Weight lifting 101

Before weight lifting:

Before I properly started weightlifting. Feb 2016. Body fat approx 22%.

After weight lifting:

Weight lifting involves lifting weight.! this can be done using free weights, resistance machines and barbells.

The very public debate

Pro weight lifting

  • Improves fitness

  • Improves mood

  • Increases basic metabolic rate (i.e you can eat more.!)

  • Reduces sarcopenia (muscle wasting which occurs from the age of 30)

  • Used in conjunction with healthy lifestyle +/-weight loss

  • Do as much or as little to suit your lifestyle.

Against weight lifting

  • Can cause serious injury if correct form or precautions are not implemented correctly

  • Arguably more expensive ( purchasing gym membership/ weights at home) but running also requires purchase of running gear too.

I can’t think of any other negatives.

Obviously Im pro-weight lifting. In fact, I would say if you had to choose between weight training or running I would advise choosing weights as there are HUGE health benefits.

Most guys lift weights as there is immense pressure from society/social media/girls to get 'big' (I will do a blog post about 'bigorexia' in the future.!).

I think the benefits of resistance training is increasingly being recognised amongst females as a way to get a 'nice figure'.

The main reasons why people avoid weight lifting include:

  • Worry of injuring their back/or previous injury which they worry about reoccuring

  • Girls worrying they will become too big/muscular/manly

  • Girls being intimidated about going into the weight lifting section, as it is mostly frequented by guys (but changing.!)

  • Don't enjoy it.

Unless a doctor/physiotherapist/health care professional tells you to avoid weight lifting, none of the above reasons should stop you from doing it.

If you don't enjoy it, I would suggest attempting to persevere  for 2-3 sessions a  week. There are many options for ways to lift weight e.g. doing group classes etc. You will reap the rewards for doing so. Try see it as a necessity e.g sleeping/eating food/ cleaning etc.

Getting started

Following my usual style (obviously.!) the first step is deciding your goal.

  • Weight loss

  • Toning up?

  • Becoming stronger?

  • Improving fitness.

On a side note- I dislike the terms 'weight loss' and 'toning up'. So much so I have done a separate blog on this  titled 101 fat loss. If 'losing weight' is your target please refer to that blog also.!

Weight lifting and 'cardio' should be used in conjunction with a good diet. However your plan should be tweaked according to your main goal:

  • Fat loss: the priority is refining nutrition (while use cardio + weight lifting as an accessory)

  • Increasing muscle mass/strength: the priority is 'heavy lifting' (using nutrition as an accessory).

For fat loss you need to create a calorie deficit (ie energy consumption is less than energy expenditure).

To increase muscle mass/strength you will need you create a calorie surplus (ie energy consumption is more than energy expenditure). However, this should not be a huge amount (and is not an excuse to eat 50 donuts.!). 200ish extra calories a day for muscle growth is sufficient.

The exception to this is if you are new to weight lifting (typically less than one year). In this cases, you can lose fat and gain muscle (known as newbie gainz!).

Whilst you can create a calorie deficit/surplus eating pizza and crisps, it is important to also keep in mind your long term health.  Eating nutritious food will improve your quality of life and health as you become older.

Overview of weight lifting

Weight lifting can be split into:

  • Compound lifts

  • Accessory lifts.

Compound lifts

A compound lift is a weight lifting exercise which targets multiple muscles in different areas of the body at the same i.e legs, core and arm muscles. Examples include squats, deadlifts, pull ups and bench press (but there are many more such as hip thrusts, shoulder press etc). When you perform a deadlift you strengthen your legs, core and arms. Infact I think deadlifts actually works every single muscle in the body!!

As you are using more muscles to undertake the exercise. You will 'consume' more energy. You basically get more buck for bang! 30 deadlifts will burn more calories than 30 bicep curls.

These should be the main focus of your work out irrespective of whether fat loss or strength/muscle gain is your target. 

Accessory lifts

An accessory lift is a weight lifting exercise which targets isolated muscle groups such as bicep or leg curls. They don't really 'burn' many calories but help improve definition of muscles. 

These should be used in conjunction with compound lifts.

Compound lifts creates a more 'defined' version of yourself while accessory lifts 'sculpts' the body.

For someone who is new to weight lifting I suggest weight lifting 3 times a week, increasing to 5 as you become more experienced. Ideally you should aim to do 1-2 compound lifts with 2-3 accessory lifts per session.


Monday: deadlifts, benchpress, bulgarian split squats and bicep curls.

Wednesday: Squats, overhead press, bent over row and hamstring curls.

Friday: deadlifts, incline bench press, core workout and kettle bell swings.

Saturday: Squats, lat pull-downs , hip thrusts, anterior dealt flies and leg extension.

Central nervous system overload

Compound lifts are particularly taxing on the central nervous system (CNS) as it uses so many muscles in the body. This can cause 'CNS overload' which is essentially 'overtraining syndrome'. This may include muscle soreness, extreme fatigue, difficulty in sleeping despite tiredness, low mood, loss of appetite amongst other symptoms.

You should therefore, do each compound lift 2- 3 times a week, spaced out to allow adequate muscle recovery. You should also have a 'deload' every 4-6 weeks. This consists of a week in which you reduce the load you are lifting to allow your muscles and CNS to rest for a period of time.

Key terms used in weightlifting

  • Reps: the total number of individual exercises e.g. 30 bicep curls

  • Sets: how total reps are split. e.g. 30 bicep split into chunks, for example 10 reps 3 times with a short period of rest between each set

  • Load: amount of weight lifted

  • Progressive overload: The gradual increase of load. This can be done during an individual session e.g. 10 x 7kg bicep curls -rest-10 x 8kg bicep curls -rest- 10 x9kg bicep curls  or increased on a weekly basis e.g. 30 x 7.5kg bicep curls during week 1 then increasing to 30 x 10kg bicep curls at week 2.

  • Volume: The total amount of work undertaken. This is dependent on the number of total reps and load lifted. The greater the volume, the greater the increase in muscle mass/strength

  • Form: Using correct exercise technique. Hugely important as it minimises the risk of developing serious injury

  • Bulk: increasing muscle mass

  • Cut: reducing body fat.

Weight lifting techniques

Two methods are mainly used for weight lifting:

  • Lower weight and a higher number of reps

  • Heavier weight and a lower number of reps.

Crudely speaking both will have the same outcome but there are pros and cons to both.

Lower weight and a higher number of reps


  • Good for muscle hypertrophy

  • Less taxing on the body

  • Lower risk of injury

  • Easier to focus on good form

  • Less likely to develop CNS overload.


  • Time consuming

  • Slower increment of strength have to do many more reps (compared to heavy lifting) to get same the same effect (both strength and calorie expenditure).

Heavier weight and a lower number of reps


  • Good for muscle strength

  • Greater calorie expenditure

  • Quicker strength progression 

  • Fewer reps/time required for same effect as lower reps.


  • Taxing on body

  • Higher risk of injury

  • Becomes harder to have good form

  • Increased risk of CNS overload.

Ideally it is best to to do a mixture of both methods, enabling hypertrophy and strength progression. I try vary what I do aiming to 'lift heavy' 1-2 times a week.

The number of reps/sets done will depend on your goal. If you want bigger muscles focus on lower weights and more reps. If you want to become stronger lift heavy shit (i.e fewer reps, heavier load).

Examples used for strength training include:

  • 30 reps (i.e 3 x10 reps)

  • 25 reps (i.e 5x5) (what I am currently doing).

Examples used for muscle hypertrophy include:

  • 60 reps (i.e. 3 x20 reps)

  • 70 reps (i.e 7 x 10 reps).

Rest intervals

Rest between sets will depend on your goal.

The greater the load, the more rest you will need between sets, the lower the load, the less rest you will require between sets.

Shorter rest intervals can also be used as a form of 'cardio'. Increasing the speed of reps and reducing rest intervals will result in your heart needing to work harder, therefore burning more calories.

Most people have between 30 seconds to 2 minute rest in between sets. I usually reduce rest intervals if I am short on time.

When I’m lifting super heavy shit i.e. 1RM (FYI beyond the scope of this blog, but will be explored in greater detail in my advanced weight lifting blog), I sometimes rest for 3+ minutes.

The hip hinge

If there is one thing you can take away from this blog, it is to learn how to do the hip hinge.

This technique underpins the squat and deadlift. In my opinion these are the two most important lifts people should do. They aid fat loss, strength, core and are the most efficient weight lifting exercises. If anyone is time restricted, hands down I would propose doing these 2 compound lifts (more than running!).

The hip hinge is difficult to master. Even though I have been weight lifting 18+ months, I always have something to work on. Keeping the spine neutral when squatting and deadlifting is vital. Easier said then done!. Despite not being an expert, when I am 'gym spotting' I notice approximately 80% of men/women do these exercises incorrect. 

It is FAR more important (and impressive) to have good form and lower load, then lift heavier amounts of weight with poor technique.

I'm not going to explain how to do the hip hinge. There are many excellent youtube videos on this. A visual demonstration is more useful then one of my rambling written explanations. However, if there is one person I would suggest youtube-ing it is to look up Mike Thurston. He is immense,  I love his scientific and easy explanations of how to perform exercises, nutrition prep and general life advice.

Even if you don't want a personal trainer (PT), I would suggest paying for 1 or 2 sessions to make sure you own the technique. Money well spent.! Not only are you ensuring you are lifting weights safely, you will also progress quicker too. 

Nb: please find a suitably qualified & experienced PT there are many 'cowboy' PTs. I have seen PTs who are playing on their phones, gossiping and not modifying poor form when delivering a session to a client. 


A message to girls

Many girls are afraid of lifting weights or lifting heavier weights because they think they will become butch/manly/fat.

This is FALSE. The only way a girl will look butch/many/fat is by:

  • Eating more calories then you consume (irrespective of what you eat/how much you lift)

  • Using steroids/growth hormones/insulin DONT DO IT!!! (I will do a separate blog piece on this)

  • You have an excessively high amount of testosterone. Probably <0.01% of the population.

The only way girls will get a 'bikini body' physique is by undertaking progressive overload- i.e. increasing the load and volume aka lifting heavy shit.

A girl lifting more than 1.5 x her body weight will not look butch and lifting 2.5kg or 5kg weights will not get you the 'sculptured' legs or arms.

To get a proportioned physique you will need to focus on all muscle groups. A lot of girls only train legs but for the 'perfect' physique (and strength for compound lifts!)  you will also need to work on the whole body. This means doing bench/shoulder press and not only squats. I rarely see girls do bench press. In fact I have only seen one other girl do bench press at my gym. This is because most girls see bench press as a 'manly' exercise. Actually bench press helps increase size of the pectoral muscles essentially a non surgical 'lift' if you get what I mean ;).

Also, men will always be stronger/lift more as they have more testosterone, and have different muscle distribution to women. It is much easier for them to bench press more/ do pull ups as they have more upper body muscle when compared to women.

I have huge respect to women who can perform unassisted pull ups. Super hard and demonstrates wonder woman fitness.! Go gurl!

Finally, a lot of girls say they want to 'tone' their arms or belly.  By tone they mean spot reduce fat in these areas. I frequently see girls focusing on doing crunches and 2 kg bicep curls despite having 10-20kg of extra fat.

It is SCIENTIFICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to spot reduce fat. The only way to reduce fat on arms/stomach area is to reduce your overall body fat percentage. Girls should focus on nutrition and compound lifts.

Also, it is much harder for females to have 'ab definition' as they require a higher body fat percentage for menstruation (see 101 fat loss).

Doing accessory core/arm exercises will not reduce fat but it will help improve definition when overall fat has been reduced. E.g. seeing the bicep muscle shape when a certain body fat percentage is achieved.

 A message to the guys

There is immense pressure for guys to be 'big' with low body fat. This is informally termed 'bigorexia'. I have met SOO many guys who are insecure about how small they are. It is the same as the pressure on girls to be thin (although this is changing to big booty, small waist and big boobs).

However, it is not worth succumbing to this pressure whilst damaging your your health. Please DON'T do steroids. Whilst they are known to increase muscle size there are so many health risks. As a doctor I've seen a 30 year old have a heart attack & another guy develop a septic arthritis (infection of a joint, which spreads to the blood stream, is potentially life threatening and can completely obliterate/damage the joint) from steroid use for weight lifting. I have also encountered patients who developed perforated stomach ulcers, overwhelming infection (resulting in death), diabetes and psychosis for the use of steroids for medical purposes. As you can see a serious drug which needs close monitoring by health care professionals. Not cool.

Just youtube/google Dallas McCarver (he trained with Flex Lewis). He was predicted to win Mr Olympia in the near future. Unfortunately, he collapsed on stage during a competition last year .

His death certificate has been published online and states his cause main cause of death as cardiomyopathy (enlarged weak heart) occurring from steroid use.

If you youtube him you can actually watch him collapse just before he died during a body building competition  :(. Same also applies for insulin/growth hormone.

It is so much more impressive to see a guy who has muscle gainz through focus, hard work and grit rather than 'cheating’. More attractive not only in appearance, but personality as it demonstrates hard work, dedication and persistence.

I can usually tell if someone is using steroids- the speed of muscle growth /load used does not correlate with what the physical appearance. It would typically take years (3-5 years) to achieve a true body building physique without steroids.

Another bit of advice- form always trumps the load. Many guys feel embarrassed lifting lighter loads, as it makes them appear like a 'wuss'. As a consequence they lift heavier loads at the expense of good form. It is pretty routine to have guys tell me they dont deadlift/ bench press etc because of a previous shoulder/rotator cuff injuries/back injury that has put them off. Most injuries occur due to incorrect bench press/deadlift techniques or rarely lifting huge load (e.g. powerlifters).

Firstly, don't continue to train an injured muscle- this is just going to increase the likelihood of permanent damage. Whilst bench pressing 80 kg may sound impressive, not being able to lift a bag of shopping at the age of 40 because you've developed arthritis of your shoulder joint isn't. If there is pain, it is there for a reason.

Secondly focus on form. If you're serious about 'bulking up' becoming stronger then you need to understand the correct form/technique/biomechanics of a lift. If the form isnt correct then you're lifting too much and you need to drop the load and your ego.

If there is one thing to take away from all of this it is to learn how to the hip hinge with the correct technique. This can take months to master.

Don't get bogged down trying to increase load at the start, that will come with time and you will reap the benefits in the long term.