Resistance Training 101

So you’ve finally given in to the pressure of your personal trainer/mate or read the latest fitness article telling you that cardio is SO 2009 and resistance training is the optimal way of getting in shape (or you have a genuine interest in becoming the next Arnold/Chyna).

You’ve decided to hop off of the monotonous hamster wheel that is the treadmill and start picking up and putting down bits of metal and rubber in the hope that you’ll get that bod of your dreams or just generally feel that bit more awesome. Congratulations, you’ve taken the first step on the road to Instagram fitness selfies and asking people “do they even lift?”. However, the realm of weightlifting can often be a confusing place, especially for those just starting out, so here are some basic but important points to get you started:

1. Use free weights as much as possible.

Free weights r00l, machines dr00l!!1!1!

Seriously though, as intimidating as free weights can be, taking the time and effort to head over to the sacred space that is the free weights section will pay dividends in both the short and long run. Using free weights not only allows your body to move in a much more natural movement path, reducing the chance of injuries, but it also has a better carry-over to natural movement patterns for use in day-to-day activities and sports. So for ****’s sake, stop using the smith machine! (This is especially true for squats).

2. Use compound movements as the basis of your session

Compound movements are multi-joint exercises that involve multiple muscle groups, such as the Deadlift, Squat, Bench Press, Barbell Row, Military Press etc. They are also the exercises that will give you the most bang for your buck, releasing the most growth hormone, testosterone and other favourable substances. They also use the most energy, and so should be prioritised at the beginning of your workout.

3. Learn, practice and use good form

This isn’t just me going all “health and safety” on you here. Good form is important for a couple of reasons other than the obvious avoidance of the destination they call “snap-city”. It will also ensure that you’re targeting the intended muscle and creating the maximum amount of stimulation instead of transferring the stress to other muscles. START LIGHT, and work your way up slowly. Start with the bar if you must.

A good place to start is to check out the videos of Mark Rippetoe teaching the form of the main lifts here. Rippetoe is a well known name in weightlifting circles and knows his stuff.

4. Go to failure on each set

After a while of practicing your form with lighter (but ever increasing) weights, you’ll eventually get to a point where you’ll start hitting failure.

This can be either technical or muscular failure. Technical failure is when form breaks down on a movement, whereas muscular failure is where your muscles literally cannot lift the weight for another rep. Ideally we want to aim for muscular failure, but depending on the body part we’re training sometimes this can be difficult. The thing to keep in mind is simply: when form breaks down on a rep due to fatigue and you find yourself cheating, using momentum or your form just gets plain sketchy, put the weight down and finish the set.

Going to failure on every set is important because, quite simply, this is what breaks down the muscle and stimulates it to grow (with adequate nutrition and rest, of course). Also, it’s an easy way to see if you’re progressing. Only get 9 reps with a weight last week before failure, but this week you can get 10? Congratulations, that’s quantifiable progress, you’re doing something (hopefully everything) right.

5. Use a rep range that will force your body to adapt 

You need to pick an amount of reps (repetitions) to aim for in each set where you will hit failure. This will give your body the stimulus to grow or get stronger, depending on your primary goal. Generally speaking, there are three rep ranges:

  • 1-6 reps = Strength
  • 7-12 reps = Hypertrophy (muscle growth)
  • 13+ reps = Muscular endurance

I say generally speaking, because some people find that their body responds better to lower rep training and they can grow muscle using lower reps, whereas other people find that they grow better on higher rep schemes. You need to find out which works best for you and your personal goals.

Addendum: I would suggest that when starting off you actually aim for 15 reps. This will ensure that you’re using a weight light enough that will allow you to concentrate on form and start preparing your ligaments for the heavier lifting.

6. Progressive overload (PROGRESS)

Put simply, this is the idea that in every session you should be improving in some way. Without forcing your body to get better than it was last week all you’ll end up doing is getting better at doing the same thing over and over and get zero results. I’m pretty sure a well known brainiac by the name of Albert once penned this as the definition of insanity, and you’re not insane now, are you?…

For us, that means at least one more rep, a heavier weight, less rest between sets or more time under tension than last week. For example, if you are using the 7-12 rep range and last week you could curl a weight for 10 reps in a set, then this week your aim is to get at least 11 reps. When you hit the higher end of your rep range (so 12 in this case) then increase the weight the next week by the smallest possible increment and start again at the lowest end of your rep range (in this case, getting at least 7 good reps).

This progressive overload is what forces your body to change.

7. Track your workouts

If there’s a sure-fire way to keep spinning your metaphorical wheels and get nowhere, it’s not tracking your workouts. When you get to the gym you should have a plan. This means knowing what exercises you’ll be doing in that session, what weights you’ll be using and reps you’ll be aiming for. Not only is this useful for making sure you’re not wandering around aimlessly using random machines every session, but it’s incredibly useful to look back through a few months down the line in order to spot trends and measure if what you’re doing is actually working.

So spend some hard-earned pocket money and treat yourself to a nice new pad and pen, after all, everyone loves an excuse to buy some new stationary. (Or alternatively, use a free workout logging app like Fitocracy).

8. Don’t overtrain

Many people have different definitions for this, and some people will argue that it doesn’t exist, it all depends. Basically if you do too much and don’t eat/rest enough your body won’t be able to recuperate and make those gainZZ you’re chasing. You’ll also end up running yourself into the ground, get sick, be unable to sleep and loose your sex-drive (ooh err). The more you train, the more rest and nutrition you’ll need, and even then when doing this naturally your body only has a limited ability to recuperate, so bare this in mind before you attempt that 2 hour arm workout you read in FLEX magazine whilst only eating meals on par with a hamster.


This one is BIG. Quite simply, when you first start the journey that is lifting you will see some pretty noticeable changes pretty quickly. These are fondly referred to as “newbie gains”. Your strength will shoot up, your body will morph and you’ll start to notice muscles you never thought you had.

However, progress will eventually slow to a point where it becomes more difficult to add weight to the bar, and you wonder if you’re actually even getting anywhere. DO NOT be put off or stray from the course. As long as you are able to progress by even a minimal amount each week, you’re going somewhere.

10. R and R (Rest and Recuperation)

Even though I’ve left this one until last, don’t think it’s any less important. In fact, it might actually be one of the most important. Whether you’re trying to gain muscle mass or loose body fat, adequate nutrition and rest is way up there on the “where people fuck-up” list.

Your workouts are there to provide STIMULATION. The actual growth and changes in your body happen when you rest. This means getting the appropriate nutrition (calories, macronutrients and micronutrients), getting enough sleep and keeping stress to a minimum (cortisol is one hell of a bastard).

Wrap up:

So there you have it. Hopefully the above points have cleared a few things up and given you a better understanding of what it takes to see some progress from your gym sessions.

“But Rob, that’s all very well and good, but there’s a veritable smorgasbord of routines out there. How on Earth do I pick which one to use?!” Well I’m glad you asked. The most important thing is that you pick a routine that’s right for you. There’s no point in starting a powerlifting routine if you want to concentrate on developing your brachialis or bring out the lateral head of your tricep (although starting out with a sensible programme that involves practicing the key movements with the aim of getting you stronger definitely isn’t a terrible way to go).

With that in mind, here are a few sensible, proven routines to get you started: Starting Strength (strength), Stronglifts (strength) and MuscleHack’s THT (bodybuilding).

Now get lifting!

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