Illustration by Sofia Reeves

Four tips to start your weightlifting journey

Recently, weightlifting has come into vogue, and for many good reasons. The sport has many benefits for both physical and mental health. However, the weight room can be a daunting place to the inexperienced. With vast amounts of conflicting information on the internet, it can be difficult to know where to start and to whom you should listen. Here are a few tips and principles to guide you as you begin weightlifting. 

1. Be consistent

The most important thing you can do to build muscle and gain strength is be consistent. Find a program that works for you, preferably one that centers compound movements — movements that use many muscle groups — such as bench press, deadlift and hip squats and stick to it; if you change what exercises you do every week, you will likely have a difficult time building strength. 

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned lifter, it is hard to go wrong with a push, pull, legs (PPL) split. Jeff Nippard, power lifter and fitness guru, offers a detailed and beginner friendly PPL split for free on his YouTube page. To start, try to make it to the gym at least two to three times a week, for around 30 minutes to an hour each time. This will allow you to make progress while avoiding burnout.

2. Prioritize protein

When you first start lifting, unless you are at a very low body fat percentage, you will undergo something called body recomposition. This, according to Michael Matthews of Legion Workout Supplements, is “the process of simultaneously decreasing the proportion of body weight that is body fat and increasing the proportion that is lean body mass.” 

During body recomposition, your body uses energy from existing fat stores to build new muscle. This is why new lifters and people at higher body fat percentages can progress so fast, even if they do not eat a lot of protein. However, if you want to continually build muscle after this honeymoon phase, you must prioritize protein in your diet. 

There are a wide variety of misconceptions about how much protein you need to build muscle, with some bodybuilders recommending up to two grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. For the majority of people this is vastly excessive; according to a 1996 study by P. W. Lemon, “0.8g of protein per pound of bodyweight is an optimal daily intake to building muscle for strength exercisers.” You do not need to be that exact about it; while tracking macronutrients can be an incredibly helpful tool for some, it is not feasible for others. If that is the case for you, just try and prioritize protein in your diet. Eat plenty of protein rich foods like chicken, fish, turkey and tofu, but make sure to  not neglect whole carbs, healthy fats and vegetables. 

Do not assume that to progress you need to cut out your favorite foods. There are not any “good” or “bad” foods, and there is not any single food or macronutrient that you cannot fit into a healthy and effective diet.

3. Practice progressive overload

Put simply, progressive overload is the practice of making sure you do a little more every time. If you bench 135 pounds for three sets of eight one day, next time you might try to bench 140 for three sets of eight, or 135 for three sets of ten. By increasing the weight or amount of reps a little bit every time you go to the gym, you will challenge your body without overwhelming it, increase your strength and build muscle. Progressive overload is the key to making steady progress in the gym. “It is basically doing more work than your body did before,” says exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D. “If you never require your body to do more, you will never get a positive adaptation in terms of strength, muscle, cardiovascular fitness or anything else.” You can use apps like RepCount to easily keep track of your workouts and make sure you are progressively overloading.

4. Listen to your body

Listening to your body is the key to creating an exercise routine that works for your physical and mental health. If a movement does not feel right, it probably is not. Learn proper form on any exercises you do before upping the weight. YouTubers like Jeff Nippard offer in depth videos on how to properly perform most exercises, and you can film yourself lifting and watch the video to make sure your form is right. 

Do not go heavier than you can handle; ego lifting can lead to bad form, which can lead to injury. Similarly, do not try to work through an injury, as this will only lead to further injury. If you need an extra rest day, even if you are not injured, take one. 

At the end of the day, weightlifting and exercise in general should be something you do to help you feel your best. Take this mindset and these tips with you as you embark on your lifting journey. 

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