If working with a virtual personal trainer isn’t an option, you can seek out reputable information online, like the Workout Center at SELF, or online guides from certified trainers or reputable organizations, such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Online videos like YouTube tutorials can also be helpful, too. Just remember, “the biggest downside there is that the person isn’t actually watching you and can’t give you the guidance you may need to ensure you’re performing the exercises correctly,” Roser says. (Whoops for me on that one.) Still, that can help you learn what a proper move should look like.
To make sure you’re executing it correctly, it can be helpful to work out with a mirror in front of you, says Roser. Some cues to watch for: Your back should always be flat when you’re performing moves like deadlifts or rows, and your knees should not be caving in when you’re doing moves like squats. (Just make sure you’re not cranking your neck up to look in the mirror if you’re doing moves that require a neutral gaze that’ll have you looking at the floor, like a plank.)
You can also video yourself performing the moves to ensure proper form. This will cut down on the likelihood of wrenching your neck up to look at yourself in the mirror.
6. Add in weights eventually—not immediately.
After the first two weeks, Roser recommends introducing extra resistance. This can be in the form of dumbbells, kettlebells, or resistance bands.
You want to use weights that are comfortably challenging, she says. While it’s different for every person, you can try 5- to 8-pound dumbbells to start.
So, how can you tell if you’re lifting enough—or too much? The best rule of thumb is to focus on your rate of perceived exertion (RPE), Tamir says. RPE is a scale of 0-10 that is used to measure the intensity of exercise. A zero is the equivalent of sitting on the couch doing nothing, while a 10 is how you’d feel after lifting very heavy weights and can’t safely or efficiently add another rep—it’s your max effort. Shoot to end at an 8.
“Once you get to the point where you realize one or two more reps will be hard to do without affecting your form, you can stop and continue to build from there,” he says. “If you’re at that 9 or 10 or your form is breaking down and you’re feeling discomfort in your lower back or your knees or your neck, that’s your body’s way of telling you it’s too much.”
So, let’s say you want to perform 10-12 reps of overhead presses with 8-pound dumbbells. You should be at an 8 or so on the RPE scale by the time you get to your 10th rep. If you’re at a 9 when you’re only on your 7th rep, that’s a sign your weight is too heavy.
On the flip side, if you’re only at a 6 at your 12th rep, your dumbbells are probably too light.
A quick note: While the last few reps should feel challenging, the goal of a strength training session is not to keep your heart rate elevated, like you would with a cardio session. So make sure you’re taking the time to rest between sets— a good rule of thumb is to stick with a 1:2 or ratio of exercise to recovery, Tamir says. In other words, if it takes you 20 seconds to do 12 reps, you should take 40 seconds to recover before moving on to the next set. Once you increase to heavier loads (see below!), you may find that you need a 1:3 ratio, he says.
7. Make it more challenging with whatever you’ve got.
After a couple of weeks, you can try to move on to heavier weights for an added challenge if you’re feeling like you have more left in the tank after your prescribed sets—meaning, you’re not really feeling challenged by the same number of reps at that same weight. This is known as progressive overload, and it’s key to getting stronger over time.