Why am I lifting weights?

Resistance training isn’t just about getting bigger biceps. It’s a perfect elixir for health. “It stimulates muscles to grow, bones to strengthen and fat to break down,” says personal trainer Dan Wheeler, whose success in losing 50kg landed him the cover of Men’s Fitness Australia in 2013. “There are all sorts of hormonal benefits too – as well as spiking testosterone for a healthy libido, it improves sleep quality and quantity, energy and even skin complexion. Exercising improves the turnover of collagen in your skin, and sweating cleans your pores.”

The weights room also provides you with the raw materials to transform your mental as well as physical state. “For me it’s a form of meditation,” says Wheeler, who drew inspiration from the celebrated US fitness model Greg Plitt to pump iron. “It can be really empowering – both physically and mentally – providing a daily dose of achievement every time you complete a rep, set or workout.” Identifying your primary goal for picking up a pair of dumbbells will give you the motivation to keep doing it consistently.

Do I have to lift heavy?

Your bodyweight is one of the best, not to mention cheapest, tools for resistance training. Besides, not everyone is ready to dive headfirst into the weights rack. Coach Tom Hamilton highlights these strength markers as a guide for whether you’re ready to load up:

  • 30 press-ups in one go
  • Five pull-ups
  • A perfect bodyweight squat (heels down, knees wide, back flat)
  • Jump explosively

“Ticking all these off would put you above the average population,” says Hamilton. “That’s a good sign your muscles have plenty of fast-twitch fibres and the capacity to get strong.”

Should I start with machines or free weights?

Despite its abundant benefits, the weights room can be an intimidating place. With so many bewildering contraptions, the constant clink of iron on iron and all that testosterone sloshing around the room, it’s tempting to camp out by the safe haven of the bench press – everyone knows how that works, right?

But resistance machines have a place, especially for the untrained. “They can help you get familiar with which muscles you’re working, and allow you to learn technique without the risk of a loaded barbell guillotining you on the bench,” says Hamilton.

Once you’ve used the Smith machine or leg press to learn the movement patterns involved in key lifts, including the chest and overhead press and squats, it’s time to upgrade to free weights. Studies show they recruit more muscle fibres, helping you build functional strength for life outside the gym.

Is it worth forking out for a personal trainer?

If you’re going to spend the money just once, do it at the start. Laying down a firm foundation by learning proper technique will help you progress quickly – and painlessly. “I jumped in at the deep end with one of Greg Plitt’s killer arms workouts,” says Wheeler. “I could barely hold a pen for a week afterwards. When I recovered, I set my ego aside and focused on learning the right form for the key lifts, especially the deadlift and squat.”

“Choosing the right PT can be a roll of the dice,” says Hamilton, who compares it with putting your faith in a new mechanic. Before handing your metaphorical car keys over, get a recommendation from a friend. In fact, if they have good experience at training your friend could be equally valuable. Heading to the weights room with someone familiar in those surroundings can help deflect suspicious glares from gym regulars, and they can also guide you through exercises until you’re confident enough to go it alone. They can also save you from the ball-shrinking dread of asking said glarers to spot you. (Although most of the time people are only too happy to help.)

Is there a wrong way to warm up?

Yes. The classic: chugging along on the treadmill for ten minutes then hopping on the bench press. “Preparing your body for the specific exercise you’re about to work is far better than getting slightly out of breath,” says Wheeler. So with the bench press, you want to prepare your wrist, elbow, chest and shoulder joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles for pressing before you start loading up the 25kg plates. Do a handful of press-ups and empty-bar presses first. “Increasing blood flow in the area and neurologically stimulating the connection between your mind and muscles will help you lift cleaner, more powerfully and with a reduced risk of injury.”

“Stretching under load will also improve your mobility and range of motion,” says Hamilton. This is especially true if your workout is sandwiched between extensive spells sitting at your desk. Mobilise your hips with pause squats, where you stop for a few seconds when you’re a quarter, half and three-quarters of the way through a rep. Loosen your shoulders by hanging from a pull-up bar for three lots of 30 seconds, and open up your chest with dumbbell flyes.

Why does it hurt?

If you’ve done any form of resistance training before, chances are you’ve encountered Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. DOMS is the phenomenon of pain felt 12-48 hours following exercise, typically after workouts with moves you’re not used to. It doesn’t mean you’ve done irreversible damage – according to a paper by strength experts Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras, it’s more likely that you’ve caused “microscopic tears in connective tissue”. It’s one of the key mechanisms – along with mechanical tension and metabolic stress – involved in hypertrophy, the increase in size of a muscle.

Is pain a good thing?

You don’t have to hurt to grow, although people can develop a (harmless) pleasure/pain addiction where they don’t feel they’ve worked hard enough if they’re not sore. “The most savage DOMS tends to be from high reps of moves with a big eccentric, or lowering, phase that target the hamstrings and glutes, such as Romanian deadlifts and lunges,” says Hamilton.

You can blunt the trauma by increasing your workload gradually with incremental tweaks in weight, reps or sets. Then help the muscles repair faster with active recovery after a workout to increase blood flow and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscle. For example, after a lunchtime legs workout, avoid stiffening up with Hamilton’s discreet solution: “Sneak off to the disabled toilet every hour to do 20 bodyweight squats.” You’ve always got the emergency cord if you start to seize up.

Does it have to take an hour?

Certainly not. “The most common excuse I get for people dodging the gym is time,” says Wheeler. “It’s utter bullshit. People who say that will always find time to eat poorly, watch crap TV or sink five pints in the pub.” The remedy is better time management – spend five minutes making a packed lunch in the morning so you don’t have to go and buy it, say, enabling you to fit in a workout. And start small. “If you go from zero effort to three 30-minute sessions a week you’re going to see results,” says Wheeler.

To get the greatest benefit, pick compound, multi-joint exercises that work your whole body. This means variations of the squat, deadlift, bench and overhead press. And follow a proven plan rather than cycling through random exercises to make the most of every minute in the gym. Here are three programmes that have helped our writers make progress.

1. Starting strength

Deputy editor Ben Ince says “This beginner-friendly plan is a simple but effective introduction to barbell training. Three times a week you get to grips with the squat, bench, overhead press and deadlift. While it can be repetitive, regular progression and weekly PB-setting make it very rewarding.”

Typical workout

  • Squat 3 x 5
  • Bench press 3 x 5
  • Deadlift 1 x 5

2. The Texas Method

Fitness editor Sam Rider says “Once you’re confident with the core compound lifts, this three-day-a-week plan combining volume, active recovery and intensity will rapidly propel all-over strength. But beware – it can be brutal if you don’t recover properly with good food and ample hangover-free rest.”

Typical workout

  • Squat 1 x 5 – work up to a new 5RM (five-rep max)
  • Bench/overhead press 1 x 5 – work up to a new 5RM
  • Power clean 5 x 3

3. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1

Associate editor Joel Snape says “Simple, efficient, hard. You do four ‘big’ moves a week, hitting pre-determined numbers for a couple of sets before a balls-to-the-wall max rep effort. The (massive) upside: you make noticeable progress with only two days a week in the gym, leaving you plenty of time for hill runs or lying on the sofa.”

Typical workout

  • Bench 3 x 5/3/1
  • Squat 3 x 5/3/1

What kit will help me get better?

Weights room floors have hosted everything from muddy Golas to the contents of Derek Zoolander’s wardrobe. It seems that anything goes when it comes to apparel. But if you’re squatting heavy, a crucial swap is to replace your squishy-soled trainers with hard-soled shoes designed for lifting (Converse will work too) that don’t compress.

To check your form Hamilton recommends getting someone to film your technique for lifts such as the squat and deadlift. 

To track how training affects your physique, Wheeler advises his clients take weekly photos from the front and side and ban the misleading weight scales. “Your bodyweight can move up and down like a yo-yo when under stress or sleeping badly,” he says.

Both swear by the simple training logbook. “Writing down your workout and tracking your lifts and numbers is crucial, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced lifter,” says Hamilton. It’ll ensure you don’t waste time devising a workout on the fly, it keeps you accountable so you don’t slack off and you’ll see in black and white if you’re not progressing.

What’s stopping me getting strong?

“A lack of consistency,” says Wheeler. “A bad plan done consistently will get you better results than a good plan done haphazardly.” Repetition and routine will give you the structure to learn how your body best responds to exercise and help you achieve results.

Consistency outside the gym is just as important. “If you’re training for an hour a day you’ve still got 23 hours to focus on your diet, hydration and sleep,” he says. Two things that will immediately help, according to Wheeler, are taking the herbal supplement melatonin, which he says is “proven to improve sleep”, and staying hydrated by reducing your coffee and increasing your water intake. Hamilton uses this formula to calculate how many litres of water you need a day: bodyweight in kg x 0.033.

At the sharp end for the experienced trainer, Hamilton – who’s competed at the British Powerlifting Championships – suggests going to local weightlifting competitions can expose you to an environment that’ll help you progress the fastest. “It can be intimidating, but the added adrenaline will see your PBs rocket up,” he says. Find out where to get involved via the Facebook groups BDFPA and GBPF.

Our Experts

Tom Hamilton, 26

A former Bristol City apprentice whose pro career was ended by injury, Hamilton has competed at national level both in bodybuilding and powerlifting. He coaches at W10 Performance in London, a gym that focuses on improving mobility and posture over abs definition and biceps circumference. liftstronglookstrong.com

Daniel Wheeler, 30

Five years ago, Wheeler weighed 140kg. Realising he’d “hit rock bottom”, in his words, he vowed to transform his body and health. Within two years he’d dropped to 90kg and set up Life Changing Fitness to help others realise their own fitness aspirations. lifechanging.fitness