Weight lifting!  It sounds like an intimidating feat.  When most people think of weight lifting, they picture large men in a gym with weight belts, clanging plates, chalk hands, grunting and sweating.  That doesn’t exactly paint a picture of a motivating, invigorating workout meant to build muscle as much as it builds confidence!

I hate to admit now, but I was one of those girls who was worried that lifting weights would turn me into a she-hulk.  That was until I started following some seriously inspirational women on social media like Nicole Wilkins, Pauline Nordin and Dana Linn Bailey.  I realized that these women were strong, smart, and powerful-the type of person I aim to be.

As boring as picking heavy stuff up and putting it down seems, it not only gives you an effective workout, it really gives you a sense of accomplishment.  As time goes on, I can look back at where I started and see how far I’ve come in only two and a half years.  When I first started lifting, it seemed I would never be able to squat or deadlift my own body weight, never mind exceed it.  It brings me a great feeling of confidence to see how far I have come in the past few years.

As a personal trainer, I regularly incorporate weight lifting exercises for my clients.  Most of my clients are women, so when I mention weight lifting as a part of their exercise program, I see doubt in some of their eyes.  However, once they begin my programs and see their progress, the doubt turns into confidence!

Here are some tips and tricks for those who are new to weight lifting and want to learn more about it!


Let’s start with the why?

What benefits are there to weight lifting.  There are dozens of published, peer reviewed studies on the benefits of weight lifting as well as many personal testimonies.  To summarize, weight lifting speeds the metabolism, shapes your body, builds bone density, improves your coordination and balance, burns fat, lowers blood pressure, lowers stress levels, maintains muscle mass as you age; I could honestly go on, but you get the idea.

There are many logical reasons why, but for a lot of women, it is surpassing the stigma that weights make you bulky or manly.  The real science is that women do not have enough testosterone to become huge she-hulks.  Most women aspire for the “toned” appearance, well to get the look of toned muscles, you need to lift weights, heavy weights!


So, what exercises to start?

It is important to remember to learn to walk before you run.  If you’ve never done weight training before and are unfamiliar with proper form, I would not recommend going straight to barbell squats or dead lifts.  There are places you can start to get yourself there.  For example, when it comes to squats, start with exercises that will help you learn form and build those muscles such as dumbbell squats and weighted lunges.

Starting with basics helps build your muscles while learning to perform the exercises with proper form to prevent injury. Just because an exercise is complicated, does not mean it is better than another.


Warm up is key before starting.

When starting a weight training regimen, you don’t want to start lifting with cold muscles, that will lead to strained muscles and injuries.  Take 5-10 minutes for a warm up on a cardio machine to get your heart rate up and muscles ready.  Then take a few more minutes to do a stretch while your muscles are warm.  Don’t make the stretch hard or forced, just enough to “feel it” but not enough for it to hurt.


What are reps, tempo and sets?

So, you want to start weight lifting, but what is with the lingo?  Reps, tempo, sets? What is all of that?

Reps are the amount of times you perform a specific exercise and sets are the cycles of reps you do.  A common example is 3 sets of 8-10 reps.  You perform your reps, take a quick rest, then repeat for 2 more sets for 3 total sets.  Reps can range depending on how much weight you are lifting.  For example, you can do heavy weight for 4-8 reps, medium weight for 8-12 reps or light weight for 12-15 reps.

Same can be said for sets, you can do 4-8 reps for 3 sets or 12-15 reps of light weight for 5 sets.  You don’t want to do the same exercise for 15 sets, but between 3-5 is average.  For exercises that are easier for me, I typically will do fewer sets than exercises that are more challenging for me.

Rest between sets is important to allow your body to regroup itself and you can catch your breath for the next set.  Rest time can vary depending on your experience and goals.  The average is a 1:3 work rest ratio.  If your 8 reps take 30 seconds to do, then you can rest of 90 seconds.  Again, this can vary.  The better condition you are in, the less rest you need.  I would say the average rest period can be between 30-90 seconds depending on the exercise.  For me, if I am doing lower intensity exercises like shoulder shrugs, I only do 30 seconds of rest; if I am doing dead lifts or squats, I rest closer to 60 seconds.  You can use a timer if you feel you would get off track; but personally, I try to keep track in my head best as possible

Tempo is how speed of which you perform the exercise.  When starting, slower is better to make sure you are doing the exercise properly.  If you are looking at an exercise and you see these four confusing numbers 3010, it is referring to the tempo of the exercise.  For example, when doing a bicep curl, the lifting can take 3 seconds, no pause, and the lowering takes 1 second and then no pause again back to the second rep.  Another example could be 3121: lifting takes 3 seconds, pause for 1 count then lower for 2 and pause again for 1 count before going to the next rep.

You can speed up the tempo for intensity or slow the tempo down for muscle control and focus on the “burn”.


How much weight should I lift?

This depends on you and where you are starting and everyone is different.  5 lb dumbbells might be challenging to one person and not enough for another, so giving specific numbers is impossible.  A good key is lift enough weight that your last two reps of your sets are difficult, but not impossible and you can execute with proper form.  If you can easily do 10 reps with a weight, then you need to increase it to keep challenging your muscles.  You should be increasing your weight on average every 3 weeks by at least a couple pounds depending on the exercise to continue challenging your muscles.  If you cannot increase the weights, then changing your amount of reps and sets can switch things up to keep your muscles guessing!


How many times per week should I lift?

How many times per week depends on your goals and your experience levels.  As a baseline, it is recommended at least 2-4 strength training workouts should be done per week according to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults ages 18-64 years.  Most serious fitness individuals aim for 5 or 6 days per week so they split their workouts into individual groups (i.e. chest on Monday, legs Tuesday, etc.) and 1 or 2 full rest days.  However, for most beginners committing to 6 days a week of 1-hour workouts is unrealistic to start.  A good place to start is 3 days per week of a 45min-1 hr workout session.  As you become more experienced, you can add in more days of the week for workouts.

Rest is key for building muscles, and when starting it is very important to allow enough rest.  48 hours between workouts is a good rule to follow when starting or at least 48 hours between working muscles groups.  For example, if you are doing 3 workouts a week, day 1 can be upper body, day 2 lower body, day 3 core and abs.  This way you aren’t overtraining the same muscle groups.


What about Cardio?

Cardio has its benefits and is very important.  However, despite popular belief, cardio does not build muscle.  Cardio primarily trains the heart and lungs, which helps lower blood pressure and reduces resting heart rate.  These things combined leads to improved stamina and efficient oxygen delivery.

When it comes to fitness, it is not that cardio is less important than weight training, they do different things.  It is recommended to do at least 3-4 cardio sessions per week.  Length of time also depends on your experience.  Aiming for 10-15 minutes to start is a good tool to try and then you can build from there.

Your body adapts to cardio very quickly so remember to change the intensity and length of time frequently.  For example, you could do 20 minutes of steady state run or elliptical one day, then 15 minutes of higher intensity intervals run or bike the next workout, and swimming or dancing another day.


Change things up to prevent boredom and plateaus.

Changing your routine every few weeks is necessary to keep your muscles guessing and keep you from dying of boredom when working out.  You don’t have to completely overhaul your routine, but a few things can be done to switch it up a little. Adding a couple of new exercises, changing your rep ranges and your weights can do a lot for progress.  I would recommend changing things up every 3-4 weeks.

So, there you have it newbies.  Remember don’t be scared to be a beginner and feel intimidated by not knowing what to do. When you see all the experienced people in the gym, remember they all started somewhere too!  Look up some simple exercises to get started, make yourself a list of them and what reps and sets, then you can go in with an idea of what to do. You don’t need fancy machines to get started, just some weights and a body will suffice.

Don’t want to go do a gym?  You don’t have to, you can buy yourself some simple things like a few dumbbells and workout at home.  If you comb through second hand sites or buy and sell pages, you can find some great workout stuff for cheap!

Don’t be discouraged if the scale isn’t changing as much as you thought it would.  Look for how your clothes are fitting, how easy it is to carry in all your groceries, how much easier it is to climb a flight of stairs or play with your kids without getting tired.  Those are the changes you should be focusing on!



Jackie Lindal is a Canfit Pro Certified Personal Trainer and started her own company Fit Like a Girl in 2016.  Jackie is also a passionate martial artist and teaches Ju Jitsu at Kamikaze Punishment in Edmonton.