Beginning Weight Training Part I: The Basic Exercises

By: David Amici, University Recreation and Wellness, Certified Personal Trainer

Resistance training is important, for health as well as body composition, but there is a lot of confusing information out there on how to get started. But fear not—a simple program using fundamental movements will provide you with exactly what you’re looking for. This first installment of a two-part blog series will review movements and how to perform them safely and part two will address how to set up a program. Let’s get started!

What exercises should I be doing?

As a general rule, think about an exercise in terms of how many muscles are involved and the range of motion that it encompasses. Why? By using your muscles together, “full body exercises” create a systemic effect. By making you balance while calling a lot of muscles to fire at the same time, full body exercises create adaptations distinct from what you can get on machines or with isolation exercises. Because of this, they reward you with the best progress for your time.

First Tier Movements Second Tier Movements Assistance


Squat Leg Press Leg Extension
Deadlift Rack Pulls Back Extensions
Bench Press Decline Bench Dumbbell Fly
Overhead Press Seated Press Triceps extension
Bent Over Row Cable Row Reverse Fly
Chin-ups/Pull-ups Lat pull down Bicep Curl


Technique is paramount when it comes to learning these movements. While they provide the quickest improvement, they also allow for the biggest margin of error. To get your form right, I recommend investing in a few sessions with an experienced personal trainer. If that is not an option, read the basics noted below, click the hyperlinks, and give it some practice. Check yourself in the gym mirrors, record yourself, or have a friend take a look.

Squatting movements: Back squat, front squat, goblet squat, etc.

  1. The heels will remain flat on the floor. Don’t shift onto your toes, which shifts pressure to the knees. To practice this, lift your toes up in your shoes on a few reps to see how it feels.
  2. The hips will drop slightly below the level of the knee when viewed from the side. Stretching by sitting in a bodyweight squat (below) is helpful to reach depth. But, only go so low that…
  3. For safety and efficiency, the spine has to stay neutral – not over-arched, but definitely not hunched over. To do this, take a big breath and squeeze both your abs and your spinal erectors (the “chest up” or arching muscles).


Overhead pressing movements: Barbell, dumbbell, standing or seated, push press, etc.

  1. The abs and glutes must be squeezed for any standing overhead press to prevent spinal hyperextension, or too much arching (seen to the right).
  2. For any overhead press, the shoulders should be shrugged slightly (the “I don’t know” kind of shrug) to prevent the bony parts of the shoulder from pinching and irritating the softer tissues.
  3. The bar (or dumbbells) should go up in a straight line, as close to the face and body as possible.


Pulling from the ground: Barbell or kettlebell deadlifts, bent-over rows, etc.

  1. The bar or kettlebell will be close to or touching the body at all times.
  2. The back will be extended, just like in the squat. Squeezing the chest up to arch the back is the hardest part of doing these correctly, so make it a priority.
  3. Once you’re set, keep the back tight and stand up! Lower it with the back arched and the feet flat.


Bench pressing movements: Dumbbell or barbell, incline or flat, etc.

  1. Retract your shoulder blades, like you were trying to pinch something between them.
  2. Create a small back arch by lifting your chest up.
  3. Lower your wrists to chest level, around the nipple line, then come back to the starting position.


Now that you get the basics…

By understanding the fundamental movements, you can safely perform them as well as their derivatives—for example, if you can squat, you can surely leg press safely. Learning the big movements teaches how to control your body. After that, you can learn any exercise you want.

In my 2nd blog post, I’ll share a workout template I use with most of my beginning clients. In the meantime, leave any questions you have about weight training in the comments below!

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