Three tips for starting out: weightlifting

Before I met my first kettlebell, weightlifting was the one sport that I was so sure was not for me. At the gym, I made detours just to avoid the free weights area.

Here’s the thing about the weights area. Everyone there looks like they know exactly what to do. They could be taking turns to use the same equipment yet never exchange more than a few grunts and gestures. In this tiny space full of people who never talk, everything runs like clockwork. From the outside, it looks like the perfect ecosystem. An exclusive club for seriously fit serious people.

A year ago, just the thought of setting foot in there would have made me feel like I had already derailed the system. But with borrowed courage (aka my partner), I gave it a shot. Six months ago I picked up a barbell for the first time. Turns out, all my fears were justified.

“What do you mean ‘this is an empty bar’?” I was so confused.

Why someone would add more weight to a cast iron bar to make it even more difficult to lift was beyond me. Already, I had trouble trying to wrap my head around the concept of picking something up only to put it back down again. (That's weightlifting, in a nutshell.)

Needless to say, weightlifting and I didn’t hit it off right away. If not for my partner’s military-honed patience in coaching me, I would not have made it past day one.

How it all began

Exercise for me has always been a mix of running, yoga, and hitting the gym machines on good days. I love routine, so there's never any need to switch things up. If I really wanted to, I’d go for a swim or some tennis.

Never have I ever thought about venturing into the weights area. But I also never imagined an ankle strain would put me out of running. I wish there was a more chivalrous story behind the injury but the truth is, I was trying to pull off an Instagram stunt. Long-distance running has been off limits since.

The rest was a welcome respite at first. But by day three, I was itching to do something. My frustration and a building curiosity about weightlifting–from my partner’s constant bench-press updates–led me to take him up on his offer to coach me.

It’s weird in the beginning

The first week, I demystified abbreviations like RM, OHP, RDL, learnt the difference between a squat and deadlift, and finally knew what a bench-press looked like. Compared to my yoga practice, weightlifting is so far the other way on the spectrum of ease.

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Starting out was exasperating. A regular mid-squat conversation between my partner and I would go something like this.

Him: take a big breath in through your mouth

Me: but I’m so used to breathing in and out of my nose! It calms my mind

Him: why are you taking so long to get to the bottom [of your squat]? You know that this would not be realistic if the weight was heavier right?

Me: yes, but I’m easing into it

Him: hips up! Explode up!

Me: chill, I’ve got this [gently emerges to the top of the squat]

Writing this makes me grin. But my partner definitely wasn’t smiling back then. I saw our time together in the gym as fun couple time, but he felt responsible for my safety–and my gains (aka what you have when you work out and get lots of muscle).

It was all fun and games at the beginning, until the unthinkable happened three months ago.

I deadlifted my bodyweight.

Then it hit me. This stuff actually works.

Get excited

That’s when it started. I began tagging everyday objects to my numbers. After every session, I would give myself a virtual pat on the back–which translates to “well done Jamie, now you can totally pick up a microwave/TV/fridge/crate of grapefruit/etc”.

There it was. Up until this epiphany, I never took ownership of my progress. But there it was. The one thing that has powered me through boring projects and long days, staring me in the face like a big secret everyone needs to know about.

It was time to get excited.

This applies to every other skill that you’re trying to pick up, or work that you’re struggling to bulldoze through.

Find something to be excited about. It’s a superpower. It gets you started and keeps you going. Everything else can be figured out along the way.

Find something to be excited about. It’s a superpower. It gets you started and keeps you going. Everything else can be figured out along the way.

What excites me about weightlifting? Getting stronger. Watching the numbers climb week after week feels pretty surreal.

The excitement took over before I knew it. I found myself googling deadlift videos before training to drill proper form into my head. Outside of the gym, I would ask my partner for tips or catch myself looking over his shoulders to check out his latest training program.

There was no question about how invested I was, and trainings became more enjoyable as we started setting small, achievable targets to get excited about.

Manage your pace

I always say about yoga that “the process matters more than the destination”. These past six months of trying to pick up weightlifting have challenged me to take my own advice.

It’s natural that beginners make the fastest progress–and the most gains–which really helps with staying motivated. On good days, I half-joke about ditching The Program and doing more. Thank God for my partner, who doesn’t let the illusion of me lifting a mini-fridge get ahead of us.

The Program is a bunch of exercises, meticulously planned to be done over a specific timeline. The aim is to maximise training results. This setting of small goals and larger milestones trains discipline and most importantly, ensures safe workouts.

In an ideal world, we would only have to divide our energy between training and doing fun things. But in reality, the more quickly we recover from training exhaustion, the more time and energy we have for other important things. And it all works out when optimal pacing and proper rest translates to better performance at the next training.

Grab a person for support

Since starting out, my mentality towards weightlifting has seen a few shifts. I’d like to think that I take better ownership of my performance. And instead of simply meeting program targets, I’m learning the benefits of turning weight training into a lifetime habit. The gains are even showing up in my yoga practice! I’ll share more about this in a later post.

But, above all, and above the need to find your own motivation and groove, the most crucial thing for beginners is to get help.

Find a coach or grab an experienced training partner along for the ride. It’s so much easier to learn proper form at the start than to develop poor habits and try to lose them later.

Find a coach or grab an experienced training partner along for the ride. It’s so much easier to learn proper form at the start than to develop poor habits and try to lose them later.

While there are tons of helpful videos and articles online that can guide you along this journey, nothing beats having someone by your side to ensure a safe workout and cheer you on.