by Jason Stallworth

July 26, 2019

Whether you aspire to be a bodybuilder, powerlifter or just want to start lifting weights, you need to begin with the basics.

There are certain core exercises you need to learn how to perform. You also need to know how to maximize muscle growth and strength for each body part.

That’s why I created this post, the Fundamentals of Weight Training.

In this post, you’ll learn: 

  • What exercises you need to start with
  • Proper form and execution
  • How to properly train each muscle group
  • What you need to get started lifting weights
  • Tips on how to make every workout effective

Benefits of Weight Training

I could go on for days telling you why you should start lifting weights. I’ll just say it’s awesome in the fact that it will change every part of your life, forever.

It goes beyond just getting bigger and stronger. As you probably already know, there are loads of health benefits to weight training. But there are also psychological benefits you get from hitting the gym as well. 

So yes, weight training helps you build big muscles and get stronger, but here are other reasons why you should lift weights

  • It becomes a lifestyle that will lead to healthier choices
  • Strong muscles help support strong bones
  • Increase longevity by decreasing body fat and improving cardiovascular health
  • Having strong muscles can reduce your risk of injuries
  • Can reduce the risk of diseases and ailments per
  •  Builds confidence
  • Can put you in a position to help the others (weightlifters often attract attention – use this to give back!)

These are just a few reasons you may have not thought other than just building muscle. But it’s pretty cool to see how weight training can impact practically every part of your life, for the better

Now let’s dig into the ‘meat and potatoes’ of weight training fundamentals…

5 Basic Exercises to Start With

deadlift platform for strength training and bodybuilding workouts

When you’re just starting out, you want to perform the exercises that build the most mass and strength

Think of these exercises as building a house. You need a solid foundation for that house to stand firm before you start building out the details.

And that’s what these exercises will do for you. So get ready to build your house!

Here are the first 5 exercises you’ll want to focus on: 

  1. Squats
  2. Deadlifts
  3. Bench Press
  4. Barbell Rows
  5. Overhead Press

Most every other exercise you’ll do in the gym will be based on one of the above movements.

And don’t worry, we’ll get to the fun exercises like curls later. But in the beginning, it’s important to focus on these 5. Remember, you’re building your foundation. 

Now I’m going to teach you how to perform each exercise, with proper form. 


Squats are often called ‘the king of exercises.’

Though it focuses on lower body strength and mass, it’s actually considered a full body exercise due to the effort that goes into squats.

Squat Day

How to squat:

  • Position the bar on your lower traps behind your neck while gripping the bar about shoulder-width apart
  • Firmly step back
  • With a controlled motion, start squatting down towards the ground
  • Force the pressure to be on your heels (not the balls of your feet as you don’t want to lean forward)
  • Do not round your back
  • Drop just a little below parallel
  • Squeezing the bar tight (almost pulling it down into your traps and shoulders), power back up to standing position


Deadlifts are right up there with squats in regards to being one of the best muscle and strength building exercises.

When deadlifting, you’re basically pulling raw weight off the floor. This will pack on slabs of muscle to your frame and help you get stronger.

deadlifts back day lower body day

How to do deadlifts:

  • With the bar on the ground, step towards the bar so that the bar is over the top of your feet
  • Stance will vary but for traditional deadlifts, stand a little narrower than shoulder-width
  • Grab the bar just outside of your ankles (hands can be touching your legs)
  • Pull the bar up keeping the bar against your body throughout the lift
  • Do not round your back (keep a slight arch)
  • Once you’re in standing position, do not hyperextend your back (I see many do this)
  • Lower the bar back down the same path

Bench Press

Bench press is a favorite exercise of many bodybuilders. It’s also what a common measure of strength (though true strength should be based on how much you can squat and deadlift). 

Bench press will help you build a massive chest and upper body. You’ll get a lot of shoulder and triceps work doing bench press too.

empty bench press with water bottle and gym towel

How to bench press:

  • Lying on the bench with a slight arch in your lower back and feet planted firmly on the group, grab the bar about shoulder-width apart
  • Also, clinch your shoulders blades together before lifting the bar
  • Lift the bar off the rack and with a controlled motion, bring the bar down towards your middle chest
  • There’s a natural curvature with this exercise going and curving back in before the bar touches your chest
  • Once the bar touches your chest, use your power to push the weight back up to the starting point

Barbell Rows

Barbell rows are the antagonist exercise to bench press. You’re pulling instead of pushing.

Doing barbell rows will help you build and develop your back, and often neglected muscle. 

barbell rows back exercise for mass

How to do barbell rows:

  • Grab the bar off the rack about shoulder-width apart
  • As you start to bend forward, arch your back and stick your butt out
  • Also, dig your heels into the ground; this will provide balance and support in the right places
  • Pull the bar up into your stomach
  • Lower the bar back down in a controlled manner

Overhead Press

Overhead press is primarily a shoulder exercise but also builds overall upper body strength.

This is the opposing exercise to deadlifts. You’re pushing raw weight directly over the head (whereas with deadlifts, you’re pulling raw weight from the ground). 

heavy seated shoulder press

How to do overhead press:

  • Assuming you’re standing, start with the bar at chest level, grab the bar about shoulder-width apart
  • Press the weight up
  • Once you get beyond your face, slightly move your head to where you’re looking forward to ensure the press is directly over your head
  • Lower the back in a controlled manner back to the starting position

*You can also do this seated but make sure you’re doing a true overhead press (many will lean back and this becomes a modified incline press)

Beginner’s Basic Weight Training Workout

bench press 315 chest exercises

Now let’s take those 5 basic mass and strength building exercises you just read about and create a simple workout plan

Before you start, it’s important to understand what sets and reps are.

  • Reps: A rep (repetition) is one completed movement of an exercise, from start to finish, back to start 
  • Sets: A set is a collection of reps

I have an interesting article for you to read later on rep ranges, and what truly works best for building more muscle (the answer may surprise you!): High Reps vs Low Reps: Best Rep Range for Muscle Size

Below are 4 workouts you’ll do within a week. I suggest taking a day off after every 2 workouts. And you can take up to 2 days of rest if you choose. 

Here’s an example:

  • Monday: Workout 1
  • Tuesday: Workout 2
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Workout 3
  • Friday: Workout 4
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

You’ll also notice that you’re doing lower reps for workouts 1 and 2. Workouts 3 and 4 are the same exercises, but with higher reps. This will help build strength and muscle mass and will get you used to working all muscle fibers. 

Also, make sure you do 1-2 warm-up sets (not listed below) with lightweight before going into your working sets.

*You’ll notice below that you’re training everything twice a week. You can read more about the benefits of 1x vs 2x a week in my post: Training Frequency: Once vs Twice a Week for Muscle Mass

Workout 1

Exercise Sets x Reps
Squats 3 x 8, 6, 4, 
Deadlifts 3 x 8, 6, 4

Workout 2

Exercise Sets x Reps
Barbell Rows 3 x 8, 6, 4
Bench Press 3 x 8, 6, 4
Overhead Press 3 x 8, 6, 4

Workout 3

Exercise Sets x Reps
Squats 3 x 12
Deadlifts 3 x 12

Workout 4

Exercise Sets x Reps
Barbell Rows 3 x 12
Bench Press 3 x 12
Overhead Press 3 x 12

If you feel you’re ready to move up to the next level of muscle building and strength training workouts, then I have something for you.

There’s a basic 5 x 5 workout you can start with (you can do the advanced workouts in the post later): 5×5 for Muscle and Strength Gains

Fundamentals of Each Muscle Group

Now let’s learn about the fundamentals of building size and strength for each muscle. We’ll also talk about some other exercises for each body part. 

There are 3 key points we’ll cover for each muscle:

  • How each muscle works
  • Tips to build each muscle
  • Exercises that target each muscle

Chest Training Fundamentals

heavy incline dumbbell press

Your chest muscles are activated by pushing movements. And the core compound exercise to puts the most stress on the chest is bench press, as we covered earlier.

To further build your chest, you need to focus on the negative part of each rep. Instead of just letting the weight fall towards your chest, take 3-5 seconds to make that descent. This will make you stronger and build more upper body size. 

Chest Exercises:

  • Bench Press
  • Incline (and decline) Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Press (incline, flat, and decline)
  • Dumbbell Flyes (incline, flat, and decline)
  • Cable Crossovers/Flyes (upper and lowers)
  • Pec Dec Flyes
  • Dumbbell Pullovers

Back Training Fundamentals

dumbbell rows back exercise

Back is built with pulling exercises. Anytime you pull towards your torso, whether from straight out in front of you, from above, or from below, you’re using your back muscles. This is the opposite of both chest and shoulder, which are built with pushing movements. 

Your back is your largest upper body muscle. As you get further into weight training, you’ll want to do more volume (more exercises, sets, and overall reps).

I would even say train it the hardest (I’m not saying slack on your other muscles!)

But many neglect working their back as hard as, let’s say chest. Don’t make that mistake!

Back Exercises:

  • Barbell Rows
  • Deadlifts
  • Reverse Grip Barbell Rows
  • Dumbbell Rows
  • T-Bar Rows
  • Seated Rows (close and wide grip)
  • Lat Pulldowns (close, wide, and reverse grip)
  • Cable Pullovers
  • Pull-ups

Leg Training Fundamentals

leg press leg workout

The most brutal day of the week is leg day. Or at least it should be. At a super high level, your legs are split up into quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves (there are several muscles within those muscles). 

You can activate your leg muscles with a variety of exercises. More importantly, your legs require more volume than any other muscle group if you really want them to grow.

This is because your legs, especially quads, have more slow-twitch muscle fibers, and those fibers respond better to more volume and higher reps

*In many of my personal legs workouts I do heavy squats in the beginning, but the rest of the leg workout is high reps. 

Extremely important: DO NOT NEGLECT YOUR LEGS! Learn more about why I recommend training legs twice a week in this post: Training Legs Twice a Week: How to Build Bigger Legs

Leg Exercises:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Leg Press
  • Front Squats
  • Romanian and Stiff-leg Deadlifts 
  • Leg Extensions
  • Leg Curls (lying, standing, seated)
  • Hack Squats
  • Lunges (barbell, dumbbell)
  • Calve Raises (standing, seated)

Shoulder Training Fundamentals

seated dumbbell press

Anytime you pushing over your head you’re working shoulders. This is a similar concept to chest training. 

You can also activate your shoulders with lateral movements. This can be done with dumbbells or cables. 

There’s another part of your shoulders and back called your traps. Bodybuilders will often do exercises, such as shrugs, to target these muscles directly. This is a pulling movement (sometimes traps are trained with back instead of shoulders). 

Shoulder Exercises:

  • Overhead Press
  • Seated Overhead Press
  • Seated Dumbbell Press
  • Lateral Raises
  • Bent-Over Raises
  • Front Raises
  • Shoulder Shrugs (dumbbell and barbell)
  • Reverse Pec Dec

Arm Training Fundamentals

Big Arms Workout cover

Ready to get ‘armed?’ Your arms are made up of mostly your triceps. Unfortunately most pay more attention to their biceps (this often happens with chest and back – people, especially guys, tend to train their chest and biceps harder because those are more visible in the mirror)

Triceps are also worked with pushing (chest and shoulders) exercises, and your biceps are worked with pulling (back) exercises. In theory, you can still build big arms without training arms directly. 

You also have your forearm muscles but those get plenty of stimulation from any upper body exercise. 

Triceps Exercises:

  • Close Grip Bench Press
  • Dips
  • Skull Crushers
  • Rope Pressdowns
  • Cable Pressdowns (straight and cambered bar)
  • Single Cable (and Rope) Pressdowns
  • Overhead Dumbbell Extensions
  • Dumbbell Kick-backs

Biceps Exercises:

  • Barbell Curls (and cambered or ‘EZ’ bar)
  • Dumbbell Curls (straight, alternate, and hammer)
  • Preacher Curls
  • Incline Dumbbell Curls
  • Cable Curls

Now that you know the fundamentals of weight training, you may want to read my complete bodybuilding for beginners guide here: Bodybuilding for Beginners: Complete Guide

What About Food and Supplements for Beginners?

I don’t need to tell you this, but nutrition is going to be half the battle. And there are 2 major things to remember when you’re just getting started with weight training:

  • You need food to recover from your workouts and grow
  • Keep it simple

Many overcomplicate this part. So I’m going to give you the most simple nutrition concepts:

  • Quality protein for muscle growth
  • Complex carbs for energy
  • Healthy fats for overall health
  • Processed foods
  • Foods high in sugar and refined sugar
  • Overeating (you’ll get fat!)
  • Undereating (you won’t make gains)

Obviously how much you eat is going to depend on you in regards to if you’re a hardgainer or if you tend to gain fat easily (when I started lifting, I was a hardgainer and should have been eating more calories). 

That’s something you’ll need to experiment with; there’s no one-size-fits-all plan. But if you stick with those basics concepts I gave you, you should be able to easily figure out the rest. 

As far as supplements, I don’t recommend taking anything right away if you’re just getting started. Focus on lifting and eating first. Later, you can start adding supplements. And when you get ready for that, you can read about my recommended mass building supplements

Weight Training Tips for Beginners

Now you’re all set to get started with weight training. I hope you’re excited and ready to hit the gym! 

Here are some simple tips that can help you stay on track with your workouts

  • Choose (or create) a workout program schedule you know you’ll stick with (I have MANY workout programs on my site here).
  • Best consistent! Don’t skip workouts. 
  • Use proper form and do the exercises correctly. No shortcuts. 
  • Always be a student and continue educating yourself by reading more about working out and nutrition (there’s plenty of info on this site but use other reliable sources as well). 
  • Make sure your nutrition is intact. You can learn more about the types of foods you need from my post: Jason’s Simple Bodybuilding Meal Plan
  • Set short-term goals and track your progress, especially in the beginning. 
  • Enjoy your workouts and seeing the changes in your body! 

I hope this helped you learn this post Fundamentals of Weight Training: Your Guide to Muscle and Strength Gains helps you. I’m certain this is now something you’ll do for the rest of your life, and your life will be better because of it! 

Why I Started Lifting Weights

Heavy Metal and Weights book by Jason Stallworth

I want to share a personal story with you.

Your reasons for lifting weights may be similar to why I started. And I’ll briefly share the short version with you.

I grew up as a skinny kid that got picked on a lot. If you’ve experienced this or anything similar, you know how it kills your confidence.

So I decided that I would start lifting weights as a means to an end.

I’ll never forget those days of lifting those cement-filled plastic weights in the backyard. I was about 14. Little did I know then that this would become one of my greatest passions.

If you want to learn more about how I got started, you can pick up my book on Amazon: Heavy Metal and Weights

*You also get 2 workout programs in my book!

Train with Passion,


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