Starting to Lift, By R.L. Muller

This is a draft of a document aimed at older (40-plus) people who want to start lifting weights but are unsure of what's involved and how to do it. It's written in the first person by a 53-year-old guy who started lifting when he was 47 and wishes something like this had been available when he was starting out.Be aware that the writer of this document has no certification, no degrees in anything relevant to weight training, and isn't even half-huge or semi-shredded. The most I can lay claim to is a certain degree of common sense, an abiding fascination with the sport, and a generally opinionated nature. Take what you read here with a grain of salt, and if it runs counter to your own good sense, Don't Do It.

Comments to Rich Muller


People have different goals when they start weight training, but they usually involve some combination of the basics: lose fat, get stronger, look better, feel better. As it turns out, all of these goals are served by the same basic approach, with adjustments depending on which goals are primary: the skinny person who wants to gain muscle mass will eat more than the too-fat person wanting to get leaner. The mass-gainer may do less cardiovascular exercise than the fat-loser. But it's important to emphasize that these are simply variations on the same theme, and a beginner need not be too concerned with subtle variations.

You may have other goals: you may want to use weight training as a way to get better at a specific sport; you may be interested in competitive lifting, either Olympic lifting or Powerlifting. There's a great deal of specific advice which applies to these goals, but giving that advice is outside the scope of this document. The right name for what this is about is "bodybuilding," but many beginners are uncomfortable with that label. It conjures up images of truly huge -- "freaky" is the term they'd use themselves -- people who have taken this activity to the extreme. They've got so little body fat that every vein is visible and their skin looks like parchment; they've got abs which look like "giant raviolis"; they claim to have upper arms which measure over 20 inches. If you're still at the point where you're a little ill-at-ease appearing in public in a bathing suit, calling yourself a "bodybuilder" may seem a little, well, pretentious. But that's what this is: building your body into something whose appearance is pleasing and which functions smoothly and strongly. It's okay: you're a bodybuilder. They're something else.

Okay, what are they? If you've glanced through the bodybuilding magazines or watched a bodybuilding contest on television, you may have the idea that those people are like you and me and that if we work hard enough we could get to look like that. Reality check number 1: these people are genetically gifted in the same way that the people who play in the NBA are genetically gifted: no matter how hard most of us work, playing in the NBA is not in the cards and the fact that we can't do it doesn't represent a failure. Reality check number 2: virtually every one of those men and women is chemically or surgically "enhanced." They've taken anabolic steroids and any number of other drugs and they may well also have had surgical implants. The major exceptions -- the people who we just might look like if we work hard and have the right genes -- are the competitors in the ANBC, the "drug-free for life" bodybuilding conference. And I know just enough people who've beaten the lie-detectors in those competitions to be a tad skeptical there, too. The point here is to set your sights on reasonable goals.

Now down to business: Any program whose goal is to lose fat and/or gain strength will have three components: weight training, cardiovascular exercise, and an eating plan.

Weight Training

The general idea here is that you shouldn't and don't need to spend hours in the gym every day. Sessions of about an hour in length, two or three times a week, will get anyone off to a good start; even many experienced folks don't invest more time than this. The program I'm going to suggest involves lifting three days a week, each day targeting a different group of muscles. Another approach would be a twice-a-week workout hitting the entire body each day. I suggest the 3-day "split" because I think it helps build the habit of regular workouts and can involve shorter workout sessions.

I'm assuming that you have access to a good gym or health club, and that if you have any doubts at all about your basic health that you've checked in with your medical practitioner. Since form is so crucial to lifting effectively and safely, a couple of sessions with a trainer at your gym to make sure you know how to do the lifts correctly is strongly recommended. A word, though, about the advice of "experts" -- medical and exercise. Older lifters, particularly women, may not get whole-hearted support for this enterprise from professionals who are uninformed about the benefits of progressive resistance exercise -- weightlifting -- for people of all ages. There's research out there: lifting shows enormous benefits even for elders in nursing homes! So if you get a response like I once did: "Walking is the best exercise for people your age" say thank you and try to find a better-informed adviser.

So what to do? Set a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, at a time of day which you can protect from other demands. For me this is the early morning, before work. Start each workout with a short -- ten minutes does me -- warm up on a stationary bike or StairMaster or some such: just enough to begin to break a sweat. The idea is to get your pulse rate up a bit and get blood flowing through the muscles and supporting structures like tendons and ligaments... not to use up energy or tire you out.

Then to the weights. Monday is for chest and triceps: the "pushing" muscles. Wednesday is for the big muscle groups of your legs: the quadriceps and hamstrings. And Friday is for the back and biceps: the "pulling" muscles.

Each day you'll do four separate exercises, intended to emphasize the major muscles in one part of your. For each exercise, you'll do four sets; each set will consist of a certain number of repetitions of the same movement.

The first set of each exercise is a warmup set, in which your head and your body remember what the movement feels like and you "groove your swing." Choose a weight which you can do easily for 15 reps, and do them: slowly and with good form. Watch yourself in the mirror: check your form. (Better yet, recruit a regular workout partner who will help you maintain motivation, check your form, and spot you.)

Sets 2 3 and 4 are the "working" sets: for these, choose a weight which is a good deal heavier than the first set: heavy enough that you can barely do 10 reps on the second set. Stay with that weight for sets 3 and 4. Rest for a couple of minutes between working sets. If you chose the right weight, you'll get fewer than 10 reps on the third set and fewer than that on the fourth. This is fine: what you're trying to do is push the muscles to the point of failure. This will not be comfortable, but it should not be painful.

Learning what it feels like to push yourself, but not too much, is one of the most important tasks for a new weight trainer. Listen to your body, but be aware that it can be a whiny child which sometimes needs to do something it doesn't wanna!

The other major task for a newcomer is to learn about form. Lifting weights, while it may seem like a mindlessly simple activity, is unexpectedly subtle. Minor variations in grip, stance, and timing can have unexpected consequences. Each rep should be relatively slow: Avoid throwing the weight up or bouncing it at the bottom of a move. Each rep has two phases: the "concentric" phase in which the muscle contracts to lift the weight, and the "eccentric" phase in which the muscle works against gravity to control the descent of the weight. There's a lot of evidence that the eccentric phase (also called negatives or "negs") may be even more important than the concentric phase for building strength, so don't short-change yourself: really focus on a slow, controlled descent for each rep. Some people try to time each rep: 2 seconds up, 4 seconds down. This is more than I can attend to, so I just try to maintain control and finish slow.

About soreness: during some exercises you may feel a "burn" as you work, which goes away almost immediately after the set. This is caused by the chemical reactions going on in your body: lactic acid is a metabolic "waste product" of exertion, and the burning sensation is caused by the buildup of this chemical at the job site. Blood circulation carries this away quite quickly -- usually within minutes. The second kind of soreness is a bit more mysterious, and even has a name in the literature: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS. This shows up as an achy soreness in the muscles you used, anywhere from 14 to 36 hours after the exercise. Believe it or not, no one seems to be quite sure what causes DOMS. All it means is that you've worked the muscle really hard. It's not anything to be worried about, and it's a sensation which most experienced lifters actually look forward to.

DOMS may last for a day, sometimes even two days, but it goes away on its own, and one of the important rules is that you should never work a muscle group again until this soreness has passed. Muscles grow in strength and size between exercise sessions, not during them. If you stress a muscle before it's finished responding to the last stress, it won't grow as efficiently and may even get weaker. This is called over-training, and it's all too easy to do.

The thing you should NEVER feel is pain: sharp, ouchy pain. If you experience soreness, you're probably doing things right. If you experience pain, it's called being injured, and it means you're almost certainly doing something wrong: too much weight, wrong form. Just as with any sport, you will probably experience pain at some point in lifting, but it is NOT something to seek and it is NOT necessary: it represents a mistake or an accident. Avoid them both, okay?

I will not attempt to describe the mechanics of each exercise I list here: for that I suggest a few sessions with a trainer, or an experienced lifter whom you trust (probably not that Really Big Guy screaming at the squat rack -- he may or may not be in your universe) or a good book. But there's a reason why I suggest the exercises I do, and I'll go through them and comment on each. Your entire workout each day will consist of 4 exercises, four sets each: 16 sets, of which 4 are warms. Each working set will be quite short, and you'll leave about 2 minutes rest between working sets. No way should this take more than an hour. For this approach to work well, you will need to make each rep count: focus, focus, focus. Work hard, harder than you thought you could, then enjoy a shower and maybe the Jacuzzi and the rest of your day.

MONDAY - Chest Day

This day works the pecs, the triceps, and to a lesser extent the front muscles of the shoulder group: the anterior deltoids.

Bench press on Smith machine

The bench press is one of the classic lifts. I suggest doing it at first on a Smith machine, which any well-equipped gym will have. The Smith frame keeps the barbell in the right groove and provides a self-spotting mechanism so you can go heavy without being afraid of dropping the bar on your face. When you get the feel of the exercise, try it on a regular bench or try it with dumbbells instead of a bar. These will require a spotter or a partner so you can concentrate on that last rep and not on your orthodontist's bill.

Incline bench with dumbbells

As the incline increases, more of the shoulders are brought into the exercise. By using dumbbells, you also bring in a lot of smaller muscles to help stabilize the action and keep the weight going up and not out. Most people can't lift as much weight on an incline as they can on a flat bench, and dumbbells are harder than a barbell, so be prepared to reduce the weight on this one. Besides, you've already begun to tire the pecs out on the previous exercise. A spotter is very comforting on this exercise.

[About spotters and spotting]

Not everyone knows how to spot, and not everyone wants the same kind of spot. Some people want to struggle with a weight and have the spotter intervene only to prevent disaster; some people want to keep their momentum going and have the spotter intervene sooner. Some people want to be spotted under the elbows for a dumbbell press; some people want to have their wrists stabilized. And so forth. Figure out what kind of spot you want, and tell your spotter; if it's someone you've never worked out with, make sure they know how to spot the exercise you're doing. It's okay to ask. They're your teeth.

Cable cross

This exercise comes close to isolating the pectorals, whose main function is to bring the arms together. Alternatives would be a "pec deck" or dumbbell flyes.


This hits the triceps almost exclusively: the tris have been involved in all the previous work, so they're already a bit fatigued. This will finish them off nicely. Alternatives here would be dips, although these are hard for a beginner, or the "French press" a/k/a "skull crusher."


Because the legs have the biggest muscles in the body, this is the day you'll work with the heaviest weights, and is probably the day which will make you the most sore afterwards. This is normal, and even cherished by some. These exercises produce stress on your whole body: make sure you're well-rested beforehand and make Thursday a total rest day so your body can recover.

Squat on Smith machine

The squat, because it involves so many muscles, is often described as the one lift to do if you do nothing else. Beginners find it scary to have all that weight on their shoulders, and it can be hard to spot a squat effectively. So I suggest using a Smith machine here, too, and moving on to "regular" squats when you're comfortable with the form -- although you'll want to reduce the weight and start all over again when you make the switch. The key is to keep your heels on the ground and to keep looking up, so as to keep your back in the right position. Squats mainly hit the quadriceps and the glutes -- the butt muscles. An alternative would be the hack squat, which comes closer to isolating the quads.

Leg Press

Because balance is not an issue, most people can push a lot more weight on this exercise than on the squat; it hits the quads, hamstrings (leg biceps) and glutes, and by varying your foot position on the sled and the depth of the movement, you can vary which muscle group gets worked hardest.

[How low should I go?]

So there you are doing leg presses or squats and the Really Big Guy comes by and tells you helpfully that you're not going low enough. Maybe, maybe not. There's a mystique about going "all the way down" which goes along with squats for some folks. To hear them tell it, you won't get any benefit at all if your butt doesn't touch your heels. Try this: For starters, go down low enough so that your knee joint is at about a 90-degree angle. That will feel very low indeed with any significant weight on your back. There's a point *just* below 90 degrees -- maybe 85 degrees, but who's got a protractor? -- where the movement feels much harder and my quads really begin to sing on the way up. This point, on a squat, puts the tops of my legs about parallel to the floor. This is what I try for: no lower. No touching my heels on a squat, and my knees are nowhere near my ears on the leg press. Now, this may be one of the reasons why I still, alas, do not need specially-tailored jeans. But my knees have a lot of miles on them, and I'd like to put a few more on. One of the biggest and strongest lifters I know, who not only has pretty big legs but is also a licensed physical therapist, assures me that any lower than 90 degrees and not only are you putting yourself at risk, there's no added benefit. So tell the Really Big Guy to buzz off. Nicely. When you no longer think of yourself as a beginner, try going lower, see how it feels, and make your own decision. But you should be doing that anyway, right?

Leg Extension

This is close to an isolation movement for the quads, if performed with good form. For me it produces a fierce burn and a great pump: it's especially effective if you pause at the top of the movement and give the quads a good squeeze, then lower the weight very slowly. This will virtually guarantee that you'll walk funny on your way out of the gym. If someone looks concerned, just grimace and say, "Leg Day." If they're carrying a weight belt, they'll understand.

Leg Curls

This is for the hamstrings; it's surprising how hard it is and how big the difference is between the weight you can handle with this and the exercises which also use the quads. Try this one leg at a time. An alternative exercise for hams might be the stiff-legged deadlift, but this is a harder movement to do right.

FRIDAY - Back Day

These exercises also work the posterior (rear) deltoids, the traps, and the biceps. A big day, but you do have the weekend to recover!

Lat pulldowns with neutral grip

Most people can't do many pull-ups when they start lifting, so this is a good way to work almost the same muscles. When you can, do pull-ups instead of this move. I suggest the neutral grip -- palms facing each other, rather than facing out ("pronated") or in ("suppinated" -- suppinated pullups bring the biceps into the action in a major way, and are the classic "chin-ups" we all hated in gym class. I did, anyway.) This may involve changing the bar on the lat pulldown machine to a V-grip bar. Do these down to your chest, arching your back a bit at the end of the move, and trying to squeeze your shoulder blades together. You will see people doing these with a pronated grip and a wide bar, on the theory that "wide grip makes wide lats." Actually all it does is increase the stress on the shoulders: the neutral grip will work your lats just fine, as the next-day soreness will confirm! Doing wide-grip behind the neck, which you'll also see a lot of people doing, is VERY hard on the delicate internal structure of the shoulders -- the rotator cuff -- and no better for the lats, although it can hit the delts pretty well.

Seated Row

This is a good power move for the whole back. Be sure not to lean too far forward, which places lots of stress on the lower back as the weight gets heavier. Your back should stay pretty much upright and the handles should come right into your gut with your chest puffed out at the end. Concentrate on doing this with the back, rather than the arms, although your biceps will inevitably get worked as well.

One-arm dumbbell row

It's hard to get the form down right, but when you get them they're a great exercise. Concentrate on bringing the arm and dumbbell up and back as a unit, rather than letting the biceps get too much into the act.

Standing cable curls

By this time your bi's have been worked pretty well, no matter how careful you've been, so this will finish them off. I suggest doing these with a cable to keep a constant tension throughout the movement: free weights have a sticking point where the move is hardest, but then as the weight comes up the exercise gets too easy too soon. An alternative would be to do these using a preacher bench, or to do seated dumbbell curls on an incline bench, leaning slightly back.


Once you've paid your gym dues, lifting is pretty inexpensive. For those of you who are closet gear freaks, this may be something of a disappointment. But there are two little items you may want pretty early on in your career: a belt, and lifting straps.

The point of a belt is to protect your back when you're going heavy on an exercise like squats. The belt, if cinched really tight, gives your abs something to push against and the effect is something like a splint, keeping your back in line. There are leather belts and cloth-and-velcro numbers which come in a variety of colors. Mine is black.

Lifting straps are nifty little things which help you do things like pullups and pulldowns and deadlifts and other exercises where your grip might fail before the larger muscles are fully worked. Some people think that the solution is to do exercises to strengthen your grip. Most people use straps. Don't be embarassed if you have to ask someone how to use them... it's by no means intuitive. Ask the Really Big Guy.


Why do cardiovascular ("aerobic") exercises in addition to ("anaerobic") weight training? Most people who lift weights also want to lose fat. This is the way for clothes to fit better and to look good on the beach. Most people want six-pack abs and overall muscular definition. It's not enough just to have muscles: to look good they have to show, and the way to look "cut" is to reduce the amount of subcutaneous fat between the skin and the muscles. The usual way to measure this is by getting an estimate of your bodyfat percentage: that shredded look requires something well below 10% for most of us: those Olympic gymnasts were probably at something like 6% or less. (Professional bodybuilders use, and have been known to kill themselves using, diuretic drugs to get every bit of water out of their skin and achieve that "parchment" look.) There are lots of ways to estimate how much of your body weight is fat: a book like Sears' "The Zone" has some good simple ones which you can do yourself with nothing but a tape measure. Beware, though. It's easy to get hung up on this number. Remember that what's important is whether it's going up or down, and whether you like what you see in the mirror.

While you're looking, remember that you can't remove fat just from a particular problem area: for men it's usually around the waist, for women it's usually on the hips. Spot reducing doesn't work, so the only way to get rid of that spare tire is to reduce overall body fat. Murphy's law virtually guarantees that the fat you hate most will be the last to come off.

The trick is to lose fat without also losing muscle, or, even harder, to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. This is the Holy Grail of bodybuilding, whether you want to look like Dorian Yates, Glenda Murray, or the Soloflex model.

If you're doing weight training you've already taken the best first step to losing fat: muscle is more metabolically active, and the more muscle you've got on you the more fat you'll burn while you're just sitting around watching TV.

The conventional wisdom for fat loss is to do a lot of low-intensity cardiovascular work, and many people make a point of doing a low-key half-hour or more on the Stair Master or bike almost every day. People who are trying to gain muscle mass tend to do this right after lifting or on off days, although most just do it whenever they can. Try it. Do an easy cardio workout four or five days a week. When I've done this I've done cardio on the days when I was doing a low-intensity lifting day and/or on days when I'm not lifting at all; after a high-intensity lifting session I don't have much energy left for the Stair Master: certainly not on Leg Day!

I'll label the approach I just described "high-volume low-intensity." And just as current thinking about lifting has moved away from high-volume methods, there's a growing body of opinion that most of us can accomplish our fat-loss goals with less-frequent, higher intensity cardiovascular sessions: 2 or 3 thirty-minute sessions a week of interval training of some kind seems to suffice in many cases. So if the Stair Master on "manual" five times a week bores you silly, do it once a week on one of the interval patterns for 20 minutes with the level cranked up... after a warm-up, of course. And then on some other day use the rowing machine and do sprints, or do "hill training" on a stationary bike. If you do this, ratchet the intensity level UP: more like 80-90% of maximum heart rate, rather than the 60-70% for lower intensity high-volume training. Experiment. Mix it up. When you get bored with one pattern, go to another. Almost anything works.

Except swimming. It's great for cardiovascular fitness, but not really great for fat loss, at least not for losing those last pounds that make the difference between 12% and 10% or 8%. No one is sure why, and yes, those water polo players on the cover of "Life" magazine were pretty damn cut, but for most of us, swimming is probably best done for fun or fitness rather than fat loss.

Eating and Dietary Supplements

What to eat and how much and when can start more arguments among lifters than almost anything else. Most people would agree that it's better to eat five smaller meals than three big ones and that it's important to drink a lot of water. But after that, areas of agreement are a bit harder to find.

Take the matter of protein: almost every serious weight trainer believes that s/he needs much more protein than "normal" people. This school of thought says that you should aim for something like 1 gram of protein per day per pound of lean body weight, or even per pound of total bodyweight. Conventional sports nutrition tends to poo-poo this position and recommends only slightly more than the US RDA. The bulk of your caloric intake, according to these folks, should come from a diet high in quality complex carbohydrates and very low in fat. But the high-protein school of thought is currently enjoying a renascence: books like Sears' "The Zone" and Eades and Eades' "Protein Power" and "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution" by Robert Atkins are gaining prominence in the popular nutrition literature, and all of these authors converge on a set of recommendations which are almost identical. These programs would have you consume about 1 gram of protein per day per pound of lean weight, and then calculate your intake of carbs and fat in proportion to the protein. The result is a high-protein, moderate-carb and moderate-fat diet -- rather far from the high-carb very-low-fat diet which has dominated the popular literature, at least, for quite a while now. For capital-B Bodybuilders, there are other variations on this theme: DiPasquale's "Anabolic Diet" and Duchaine's "Bodyopus" diet: both of these would have you do high-protein on weekdays and then switch abruptly on the weekend and go high-carb. Whatever!

And then there's the never-ending debate about supplements, ranging from multivitamins to protein drinks to branched-chain amino acids to creatine monohydrate to anabolic steroids. Reading any issue of "Muscle Media 2000" will show you how complicated and politicized the simple matter of feeding your face has become. Assuming you have chosen not to use steroids -- and most people are put off by the potential for nasty side-effects if used without medical supervision, as well as by the fact that they're illegal in most countries -- then what to do? The only chemical other than steroids which seems to really work is creatine monohydrate, which for many produces a quick boost in lean mass and strength, and which seems to have no obvious unpleasant side-effects. I've used it; it works for me. Protein drinks are a convenient way to add high-quality calories to your diet, but are not a magic potion. Think of them as convenient food, useful for when you can't get to a stove or can't stand the thought of another chicken breast or can of tuna.

Bottom line: Eat a lot of quality food, spread intake out over several meals and snacks rather than one or two big feeds, drink lots of water, and experiment with the proportions of protein, carbohydrate, and fat -- find what works for you. Use protein drinks for convenience if you want and can afford them. Try creatine, although it's pricey, too. Take a multivitamin. By the time you develop your own strongly-held theories of what and how to eat, you won't be a beginner any more.

In Conclusion

Relax and enjoy it. Lifting is one of the best things you can do for yourself, and whether you wind up eagerly awaiting each workout or just cheerfully tolerating it as necessary maintenance, it will almost certainly give you a stronger, leaner body, more energy, and an enhanced self-image. Not a bad return on the investment of about 5 hours a week, including showers! A fellow "older" lifter, Grover Furr, put it this way: me perhaps the greatest benefit of weight training has been the realization that ANYBODY can look great, feel great, and be in great shape by regular, intelligent exercise and by controlling what they eat! A look and feel of what our culture thinks of as unusual fitness is possible for the vast majority of the population.
I never realized this until I took up weight lifting, because, in my experience, only lifting causes such a drastic reshaping of your body in so relatively short a period of time. This in itself is tremendously motivating. Perhaps just as motivating has been the fact that I am virtually NEVER tired by the normal rat-race of daily activities, no matter how long they last or how fatiguing I used to find them. Weight training gives you more than enough strength to overcome them all. It's tremendously motivating.

While there are some important things to learn in order to avoid injury, there are very few hard and fast rules. So, except for safety-related stuff, don't worry about doing it "right." Figure out what seems to work for you and do it.

Just Do It.

RL Muller
August 1996
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