Strength Training 101: Where do I start?

Cat Weights

 This is a post from NF Team Member Staci.

If you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness for a while, you know that we are huge proponents of strength training.  

If you know me, then you know I also love cats.  Which is why we’re starting this post with a picture of a cat and dumbbells.

You’re welcome.

Anyways!  You’ve read Strength Training 101, you know the equipment, and you know how to find the right gym.  If you’re a woman, you know that you won’t get bulky.  You know that strength training will help you meet your goals, no matter what they are.

You know that strength training can be the most efficient path to weight loss.

You know that a strong body is a healthy body.

You know you SHOULD be getting stronger, but let’s be honest: starting a whole new way of working out can be daunting. It’s the reason so many people stick to the same old habits (that don’t work).

Today we’re going to go over exactly howto get started with strength. No more hours of mindless cardio, no more aimless wandering in the gym – we are going to get healthy in a fraction of the time and teach you exactly what to do.

Let’s A GOO!

How will you be training?

Assorted Weights

The first thing we need to figure out is what kind of strength training you want to be doing. This will primarily depend on what equipment you have available and what your goals are.  Let’s go over the options before providing you with some programs to follow:


The first option is bodyweight training. With bodyweight training you need minimal equipment (or none at all), and you can train from anywhere.  It doesn’t matter if you’re at home, in a hotel, at a playground, in your office at work,  or traveling around the world, as long as you have enough space to move around, you can get your workout done (and fit it into a busy schedule).

If you’re bodyweight training, grab a pull-up bar or a set of gymnastics rings (these can help you make exercises both easier and harder depending on your level).  If you’re just starting out, an exercise band to help assist you with movements such as pull ups or dips.

However – none of these are necessary, you can easily do bodyweight training without any equipment at all. The downside to bodyweight exercises is that you will need to consistently modify the exercise’s difficulty in order to ensure you are leveling up and progressing.


Dumbbells are a great way to start out with weighted strength training for a few reasons. First, most gyms will have a good set dumbbells, even if it’s a basic gym in your apartment complex. If you want to train at home, you can get a set of adjustable dumbbells that don’t take up a ton of space.

Second, dumbbells make it easy to add a small amount of weight to a movement, and dumbbell exercises can seem less intimidating than barbell training.  On top of that, starting with a 45 lb barbell might be too much weight at first.  Dumbbells  also have an added stabilization challenge, and point out muscle imbalances pretty easily.

If you can’t finish a rep, it’s much easier to drop a dumbbell than it is to drop a barbell. As a newbie learning the movements, this might be helpful.

The biggest downside about dumbbells?  You may outgrow whatever set you purchase fairly quickly, and heavy dumbbells can get costly. A gym membership with dumbbells that go up to (or over) 100 lbs should help solve this problem.


The barbell workout is my personal favorite. If your goal is strength above all else, this is the option that we recommend. Barbells allow you to progress clearly and quickly, allowing you to add small increments of weight each week.

Because a barbell is incredibly stable (using two hands instead of just one with a dumbbell), it’s also much easier to go heavy – especially for lower body movements like the squat and the deadlift. For exercises like the squat or the press, you can use racks to safely load and deload heavy weights.

The biggest downside to barbell training is that in order to do it at home, you need to have a squat rack, a barbell, a bench, and enough weight in your house or garage (which is not an inexpensive investment when you’re starting out).

If not, you definitely will be needing a gym membership.

So what is the best form of strength training? Realistically, it’s the one that you will actually do. Barbell training may be optimal in terms of strength, but if you don’t see yourself actually driving to the gym three days a week, choose a different plan. Likewise, bodyweight training might seem convenient, but if you don’t actually motivate yourself to workout at home, you might have been better off with a different option.

Many times, I will pick the right workout to match my situation. When I’m travelling, I’ll do a ton of bodyweight workouts since I don’t have a gym and a barbell available. When I’m at home with my gym, you better believe every morning the first thing I do is get under a barbell and go heavy.

This is because nothing can replace a heavy barbell squat and deadlift; at the same time, there’s no barbell movement that can match the classic pull-up.

That’s why the barbell and dumbbell routines in The Nerd Fitness Academy contain bodyweight movements as well – a mix of all three options builds a well-balanced, functional body.

There are, of course, many other ways to get in strength training, such as rock climbing, yoga, and parkour.

For our purposes here, we’ll stick to the basics, as they provide the perfect building blocks for adding anything after.

Pick a program to follow

stormtrooper pushups

Never walk into the gym without a game plan.  

We want to avoid that wandering “sheep without a shepherd” strategy that doesn’t produce results.

You may know you want to work with a barbell, but you don’t want to be the guy/girl that doesn’t have a plan.  When you don’t have a plan and just aimlessly walk from machine to machine, you will not see very much progress.

So, let’s get you a program!

When looking for a program, most beginners will be best served by choosing a full body routine done three times a week, (with a day rest in between each workout). Make sure the program you do choose serves your goals: A powerlifter will have a very different routine than a bodybuilder or endurance athlete.

As we know from Strength Training 101, the number of sets and reps you do changes the outcome of the exercise.

Here’s a quick overview:

  • Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength.
  • Reps in the 6-12 range build a somewhat equal amounts of muscular strength and muscular endurance.
  • Reps in the 12+ range build muscular endurance and size

Many beginner strength programs end up doing 5 sets of 5 reps each, in an effort to optimize progress as a beginner interested in strength gains.

With a circuit, you’re completing one set of each exercise in order and then repeat the process again.  

For example, if you look at our Beginner Bodyweight Workout, you complete one set of each exercise and then moving directly onto the next exercise.

  • 20 body weight squats
  • 10 push ups
  • 20 walking lunges
  • 10 dumbbell rows (using a gallon milk jug)
  • 15 second plank
  • 30 jumping Jacks
  • Repeat for 3 rounds

In the more traditional strength style workout, you complete one set of an exercise and then rest, and then another set of the same exercise, and so on.

3 x 10 Squats would look like this:

  • 10 Squats
  • Rest
  • 10 Squats
  • Rest
  • 10 Squats
  • Rest
  • Next Exercise

So, which one is better? If your main goal is general fitness and fat loss and you don’t care as much about strength, a circuit style workout will likely be slightly more beneficial.

It gets you in and out of the gym a lot quicker, and keeps your heart rate up longer.

If your main goal is to get stronger and put on muscle, hop into a more traditional strength style routine.

Honestly though?  How you eat will account for 80-90% of your success or failure. So, with a quality diet you will lose fat and build strength in EITHER style.

Finally, when you’re choosing a strength routine, make sure the difficulty increases over time. Getting stronger should be written into the plan. This could be by doing one more squat, lifting five more pounds, or completing your circuit 10 seconds faster.

The main goal should be to always do better than you did last time; this will ensure you are continuously getting stronger and faster.

Now, you can always write your own workout plan, but luckily, there are lots of beginner programs out there that are great, so you don’t need to be programming your own. Let’s take a look at some of your options.

Beginner Programs

lego workout

We are obviously partial to the 16+ workout plans laid out in The Nerd Fitness Academy, as we feel they give you the best chance for newbie success, but they are not your only options!

The Nerd Fitness Beginner Bodyweight workout is a great (free) place to start if you’re looking for a super basic, easy to follow bodyweight routine. This workout from my buddy/fellow Nerd Roman takes you through some very basic movements. Beast Skills and Gymnastics WOD also both offer great tutorials and progressions on how to master bodyweight movements, both basic and advanced.

For a quality beginner dumbbell routine, check out this “stop gap” dumbbell program on Reddit.  This routine, from 1913, may be a bit complex for beginners, but is cool to look at!

For barbell training, “Starting Strength” is considered the gold standard beginner program by many, and we highly recommend you pick up the actual book if you are serious about barbell training – it’s one of the most important training books you can ever read.  Strong Lifts is great because it starts you out very slow, with just the barbell, and helps you master form before you get too heavy.  Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 for beginners allows you a little more freedom to do exercises that you enjoy, or work on personal weaknesses, because you choose some of the assistance work. Although, that might get confusing if you’re just starting out.

You can also modify any of the barbell training programs to be done with dumbbells, if that’s what you have at home!

Learn the moves!

Fronts quat

If you’re new to all this “strength training” stuff, hopping into a program and going from zero to sixty might be a recipe for failure. Don’t hop into a routine without learning the basic movements first. Otherwise, your workout plan may be working against you.

Never done ANY of the movements in the plan you’re doing before?

Always start out with just your bodyweight. If it’s a barbell movement, use a broom stick (or PVC Pipe). If it’s a dumbbell movement, use two sections of PVC or something else that is light and small to simulate a dumbbell.

When it comes to movements like squats, deadlifts, pull ups, bench press, etc. – your form is crucial.  Develop good habits with light weight and you will save yourself months of frustration later and protect you from injury.

When I started, I really liked practicing all of the movements at home because I could watch a video online at the same time as I was watching myself do it in a mirror.

Video tape yourself and compare it to videos, or post it to the form check section of the Nerd Fitness Forums.

Still uncomfortable with the movements after that? Look around at local strength and conditioning gyms and see if you could hire a coach for one or two sessions just to go over the basic movements. You’re not hiring a personal trainer, but instead finding a temporary Yoda to teach you what you need to know, so you can work out safely and independently.

At first, you may not be able to get in the exact perfect position for every movement. Most of the time videos explaining perfect form are done by people who have the correct mobility to do the movement.

If you’re struggling with certain elements of a movement, don’t get frustrated! Just understand that you’ll have areas in which you can improve.

What do I need to bring?


First, wear whatever you are most comfortable in!

Don’t worry about what everyone else is wearing around you – this isn’t a fashion show. For shoes, look for a minimalist shoe with a hard, non-compressable sole.  Chuck Taylors are my personal favorite, but Steve wears Vibrams or Merrills. While there are some great shoe options specifically for weight lifting, as a beginner, the above multipurpose shoe will serve you just fine!

What else should you be bringing?

  • A NERD FITNESS water bottle (shameless plugs FTW!) and a notebook (to track your workouts, though you can also do this on your phone with something like Evernote if you want).
  • If you are planning on going to the gym after work, bring your workout clothes. If you’re planning on going to work after the gym, bring some basic showering supplies. Keep extras in your car in case you forget them, and don’t let these small details serve as an excuse to skip your workout!
  • An mp3 player and a great playlist can be crucial to “get in the zone” and make you feel like a superhero in a big, noisy, commercial gym. I have a small mp3 player that clips to my shirt that stays out of the way pretty well.

Now that you have a plan and know exactly what you’re doing, it’s time to do it!

Get out of the tutorial zone

stormtrooper bear

If you are a new gym-goer you may feel a bit uneasy about stepping into this new territory. While every gym has its own set of rules, there are a few common courtesy rules that you can follow to act like a rebel, even if you’re trapped in the Empire:

  • Always put the weights back when you’re done. Make sure the weights get back to their proper racks. Don’t be that guy.
  • If someone is using the equipment you’re using, it’s okay to ask how many sets they have left, but don’t pressure them to finish quicker.
  • If someone else wants to use the equipment too, you can offer to let them “work in with you” – which means they do their sets while you rest, and vice versa. If you’re not comfortable with this (and chances are for your first few workouts you won’t be), it’s okay to say no or not offer. If you say no, be nice about it. Say something like “I’m almost done, just one more set and it’s all yours!” If you are comfortable with it, usually you and the other person will work together to change the weights in between each set.
  • If someone is offering to spot you on an exercise (like the bench press), don’t assume they think you are a newb. Probably the opposite – they just want to help. If someone asks you to spot them and you’ve never spotted someone before, tell them that you would love to help but haven’t done it before so you could use some pointers. They will tell you what they want you to do.
  • If you get the equipment sweaty, wipe it down. Gyms offer stations that have all of the stuff you need to wipe down everything.
  • Make sure there’s plenty of room between you and others – give people their personal space.
  • Let people do their own thing – you don’t want them coming over and telling you what you’re doing is wrong, and they don’t want the same.
  • Don’t talk on your cell phone while on the weight floor.  You’re there to exercise, not bother everybody else.
  • Get in and out – don’t sit on the equipment forever. Do your sets, with the proper rest periods, but don’t sit there for 2 hours and not let anyone else use it.

The most important thing when starting strength training is that you start.  Don’t overthink, don’t collect underpants, just go out there and give it a shot!

Don’t be afraid of doing everything wrong – truth be told, the majority of the people on the weight floor don’t have any idea what they are doing, and are just as nervous as you are!

Muster up your 20 seconds of courage and get after it.

So, what’s the biggest thing holding you back from starting strength training?

What questions do you have about getting started?


PS – Be sure to check out the rest of Strength Training 101 series:


PS: Almost 2500 rebels have joined us in the Nerd Fitness Academy for Men’s Fitness 101 and Women’s Fitness 101! If you’re interested in strength training and want more specific workout, nutrition, and lifestyle advice, check it out. We’d love to help you level up with us.  See you inside!

photo source: Gregor Winter: Dimitry Klokov, Ken: Cat Dumbbells, William Marlow: Assorted Weights, Kaleb Fulgham: Dumbbells, W_Minshull: Stormtroopers in Gym, Kristina Alexanderson: Teddy Love, Jason Ternus: Stormtrooper Pushups

The Last Fitness Program You’ll Ever Need

Workouts, nutrition guidance, and habit-building. Never wonder where you should put your limited time, energy, and effort.

Get our FREE Starter Kit with dozens of resources today!

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.