How to Start Working Out With Weights at Home

How to Start Working Out With Weights at Home

by Sue Jones
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If you want to learn how to start working out with weights, you don’t have to wait for your gym to reopen—you can definitely start a strength training routine at home. There are some things, though, you need to know first so you can do so safely and effectively.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was determined to start an at-home strength training routine to supplement my long-distance running. I’m self-employed, and like many people during that time, I noticed a slowdown of work—and as a result, a little extra time in my day. So I decided to finally commit to weight training.

I already had some exercise mats and dumbbells collecting dust in a closet, but I decided to order a kettlebell online (back when at-home fitness equipment was still readily available) in an effort to mix things up. I read a few articles and watched a YouTube tutorial beforehand, and then got started.

I got in two workouts before injuring my back.

I’m pretty sure my form was way off—and I probably ended up doing too much too soon, even though the weight I used was on the lighter side. I couldn’t exercise for about two and a half weeks (I could barely even walk my dog).

Luckily, I was able to get in one visit to my sports chiropractor before she temporarily closed up shop due to the pandemic, which provided me with some relief (along with, of course, rest and light rehab exercises). But I didn’t want to risk trying to get back to my normal exercise routine too soon and end up with a serious injury that might need immediate medical attention during this chaotic time.

It was a long few weeks, but it gave me the time to think about what I could have done differently when beginning a strength training routine at home. So I touched base with a couple of personal trainers to answer the question: How should you start working out at home—effectively and safely? Here’s what I learned.

1. Nail down a plan.

When thinking about starting any fitness program, you first want to get your physician’s approval that you are healthy enough to do so, Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer and owner of Holly Roser Fitness in San Francisco, tells SELF.

As for what plan, well, that’s up to you—and that’s one of the best benefits of working out at home on your own: You get to create your strength training routine—one that you probably won’t have to adjust whenever some bro is hogging the squat rack. According to Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., owner and CEO of TS Fitness in New York City, if you’re a newbie when it comes to strength training, you should shoot for three weekly 30- to 45-minute sessions of a full-body workout with basic, compound movements such as squats, presses, and rows. (Before you get started with these, though, you may want to start with bodyweight versions—more on that below!) Go for about 10 to 12 reps per set and three sets per exercise.

For more guidance or inspiration on what a full-body routine can look like, check out some of SELF’s total-body workouts.

2. Set up a workout area.

Before you get started sweating, take some time to think about the space in which you’ll be doing it. For one, you’ll need enough room that you can move freely, without hitting walls or furniture. Then consider the temperature: Are you able to run the AC or a fan if it’s too hot? You also may want to consider working out in a room that’s different from your workspace (if you’re working from home) to not only cut down on clutter but also give you a mental separation between working and working out.

As for safety, rooms with hardwood floors are going to be better choices than those with carpet. Working out directly on carpet can strain your feet, knees, and ankles, which can leave you more susceptible to injury, says Roser. Using a yoga mat or an exercise mat when lying on the floor can help with this as well—plus, it’ll simply make many of the moves more comfortable.

3. Wear clothes that help with comfort and form.

When you’re working out at home, you might be tempted to start your workout in whatever you’ve been wearing around the house—not the best option if that’s pj’s or jeans. You want to work out in clothing that will let you move freely, support you, and won’t impede your form.

And yes, unless you’re doing a workout like yoga or barre, you’re going to want to put on some shoes, says Roser.

“Be sure to also always wear sneakers when working out at home, or anywhere for that matter, to keep your foot stabilized and also to provide traction so your foot doesn’t slide around on your floor, potentially causing injury,” Roser says. “Shoes with support will also help any foot problems such as overpronation, high arches, or flat feet.”

4. Properly prep for each session.

It can be easy to forget to warm-up before at-home workouts when you’re missing the structure of an actual gym. But don’t do that. Make sure you’re not entering your workout hungry—a carb-focused snack one or two hours beforehand, like a banana or piece of toast with peanut butter, can help, says Roser. And a proper warm-up is crucial for strength workouts, Roser says. That’s because you risk tearing a muscle by going into a workout cold.

“A five- to eight-minute warm-up is ideal for most people. It’ll ensure your muscles are warm before you start moving,” she says. “Just like you would warm up with a slow mile or two before a running speed workout, your muscles need to be loosened up before a solid lifting session as well.”

For strength training, five to eight minutes of jumping rope, running in place, inchworms, or toe touches alternating sides will suffice. If you’re doing a leg-focused workout, moves that activate your glutes, like donkey kicks or clamshells, can be helpful too.

A cool-down of about five minutes is also important, since it will slowly bring your blood pressure and heart rate back down to normal levels. Five minutes of light dynamic stretching should be all you need, though Tamir also recommends deep breathing to calm your nervous system and foam rolling to help reduce soreness the next day.

5. Get creative when it comes to monitoring your form.

Remember that you don’t really have the luxury of walls of windows and circulating personal trainers when you’re at home. It’s easy to mess up your form if you’re not careful, and that can lead to injury [raises hand]. If you’ve never regularly weight-trained before, start with bodyweight exercises before introducing free weights, says Roser. This will help you master the movement pattern first so you can get the form down before moving on to dumbbells or kettlebells.

In pre-pandemic times, the best way to make sure you were using proper form was to seek the guidance of a personal trainer, says Roser. While in-person guidance is not an option for many of us right now, some personal trainers offer virtual sessions via Zoom or other meeting platforms. (You can contact your local gym to see if any trainers are currently offering this.) Even if you can’t commit to their services long term, it’s a good way to help a small business owner stay afloat during these tough times—and it’ll help you start off your strength training routine strong.

If working with a virtual personal trainer isn’t an option, you can seek out reputable information online, like the Workout Center at SELF, or online guides from certified trainers or reputable organizations, such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Online videos like YouTube tutorials can also be helpful. Just remember, “the biggest downside there is that the person isn’t actually watching you and can’t give you the guidance you may need to ensure you’re performing the exercises correctly,” Roser says. (Whoops for me on that one.) Still, that can help you learn what a proper move should look like.

To make sure you’re executing it correctly, it can be helpful to work out with a mirror in front of you, says Roser. Some cues to watch for: Your back should always be flat when you’re performing moves like deadlifts or rows, and your knees should not be caving in when you’re doing moves like squats. (Just make sure you’re not cranking your neck up to look in the mirror if you’re doing moves that require a neutral gaze that’ll have you looking at the floor, like a plank.)

You can also video yourself performing the moves to ensure proper form. This will cut down on the likelihood of wrenching your neck up to look at yourself in the mirror.

6. Add in weights eventually—not immediately.

After the first two weeks, Roser recommends introducing extra resistance. This can be in the form of dumbbells, kettlebells, or resistance bands.

You want to use weights that are comfortably challenging, she says. While it’s different for every person, you can try five- to eight-pound dumbbells to start.

How can you tell if you’re lifting enough—or too much? The best rule of thumb is to focus on your rate of perceived exertion (RPE), Tamir says. RPE is a scale of 0 to 10 that is used to measure the intensity of exercise. A zero is the equivalent of sitting on the couch doing nothing, while a 10 is how you’d feel after lifting very heavy weights and can’t safely or efficiently add another rep—it’s your max effort. Shoot to end at an eight.

“Once you get to the point where you realize one or two more reps will be hard to do without affecting your form, you can stop and continue to build from there,” he says. “If you’re at that 9 or 10 or your form is breaking down and you’re feeling discomfort in your lower back or your knees or your neck, that’s your body’s way of telling you it’s too much.”

So let’s say you want to perform 10 to 12 reps of overhead presses with eight-pound dumbbells. You should be at an eight or so on the RPE scale by the time you get to your 10th rep. If you’re at a nine when you’re only on your seventh rep, that’s a sign your weight is too heavy.

On the flip side, if you’re only at a six at your 12th rep, your dumbbells are probably too light.

A quick note: While the last few reps should feel challenging, the goal of a strength training session is not to keep your heart rate elevated, like you would with a cardio session. So make sure you’re taking the time to rest between sets—a good rule of thumb is to stick with a one-to-two ratio of exercise to recovery, Tamir says. In other words, if it takes you 20 seconds to do 12 reps, you should take 40 seconds to recover before moving on to the next set. Once you increase to heavier loads (see below!), you may find that you need a one-to-three ratio, he says.

7. Make it more challenging with whatever you’ve got.

After a couple of weeks, you can try to move on to heavier weights for an added challenge if you’re feeling like you have more left in the tank after your prescribed sets—meaning, you’re not really feeling challenged by the same number of reps at that same weight. This is known as progressive overload, and it’s key to getting stronger over time.

If you don’t have access to different weights, there are some other things you can do to continue increasing the challenge. The simplest one, of course, is doing more reps at the same weight, says Roser.

Of course, doing tons of reps of any exercise can feel boring after a while, so it’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with other ways to make exercises feel harder without adding more weight: You can slow down the eccentric part of the move (taking a few seconds to lower down in a squat, for instance, and then pausing at the bottom), increase your range of motion (elevating your front foot in a split squat, for example), focus on single-leg work, or include supersets (moving right into another exercise after you’ve finished the first without stopping to rest).

Just remember: When you are adding more weight or using these other progressive overload techniques, you’ll likely get fewer reps per set than you’re used to in the beginning, which is completely normal, says Roser. Once you’re back to your original rep range, you can up your progressive overload by using heavier weights if you have access to them.

8. Recover, recover, recover.

Once you get into the swing of things, it’s important to take time to rest and allow your muscles to recover—you definitely do not want to be lifting every day.

Additionally, some soreness is okay, but you don’t want to still be feeling it three days later. That’s a sign that you’ve definitely gone too hard, Tamir says.

“If you experience delayed onset muscle soreness the next day, but aren’t actually in pain, that’s totally normal,” Roser says. “You will know if you push your body too hard if you can’t walk or have significant pain in the muscle.”

Finally, as with any workout, recovery is key in order to avoid injury and build progress. Tamir recommends light activity such as foam rolling, yoga, or light jogging, which can help to reduce soreness, increase mobility, and increase blood flow, or even non-exercise methods of relaxation such as meditation or hot baths. Listen to your body and give yourself a complete day off when you need it to keep your body fresh and energized and avoid pushing too hard too soon.

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