Weight Plates

The beginner’s guide to weight training – including the 5 best free weight exercises

“The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer”

Arnold Schwarzenegger


Weight PlatesAll exercise images used in this article are screenshots taken from the Full Fitness App

Weight training is king of the exercises when it comes to reducing anxiety.

I honestly believe that without it I wouldn’t have got to where I am today. Both in terms of feeling calmer and having the mental strength to overcome anxiety.

Before we go any further I want to take the stereotypical image of a bodybuilder out of your mind.

I’m talking some grossly over the top muscled up man who has pumped himself full of steroids, or the freakishly masculine looking woman who has pecs bigger than her breasts.

Those are the extremes and have nothing to do with what real weight training for the average person is.

Here we will be talking about weight training for:

  • Building lean muscle and burning fat for men
  • Toning up and burning fat for women

The benefits of weight training

Weight training has a raft of benefits, most people think that this all centres around body image and aesthetics. The truth is by regularly lifting weights you will find that the mental benefits are by far the most impressive.

Regular weight training can help with the following:

  • Focuses your mind and distracts you from your negative and anxious thinking whilst working out
  • Releases endorphins during and after training which improve your mood and thoughts
  • Helps you learn discipline and dedication – vitally important to make the right decisions when facing anxiety
  • Builds self esteem and feelings of achievement through what you accomplish
  • Boosts your self confidence in the way you look and feel
  • Improves social interactions with like minded people you meet when training – the gym, especially the weights room is often very sociable with people helping each other out with their lifts
  • Improves memory and cognitive ability – your thinking becomes clearer and you can focus on other tasks without losing concentration
  • Reduces tiredness and fatigue – you would think the opposite would be true, but weight training can improve your overall energy
  • Improves sleep – you sleep longer and deeper

What, all that can be achieved simply by lifting weights?

Yes, but there is a catch.

If you only weight train a few times then the only benefits you will see will be the first two in the list. Both of these are only felt during your exercises and for a short while after.

To get the real long term benefits of all those listed above it requires you to plan out and following a regular weight training program.

For men I suggest 3-5 days a week and women 2-4 days a week.

The Calm and Courageous beginner’s weight training program

If you’re completely new to the idea of lifting weights then it can be quite overwhelming the first time you step in to a gym.

I am therefore going to provide you with a beginners routine which includes the top 5 most effective weight lifting exercises to get you started. These are all free weight exercises using only dumbbells and barbells.

If you are not feeling up to starting straight off at a gym then all of these can be performed at home with only a few basic pieces of equipment.

Free weights are best because they not only train your primary muscles but also train your smaller secondary muscles needed for balance and posture.

Weight machines are best avoided, they only work in one plane of direction and do not help you work your core muscles as much because they support a lot of the weight for you.

They can however be useful if you have very little strength or if you are 50 or older. For most, even just using light free weights are best.

Before you start this program I strongly recommend you have someone at your local gym walk you through the equipment first. It is also advisable to watch online videos of each exercise first to make sure you are using the correct form.

Even light weights, if used incorrectly can lead to injury.

Once you are feeling comfortable this is the routine I suggest:

  • Warm up the muscles you are about to use before each exercise – first start with little or no weight at all and perform the exercise with about 15 repetitions. This will help get the blood flowing and will show you the proper form you need to use. Next add about 50% of the weight you are looking to use and perform another 10 repetitions – it is a little trial and error to begin with to find the correct weight you will need to use.
  • Perform 3 – 4 sets per exercise – add enough weight so that you cannot do more than 8 repetitions in one go, if you can, you need to add more. Reduce the weight if you cannot get at least 4 repetitions. Lower the weight slowly, taking about 2 seconds, then contract and raise it taking about 1 second – keep the movement smooth and fluid.
  • Increase the weight as you progress – it’s no good to use the same weights week in week out. Once you can comfortable get 8 repetitions with good form then you must add more weight until you can reach 8 repetitions with the heavier weight and so on.
  • 3 – 5 exercise per session – do 3 to 5 of the exercises I recommend below per session. Rest for about 1-2 minutes between each set and 2-3 minutes between each exercise
  • 30 – 50 minute sessions – there is no need to be in the gym any longer than this. Get in, get it done and get out. Over training is not good, it will sap your energy and you’ll be less likely to go back in again.
  • Add isolation exercises – once you have mastered the 5 exercises below you can then also add in some isolation exercises to focus on specific muscles. You can use the Full Fitness App to help choose new exercises, it shows you specific exercise by muscle group and also shows you how they should be performed.
  • Rest on alternate days – you can train more than one day in a row, but to begin with your muscles will be sore and you will need to have days when you rest. After 2 or 3 weeks your muscle soreness greatly reduces as your body becomes accustomed to the exercises.
  • Nutrition – make sure you eat food containing both protein and carbohydrates when you finish. This is very important to help the body recover and to reduce muscle soreness. Post work out shakes are a simple and convenient way to do this, my preferred choice is USN Muscle Fuel

The 5 best weight training exercises

Below are the best 5 exercises for weight training. They are the best because between them they offer a full body workout and hit more than one muscle group each. 

Barbell Bench Press

Barbell Bench PressPrimary muscles used: Pectorals (chest)

Secondary muscles used: Triceps (arms), Deltoids (shoulders)

The exercise:

Lie flat on your back on a bench press and grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width apart.

Lift the bar so that it is directly over your chest and slowly bring it down until it just touches your chest but does not rest on it (see position 1), then contract and push it away from you in one smooth motion (see position 2).

Remember to breathe in as you lower and breathe out as you push up.

Alternative versions:

You can also use dumbbells instead of a barbell. Raising or lowering the incline of the bench will also help you target the top and bottom sections of your pec muscles.

Barbell Back Squat

Barbell SquatPrimary muscles used: Quadriceps (legs)

Secondary muscles used: Glutes (buttocks)

The exercise:

Stand in a squat rack with the bar supported across the top of your back – a barbell pad can be used to help cushion the weight.

Lift the weight up and step back a couple of paces so that you are free from the rack, stand with your feet pointing forwards shoulder width apart (see position 1). Slowly lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground (see position 2) and then push through your legs to stand back up again.

Make sure you keep your head up and your back straight at all times.

Alternative versions:

The barbell front squat is where you rest the barbell in front of your head across your shoulders and perform the same movement. For those not confident enough to support a barbell on their body then you can use a dumbbell in each hand to squat with.

Barbell Deadlift

Barbell DeadliftPrimary muscles used: Glutes (buttocks)

Secondary muscles used: Quadriceps (legs), Soleus (leg), lower back

The exercise:

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and placed under a barbell which is sat on the floor and raised slightly by the weight plates (see position 1).

Use an overhand grip slightly wider than your feet and pick the bar off the floor with a straight back by straightening your legs (see position 2). Just before your legs become completely straight (never lock them out completely) bring your upper body up until you are standing vertical (see position 3). Then lower the weight to the floor again in the reverse motion and start again.

Again it is important to keep your head up and back straight at all times.

Alternative versions:

The barbell deadlift can be varied by using different grips. You can use an underhand grip or have one overhand and one underhand (this is the grip I prefer). Dumbbells can used instead of a barbell if lighter weights are required.

Barbell Overhead Press (military press)

Barbell Overhead PressPrimary muscles used: Deltoids (shoulders)

Secondary muscles used: Pectorals (chest), Triceps (arms)

The exercise:

Sit on a bench with the back of the bench raised vertically to support your back. Hold the barbell in front of you with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart (see position 1).  

Raise the bar directly above your head until your arms are straight but not locked out (see position 2). Lower slowly back to your starting position and repeat.

Alternative versions:

For an alternative exercise use dumbbells instead of a barbell. You can also perform an Arnold Press which involves raising the dumbbells down in front of your chest with palms facing towards you. This gives you a wider range of movement.

Barbell Rows

Barbell RowsPrimary muscles used: Latissimus Dorsi (back)

Secondary muscles used: Trapezius (shoulders), Lower back

The exercise:

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart gripping the barbell over hand, bend over until your back is almost parallel with the floor (see position 1).

Raise the bar by pulling it towards your chest (see position 2) and then lowering it back down again, repeat for the number of reps required. 

Keep your back straight at all times.

Alternative versions:

This exercise can also be done with one armed dumbbell rows, using a bench to lean on and support yourself.

Note for women

Many of the women at my local gym stay away from the weights, they prefer to sit riding a bike and watching the tv.

They seem to have this belief that weight training is only for men and that if they do it, they will end up muscly and muscular looking.

The truth is unless you are lifting very heavy weights and eating 3,000-4,000 calories a day you are not going to ‘bulk up’. Even then women struggle to put on muscle and this is because they lack the levels of testosterone that men have and which is vital for muscle growth.

The muscle women you see on tv and in magazines are all taking testosterone or human growth hormone (HGH) to get like this.

All the personal trainers at my gym take the women in to the weights room for around 70% of their session, this is because they know this is where they get the results.

So do not let this stigmatism hold you back from learning to weight train.


Weight training for both men and women is an excellent way to get fit and healthy, but more importantly to help you reduce your anxiety.

Not only are the mental benefits far reaching but you will also get feelings of self achievement and improved self confidence from the way you look and feel.

Weight training requires dedication and discipline to keep it going. Give up within a couple of weeks and you’ll never really see the benefits. 

Just like anything in life, you only get out what you put in.

Weight training for me is one of the most important parts of my day, it fires me up and helps to keep me motivated and focused in other areas of my life.

As Arnie said, we are not here just to exist and survive and nothing teaches you that more than going and lifting some iron.


Hugo Rock


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