The basic principles of lifting weights and building muscle

Follow these principles of lifting weights and building muscle to enhance your life well into later age.

principles of lifting weights

Note: If you’ve been lifting weights consistently for over a couple of years then this article is not for you. If you’re new to lifting weights or have no experience at all then read then these basic principles of lifting weights and building muscle are for you.  

Lifting heavy objects is one of the best things you can do for your health, lifestyle and overall longevity.

It is just as important, if not more important, as doing regular cardio (walking, running, staying active etc) to maintain good health and wellbeing.

If I only had the option to either lift weights or do cardio then I’d pick the former every time.

Lifting for longevity will help you stay strong as you move into old age. And while it requires consistent effort following these basic principles of lifting weights and building muscle is enough to ensure you have strength and stability for a long time.

Lifting weights has simply too many benefits – both short term and long term – that not having a regular lifting program is detrimental to your health.

Adhering to a regular weightlifting program will:

  • Increase your strength
  • Build your stamina
  • Increase your endurance
  • Improve your flexibility
  • Your body will fight off sarcopenia
  • Decrease your chances of injury
  • Improve your posture
  • Boost your natural testosterone
  • Reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis
  • Eradicate stress and anxiety
  • Promote muscle growth and tone making you more physically attractive to women
  • Develop a stronger frame that will signal you’re more dominant to other men
  • Help you sleep better
  • Help you lose body fat
  • Your body will burn food quicker
  • You’ll feel more inclined to eat healthy food over junk
  • Develop your confidence
  • Instil discipline
principles of lifting weights
Admittedly he is on hormone replacement therapy but Dr Jeffry Life proves you’re never too old to pick up the weights

Unless you’re overtraining or have bad form (i.e. not doing the exercises correctly) then there are no downsides to lifting weights.

That said, all of the above don’t come quickly nor easily. Like most things of value, improving your health through lifting requires:

  • Dedication of time
  • Commitment
  • Long term perspective
  • An acceptance that there will be (a healthy) pain

You don’t even need a gym or weights as adhering to a bodyweight exercise routine will improve strength and build muscle, at least initially.

For this post though, I’m going to assume that you have access to a gym with ample weight lifting equipment. A combination of free weights (barbells, dumbbells etc) along with machine weights (leg press, smith machine etc) is good.

Most purists will likely say that you should focus on free weights mostly since they allow your joints  to move in their most natural way. I use both types which works for me.

principles of lifting weights

I’m also going to assume that you’re not intending on standing on a stage with other men oiled up and in tight trunks.

To be a competitive bodybuilder even at amateur level requires a dedication in which your life has to revolve around. Anyone that lives this lifestyle I respect but it is not a life for me.

So, what are the basic principles of lifting weights and building muscle? Here I’ll outline them but first a short physiology lesson.

How does the body grow stronger and build muscle?

The science is relatively straight forward. When you overload the muscle with weight you damage it by creating tiny tears in it. This damage is only temporary and it sends a signal to the body that the muscle must grow in order to lift the weight easier next time.

Except next time you have a heavier weight or more repetitions planned to damage it again. This is called progressive overload which means the gradual increase of stress on the body to make it grow.

There’s more to it than this but if you understand this fundamental piece of information you’ll be able to increase your strength each week in your first year of training.

Pick a routine before you set foot in the gym.

Before you set foot into the gym you should have a weight lifting routine you plan to follow.

If you’re completely new to lifting then ideally you should work with a personal trainer for the first couple of months. This will allow you to understand the types of exercises you should be doing and the correct form you should be using.

Routines are varied from the simple to the complex. If you’re a beginner you’ll be likely doing a more basic kind. This does not mean it’s less effective.

People who have been lifting for years have to push their body harder and trick it more often in order to make extra strength and muscle gains.

People who are new to lifting will experience a period of rapid increases in muscle and strength. These are aptly named ‘newbie gains’.

There are countless routines available for free on the internet. Before you find one consider what your priorities are.

Do you have weak areas you want to work on?

I’m long-limbed so I have to work harder on training my legs and chest (short armed people find it easier to bench press as their arms have less distance to travel). I generally prioritise these two groups.

Are you looking to build strength, size or both?

In weight lifting the number of reps and sets you do creates a different outcome of results.

  • Low reps in the 1 to 5 range: build develop strength over size
  • Mid reps in the 6 to 12 range: build an equal measure of strength and size
  • High reps in the 12+ range: build muscle endurance and size

I generally focus on reps in the mid range.

Get a basic understanding of the muscular system

When you perform a particular lift you should know which muscle (or muscles) you’re working. Having a basic understanding of the human muscular system will help you do this.

You don’t have to be an orthopaedics professional but a general understanding is useful.

principles of lifting weights


Learn the exercises

There is no shortage of individual weight lifting exercises you can add to your program. There are hundreds of them, some more advanced than others.

If you’re like me and don’t intend on being a bodybuilder then you should stick with the tried and tested basics.

We can group each exercise into two different groups: compound exercises and isolation exercises

Compound exercises 

Compound exercises require multiple muscle groups to perform them and are usually considered the most straining on the body. A compound exercise is performed by having one muscle do the bulk of the work but supported secondarily by other – usually smaller – muscles.

Compound exercises include:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Dips
  • Bench press
  • Shoulder press
  • Rows
  • Pull ups

principles of lifting weights

Isolation exercises 

An isolation exercise is where only one muscle group is trained on its own with no support from other muscle groups. This means that one group is ‘isolated’ during the movement of the exercise allowing you to focus specifically on it.

Isolation exercises include:

  • Leg extensions
  • Leg curls
  • Calf raises
  • Bicep curls
  • Tricep extensions
  • Raises
  • Flyes

Isolation exercises are generally less taxing on the body than compound exercises and some people will say that you should only focus on the compound movements.

In reality, both can help you develop a strong and muscular body.

Regardless of the exercise you’re doing it is critical that you get the technique right

If you don’t, at best, the muscle won’t grow and, at worst, you could get injured.

Every exercise should be done with good form and with the movement kept as strict as possible. It’s hard to maintain good form when you’re pushing out the last rep of a heavy weight so take it to failure while keeping the movement strict.

Sometimes you see idiots in the gym who are clearly trying to lift weights that are too heavy for them. These are often people who are new to lifting and are letting their ego get in the way of making real progress. Don’t let that be you.

Keep track of your lifts

Remember, to increase strength and muscle you have to progressively overload the body which means adding extra sets, reps and weight as you continue your routine.

Unless you have a photographic memory you’re going to forget your previous week’s lifting numbers so you should write everything down. At the very least you should track:

  • Exercise performed
  • Weight lifted
  • Number of sets
  • Number of reps

There are smartphone apps you can use to do this but I just open up a new email when I’m in the gym, write down everything as I’m working through it and then email to myself after I’m finished a workout. I then add that to a spreadsheet so I can track my data over time.

Spreadsheet to track each day’s training session

Get your nutrition right

If you move from doing little to no exercise to a weight lifting programme chances are you’re going to have to change what you eat and how much you eat (assuming you’re not fat and don’t eat too much already).

Unless you’re already eating a diet with a good balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein) which you probably aren’t you’ll likely have to make a trip to the supermarket and stock up your fridge on good healthy foods.

Different people will say you need a certain percentage of carbs to protein to fat.

Some say 40% carbs, 40% protein and 20% fat. Others say drop your carbs to 20% and up your fat intake.

In reality, you’ve got to figure out what your own body requires since we’re all different. My own genetic data has told me I’m not carb sensitive and I always feel good when I eat carbs.

Other people try to keep carbs to a minimum. It’s horses for courses.

See also: I guide my genes to guide my health, fitness and lifestyle.

Your shopping trolley should include the following:

Chicken, steak, tuna steak, tinned tuna, eggs, sweet potatoes, seasoning (for chicken), avocados, peppers, onions, broccoli, carrots, asparagus, olives, tomatoes, nuts, seeds, leafy veg, apples, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, greek yogurt, peanut butter, almond butter, porridge, 85% dark chocolate and goats milk.

These are basic good foods and if you’re decent in the kitchen then you’ll be able to knock up a lot of different dishes from these ingredients.

Remember to rest

This is something I have to work on myself.

I usually train first thing on a morning. As soon as I wake I’ll put my gym clothes on, drink a coffee, eat an apple and head straight to the gym.

Sometimes I’ll wake up and I’ll feel fatigued. This is my body letting me know that I should take a day or two off to rest.

I’ll feel guilty about not going to the gym and think I’m just being soft so instead of listening to what my body is telling me I’ll go train.

This usually results in a lacklustre workout where I feel weak, have no stamina, can’t lift my usual weight and psychologically runs counterintuitive to how a good gym session makes me feel.

Don’t do what I do.

Instead be in tune with your body when it’s asking for a break. Adequate rest is just as, if not more, important than training.

This is not a justification for you to take days off though. You have to push it hard in the gym as much as you can and only when your central nervous system is beginning to fry should you take a day off (sometimes a week is good too).

After a good workout you should receive DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) the day after which should last for a couple of days. This is a good pain and you should take it as the muscle has torn and is going through the repair and build process.

Final notes

These are the basic tenets of a weight lifting program.

As I said at the beginning, to see a successful change in your body, composition and strength requires:

  • Dedication of time

You have to dedicate time to it each week, be it through making the time to go workout, spending time preparing healthy meals and allocating enough time to get adequate sleep/rest. Sometimes you have to prioritise it over social arrangements.

  • Commitment

To build muscle and strength takes commitment. You need to commit to pushing yourself in the gym to stimulate the growth.

  • Long term perspective

Unless you’re filling yourself of anabolic steroids and hormones (not advised) muscle growth takes time. It’s about small incremental steps so you have to take a long-term perspective.

You’ll fall off the waggon too. There’ll be times when you binge out on junk food and there’ll be times when you skip the gym for a week. You’ll lose your focus from time to time.

Sometimes life just takes over which happens to the best of us.

If you’re in it for the long term then a few weeks off here and there makes no difference and in fact is likely to help you in your journey by allowing your body to rest and recover.

  • An acceptance that there will be (a healthy) pain

I’m not going to lie. There’s a pain element to all of this and sometimes it’s not pleasant.

Just because it’s unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s not good for the soul.

There’ll be times when I’m in the gym, I’m sore, I’m tired, my mood is low and, yes, sometimes I’m bored. There’s both a physiological and psychological pain to it.

I’ll do my best to push through it because I view it as a health kind of pain.

As Joe Rogan once said, “When I’m in the gym I train like I’m fighting for my life.”

Time to start fighting for yours.

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