Weight Lifting: The Ultimate Guide to Training for Muscle & Strength

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By Alex
Last updated on

This weight lifting guide teaches you exactly what you need to know about training to build the physique you desire.

You will learn exactly how to gain muscle mass and build strength to dramatically transform your body and physical performance.

With this guide, you will find everything, from the bare essentials of lifting weights to the critical exercise concepts and training principles that will unlock your strength and muscle building potential.

Furthermore, you’ll discover how to identify the weight lifting techniques that are best for your body.

Before delving too deeply into this weight lifting guide, I’ll tell you why weight lifting is the best solution to a bigger, stronger, and leaner body…

…Why Weight Lifting?

Weight Lifting is Just Better. Weight lifting is, by far, the fastest and most effective exercise method to build muscle mass and strength. Any other forms of exercise, including running, bodyweight exercises, Bowflex, or even Chuck Norris’ Total Gym, are simply inferior for our purposes of gaining muscle and strength.

More Than Just Picking Up Heavy-Ass Weights. Weight lifting doesn’t just reshape your physique; it molds you into a stronger and more mentally tough individual. Any endeavor you can possibly think of starts with weight lifting – from making so much money that you can wipe yourself with Franklin’s face, to being the first man to climb Mt. Everest in sandals.

Weight Lifting Benefits. Clearly, the above goals are a tad exaggerated and seemingly unrelated to lifting. However, my point is that the benefits from weight lifting are virtually limitless because you are building much more than just muscle and strength.

  • Dedication. Any goal in life takes a certain amount of dedication, which you will develop through weight training. As a matter of fact, you must develop dedication if you want to get anywhere near your ultimate goal.
  • Persistence. Weight training is unsurpassed in its ability to build your dedication and persistence. It is, by nature, a continuous goal, which requires you to constantly strive for improvement – one more plate, one more rep, one more set. You must constantly push yourself to the next level of success.
  • Profit by Investing in Yourself. By always striving to improve your physique and muscular strength, you are constantly improving yourself. It is like a never-ending, appreciating asset – you get back what you put in, PLUS interest.

Commit. If you make the decision to get serious about your fitness goals, then all you need is a gym and this information. The rest of this guide teaches you how to become a master of the weight room and get the most out of your weight lifting routine. Now, let’s start the first day of the rest of your life.

Choose a Weight Lifting Routine

Use a Proven Workout Routine. Don’t worry about making your own weight lifting routine from scratch until you have experienced several proven routines.

The Weight Lifting Routine Database has complete information on several time-tested and respected weight lifting programs. The database also helps guide you to find the best-fitting workout for your goals and experience level.

Keep the following points in mind for any and all routines that you use.

  • Experiment. It’s your job to test several different types of routines, see what works, and then try the different techniques on this page. Keep the best methods in your weight training arsenal.
  • Be Observant. You’ll find that certain methods and techniques work great for your body, while others will do jack. The point is to narrow down the best training approach for you.
  • Stay Open-Minded. Too many trainees find the first approach that works for them, treat it as gospel, and proceed to shut down any other ideas. Avoid falling prey to this limiting mindset – it will restrict your potential.

Weight Lifting Exercises

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises. Weight lifting exercises are classified as either compound or isolation movements. The main difference between compound and isolation exercises is the number of muscle groups used to perform the movement.

  • Compound. A compound exercise is a multi-joint movement that requires using multiple muscle groups to perform the lift, thereby recruiting more muscle fibers. More muscle fibers recruited equals more weight that can be lifted, which is fundamental to making strength progress and building muscle.
  • Isolation. An isolation movement requires using only one muscle group to perform an exercise, thereby stimulating fewer muscle fibers. Isolation exercises do have a place, though. They can target specific muscles that are lagging or aren’t fully stimulated during compound movements (e.g. calves, forearms).
  • Focus on Compound Lifts. Compounds trump isolation movements for efficient strength gains, which makes it easier to gain muscle mass. Therefore, compound exercises should be the focus of your weight lifting routine. However, it is okay to perform some isolation exercises. But if the majority of your exercises are isolation lifts, you are cutting yourself shorter than Mini-Me.

Push vs. Pull Exercises. For every muscle group in the body, there is an opposing muscle group. One muscle group is used for push exercises and the other is used for pull movements.

  • Push Exercises. Any exercise that requires you to push to lift the weight. Push exercises typically target the muscle groups on the front of the body. Common examples include squats, leg press, bench press, push ups, military press, tricep extensions, and calf raises.
  • Pull Exercises. Any exercise that involves pulling to lift the weight. Pull exercises typically target the muscle groups on the back of the body (posterior chain). Some examples are deadlifts, cleans, rows, pull-ups, chin-ups, and bicep curls.
  • Maintain a Balanced Push-to-Pull Ratio. Use a roughly even number of push and pull exercises in your weight lifting routine to avoid a muscular imbalance. If anything, use slightly more pull movements because they work the muscles that are significantly underused because of the modern, sedentary lifestyle.

Top 10 Exercises

Best Exercises. My choice of the 10 best lifts to gain muscle mass while building strength are all compound exercises:

  1. Barbell Squat
  2. Deadlift
  3. Power Clean
  4. Barbell Bench Press
  5. Barbell Overhead Press
  6. Pull Up
  7. Dip
  8. Barbell Bent Over Row
  9. Dumbbell Lunge
  10. Push Up

Stick to the Basics. The best advice for a novice lifter is to stick with basic, foundational exercises. Doing a bazillion different exercises can only hurt your progress because you would have to spread your focus too much.

In building a strong foundation around the “bread-and-butter” exercises, you ensure success from the minute you step foot in a gym. Therefore, it is possible to make a top-notch weight lifting program using only half of the above exercises, as long as you work the entire body (e.g. Starting Strength Routine).

Exercise Technique

Proper Exercise Form. Each weight training exercise is meant to work specific muscle groups. You have to do the exercise correctly if you want to do this. If your form is pitiful, you’re wasting time, energy, and not to mention, partaking in the ultimate douchebaggery.

  • Leave Your Ego at the Door. Inexperienced lifters tend to fall into the trap of trying to lift a heavy weight as possible while their form sucks. I know it’s tempting to want to throw on the extra five pounds, but you’ll end up with poor results and, eventually, an injury. The best advice is to be as eager to have perfect technique as you are to lift beastly weight and gain muscle mass.
  • Don’t Be That Guy. It is much more impressive seeing someone lift 1 plate on the bench press with god-like form versus the jackass bouncing 2 plates off his chest, while his crew of spotters do all the actual lifting. The lack of proper form oozes through the pores of this ignoramus, and it may be contagious. ;D

Reps and Sets

Reps and sets act as the nuts and bolts of a weight lifting program by connecting and holding together the structure of exercises.

Sets. A set refers to a collection of exercise repetitions done consecutively.

  • Rest Between Sets. Each set is followed by a period of rest to allow the muscle to recover and re-energize. The length of rest periods varies depending on the exercise, rep range, intensity, and goal. Many of the strength routines on this site have rest periods between 2-3+ minutes due to the high intensity. Bodybuilding-focused routines tend to have shorter breaks of 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

Reps. Reps (repetitions) are defined as the number of times an exercise is completed during one exercise set. Each full repetition consists of an eccentric phase in which you lower the weight (aka, the positive rep); and a concentric phase in which you lift the weight up (aka, the negative rep).

  • Rep Ranges. A rep range refers to the number of repetitions you perform in a set. I recommend using low or moderate rep ranges for the majority of exercises. However, it’s important to utilize all rep ranges (see chart below) for full muscle development.
Weight Rep Range Main Purpose*
Heavy Low (1-6 reps) Strength
Moderate Moderate (7-12 reps) Hypertrophy (Muscle)
Light High (13+) Endurance
*This is not absolute, rather it is a generalized view of rep ranges.

Weight Training Tempo

Weight Training Tempo. Tempo is the speed at which you perform a repetition. Implement the following tempo into your weight lifting routine to maximize explosive strength gains:

  • Eccentric Tempo. This is the speed at which you lower the weight. The eccentric should be done slowly (about 2-3 seconds).
  • Concentric Tempo. This is the speed that you lift the wait. This concentric should be completed as fast as possible while still keeping control.

Breathing Technique

How to Breathe when Lifting Weights. The best way to breathe while weight training is the way that feels natural. This is contrary to the common advice that you must inhale throughout the eccentric, exhale throught the concentric, and never hold your breath at any point for any amount of time. That is simply bad advice.

Just as you shouldn’t have to think about the act of breathing during everyday activities, you shouldn’t have to do so while lifting, either. It a natural instinct to use what’s called the Valsalva maneuver when attempting to lift or move something heavy. As I said, it comes to you naturally, but you should still learn how to execute it most effectively:

  • Valsalva Maneuver. To provide you with an abridged description; the Valsalva maneuver involves taking in a deep breath before you start the concentric repetition. As you begin the concentric, you forcibly exhale against a closed glottis (windpipe structure that controls air passage). Since it’s closed, no air comes out. Instead, the pressure inside the abdominal and thoracic cavities increases.

Warming Up

The Lost Art of Warming Up. Warming up properly is one of the most overlooked aspects in many peoples’ routines. No worries for you, though – I’ll teach you how to do it right so that you’ll be one be one of the few who are getting the maximum short and long-term training benefits.

Three Phase Warm-Up Routine. The general, stretching, and specific warm-ups are the three phases that make a full warm-up. Each phase is critical in optimizing performance, safety, and health for any routine. I describe how to do the three phase warm-up below:

  • General Warm-Up. Do 5-10 minutes of low intensity cardio. The goal is to get your joints moving and to warm up your muscles by slightly raising your heart rate. You should feel warmer and more energetic. You’re doing it wrong if you’re drenched in buckets of sweat and panting like a tubby mailman being chased by a Rottweiler.
  • Stretching Warm-Up. Stretch any and all muscle groups that you will be using in your workout. I prefer a stretching routine that uses both dynamic and static stretches. The goal is to feel more flexible and have greater range of motion. Stretch for as long as it takes to achieve these goals, but no longer. In other words, don’t stretch to the point that you resemble Gumby.
  • Specific Warm-Up. This phase involves performing multiple warm-up sets of the first lift in your workout. The first set should use light weights for no more than 5-8 reps. Gradually increase the weight on each consecutive set, while decreasing the reps. The weight of the final warm-up set should be slightly less than what you plan to use on the first work set. The goal of this final phase is to prepare the target muscles for the heavy lifting portion of your workout routine.

Form the Habit of Warming Up. I strongly recommend you integrate a full warm-up into every workout. Consistently doing so has short-term performance and safety benefits as well as long-term health benefits. Although it’s not as glorious as the actual workout, it’s just as important.

The “Condensed” Warm-Up. As much as I stress the importance of warming up, I also understand you may be strapped for time once in a while. When time is an issue, perform the specific warm-up phase and scrap the first two phases. Completing just the specific warm-up should do the trick, but don’t make it a habit.

Intensity, Volume and Frequency

Relationship of Intensity, Volume, and Frequency. Although you don’t have to worry about creating your own weight lifting program any time soon, it is important to understand that all workout programs are just variations of intensity, volume, and frequency.

Intensity. Although it is classically defined as the percentage of your 1-rep max for an exercise, you only need to understand that it refers to the heaviness (not actual poundage) of a weight used during a set. There three basic intensity levels:

  • High Intensity. Refers to a heavy load – a weight that you could lift for low reps (1-6) before failing. However, you don’t necessarily have go all the way to failure.
  • Medium Intensity. Refers to a medium load – a weight that you could lift for moderate reps (7-12) before failing. However, you don’t necessarily have go all the way to failure.
  • Low Intensity. Refers to a light load. A weight that you could lift for high reps (13+) before failing. However, you don’t necessarily have go all the way to failure.

Volume. The amount of ‘work’ you do during one workout session. Work is calculated as: sets x reps x weight. Therefore, you can change the amount of work/volume by changing the number of sets, reps, or weight. The three levels of volume are:

  • High Volume. A high number of sets and reps performed by a muscle in a workout.
  • Medium Volume. A moderate number of sets and reps performed by a muscle group in a workout.
  • Low Volume. A low number of sets and reps performed by a muscle group in a workout.

Frequency. The number of times you work each muscle group per week. You should train as frequently as your muscles can recover. However, recovery time (and therefore frequency) depends on the intensity and volume of your routine. The three levels of frequency are:

  • High Frequency. Working each muscle group 3+ times per week.
  • Medium Frequency. Working each muscle group 2 times per week.
  • Low Frequency. Working each muscle group once per week.

The Principle of Progressive Overload

The Golden Rule. Progressive overload is the most important principle that must be part anyone’s weight lifting program. It states that you must continually challenge your muscles in order to see results and avoid plateauing.

In other words, if you increase the weight lifted or reps achieved in one week’s time, you will grow in either size or strength. Implement progressive overload into your program by:

  • Changing Intensity. Use higher intensity by adding more weight to the bar. Beginners should have no problem upping the weight each week. However, more experienced lifters may have trouble doing so at such a fast pace, so they might try going to failure.
  • Changing Volume. Try increasing the number of reps or sets in each workout. This challenges the muscles to respond by subjecting them to more total work. Do not increase volume so much that it inhibits consistent strength gains.
  • Changing Frequency. The more often you can train the muscle groups, and heal them properly, the quicker you can build strength and gain muscle mass.

Training to Failure

Failure Training Method. Performing an exercise until you cannot complete another concentric repetition without sacrificing form. Failure occurs when the muscle fibers are unable to contract hard enough to lift the weight for any more repetitions.

  • Pros. Training to failure is a technique for stimulating strength and muscle gains. It can be an effective tool if you’re trying to increase the load of an exercise from a previous workout. By pushing it to the limit, you can progress faster (to a certain extent).
  • Cons. Unfortunately, frequently going to failure taxes the central nervous system (CNS), which can fatigue the CNS. A fatigued CNS requires a lot more recovery time, which is a recipe for sub-par gains or overtraining. Training to failure also increases the likelihood of injury if you’re not careful.

To Train to Failure or Not. There certainly are other weight training methods (see progressive overload) that produce results, but that’s not to say you can’t use failure training effectively. The key is to use it in moderation only after consider the following:

  • Experience Level. I do not recommend training to failure for anyone who is just starting out. Beginners will see the same results using lower weight and avoiding failure compared to using heavier weight and training to failure. They also have the opportunity to learn better exercise form and avoid injury.
  • Workout Frequency. Training to failure is more suitable for certain workout routines. Since you need more recovery time after going to failure, minimize failure training when using a high frequency routine (e.g., full body – each muscle hit 3x/week) because you need to recover quickly when working all the muscle groups multiple times per week. Conversely, lower frequency routines (e.g., body part split – each muscle hit 1x/week) are better candidates for training to failure because each muscle group has a full week for recovery.

Flexibility & Mobility Training

Kill 4 Birds with 1 Stone. Who wouldn’t want to increase their resilience to injury, develop a stronger posture, improve strength and muscle building potential, while simultaneously boosting their general health and well being? Nobody in their right mind, that’s for sure!…

…But, with a wide-eyed look and in complete shock, you say, “That.. that’s.. just… impossible. How could it be?” Well, young grasshopper, it’s actually very possible. It’s just one of the best kept weight lifting secrets. Okay, even if you weren’t so flabbergasted by my claims, you should still read below on how to achieve said benefits.

Flexibility & Mobility Training. Flexibility and mobility training are among the least practiced activities that can perfectly supplement your routine; not just as part of your warm up, but as separate regemins. Among the various techniques and exercises are:


Rest Requirement. You need a lot of rest to get the best results from weight lifting. Look to Rip Van Winkle for motivation if you must. However, rest is more than just sleeping. We can divide it into three sub-categories:

  • Sleep. Strive for 7 to 8+ hours of quality sleep every night. This might be difficult for some, especially if you go to school or have a job. But the difference in everything from muscle and strength gains to energy levels and mood is more than worth it. Budget your time so you don’t miss out on one of the most underrated aspects of fitness.
  • Recovery. Aim to have at least 2 full off-days per week (no cardio or weight lifting). Also, ensure enough recovery time between workouts of the same muscle group. The amount of recovery time typically varies between 1 day (low volume workout) to a week (high volume workout).
  • Time Off. Be sure to take a week off from all weight lifting activities about every 3 months. Think of it as a well-deserved vacation. However, if you’ve already caught the “gym-bug” and feel too guilty skipping a week, then take a deloading break instead.

Rest is Essential. Weight training breaks down muscle tissue and taxes the body. Sufficient sleep and recovery time gives your muscle, joints, CNS, and mind a much-needed break. Rest is the only time that your body can rebuild the muscle to grow and become stronger. In the absence of adequate rest, your body becomes increasingly catabolic, breaking down muscle tissue that it can’t repair.

Final Word

Training Summary. The most important points to remember in this weight lifting guide are:

  • Warming Up. Form the habit of integrating a 3 phase warm-up into your routine.
  • Exercise Technique. Think about perfecting your exercise form as much as you think about lifting big boy weights.
  • Compound Exercises. Focus on compounds to build a strong foundation.
  • Progressive Overload. Strive to make each workout be better than the last.
  • Rest. Be sure to get enough sleep and recovery. Take a week off every 3 months.

Just add the right nutrition plan and there is no doubt that you will gain muscle mass. And, of course, you will have the juggernaut-like strength to back it all up.

Get Lifting! Now that you’ve finished reading this guide, you can use this knowledge to get faster and more profound results. So, get to the gym and make the most of your training!

Alex from King of the Gym
Hey! My name is Alex and I'm the founder and author of King of the Gym. I've been lifting weights seriously since 2005 in high school when I started a home gym in my parents' basement. I started writing about fitness in 2009. Then, in 2014, I got into writing home gym equipment reviews and I haven't looked back. My current home gym is in my own house and it's constantly growing and evolving. My goal is to help you build the home gym of your dreams! Read more about me here.

2 thoughts on “Weight Lifting: The Ultimate Guide to Training for Muscle & Strength”

  1. I’m a 60yr man and have a bowflex and work out 6 days bulk weight lifting.
    I want to switch over to rep weight lifting but I’m confused about the amount to warm up with then move to next weight. (Example)do I start with a pound as warm up then move to 2 pounds for 12 reps for 3 sets or should I move up for very new set


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