8 Exercises You Need To Know If You’re New To Weightlifting (And How To Do Them)

how to do basic weightlifting exercises

Unsplash/Alora Griffiths

About a decade ago, we still thought that weightlifting was reserved for the bodybuilders of the world, while the rest of us could get by on cardio alone. Luckily, the benefits of strength training for the general population, regardless of age, gender and fitness goals, are becoming common knowledge. Including weightlifting into your fitness regimen can reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis by strengthening your bones and also kick your basal metabolic rate (the amount calories that you burn at rest) up a notch because muscle tissue burns more calories at rest than body fat.

But if you’re used to heading for the cardio machines and steering clear of the weightlifting area at all costs when you hit the gym, it can be intimidating to begin a weightlifting routine, especially if you’re not entirely sure what exercises work which muscles or how to do them. So don’t stress — we’ve got you covered. Here are the eight basic weightlifting exercises that every beginner lifter should know, as well as a step-by-step explanation on how to do each of them.

1. Barbell Back-Loaded Squat

You’re likely already familiar with bodyweight squats, but the barbell back-loaded squat is another beast entirely. This exercise primarily works your quads (the front of your thighs), but it also engages your hamstrings, glutes and calves. It’s a great exercise if you’re looking to tone and strengthen your lower body.

Ideally, you’d use a squat rack for this exercise, but if one isn’t available at your gym, you can also do back-loaded squats by placing one dumbbell on each of your shoulders. To begin the exercise, position an empty barbell on the squat rack (if there isn’t one on there already), making sure that the bar is placed three to five inches below your shoulder height. Load an equal amount of weight on each side of the barbell and secure the weight plates in place with a bar collar. If you’re completely new to this exercise, you might want to try completing the squat with just an empty barbell and then add weight as you see fit.

Now that you’re ready to do the exercise, step under the barbell so that the upper part of the back of your shoulders is in contact with the bar. Keep your feet parallel and hip-width apart. The barbell should be held in place by your shoulders and centered on your back. Once you’ve placed the barbell on your upper back, grip it with both of your hands at a distance that’s about double your shoulder width. Use your legs to lift the bar off of the rack and step back slightly so that you avoid bumping into the rack as you complete your squats. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and rotate your toes slightly outward. (You want to make sure that you’re not buckling your knees in when you’re squatting.)

Maintaining this position, bend your knees and allow your upper body to descend under control until your thighs are about parallel to the floor, keeping your knees tracking behind your toes. Then push the weight upward to the starting position by generating power in your quads and driving through your heels. This is one rep. Note: Squatting down to a box or a bench can make you feel more comfortable with this exercise if you’re new to weightlifting.

2. Deadlift

This exercise targets your hamstrings, glutes, lats (the largest muscle of the upper body found on your back) and core. It’s also great for strengthening your posture muscles and helping you stand up taller. You can perform this exercise by using either a barbell or two dumbbells.

Begin by gripping a barbell or two dumbbells with an overhand grip. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, your knees slightly bent and your hands placed just outside of your legs. Keep your shoulders down and back and your back straight (in neutral alignment) throughout the entire movement. Drive through your heels and lift the weight until it comes into contact with your upper thighs, straightening through your legs and back, letting the weight graze the front of your legs throughout the movement. Squeeze your glutes at the top before slowly lowering down to the starting position.

3. Shoulder-Elevated Glute Bridges

If you’re looking to work your glute muscles to get a stronger, peach-emoji-like butt, then this exercise is for you. As you can probably guess by the name, shoulder-elevated glute bridges mainly target your glute muscles, although they also involve your hamstrings and abs.

Begin in a seated position on the ground with a weighted barbell across your lap and the backs of your shoulders resting on a bench. The bar should be directly above your hips. You can place a pad around the barbel or a towel on your lap for cushioning. Complete one repetition by driving through your heels, contracting your glutes and lifting the weight vertically until your hips are parallel to the floor. Squeeze your glutes at the top and slowly lower down to the starting position.

4. Bench Press

You might associate bench pressing with the meatheads that seem to live at your gym, but this exercise is great for anyone looking to gain strength in their upper body. The bench press doesn’t just involve your chest, either. If done correctly, it also works your triceps, biceps, lats and quads.

To begin the exercise, lay down on a bench with your feet solidly planted on the ground on either side of the bench and your knees at a 90-degree angle. Grip the barbell with both of your hands, keeping your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and maintain a slight arch in your back, keeping your butt and your upper back glued to the bench. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and slowly take the barbell off of the rack. Slowly lower the weight to your chest until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, and then push the weight back to the starting position. This is one rep.

5. The Chin-Up (Plus Modifications)

Unlike the slightly-more-intimidating pull-up, a chin-up involves pulling your body weight up to a suspended bar using an underhand grip. Chin-ups mainly target the muscles of your upper back, your biceps and triceps. To a lesser degree, they also engage your chest and your core. Although performing a full-blown chin-up probably isn’t going to be realistic at first for most first-time weightlifters, we definitely recommend adding the assisted version to your strength-training routine. You can either perform an assisted chin-up on an assisted pull-up machine (if your gym has one) or you can use a resistance band by tying it to the pull-up bar. If you choose to use a resistance band, make sure that it’s a heavy-duty one and that it provides enough tension to assist you when you perform your chin-ups.

Place both of your feet on the resistance band (or on the footplates of the assisted pull-up machine) and grasp the pull-up bar with an underhand grip with your hands about shoulder-width apart, letting your arms hang from the bar fully extended. This is your starting position. Keeping your body straight, bend your elbows and pull yourself up until your chin meets the bar by squeezing through your lats and your biceps. Hold at the top for a couple of seconds before slowly extending your arms and lowering down to the starting position. That’s one rep.

6. Weighted Step-Up

This exercise specifically targets the muscles of your posterior chain — in particular, your glutes and hamstrings. It’s also good for building strength in the quads (the front part of your thighs). Weighted step-ups differ from other lower body strength exercises because they work one leg at a time, so you can be sure that you’re building strength equally on each side and not favoring one particular leg. To do this exercise, all you need is a bench that’s roughly knee-high and two dumbbells.

Stand in front of your bench, holding the dumbbells at your sides. Begin by stepping up onto the bench with your right foot and then with your left. Once you’re standing with both feet on the bench, slowly lower your left foot back to the starting position, keeping your right foot in place. Complete eight repetitions only stepping up and down with your left foot while your right foot remains on the bench. Switch the leading leg and repeat the same thing on the other side, stepping up and down only with the right leg.

7. Weighted Split Squat

Like the regular back squat, split squats also primarily target the quads. The main difference is that split squats emphasize one leg at a time, which can make this exercise a little more challenging since it forces you to work extra hard to maintain your balance.

To perform a split squat, begin by standing with one foot in front of the other in a staggered stance with your arms directly by your sides, holding one dumbbell in each hand. Slowly lower down into a lunge position, keeping your front knee in line with your front foot, until your back knee hovers a few inches above the floor. Drive through your heel and extend your knee to return to the starting position. Perform eight to 12 repetitions on one leg before switching legs and doing the same on the other side.

8. Bent-Over Rows

These babies mainly target your back muscles, specifically your lats and your rhomboids. Since the rhomboids are one of the major muscle groups responsible for shoulder retraction (keeping your shoulders down and back), this exercise is great for those who struggle with bad posture in the form of excessively rounded shoulders.

To begin the movement, hold a loaded barbell with an overhand grip and your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend at the knees and hinge at the hips, slightly leaning forward while maintaining a flat back. Holding this position, lift the barbell to your belly button by squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your core braced. Make sure that your elbows remain close to the sides of your body throughout the entire movement. Hold for a few seconds at the top of the movement before lowering the bar back to the starting position.


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