Weight training is a lot like learning a sport or instrument. Progress is based on a foundation of knowledge, which you build on over time. For people who are just starting a lifting program, it’s critical to get familiar with the ground rules before getting into a regular routine. You will avoid wasting time in the long run and you’ll get the most out of every workout. The first step is always going to be choosing which exercises to do, which can seem daunting. Before you grab your weights, read on to find out about how to choose the right exercises. The answers given will provide you with the knowledge to form a rock-solid foundation for a solid weight training plan.
Whether you're an aspiring bodybuilder, a soon-to-be powerlifter, or even just a newbie gym rat who wants to look good in jeans and a T-shirt, your goals are basically the same – build muscle and strength! To that end, you'll need to choose a few bread-and-butter movements to form the cornerstone of your workouts. These are going to be the squat, the press, and the pull.
When it comes to squatting, nothing beats the barbell back squat. But there are different variations to choose from. You can place the bar high or low on your back, you can vary your foot placement from ultra-wide to ultra-narrow... Overall you should be squatting at least to parallel, and in some cases your flexibility may allow you to nearly touch your behind to the floor. For most people, a moderately wide foot placement, a low bar position, and just-below-parallel depth are going to be ideal – but don't be afraid to play around with it! Just be mindful of form, even if that means sacrificing weight on the bar until you've got it down.
For pressing, the flat barbell bench press is good for anyone with healthy shoulders. If you're beginning your training or have preexisting shoulder issues, however, or if the flat bench just doesn't feel right, feel free to swap it for incline presses or decline presses at a slight angle.
In addition to some form of benching, you should try your hardest to do some form of overhead pressing. Again, the best is often the most basic move – the standing, strict military press – but not everyone can do it without shoulder pain. If that's you, the seated dumbbell overhead press is a fine substitution.
Just about everyone's mainstay pulling exercise should be the conventional deadlift. If you can't do the conventional deadlift without aggravating your back – even with a neutral position and great form – swap it for the wider-stance sumo deadlift. Sumo isn't as great for building overall strength and mass, but it's far better than not deadlifting at all!
Those four movements – the squat, flat press, overhead press, and pull – will pack on more lean muscle mass and develop more overall strength than anything else, and just about every beginner should spend half of his or her gym time or more on just those exercises. However, there are still plenty of other exercises that can help fill in the gaps and produce a well-rounded physique.
Next you'll want to pick some accessory pressing movements. While you won't need a ton of extra pressing volume on top of your benching and military pressing, you will want a little extra work for your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Dips are excellent and anyone with healthy shoulders should do them religiously. As far as other free weight movements are concerned, it’s best to stick with several different dumbbell presses. You can pick between flat, decline, incline, overhead, and all angles in between – just make sure you're consistent with your setup, and as always, strive for more weight or reps every session.
For biceps and triceps, there is no need to take the advanced bodybuilder route and try out 100 different variations of curls and extensions. Most people have success with basic dumbbell or barbell curls, as well as some hammer curls and reverse curls for forearms. For triceps, stick mainly to cable extensions with various attachments. They'll allow you to go decently heavy without trashing your elbows.
Now you know all the basic exercises you need to start building mass and strength – but what about your weak points? Even if you begin with disproportionate strength levels between your upper and lower body, between your squat and deadlift, etc., it's hard to assess weak points until you've trained for awhile. As you start to progress, you will begin to see real weak areas in your lifts and in your physique. But you can't possibly develop or recognize these kinds of weak points until you've spent time squatting, pressing, pulling, and building a base of muscle mass. So for now, treat everything like it's weak, and leave no stone unturned in your quest for more strength and muscle.