Getting started at the gym: basic strength training


So you decided to join a gym. Good for you. But now what? What should you do? What kind of program should you implement? What are your goals? Your probably have more questions than answers. The purpose of this article is to help you sort through this and give you a suggestion as to what I think is the best way to get started at the gym.

If you are like me, when I first started back It had been a few years. (ahem) My first body composition test revealed I was over weight and worse still,  I had no idea what to do. There are a bewildering array of cardio machines, free weights, and resistance machines. SO where to start? Most gyms will provide a free personal training consultation, but do be aware that this often results in a sales pitch for their services. If you are really stuck and have zero idea what types of exercise to do and can afford it, then I would recommend a few personal training sessions. Fortunately for you I am going to give you the best advice I can for free. And it really works. You need to start off thinking about 3 things: Strength Training, Flexibility and Cardio. If you can only think about one thing at at a time then focus on strength training. Lets break this down so its more easily digestible.  

1. Start off with scheduling your gym sessions

There is no bigger truth in exercise than "consistency counts." If you want to see results you need to commit to going to the gym and then work the rest of your life around it. Good intentions does not build muscle or help you lose weight. You should aim for 3 times per week. I accomplish this (in my rather hectic life) by working out my weekly schedule in advance. I put my workout sessions in my calendar and plan everything else around them. You need to fully commit.

2. Focus on compound movements

When you start at the gym you should only do 5 exercises. That's right 5. They are all barbell exercises and the entire workout can easily be accomplished in about an hour. The 5 are:

  1. back squat
  2. bench press
  3. bent over row
  4. overhead press
  5. deadlift

Now it is beyond the scope of this article to train you in proper technique, but these 5 exercises will cover every major muscle group in your body. And you only do 3 at any given workout. It would look like:

Workout A                     Workout B

back squat                     back squat

bench press                   overhead press

bent over row                deadlift

You simply alternate workouts every time you go to the gym. So one week will be A, B, A and the next will be B, A B. Sounds simple right? It is. Notice you will squat on every workout, and that's because squatting uses your entire body. More on this another time.

3. Start with light weight

The biggest mistake I ever made was to start out with weight that is too heavy. The first thing my macho mind said to me when I went to the gym is "how much can you lift?" Big mistake. I could barely get out of bed the next morning. My body was sore for like 5 days, making it difficult to walk, much less go to the gym. Don't do this. Start with an empty bar with no weight on it. (yes you read that right but it still weighs 20kg) You will have to swallow your ego a bit but don't worry we will get to adding weight soon enough. The idea here is that you use light weight to help your body get used to the movements (called proprioception). In effect you are training your body to train. This is where you learn proper technique so you don't injure yourself. Take your time here. After you are comfortable with the movements, then you begin adding weight. This is called loading. Every workout you add more weight to the bar. This is called progressive loading. It increases the demands on your body so it begins to adapt, aka show results. You should aim for 2.5 to 5 kg increments. This will get heavy fast, The biggest advantage here is you will not have excessive DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness).

4. Don't forget to add a warmup and cool down

The second biggest mistake I made when going back to the gym was to not warm up and cool down properly. At the beginning you can do a general warm up of say a 10 minute jog on a treadmill, just to get your heart rate up, increase blood flow to your muscles and prepare for exercise. You should also do specific warmups on any weighted exercise (same movement with an empty bar) just to get ready for the stress of weight. For a cool down, have a 5 minute walk on the treadmill, followed by 10-15 minutes of stretching. Both warming up and cooling down help to alleviate muscle soreness. I also like to take a very hot shower after.


This is the training program I followed for the first 2 months and I lost 8 kg or about 1kg per week. For a full breakdown of what has been happening, visit my results so far. The best news is I gained a ton of strength, confidence at the gym and really started to build the gym habit. And you can too. Remember, the only balance to a hedonistic lifestyle is working out by balancing the good with the bad. The ying and the yang. Remember the Pareto rule? This is your 20%.

Like what you read? Have a few questions? Let me know!

Like this? Read these.