A sport that was once confined to bulky bodybuilders, weight-lifting is now being embraced by the average guy looking to drop a few pounds and beef up his physique as well as the average gal looking to tone up and strengthen bones and muscles as she heads into middle age.
Cedric Bryant, vice president of scientific affairs for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) says, "Weight lifting not only helps you look better. It can play an enormous role in your quality of life as you age -- particularly for women. It definitely helps increase bone density, which diminishes with age."
"It increases your metabolic activity for the entire day," says Alex Schroeder, an exercise physiologist and trainer at Form and Fitness, a Milwaukee, Wis., gym and rehabilitation center. Your metabolism increases "not only when you are challenging your muscles but also during the repair process that occurs when you stop working out."
To help put you on the path to success, here are some expert tips on how to start a weight lifting workout and stick with it until you reach your goals.
Rule No. 1: Define Your Goals
For any exercise program, it's important to start with a realistic goal in mind. But for weight training, it's essential.
"Setting a goal that’s attainable is important to not only give you a sense that you are accomplishing something,' Schroeder says, but, in the case of weight lifting, to insure that you don't overdo it when you first begin."
Because successful weight training involves small steps, having short-term goals will keep you from giving up too soon, he says.
Mike Ryan, a weight expert from the Gold's Gym Fitness Institute, agrees. "It's extremely important to set realistic, achievable goals so that you don’t get discouraged and so that you don't try to do too much too soon," he says. Doing too much too soon will only "increase your risk of injury."
What's more, Ryan cautions that this advice is as important for seasoned athletes as it is for fitness newbies.
"No matter how much you've accomplished in another sport," Ryan says, "if you haven't done weight lifting, you're still a beginner. So don't expect too much too soon."
Rule No. 2: Choose the Right Equipment
Your muscles don't know the difference between a $2,500 machine and a $25 resistance band. So you don't have to spend a lot to get a lot of results. All you have to do is challenge your muscles.
"The really nice part about that is if you are on a tight budget, you don't have to feel you are getting a compromised weight training workout," Bryant says. "You can accomplish your goals without spending a lot of money."
Whether you're using hand weights, barbells, or resistance bands, Ryan says, look for whatever size allows you to do 12 to 16 repetitions. If you can't, they're too heavy.
But if you can do more than 15 with good form, then the weight load is probably not quite challenging enough, Bryant says. "So look for something a bit heavier, or add on more resistance."
Rule No. 3: Don't Go It Alone
How you do the exercises can be as important as which ones you do. That's why having even one session with a personal trainer can get your weight training program going in the right direction.
"This is particularly true if you are working with dumbbells," Schroeder says. "It's important to have someone overseeing you at least the first few times so you can achieve the correct form and function."
If that's not possible, he says, the next best thing is using strength-training machines. These work well for beginners because they force your body into the correct position.
"It's still a good idea to have someone watching over you the first few times," Schroeder says, "to make sure the machine is adjusted correctly for your weight and size. But generally, the machines help keep your body in line."
If your time or your money budget is extra-tight, Bryant says, pick up a weight training DVD from a well-known trainer. Or visit web sites like the one run by the American Council on Exercise (acefitness.com) to get tips on technique.
"You can find pictures that show the starting and ending positions for weight lifting and tips for keeping your body properly aligned during the activity," Bryant says. "It's definitely worth your while to spend your first weight-training session learning the proper technique and form."
Rule No. 4: Learn the Power of Slow
When it comes to weight lifting, the tortoise beats the hare every time.
"The key to success in weight training is known as A-B-C -- which stands for always be in control," Bryant says. The best way to do that, according to Bryant, is with slow, deliberate movements.
"I don't want to give the impression that you are working in slo-mo," he says, "but you do want to make certain that your muscles are what are responsible for controlling movement in both directions, lifting and lowering."
Ryan agrees. "A lot of sports rely on high, fast motion. But when you’re doing weight training, it's slow, deliberate motions with controlled breathing," he says. "Don’t hold your breath and do the reps. And don't move too quickly."
Further, Schroeder says, beginners will benefit more from doing more repetitions with a lighter weight than from trying to use heavy weights they can lift only a few times.
"In the beginning," he says, "you have such a huge adaptation phase -- you're using muscles you never used before, and you're shocking your system, even with a light weight. So you are much better off and much safer to start much lighter with more repetitions." he says.
Starting with lighter weights means you're less likely to end up with the kind of muscle pain that could end your weight training workout program on the spot.
"It's a discouraging scenario when you hurt all over," Bryant says. "And starting slow means you are less likely to feel the kind of pain that causes you to get discouraged and quit after one or two tries."
Rule No. 5: Rest and Recover
Although it has little to do with form or function, experts say the real key to successful weight training is to understand the importance of rest and recover. At the core of weight training is a tearing-down and building-up process that ultimately makes muscles strong.
Schroeder explains: "In order for muscles to build, muscle fiber has to be torn, which is what happens when you stress the muscle with weights."
While that tearing process is vital for the muscle building activity to begin, it's really the respite in the next 48 to 72 hours that leads to muscle strength.
"Think of it like paper being torn," Schroeder says. "You've got to tape it back together before you can rip it again, and that's what a rest and recovery period allows you to do. It allows the torn muscle fibers to come together so you can tear it again." Each time you do, he says, the muscle gets stronger.
If you try working out every day, you'll not only increase your risk of injury but also work against getting the results you want. Ryan says that one of the key reasons some people don’t see results after 8 to 10 weeks of weight training is because they are simply not giving their bodies adequate time to recover.
"If you don’t see any change in your body after a few months, don’t think you need to do more. You probably need to do less," he says. "If you over train, all you get are breakdown and no buildup."
So how do you know when you're ready to hit the weights again? Ryan says to use muscle soreness and fatigue as a guide. "If you feel significant soreness, if your muscles feel fatigued, then it's too soon," he says.
Bryant says that as long as there is no injury, for most folks, the recovery process occurs within 48 to 72 hours after a workout. If you want to work out more often than that, he says, simply switch to a different area of the body for each workout.
Rule No. 6: Chow Down to Build Up
While good nutrition is vital to getting the most out of any exercise program, it's especially important for weight training. And if you're thinking fruits and vegetables, you're only partly right. Muscles also require protein.
"You need protein for your muscle to recover," says Bryant, who advises everyone doing weight training to have a snack containing both protein and carbohydrates after every workout.
Ryan says that adding some extra protein to your diet, while cutting down on refined carbohydrates, sugars, and "bad" fats like saturated and trans fats can help you see results sooner.