How to lift weights: lift dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells safely and correctly

We really cannot overstate the importance of knowing how to lift weights the right way

How to lift weights
(Image credit: Benjamin Klaver/Unsplash)

Knowing how to lift weights is important. Knowing how to lift weights safely and correctly is essential. You might picture massive body builders when people mention lifting weights but it's actually something we recommend for anyone with any interest in fitness, weight loss and better quality of life. 

That's because, despite what you may have heard, cardiovascular exercise isn’t the final word on losing weight and staying in shape. An exercise routine that incorporates weightlifting can be even more beneficial to reaching your fitness goals. That doesn't mean you need to be trying to lift enormous weights, but even with lighter ones, it's important to know how to lift weights the right way.

Official UK health guidelines suggest that adults should incorporate two strength workouts a week, while various studies (opens in new tab) have shown that strength training protects bone health, burns calories longer than aerobic exercise, improves balance and coordination, reduces the risk of chronic disease and boosts energy levels and improves mood. It’s really not all about building ‘big guns’ or ‘getting a six pack’ – although do try my guides to the best bicep workouts and best abs workouts if you like those thoughts. 

It is very important to approach a new weightlifting routine the correct way, avoid common mistakes and gradually ease yourself in, because adding heavy weights to a movement can increase the risk of injury.

We’ve spoken to personal trainers and fitness experts to get their top tips on how to approach the use of weights in a fitness regime correctly, so take a look below and start to reap the rewards next time your workout kit.

(Image credit: Pexels)

1. Start light and work your way up

“A common mistake that we see in gyms up and down the country is people attempting to lift weights that are clearly too heavy, compromising form and not feeling the benefit of that particular exercise,” says PureGym Insider Kasumi Miyake.

Those incorporating weights into a workout for the first time should start as light as possible, so don’t be embarrassed about reaching for those 1.25kg dumbbells or stripping the barbells of its weight discs. The important thing is to master the move you are working on, concentrating on form (performing the exercise correctly) and ensuring the target muscle group is being worked fully (more on that later).

Once you are confident with that particular exercise, look to gradually increase weight over the works. It helps to keep a mental or physical note, so you can gradually overload the muscle to ensure you keep making those strength gains.

2. Perfect the movement

Hunched shoulders, rounded backs, flared elbows and craned necks are all common signs that a weighted exercise is being performed incorrectly. There’s not enough room on this page to describe each and every weights-based exercise in detail;, but a good rule of thumb is to keep everything braced and tight, no matter what you are doing. Tensed abs and glutes do a great job of pulling the rest of the body into shape, creating a solid core to perform any move. 

The back should flat and not rounded, the shoulders should be pulled back and down towards your butt, the elbows kept tucked into your body and the neck should never take any strain. Better still, master the move by either talking to a personal trainer or expert, watch videos from trusted sources online and work on that exercise without weights first, before adding load.

3. Keep your feet on the ground

Closed kinetic chain exercises or closed chain exercises (CKC) are those where the hands or feet remain in constant contact with the floor or any immobile surface. It sounds complicated, but these exercises tend to be favoured by personal trainers and experts as they work multiple muscle groups, offer better stability and avoid putting excess strain on any given muscle.

In short, performing any weighted exercises standing is preferable to sitting where beginners are concerned and opting for free weights rather than machinery (that more often than not create an open chain movement) reduces the chance of injury fro misuse or overloading.

“I would always favour a closed chain movement, like a split squat, over a leg extension machine,” says leading physical therapist and strength coach Jeff Cavaliere, founder of the popular YouTube fitness channel Athlean-X. “Free weights encourage the stabilising muscles to work harder, which improves overall strength and will help reduce injuries in the long run,” he adds.

(Image credit: Harbinger Fitness)

4. Make a plan

It sounds simple but it is surprising the number of people that walk into a workout without a plan, randomly picking up weights and performing various movements before getting distracted. Form a proper plan before you start, note down the body parts or muscles you intend to work on that day, the number of repetitions of each exercise and the number of sets.

Where weights are concerned, it is generally good practice to perform a warm-up set using light weights, before increasing the load during your ‘working sets’ - or those sets that are intended to push the muscles to the limit. 

Remember, it’s not good practice to spend an entire workout performing variations of the bicep curl or over-emphasising any small muscle group for that matter. This will overwork that muscle and negate any benefits, especially in beginners. Try mixing it up, so you work on back and shoulders one day, legs the next and chest and abs on a separate day, for example. This allows sufficient rest time to allow the muscles to recover.

5. Create a mind-muscle connection

You might not want to look like a bodybuilder, but there is an old-school adage that says, “think big, get big”. Feel free to take that with a pinch of salt, but the theory behind it is sound. Creating a good mind-muscle connection means being able to successfully contract the muscle in question. It’s very easy to perform a bicep curl, for example, without really working the bicep, because other muscles will happily jump in to assist with the movement.

So, if you are working your triceps, ensure that those muscles at the back of your arm are being squeezed and contracted throughout the movement. Slow down your reps and really concentrate on working the muscles in question. 

6. Avoid swinging

Momentum is generally your enemy when it comes to lifting weights – kettlebells not included – because it can lead to injury, and it fails to engage the muscles correctly. When performing any exercise, aim to control the movement during the concentric (raising) and eccentric (lowering) portion of every move. Don't let gravity do the work for you.

This means slowing things down and reverting back to the first tip, not lifting too heavy and taking time to perfect a movement before loading. 

7. … And breathe

Although it is tempting to hold your breath when lifting something heavy, this is actually counter-intuitive, as it will starve your body of all-important oxygen and make bracing the core difficult during an exercise. When moving up to heavier weights, it is important to learn how to breathe correctly, using a well-timed exhale to assist with shifting the weight from one position to another.

In general, it is good practice to take a deep breath in through the nose during the concentric phase of a movement (so the upward lift of a bicep curl, for example), pause and then breathe out through the mouth, bracing the abs during the lowering portion. This creates a stable platform and ensures strength isn’t “leaking” out the core due to poor breathing technique.

8. Rest and recover

“After training, you should never neglect that first half an hour window to refuel and replenish your carb and protein supplies Don’t forget that essential carb intake comes from vegetables in your diet, so doubling the intake of leafy greens, for example, will not only help you recover faster, it will also provide you with prime vitamins and minerals to boost your health,” says Rugby World Cup winner Vicky Fleetwood.

If you are embarking on a new lifting programme, it is important to ensure you increase your intake of protein, a nutrient that is vital in preparing muscle fibres. More importantly, don’t over-do it. Give yourself ample time to rest – factor in at least 24 hours before you work out again, and more – potentially a lot more – if you are just starting out. 

Leon Poultney

An automotive and technology writer by trade, Leon keeps in shape by lifting heavy objects inside and riding various machinery outside. Leon is an Editor who has written for Wired Uk, The Sun, Stuff Magazine, and Fit&Well's sister title, T3. Now though, Leon is working for The Gear Loop covering just about everything from hiking to kayaking.