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Beginner’s Guide To Lifting Weights For Women

Shelley Darlington


Last updated on March 18, 2021


Strength Training


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Beginner’s Guide To Lifting Weights For Women

If you’ve been a cardio junkie for most of your life or if you’ve never been the sporty type, then walking into the weights section of the gym can be a terrifying prospect. All those weird looking machines, grunting meatheads and scantily-clad fit chicks can be really off-putting and make your self-confidence plummet. But fear not! Everything you need to know about lifting weights as a beginner is detailed in this guide. If you prefer video format, watch this short and punchy version:

As a newbie to lifting, the gym is a scary place. When I first started my journey, I barely weighed 45kg. I was also painfully insecure about my appearance and physical abilities. I didn’t even own a pair of sneakers (at age 26 years old!). My mind would give me every excuse not to start:

“I literally have no idea what I’m doing” 😳
“Everyone will be looking at me”
“I have zero clue how to use machines”
“What if I do the exercises wrong and people laugh at me?”
“What if I injure myself?”
“I don’t belong here next to all the fit girls”
“I feel so stupid/ugly/awkward/weak”

Let me tell you something…

We all start somewhere, even the professionals were once beginners and no one starts out perfect. Simply put: you’ve just got to feel the fear and do it anyway! The more you can work on your mindset before you even get inside a gym, the less anxiety and overwhelm you’ll feel. Get hyped up, watch this motivational video and this one too. If you feel confident on the inside, it’ll reflect on the outside too.

Here are my top tips to make your first day at the gym a much smoother and more enjoyable experience:

1. Be Prepared

The more ‘work’ you can do before you enter the gym, the better. Walking into the weights room with a solid plan, knowing what exercises you’re going to do with how many sets and reps etc. will take all the confusion and overwhelm out of the equation. Mapping out in your mind where the machines or free weights are located on the gym floor, means you can just charge right in, set yourself up and get lifting without aimlessly walking around looking lost. Have your workout printed out or accessible on your phone so you can refer to it easily during your workout.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

2. Start With Home Workouts

If the gym still sounds scary to you, then try home workouts using nothing but a set of dumbbells. It’s the ideal way to ease into lifting weights while learning how to do the fundamental exercises in the comfort of your own home. Once you feel confident doing the actual workouts, it’s much easier to transition to the gym, without over-complicating your routine. Keeping things simple and basic is the best way to get results as a beginner. Check out my most popular home workouts on YouTube here.

Keep it simple, stupid

3. Don’t Switch Up Your Workouts Every Week

Whilst doing the odd YouTube workout from your favourite fitness influencer is perfectly ok for a bit of fun and variety, getting hooked on doing a different workout for every session is not a good long term strategy - especially as a beginner. In fact, it can actually stop you from progressing. Consistency and structure is how you get the best results as a newbie lifter. That means getting a solid routine, doing the same exercises every week and sticking to it for at least six weeks.

Complex workouts does not mean better workouts

4. Don’t Get Hooked On Group Classes

Being lead by an instructor in a group class may feel like a safer option, but the danger is that these types of workouts aren’t specific enough for your needs. Anyone can go through the motions, but to sculpt Strong Curves in all the right places, you must first learn to master your body.

Group classes are a great way to get fit and maybe build a little bit of strength but they won’t do much in the way of shaping and toning your body. That’s because they don’t teach you to master your form. Lifting weights proficiently is about mind-muscle connection. Learning to activate the right muscles with the right exercises for your goals is the key to success as a beginner lifter.

It’s easy to pick up bad lifting habits in a group setting. If you start your journey with poor form, it’s very hard to undo down the track. Start off right and learn the fundamental basic exercises that are going to set good foundations. Do classes for fun occasionally but prioritise weights to truly master your body.

Good form is a beginner lifter’s best friend

5. Hone Your Focus

Mindlessly throwing some dumbbells around, running from machine to machine while your thoughts are elsewhere, isn’t going to do you any favours on the gym floor. As a beginner lifter it’s easy to get caught up in overwhelming and negative thoughts, especially when you don’t feel confident in what you’re doing. But you will get far better results in you learn to hone your focus.

A huge part of being a proficient lifter is getting into the zone. Its essentially like an active meditation (with an added muscle burn 😉). Without this level of focus, you simply can’t give your workouts your all. Every repetition counts, so the more you can tune out of your surroundings and hone in on the rep ahead of you, the better the quality of your workout will be. So put some headphones in, eliminate any distractions and focus intently on each an every move you make. The added bonus is that you’ll also develop better mind-muscle connection for faster results.

Master your mind, master your body

6. Repel Gym Creeps

One of the most intimidating things about starting your weight lifting journey is that the weights section of gyms is typically very male-dominated. Every gym has its fair share of creeps, just waiting to pounce on unsuspecting females with cringe-worthy pick-up lines thinly disguised as unsolicited gym advice 🤦🏻‍♀️

It’s kind of unavoidable, but here’s my tip to repel gym creeps: master your resting b*tch face. I’m not joking. I literally have ‘ice queen’ tattooed across my forehead when I’m working out. Headphones and a ball cap help too. Good thing is, if you’ve come to the gym prepared, focused and in the zone, the creeps will tend to leave you alone. But if you look confused, insecure and lost, you’ll be an easy target. It sucks that I even need to mention this but it is what it is!

That’s not to say there aren’t any respectful men in the gym! Of course, not every male is a creep. And if you still feel self conscious, or think that everyone is looking at you, please remember this: most people are too busy looking at themselves in the gym mirror to be bothered about what you’re doing. Trust me, it’s human nature to be self-absorbed. So just focus on yourself and do your best to block everyone else out. I promise that within only a week or so and once you’re in a good routine, it won’t feel scary at all!

The Number One Rule For Beginner Lifters

So now that you feel more confident and know what to expect from the weights section in the gym, let’s move on to the actual workouts. Knowing what exercises, how many sets and repetitions to do and how heavy you should lift are just a few of the common questions that come up when embarking on your lifting journey.

All the answers will be revealed below but in reality, the number one rule for beginners in the gym is to keep it simple and to master the basic foundational lifting exercises. You really don’t need to do fancy workouts to get results. If your goal is to sculpt Strong Curves by tightening your midsection, growing your glutes and strengthening your upper body then there are literally only a handful of exercises you need to focus on. The rest is just fitness fluff and a waste of your time.

Results = Structure + Skill + Consistency (and keep it simple!)

Full Body Or Split By Muscle Group?

Some fitness experts say that full body workouts are best for beginners but others like to split the workouts up by muscle group. In my opinion a mix of the two is ideal, especially if you have certain areas you want to work more on, like the booty of course, duh!

This blog post goes into more depth on the topic but honestly, I think keeping your workout structure as simple as possible is best. No need to overwhelm yourself with muscle split workouts at this stage. Once you’re more advanced and become more conditioned to weights, you can look at splitting your workouts by muscle group. But hold your horses girl, we ain’t there yet!

My issue with full body workouts is that you don’t get enough specificity through the muscles. Basically, that means you can’t hone in on certain areas that you might want to develop more than others. Plus, you’ll be limited to a smaller set of exercises and that can get a little boring if you’re the type that needs constant new stimulation to stay motivated.

So here’s the solution: lower body/upper body split workouts. That means you still focus on the basic foundational movements but you can switch things up a little more without getting too complex. It would look something like this: 2 x upper body workouts and 2 x lower body workouts per week.

How Many Days Should You Exercise As A Beginner In The Gym?

Depending on your current fitness levels, up to four weights sessions per week is best for beginner gym-goers, especially if you are doing a lower body/upper body split workout program. Any more than this and you risk over training while you haven’t acquired the necessary conditioning. The current scientific literature shows that working out 3-4 times a week is the sweet spot and anymore than this doesn’t actually give you any better results. Any less than this and you’ll be missing out on gains.

The Best Beginner Gym Exercises

There are literally hundreds of exercises you can do from free weights to machines. But as a beginner, you don’t need to overwhelm yourself with them all. In fact, as a newbie to lifting weights, a smaller toolbox is far more effective.

After all, results come from first, mastering the basic foundational moves so that you have a solid base to grow from. Once you’re more advanced you can start incorporating more complex exercises. But for now, the fundamental compound moves will give you the most bang for your buck. Basically, you’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk.

Compound exercises are moves that target multiple muscle groups and work the whole body in the most functional way, mimicking movements that you perform in your daily life on regular basis. Think: deadlifts similar to picking something heavy off the floor or, bending down to pick something up like in a squat. Compound exercises will help you develop a well-rounded and proportional physique and once you master these moves, it’ll make all other exercises a doddle to learn.

There are literally only a handful of exercises worth doing as a beginner. Here are the best ones:

Lower Body:

  • Hip Thrust (the king of all glute exercises)
  • Squat (variations like split squat)
  • Lunge (static, alternating and walking)
  • Deadlift (stiff leg or conventional)

Lower Body Machines:

  • Hamstring Curl
  • Leg Press

Upper Body:

  • Rows (single arm and bent over)
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Bench Dips
  • Push Up (elevated, close grip and wide arm)
  • Plank and Side Planks

Upper Body Machines:

  • Lat Pull Down
  • Seated Row
  • Assisted Pull Up/Chin Up

I would also throw in some isolation exercises that are great for beginners too. These are exercises that don’t necessarily use multiple muscle groups, but instead hone in on specific body parts, normally smaller muscles that can’t really take a heavy weight. Assuming you are a beginner, you will probably also be weak with low muscle mass. Therefore, these exercises are also great for newbie lifters to master:

  • Side Raise (targets the outer shoulder cap)
  • Rear Raise (targets the back of the shoulders and upper back)
  • Tricep Push Down (targets the back of the arms)
  • Bicep Curl (targets the arms)
  • Crunch (targets the core)

Glute Training For Beginners

The almighty booty deserves its own section because it is that important. If you’re female and reading this, I’m going to assume that you want a nice perky butt, no? In my opinion, aside from wanting to look good in a pair of jeans, glute training should be a priority no matter your goals or training level. Here at Strong Curves we train for strength first and looks second.

Strong and developed glutes will keep your posterior chain strong, help with posture and alleviate low back pain. Weak and inactive glutes are an epidemic in our modern society due to our desk-bound jobs and sedentary lifestyles. Bad news is that the glutes tend to be a lazy muscle group, so they need a little extra TLC compared to other muscles. Beginners should absolutely prioritise some glute-specific exercises and techniques into their weekly routine, regardless of their level of lifting experience.

Watch this video to learn how to master the only booty technique you need to know when starting your booty training journey. The only other thing you need to invest in, is a decent set of booty bands so you can start switching those lazy butt muscles on in order to activate the right muscles during your lower body workouts. Trust me, it’ll put you miles ahead of the game when it comes to booty gains. Grab your set of Strong Curves Booty Bands here.

Basic Weekly Gym Routine For Beginners

So, if we go by the general guide for beginners, doing 4 days of weight training per week with 2 lower body and 2 upper body sessions, a weekly routine might look something like this:

Day 1: Lower body (squats, lunges, hip thrust, deadlifts)
Day 2: Rest (or optional cardio or yoga)
Day 3: Upper body (focusing on back and arms - assisted pull ups, rows, pull downs, bicep curls)
Day 4: Rest (or optional cardio or yoga)
Day 5: Lower body (squats, lunges, hip thrust, deadlifts)
Day 6: Rest (or optional cardio or yoga)
Day 7: Upper body (focusing on shoulders and chest - overhead press, side raise, bench dips, push ups)

The aim of the game is to be consistent because practice makes perfect. If you want to become the master of your body and sculpt Strong Curves in all the right places, you must stick to a solid weight training routine for at least 4 weeks, but preferably 6-8 weeks. That means doing the same exercises week in week out. That might seem a little samey-samey but it’s the reality of how you get results. You don’t become an expert by doing something new every week. Take your time, focus on mastering the exercises and aim to get stronger and more proficient at them every single week.

How Many Sets And Repetitions Should You Do?

Sets and repetitions (reps for short) are how you structure your workouts. Beginners should start off doing no more than 3-4 exercises per workout. How many sets and reps you do for each exercise should be kept simple too. There are many ways to over-complicate this and of course, as you progress and become more advanced you can experiment more with your set structure.

The science shows that 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps with a moderate weight is ideal for muscle building (think sculpting Strong Curves). For a beginner, I would stick to 3 sets of 15 reps. That means taking your first exercise and performing 15 reps. Then rest between 60-90 seconds before performing the second set of the same exercise for 15 reps and so on. Repeat the process until you have completed all sets before moving onto the next exercise.

How Heavy Should You Lift?

How heavy you should lift will largely depend on your own strength levels, conditioning and fitness. There’s no right or wrong set amount for each person so it will require a little trial and error to find the right amount of weight for you.

To help you find the right weight, you should try to lift a moderate weight that is manageable yet challenging for most of your sets. If you don’t lift heavy enough you won’t be challenging your muscles enough to adapt and grow - that means no results! If you lift too heavy so that you lose your proper form, not only do you risk injury but you’ll simply be cheating your reps - that also means no results!

As a general rule, if you can perform all 15 reps of an exercise with ease, you’ve gone too light. In this case, increase the weight slightly and try again. You know you’ve hit the sweet spot when the reps feel challenging enough that your muscles are burning and that you really have to exert your strength to lift the weight, with the last 2-3 reps of the set being almost impossible to complete as your muscles fatigue. If you fail early in the set and can’t even complete 8 reps of the set without losing your form and end up swinging the weights up, you’ve gone too heavy.

However, don’t overthink this either. As a beginner it is far more important for you to master proper form and technique of the exercises than to worry about not going heavy enough. Remember, you’ll have the advantage of newbie gains anyway, so it’s much better to focus on cementing really strong neural movement patterns than to train with your ego and go heavier than you need to. Once you’re confident with the moves and become more conditioned, you can then start testing your strength.

Should You Take Rest Days From The Gym?

Absolutely, yes! Lifting weights will make you sore. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is unavoidable as a newbie to the gym. It may be unpleasant at first but you will get used to it and the soreness lessens, the more conditioned you become.

Weight training is also taxing on the nervous system as the new stimulus forces your body to adapt (that’s literally how curves are sculpted). If you don’t allow your muscles to recover in between sessions, you risk injuring yourself or burning out from over-training which will only set you back in your progress. Don’t be fooled into thinking that more is better.

Essentially, as soon as your muscles have recovered you should work them out again. Normally it takes between 48-72 hours for a muscle to fully recover, but as a beginner it may take longer so always listen to your body. If you are still sore and fatigued from your previous session, not only do you risk injury but you won’t be able to train to your full potential. It is wiser to train less frequently knowing that you can give every single session 100% effort, rather than working out every single day but half-ass it. If you want to get good at something, never half-ass. Always go full ass 😜

The great thing about lower body/upper/body split workouts for beginners is that it maximises on the recovery time, allowing you to train consistently without DOMS hindering your routine. If you train your lower body one day, there’s nothing stopping you from training your upper body the next day, no matter how sore your legs are.

How To Get The Best Results As A Beginner Lifter

It doesn’t matter how heavy you lift, what exercises you do, how often you train etc. because the only thing that matters is that you focus on good form and mind muscle connection. There’s this lifting phenomenon called ‘beginner gains’, which means that as a newbie, your progress with be faster and better than someone who’s been training for years. Cool, huh?

This is because the stimulus of lifting weights is so new to you that your neural adaptations will be firing at rapid rates! Basically what this means is that you really don’t have to kill yourself in the gym with crazy workouts or train for hours to get results. In fact, keeping things as basic and simple as possible will work more in your favour. So the only thing you really need to focus on is performing the exercises correctly so that you’re able to target and contract or ‘squeeze’ the right muscles and feel it in the right places. This is how you truly master your body and get the results you want.

Sadly, most long time gym-goers don’t understand just how important this aspect of their training really is and so, they plateau very quickly and fail to see substantial results for the amount of effort they put into their workouts. Don’t be that person! Learn the skills early on for proper form and get honing your mind muscle connection. Feel the burn and see your results sky rocket!

How Fast Will You See Results As A Beginner Lifter?

Lifting weights will do amazing things to your body and confidence but don’t expect to see staggering results straight away. Results don’t happen overnight and building muscle is a slow process, but providing you are training with good form and technique, you can start to notice a difference relatively quickly as a beginner lifter. Within a month you should definitely feel changes in your body that may not necessarily be noticeable to others. Within six months you will definitely start to see progress that others around you will notice too. You’re clothes might fit differently, you’ll feel stronger and everything will feel tighter and more perky! You may even start to see some definition in areas you had none before. Once this happens, you’ll likely catch the ‘lifting bug’ and be hooked.

How To Stay Motivated When Progress Is Slow

Building muscle takes far longer than it does to lose body fat. If you’re used to the quick fixes of calorie restrictive diets and excessive cardio, waiting for your lifting results to show can be worse than watching paint dry! In fact, it took me a good six months when I first started lifting to see any noticeable results. Don’t let that discourage you! However, it would be wiser for you to focus less on appearance-based goals and more on how you feel during the start of your lifting journey. Take note of how much stronger you feel, how your confidence levels have increased and how much more capable you are on the gym floor and in every day life.

Set yourself performance-based goals, rather than appearance-based ones. Instead of focusing on the number on the scales, set yourself mini goals in your workouts like, “this week I only managed 3 sets of 10 reps on squats, so next time I’m going to try for 12 reps”. Having small targets to work towards is challenging and highly rewarding as beginner so make sure you get a training journal or note down your weekly progress in your phone.

Most importantly, focus on having fun and find joy in challenging yourself. Starting is never easy for anyone but if you can focus on the positives and celebrate each and every small win, you will soon find yourself truly in love with the process and the body you are striving for will become a happy byproduct.

Final Thoughts

Starting is always the hardest part but once you get the bug for lifting, it will honestly change your life. Your new found strength and confidence will spill in to every facet of your life. You’ll feel more competent at work, you’ll be able to deal with the stresses of daily life in healthier ways and your relationships will thrive because of it. Oh, and you’ll sculpt a bangin’ body in the process. If you’ve been thinking about starting your weight training journey, join my 12 Week Strong Curves Program, designed to take you from a clueless newbie to confident, sexy and kicking goals.

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Shelley Darlington

Teaching women all over the world how to sculpt strong curves and gain confidence with my digital books, courses and app.

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