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A beginner’s guide to training with free weights

Throwing yourself into the world of weight training is a lot like embarking on an epic quest from a good book or film.

You start out more or less clueless, with a strange and daunting path laid out before you. You know you'll have to face down fierce enemies, but that you might come out the other side stronger than you ever imagined.

To help you get started with training with free weights safely, here are some top tips and a free weights workout plan you can follow.

How can you stay safe?

First things first, throwing heavy iron around is dangerous. Here are some key principles for staying safe while doing it.

Have an experienced spotter whenever you're lifting heavy weights

A "spotter" is someone who helps keep an eye on you when you're lifting heavy weight, and who's on standby to help you out if you're in trouble.

Whenever you're pushing yourself hard and might drop a weight on yourself (like when benching), you'll want a spotter.

If you train in a gym, it's usually easy enough to find someone to spot you. Just approach anyone who looks strong, and isn't very busy, and ask if he or she would mind spotting you. It shouldn't take more than a few tries.

Use safety equipment to minimise the risk

One of the best ways of keeping yourself safe during your training -- and an absolute necessity if you're training alone -- is using safety equipment.

This usually comes down to training in a "power rack" -- a metal frame with adjustable "spotter bars" designed to catch and hold a barbell if it drops.

You'll be able to set the bars to the right height to prevent you from being flattened if you fail when performing a squat, or to save your chest if your arms give out during a bench press.

Good, weightlifting-focused gyms will often have durable power racks on hand, but if you'd prefer to train at home, there are affordable and sturdy versions available on the market.

Use correct form at all times

"Correct form" is something you'll hear a lot about in the strength community.

"Form" basically means "how should I perform this movement to target the right muscles and avoid injury?" and it refers mostly to the posture you hold during an exercise.

Before performing any lift, you should have an experienced lifter or  personal trainer check and correct your form for the exercise. At the very least, you should check up some tutorial videos online, like our free exercises guide, and record yourself to see that you're doing it right.

As a general rule of thumb, you'll want to keep your back straight, abs engaged, and shoulder blades pulled back when training.

Don't ego lift

Let's say you walk into the gym and begin bench pressing with a comfortable weight. You're feeling the burn, and you're really pushing yourself. A guy sits down on the bench next to you, loads twice as much weight onto his bar, then reps it effortlessly.

Feeling embarrassed, you add more weight to your own bar, and now you have a problem.

Ego lifting is what happens when you try to handle more weight than you can safely manage because it hurts your pride to use less.

Don't do it. You won't get stronger faster, you'll probably get hurt, and any bystander will see you're struggling.

How can you build size and strength?

Why does anyone weight train? To get bigger and stronger, obviously.

At the core of building size and strength with free weights is simplicity. As a novice trainee, you'll be tempted to try a thousand different routines from week to week. That's not the way to get ahead.

Here's what you need to know.

Stick mostly to compound exercises

Compound exercises are exercises where several joints are moving at once, and several muscles are being worked at once. The "big three" of powerlifting -- squat, deadlift and bench press -- are compound exercises.

"Isolation" exercises, on the other hand, target only one muscle group at once. Bicep curls are an example of an isolation exercise.

As a beginner trainee especially, the core focus of your workout should always be compound exercises.

Compound exercises will put your body under more overall stress, in a shorter period of time, while training your muscles to work together efficiently.

All of these factors will help you progress more rapidly than doing a thousand isolation movements per workout.

Schedule in rest days

A good rule of thumb is that for every day you train, you should take one day off to allow your body to recover. Three training days a week is a commonly recommended amount on most beginner's programs.

Some programs will have you training more, but, especially as a beginner, starting small and allowing plenty of rest is a good policy.

It's a fact that you grow while at rest, not while lifting.

 Record your workouts and practice progressive overload.

"Progressive overload" is the essence of all resistance training. What it means is that you routinely and gradually increase the stress placed on the body, therefore forcing your body to adapt and grow stronger.

The famous myth of Milo of Croton sums this up well -- with Milo carrying a calf around on his back every day as it grew up until he was eventually able to lift a full-grown adult bull.

If you're serious about your training, you'll need to keep an exercise diary. Note every exercise, every set, every rep, and the weight you used for each workout, in the diary. Focus on increasing the weight by small increments as often as possible.

Track your calories and eat a surplus

If you don't eat, you don't grow. It's as simple as that.

To build muscle you need to eat at a caloric surplus -- in other words, you need to be consuming more calories each day than you burn off (as well as getting enough of the three macronutrients -- protein, carbohydrates, and fat).

Most people are terrible at predicting how much they eat. If you're serious about putting on muscle, use an online calorie calculator to predict how much you should be eating, then buy a food scale record your daily food intake to make sure you're in line with your goals.

Don't worry; it gets easier as you go along.

Alright, but what about getting toned?

Being "ripped" or "toned" is mostly a matter of having low body fat (which in turn shows off your muscles, veins, etc. and makes them appear more pronounced).

A rule of thumb to keep in mind is that you (generally) can't gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, since gaining muscle requires a caloric surplus, and losing fat requires a caloric deficit.

When training with free weights, you'll need to decide at any given time whether you're in a "bulking" or a "cutting" phase, and plan your workouts and calorie intake accordingly.

If you play your cards right, you'll be able to "clean bulk" by keeping to a small caloric surplus. This will mean that you gain muscle, without gaining much fat along the way.

Free Weights Workout Plans You Can Follow

There are many good beginner's free weights workout routines designed to help new lifters get into their stride and build strength and muscle.

Here are some popular free weight workout plans for building strength:

Stronglifts 5x5

This is a very popular strength training programme where you workout 3 times per week, with rest days in-between. A stronglift 5x5 workout consists of performing 3 barbell exercises for 5 reps and 5 sets. The barbell exercises which are typically performed includes: the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press or barbell row. As these exercises involve using large muscle groups, they are great for improving overall strength. 

Starting Strength

Similar to the Stronglifts 5x5 workout plan, a Starting Strength free weights workout plan consists of performing 3 workouts per week, on non-consecutive days. You will alternate between 2 workouts (Plan A and Plan B) which include main compound movements and then typically move onto a progressed Plan A and Plan B workout as you get stronger.

Greyskull LP

This free weights workout plan consists of training 3 times per week. Each workout you will perform 3 repetitions of 5 sets of compound movements. Unlike the workout plans mentioned above, in the last set of the greyskull LP, you will perform as many reps as possible (ie. to training failure). 

Jim Wendler's 5/3/1

This strength plan consists of training 3 or 4 days per week and focuses on one compound movement in each workout like the squat, followed by exercises involving the same movement but at a lower intensity.

We suggest researching a few, pick one, and stick to it for at least three months. Alternatively, you can hire a personal trainer to create a workout programme for you.

If you're looking for a free step-by-step guide with videos on how to perform a variety of exercises to help you tone up, check out our Exercises section.

For more workout ideas to tone your body and get healthier, check out the video below.

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