You’ve picked out a program, chosen your gym, and now you’re pumped to get in there and start putting in the work. The first time you approach that squat rack, though, how much weight should you start loading on the bar? How do you know where to start for shoulder presses? If you’ve never lifted before, how in the world do you know your 1RM??
It’s okay, we all start somewhere. The key to lifting weights is to learn the movements first, with either no weight at all or a light bar made out of PVC or something similar, until you are able to execute good form with minimal thought. In fact, you can start working on your non-loaded lifts at home even before you commit to a gym membership.
If you can, take videos of yourself to check your form. For example, if just getting down into the hole of a squat is difficult for you, it’s going to be nigh impossible with a loaded bar – so make sure form is fluid and comfortable before adding weight.
When you’ve practiced your non-loaded lifts for awhile and are gaining comfort, it’s time to start slowly ramping up some weights. Your first session should be with just the bar – no weights added. If an Olympic barbell is too heavy to start (and it might be, especially for bench press), then a lot of gyms carry a lighter training bar that is 30-35 lbs and generally a little shorter – so ask someone on staff if you need a different bar. If there is not a lighter bar available, substitute dumbbells, and start with 5 or 10 lbs.
Focus on lifting for either more reps or more weight in each session and it doesn’t matter that you’re starting out much lighter than you can physically handle – soon enough you’ll be moving those big weights. Don’t cater to your ego, start slow so you’ll be able to keep lifting for decades.
It is a good idea to shoot for adding 5-10 lbs to every lift, every week, if you are a novice. For lower body compound lifts such as squat and deadlift, if you feel comfortable, you can get a little more ambitious and add 20 lbs/week in the beginning. You may find that for the first few weeks or months all of your weights feel light and easy, and you might be tempted to jump up in weight faster. Don’t. You are putting in valuable time driving the movements of the lifts into your muscle memory by repeating lifts and strengthening your neural pathways.
During this process of learning the lifts and ramping up weights, it’s important to ask for a spot whenever you feel that you need one. Generally any gym-goer will be willing to give you a spot, or if you’re uncomfortable asking other patrons, the staff and personal trainers at your gym are there for just that reason.
Remember, your muscles don’t know the difference between 100 lbs or 500 lbs – as long as you are stressing them and tearing down the fibers, you will grow bigger and stronger. In the long run, it is far more effective to execute a lift with light weight and perfect form than it is to throw around ego weights which might injure you and keep you out of the gym. Proceed carefully and gently, and you’ll be in excellent shape for years to come.