How to start lifting heavy weights

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If you’ve never really lifted weights outside a barre class (or ever), picking up heavy weights can be intimidating and scary. But you'll want to do it anyway, since lifting more than 10-pound dumbbells (for most women) builds metabolism-revving muscle, strong bones, and a toned body.

Should you not have a personal trainer who can show you around the weight room (though it’s not a bad idea), we tapped the affable and uber-credentialed Rob Sulaver, owner of Bandana Training in New York, for a heavy-lifting tutorial.

“It’s tempting to blow through a huge number reps,” says Sulaver, “but grabbing something heavy and doing fewer reps, so the last two are super challenging, can really up your game.” (Click here for how to choose the correct weight.) "If you want to look your best, heavier resistance training is simply more effective," he says.

Here are three easy exercises from Sulaver that double as an introduction to the weight room. Done correctly—look in the mirror to correct your form; it’s not vanity!—these moves are the building blocks for pretty much every heavy-lifting workout, from Barry’s Bootcamp and HIIT classes to CrossFit. —Melisse Gelula

(Photos: Melisse Gelula for Well+Good; model: Lisa Elaine Held; location: Peak Performance)

Goblet Squats

What you’ll need: One big dumbbell (shoot for 20 pounds or more since your legs are the primary focus here). Need tips on how to pick the right weight? Click here.

For this move that strengthens your quads and glutes and engages your biceps and core, you’ll hold a dumbbell at chest height. Keep your back straight and with control, squat down, pushing your butt back like you’re sitting in a chair. Think about spreading the floor apart with your feet so your knees open nice and wide. At the bottom, keep your chest "proud,"  facing the wall in front of you.

Can’t keep your heels on the ground? Tuck a padded gym mad under them to give you an inch or so of height, and it’ll help your flexibility. Do three sets of 10-15 reps. Bonus: Because so many big muscles are involved, you’ll notice there’s a cardio benefit to this movement, and it’ll prep you for carrying more weight.

ledge rows
Ledge Rows

What you’ll need: Any sturdy ledge or surface that’s about hip height, and a 12-pound weight or more.

These rows work your lats, biceps, and upper back. Step into a short lunge, and hinge forward from the hip to rest one hand on ledge. Holding a dumbbell in your other hand, bend your arm to a 90-degree angle. Keeping your elbow very close to your body, bring the dumbbell into your armpit, almost like you're nudging someone behind you.

Squeeze your entire arm and shoulder blade as you pull your elbow back, and no wobbling when you stretch your arm out in front of you: Use your abs and obliques (and your stable lunge) to remain still. Do three sets of 10-15 reps on both sides. Trick of the trade: If you notice you have a weaker side, start there.


45-Degree Dumbbell Press

What you’ll need: A bench adjusted to a 45-degree angle and two dumbbells of at least 10 pounds each.

This strength-training move, which works your chest, shoulders, and triceps, is nice to have workout buddy spot you for. Click a bench into a 45-degree angle, and ideally position it so you can see yourself in the mirror. Activate your core for a bit of stability, and lift the weights simultaneously from your shoulders, up through goal-post position straight overhead until your arms are locked. Then slowly, and with control, bring the weights back down to shoulder height. Keep your palms facing each other the entire time, and keep your elbows close to your body, as if they're scraping your ribcage. Do 3 sets of 8–10 reps.


8 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. February 25th, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    I love this post! Women should lift heavy!

  2. February 25th, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    why palms facing each other?

  3. February 26th, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Lisa – great question. Palms facing each other is really about the shoulder joint. It keep it stable while still allowing a full range of motion.

  4. February 28th, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    I agree with Ivie, women should lift heavy. I know many women that are afraid to pick up the bigger weights because they think it will make them bigger.

    This is totally not that case. Adding in a few heavy weight days can really help improve tone. Like everything in life, balance!

  5. April 2nd, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Thanks for opening my eyes to the benefits with lifting heavier weights. Yes, I am afraid of becoming bigger but also a BIG YES to mixing up my workout in order to becoming more fit.

  6. December 4th, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Really great article. Wish you could expand on this and give more detailed exercises for us!!

  7. July 11th, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    In addition to lifting weights your diet is super important as well. I know a lot of things changed for me once I switched up my diet. A high protein diet is the way to go, protein contains virtually no carbs. I didn’t always have time to make meals so I would drink a lot of protein shakes. Best one I can recommend is ultimate muscle protein cookies n cream tastes really good.

  8. September 28th, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    I love working out

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