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A Beginner’s Guide to the Weight Room

Nervous about entering that padded cell full of dumbbells and mysterious machines? Don’t be! Weights are easy—and worth mastering. Using them can help you get a stronger heart, healthier joints, better bones, and a faster metabolism.

Be prepared

“You don’t need to bring a lot of special gear to lift weights— just some comfortable clothes and footwear that offers both traction and support, like a training shoe,” says Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, an assistant professor in exercise science at CUNY Lehman College in the Bronx, NY.

Take the time to walk through the weight room so you know what’s where. Better yet, get a trainer to point out the highlights, and maybe offer you a few pointers to get started. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: Most gyms hire trainers to stay on the floor in case members have questions. (If you’re new, be aware that many gyms include a free training session for members who’ve just joined so they can learn proper form and technique.) If your gym provides weight-lifting classes, it’s a great idea to sign up for one that has strength training elements to get familiar with some of the basic movements of weight-training and safety.

Know your tools

Most weight rooms include a combination of free weights (think dumbbells and barbells) and machines that use adjustable weight stacks and pulleys for resistance. Dumbbells are usually kept together on long racks and are arranged from lighter weights (2 pounds to 20) to super-heavy ones (upward of 100 pounds); they’re designed to be lifted off the rack with one hand. Barbells allow you to load weighted plates onto bars and are good for working both sides of the body together. Machines are generally designed to concentrate on specific muscle groups.

Each has its own advantages. “Most machines keep you in a fixed movement pattern—you can really push or pull in only one direction—so they’re a good place for beginners to start,” explains Rick Richey, owner of York. But eventually, after a week or so (if you’re ready), you should familiarize yourself with free weights, which more closely imitate real-life movements. “Since you’re in charge of guiding the movement, you engage more muscles, while also working on important skills like balance and coordination,” says Megan Dahlman, CSCS, a trainer based in Oregon City, Oregon. “Most free weight exercises are not only more functional, they also make you work a little harder, so you get more bang for your buck.”

And don’t worry about being a newcomer among all those bodybuilders grunting and flexing around you on the weight floor. “Women are just as welcome as men. And almost everyone just wants to focus on their own thing,” Dahlman adds.

Find a workout

No matter how experienced—or not—you are with weights, it’s important to have a plan in place from day one. “Whether it’s a good workout you’ve printed from a website or a program that you’ve talked to a trainer about, doing a set routine with a handful of exercises will keep you on track and take away a lot of the intimidation you may feel,” says Dahlman.

As you work weights into your routine, it can help to note what you’re doing in a notebook or log—the exercises, weight, and number of sets and reps. “This lets you keep track of your progress and helps you stay motivated,” Schoenfeld says.

Finally, don’t be surprised if you wake up a little sore the next day. Slight soreness can actually be a sign that you’re working the muscle tissue. Try not to overdo it, especially in the beginning, Richey advises. “You don’t want to get so sore that you aren’t going to want to come back again.” Give your muscles time to recover: Avoid working the same muscle group two days in a row.

Learning Curve: Super Simple!

You can pick up the basics of weight lifting in less than an hour, but building up strength and mastering your form can keep you challenged for months.