dumbbells and notepad

—Naomi H.,* University of Maryland

Lifting weights can be intimidating to newcomers. It’s a whole new world of machines, dumbbells, and ’80s headbands (the last one is optional). Resistance training is important, however, for overall health and function. Some benefits of resistance training include enhanced muscular strength, increased bone density, and improved weight management. You can follow these steps to build your confidence for and knowledge of lifting weights.

Seek an introductory class or consult a personal trainer

Nothing can build confidence and knowledge faster than learning with professionals. Many gyms offer introductory classes that show participants how to use different equipment and proper techniques for lifting weights. You may also speak one-on-one with a personal trainer. Some offer free consultations and are willing to help you learn the basics. If you have a campus gym, go ask.

Start simple

It’s important to build a foundation of strength. I suggest that beginners use bodyweight exercises and machines to acclimate to resistance training.

Here’s the difference:

  • Bodyweight exercises are a great way to improve fitness with minimal equipment. They include pushups, jumping jacks, and sit-ups.
  • Machines are typically cable contraptions with a fixed range of motion. This makes them safe and effective tools for newcomers.


After starting with bodyweight exercises and machines, incorporate free-weight exercises using dumbbells, barbells, and plates. This increased resistance allows us to further improve our fitness levels, especially our strength. It’s important to understand and practice lifting techniques, because of the increased risks associated with free weight exercises. Also, make sure to have a workout partner or trainer to “spot” you during exercises that involve lifting weight over your body.

Sets, reps, and exercises

I recommend 3–5 sets of 5–8 repetitions (reps) for compound exercises, followed by 2–3 sets of 8–12 reps for isolation exercises. Compound exercises use more than one major muscle group whereas isolation exercises focus on specific muscles. Always start with a light resistance relative to your strength level to warm up.

ExamplesCompound exercisesIsolation exercises
  • Pushup
  • Squat
  • Lunge
  • Sit-up
  • Chin-up
  • Dip
  • Chest press
  • Leg press
  • Back row
  • Knee flexion
  • Preacher curl
  • Cable chest fly
Free weights
  • Bench press
  • Back squat
  • Deadlift
  • Shrug
  • Lateral raise
  • Bicep curl

Full-body workouts from the American Council on Exercise

*Name changed