Secrets of Successful Weight-Lifting Workouts

6 weight-training techniques that will help you get results.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

It seems so simple: Pick up and toss around the equivalent of a couple of soup cans a few times a week, and change your body, maybe your life. This very simplicity is at the heart of weight training, which is fast becoming one of the most popular forms of exercise today.

The sport that was once confined to bulky bodybuilders is now being embraced by the average guy looking to drop a few pounds and beef up his physique, as well as the average gal looking to tone up and strengthen bones and muscles as she heads into middle age, experts say.

"Weight lifting not only helps you to look better, but it can play an enormous role in your quality of life as you age -- particularly for women -- since it definitely helps increase bone density, which diminishes with age," says Cedric Bryant, vice president of scientific affairs for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

And unlike other forms of exercise that burn calories only while you're working out, weight lifting keeps on incinerating calories for hours after you stop, experts say.

"It increases your metabolic activity for the entire day -- not only when you are challenging your muscles, but also during the repair process that occurs when you stop working out," says Alex Schroeder, an exercise physiologist and trainer at Form and Fitness, a Milwaukee, Wis., gym and rehabilitation center.

Of course, a successful weight lifting workout does involve a bit more than just moving those soup cans from the kitchen counter to the cabinet a few times a week. To help put you on the path to success, WebMD asked Bryant, Schroeder, and Mike Ryan, a weight expert from the Gold's Gym Fitness Institute for some tips on how to start a weight lifting workout and stick with it until you meet your goals.

Weight Lifting Workout Rule No. 1: Define Your Goals

For any exercise program, it's important to start with a realistic goal in mind. But for weight training, experts say, it's essential. Why?

"Setting a goal that's attainable is important to not only give you a sense that you are accomplishing something, but, in the case of weight lifting, to insure that you don't overdo it when you first begin," says Schroeder.

Because successful weight training involves small steps, having short-term goals will keep you from giving up too soon, he says.

Ryan agrees with this strategy. "It's extremely important to set realistic, achievable goals so that you don't get discouraged, and so that you don't try to do too much too soon and increase your risk of injury," he says.

What's more, he cautions that this advice is as important for seasoned athletes as well as fitness newbies.

"No matter how much you've accomplished in another sport, if you haven't done weight lifting, you're still a beginner, so don't expect too much too soon," says Ryan.

Weight Lifting Workout Rule No. 2: Choose the Right Equipment

One of the best things about weight training is that your muscles don't know the difference between a $2,500 machine and $25 resistance band. So you don't have to spend a lot to get a lot of results. All you have to do is to challenge your muscles.

"The really nice part about that is if you are on a tight budget, you don't have to feel you are getting a compromised weight training workout because you can accomplish your goals without spending a lot of money," says Bryant.

Whether you're using hand weights, barbells, or resistance bands, Ryan says, look for whatever size allows you to do 12-16 repetitions. If you can't, they're too heavy.

But if you can do more than 15 with good form, then the weight load is probably not quite challenging enough, Bryant says. "So look for something a bit heavier or add on more resistance," he says.

Weight Lifting Workout Rule No. 3: Don't Go It Alone

When it comes to weight lifting, how you do the exercises can be as important as which ones you do. That's why having even one session with a personal trainer can definitely get your weight training program going in the right direction, experts say.

"This is particularly true if you are working with dumbbells," says Schroeder. "It's important to have someone overseeing you at least the first few times, so you can achieve the correct form and function."

If that's not possible, the next best thing is using strength-training machines. These work well for beginners, Schroeder says, because they force your body into the correct position.

"It's still a good idea to have someone looking over you the first few times, to make sure the machine is adjusted correctly for your weight and size, but generally, the machines do help keep your body in line," says Schroeder.