Fitness & Health

Fulcrum associate sports editor Charley Dutil shows you how it’s done. Photo: Rame Abdulkader.
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The basics of a beginner lifting routine

I’m looking to start off lifting weights. What’s a good program for beginners to build some strength and a good foundation?

So it’s your first day going to the gym for some weight training. But before you start lifting, here are some things you want to bring, and keep in mind.

Before stepping into the gym

First thing, and this is perhaps the most important thing, is not to let the gym environment overwhelm you. There will be a lot of experienced lifters there putting up huge numbers on the bench or squat rack, and this can certainly be intimidating for beginners.

While you’re going in there with far less experience, know that those other lifters aren’t going to be focusing on you. For the most part, everybody is fixated on their own routines, and they don’t care what you’re lifting. Just go in there and focus on your regimen, not on what the others are doing.

You should also be wearing gym-appropriate clothes that are comfortable—it’s not a beauty contest out there. You want to be able to get a good range of motion when lifting, so you want to wear gym shorts with a T-Shirt or tank-top, or track pants or leggings. Something you can move around in. No jeans or collared shirts!

Your routine

Once you’re in there, the first workout-related activity to do is some stretches that target the areas of the body you’ll be exercising.

After stretches are done, you should do some sort of five-minute warm-up—nothing too strenuous.

Now, on to the weights portion. For this first routine, we’re going to do a two-day split between your upper body and lower body. Once you get more experience, you can start to focus more on specific muscle groups.

For upper body, you do want to hit your chest and biceps, but remember that there’s much more to the upper body than just these two! You want to hit all the individual muscle groups you can.

Most of these groups have corresponding machines at the gym that will target these areas. For the first upper body day, follow a routine like this: three sets each on the chest press to work your chest, then the tricep curl rack for your triceps, shoulder press for your shoulders, bicep curl rack for your biceps, abdominal machine for the core, and rowing machine for your back.

For now, we’ll just start with machines, but you can throw in some free weights at will.

On lower body day, you want to get some squats in there first, as they’re possibly the most important exercise to develop strong legs as well as a strong core. After that, you can do the leg press for further development of the quadriceps and glutes, leg extension for the quads, calf extension for the calves, hamstring machine, and you can add anything else you feel necessary.

Proper technique

You can adjust the weight to what you’re comfortable with, but if three sets of 10-12 reps on a particular exercise or machine feels too easy, increase the amount of weight. If it feels too hard to do properly at full exertion, decrease the weight.

Make sure to follow the instructions on the machine in question, and if you don’t see instructions you can always ask gym staff or an experienced lifter for pointers. Generally, people will be happy to oblige.

As a general rule, you want to apply force to each machine in a slow, controlled motion, as opposed to a quick, jerky one. Make sure you’re using the full range of motion, but don’t overextend on the machine. You also want to maintain your breathing, one breath following each rep generally. This is extremely important, as you do not want to hold your breath or breathe erratically for your own safety.

Once you’ve hit all the relevant weights, you can do a five-minute cooldown, just the way you did the warm-up. This part is optional. Once you’re done, you should be feeling decently tired, and hopefully a little sore the next day. Fret not, this is what you want.

You can do your upper body-lower body routine two days in a row, but you always want a day of rest. Aim to do this routine three or four times a week. Then start increasing the weights, and you’re on your way to a solid foundation.

To develop your routine beyond these general guidelines, the University of Ottawa offers programs such as personal training on an individual basis, as well as group sessions. More information can be found on