Strength training for beginners: how to start lifting weights, if you're looking to boost tone

Get ready to reap some *serious* benefits.

Strength training for beginners: A woman lifting weights
(Image credit: Getty Images)

So you want to kickstart your fitness, but need guidance on how to get started with strength training for beginners? We know that getting started with weight training for women can be a bit overwhelming, but we've rounded up the best way to get started with building strength and muscle in the gym. 

First up, do you even know how to define strength training and what sets it apart from other forms of exercise? Strength training is basically anything that makes you stronger, and that's done by putting your muscles, joints, bones and tissues under resistance. 

That can be in the form of resistance band exercises, dumbbell exercises, kettlebell exercises, or you can use a barbell, rucksack or household items - heck, you can even do bodyweight exercises as a form of resistance if done effectively. 

Now we've defined it, you might be wondering why you should even start strength training in the first place. Well, research from Current Sports Medicine Reports described strength training as medicine for how well it improves (deep breath) physical performance, movement control,  functional independence, cognitive abilities and self-esteem. 

All that's to say, you'll be fitter, healthier and happier and crucially that strength will maintain the natural physical decline that happens as we age. "Strength training s one of the most straightforward ways to bulletproof your body for longevity," says Caroline Bragg, a personal trainer and leader of pre- and post-natal fitness at the Give Me Strength app

"Strength training will be with you for life, not just while you're young, as it wards off osteoporosis and arthritis and helps you maintain the strength you need for daily living, both now and in the future." 

Here, Bragg and myself, Chloe Gray, a health and fitness writer and qualified personal trainer who has been strength training for nearly a whole decade, share exactly how to get into strength training as a beginner. Three, two, one, lift. 

Don't miss our guides to how much weight should you start lifting and gym anxiety, while you're here.

Strength training for beginners: your guide

For someone who is a total newbie to exercise, don't overcomplicate it, says Bragg. 

"I really recommend gym classes that have a strength element to them, even body pump style classes, as they're accessible, safe forms of moving. You know there will be someone there checking your form and you can learn a little bit about what the moves are called and how to do them," she says. 

Not ready for group classes but want to start moving? You can try these free home workouts that will get you started with moving your body. 

When you are ready to get seriously strong, it's time to hit the weights room of the gym. Rather than scrolling Instagram and landing on a complicated workout put together by someone unqualified, the best way for beginners to get into strength training is by following a programme. 

"Movement is movement, and sometimes just upping your activity levels is great. But if you really want to build strength and get serious about your fitness, then following a strength training programme is key," says Bragg. "Follow a decent programme consistently and you will be able to see the results that you want much better than if you just go into the gym and do random exercises."

Give Me Strength, founded by Alice Liveing and featuring Bragg as a trainer, is a workout app that comes complete with follow-along programmes and caters for beginners with a unique focus on strength and recovery. 

But even if you follow a guide written by someone else, it's really important that you read up on strength training exercises so you know what you're getting yourself in for.

A woman strength training for beginners

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What are the best exercises for strength training for beginners?

The best strength training exercises for beginners are called compound exercises. That means they work more than one muscle group at a time which will help your whole body get strong. 

Compound exercises also tend to be functional - they mimic movements that are common in daily life so that your strength transfers outside of the gym. 

Some examples of the best strength training exercises for beginners include: 

  • Squats (like goblet squats or barbell squats)
  • Deadlifts (like dumbbell deadlifts or sumo deadlifts)
  • Lunges (like reverse lunges or walking lunges)
  • Overhead presses (like a shoulder press or military press) 
  • Rows (like bent over rows or single arm rows)
  • Chest presses (like press ups or bench press)

If every single strength session included one variation from each of those categories, your whole body would be getting pretty strong. 

However, some people require a certain emphasis on set body parts because their genetics or lifestyle dictates that they are weaker in some areas than others. "I always think people who have lives that are desk-based benefit from exercises that target the back of their body, so I'd emphasise deadlifts and rows," suggests Bragg. You'll figure out your weak spots as you go, though.

How many sets and reps should a beginner do when strength training?

"To begin with, I'd encourage people to do eight to 10 reps of an exercise with a set weight," says Bragg. BTW, we've got a whole guide on what weights to start lifting here, if you're confused. 

The goal is for the last rep to feel really challenging, so if you feel like you could do way more than 10, you need to add extra weight. As you get stronger, you'll start to feel more comfortable with doing eight to 10 reps of the weight you initially chose. "Don't stick with a weight that feels comfortable - when you don't feel challenged anymore, then change the weight," Bragg goes on. 

How often should a beginner strength train?

Please don't hit the gym every day, advises Bragg. "Two to three times a week, with each session lasting around half an hour to 45 minutes is enough to build strength," she says. 

If you end up loving strength training (which we have no doubt you will), you can always work up to adding more sessions - around four or five times a week. But while you're a beginner, less can be more as your body learns to adapt to exercise and resistance. 

Best strength training investments

Chrome Dumbbells - from £55, Techno Gym

Chrome Dumbbells - from £55, Techno Gym

Bala Bangles - £50, Selfridges

Bala Bangles - £50, Selfridges

MuscleSquad Cast Iron Kettlebell 24kg - £65, Amazon

MuscleSquad Cast Iron Kettlebell 24kg - £65, Amazon

Therabody Massage Gun - £375, Selfridges

Therabody Massage Gun - £375, Selfridges

Chloe Gray
Contributing Health Writer

Chloe Gray is a freelance journalist who writes and talks about health, fitness, and wellbeing through a feminist lens. She was part of the launch team for Stylist magazine's fitness brand, Strong Women, and has written for i news, Women's Health, Red magazine, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, and more. She's all about building mental and physical strength, eating delicious food that fuels you well, and making the fitness industry more accessible and enjoyable. She's also a qualified fitness trainer and research nerd, so you can be sure everything you read is backed by proper science.