets don't work", 1 part eating right along with recipes, and 1 part workout and weight training information. (And as mentioned previously, it's peppered throughout with suggestions of using the EAS/Myoplex brand of protein powders and nutritional supplements.. the author is the founder of EAS, but it's not obnoxious.. just noticeable.)

There's also a second book with just recipes I also picked up, which has some good stuff in it as well.

Sorry for the long, rambling, commercial-like response but I actually enjoy this program and like telling people about it. Good luck with your weight loss!

On a side note, you'll probably get a hundred different suggestions. Personally, I think you should do whatever you find works best for you - if your primary goal is to lose weight, then anything will probably be effective (to varying degrees). It's once you've lost the weight and want to be a beefcake that you probably need to think about optimizing your workouts, perhaps even spending a little time with a personal trainer.
posted by MarkLark at 4:16 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some good stuff written here already. You need to push your muscles which means working them really hard but letting them heal with proper rest. You also may want to make sure you are getting a lot of protein, a whey shake after a hard lift is not a bad idea. That being said, be careful at first, don't overdo it, and don't let your lack of strength at first bother you. You can hurt yourself pretty bad if you aren't careful.

If you are fairly new to lifting in general you may want a session or two with a trainer. Tell them you want to learn the basics of free weights and they can go through which body parts is worked with which exercise. Teaching yourself is pretty difficult and can lead to injury.

I always looked at cardio the way I looked at weightlifting - intensity is best. As a general rule whether you are on a treadmill, bike, or elliptical machine if you can carry on a conversation, or read a magazine, or a book, or follow the captions on the TV - then you're being way too easy on yourself.
posted by WickedPissah at 5:31 PM on August 20, 2008

Weightlifting is like going to Disney World with your family or friends - everybody wants to ride a different ride. In other words, everyone is going to have a different opinion on what works (or doesn't). The key is finding out what works for you, and keeping two simple principles in mind:

1. Diet is important, both for shedding fat and putting on muscle (and yes these goals can be achieved simultaneously). But then you already know this!

2. Consistency. This is probably even more important than your diet. You can lift all you want, exercise till you drop - but if you don't keep it up, regularly, over a sustained period of time it will all be for nothing. Gyms make most of their money off of people who join up with a 2-year contract, last about a month or two and then stop working out.
posted by matty at 5:45 PM on August 20, 2008

The best place to start is a book called Starting Strength, written by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore. The book sets forth a very simple, yet intense beginner program. Three sets of five reps in the squat, bench press (or press, on alternating days) and deadlift (or power clean, on alternating days). Couldn't be simpler. Couldn't be more effective. Believe the hype. Get this book.

Later on, when you need help refining your form, or ironing out the details of your weight training program, Rippetoe has his own forum at

(Oh, by the way, if you're an older guy with bodyfat to lose, ignore all the talk in the book and on the forum about drinking a shitload of milk a day. That little bit of advice is for skinny 15-year-old boys who need to put on weight. Not for us.)
posted by jason's_planet at 8:25 PM on August 20, 2008

A lot of good advice in here, just remember that you can go through the routine and do the lifts but if you half ass it you're going to get half ass results. If you want to see signifcant gains you should be exhausted when you leave the gym, for the first week or so you should be sore as hell. Make sure you're safe about all your lifts, it's not about how much weight you do but whether or not you can control that weight safely during the entire lift. If you start to plateu, mix it up (diff reps, maybe more maybe less). In high school I plateued for about a month and switched to a 10x10 routine for two weeks, I used the same weight the whole time and I used a weight that I could comfortably do about 15 times fresh, by the 10 set I definetly needed a spot and after those two weeks my bench max went up 20 lps. Switching routines is key if you're going to be working out for an extended period of time, try new lifts and different set/rep patterns. The most important thing though is making sure you bust your ass, you gotta want it.
posted by BrnP84 at 8:38 PM on August 20, 2008

If possible, get a spotter. Huge difference in results and gym experience (positive or negative depending on how you utilize it)
posted by bradly at 10:30 PM on August 20, 2008

I've gotten very good results from the Stronglifts 5x5 beginner strength training program. It's along the lines of what everyone is recommending here. Lots of good articles on the site, and videos with proper lifting form.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:19 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I second the stronglifts 5x5 recommendation. Or rather it's what I've used to good effect.

I'd never lifted weights before and along with some intake adjustments went from 5' 7" 200lbs to 167lbs and my BF went from like 25% (or higher) to around 15%. 38" pants size to 31" pants size... large and XL shirts to snug mediums... I look and feel much better.

I also utilized and to log my diet and training activities and get support from peers/community.

good luck!
posted by rampy at 9:43 AM on August 21, 2008

Following up on my previous contribution and 100% free of charge, here is:

The Starting Strength Wiki

posted by jason's_planet at 4:00 PM on August 26, 2008

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