Last May, I finally gave my workout routine a much-needed shake-up and switched from HIIT and cardio to weightlifting. As WH’s Fitness Editor, I was well aware of the benefits of strength training, but I never fancied picking up a pair of dumbbells over jumping on a treadmill or heading to a HIIT class. Old habits die hard and all that.
Fast-forward a year, and I can honestly say that starting weightlifting is one of the best decisions I have ever made. I haven’t had a single injury since, I’m stronger than ever, and I genuinely enjoy every workout.
Naturally, my journey hasn’t been a linear one. There have been times when I have found myself back at square one with the strength of a fly, and times when I’d rather pay than do weights. All that said, if there’s one thing that has remained a constant over the past year, it’s that I never regret a session.
In my original article, I shared all the tips I learned over my first six weeks of weight training, but that certainly isn’t all there is to know. Here, I share a diary entry from every three months within the last year, my body composition results, and tips on how to progress, covering form, training techniques, nutrition and more.
Insight comes from the wizard that is Joe Thornton, Fitness Manager and Elite Personal Trainer at Third Space London. Joe and I trained together once a week (give or take) from November, and his knowledge has played an instrumental part in my progress. Read on for all you need to know.
My weekly routine
If you read my original article, you’ll know that back in the day, my workout routine would consist of a couple of 30-minute runs with some ‘abs’ tacked onto the end, and a couple of HIIT workouts per week.
Then, during my first six weeks of weightlifting, I would do two weight sessions, one reformer Pilates class and one yoga class per week.
Over the last year, I have reduced this to one weightlifting workout per week, one reformer Pilates class (always at Power Pilates in south east London), and either one yoga class or one run. I’m the kind of person who wants to do it all (and has a slight iron deficiency), and after six weeks including two pretty heavy lifting sessions, I started to feel pretty burnt out.
My results (coming further on in the article) are proof that you don’t need to do more than one weekly workout to notice a difference, and research backs this up. For example, in this study, participants who strength trained twice per week for nine weeks weren’t any stronger than those who trained once a week.
I was also keen to reintroduce some running, but there is a monumental difference between what constituted as running for me beforehand, and what running means for me now. How many of you run as fast as you can for as long as you can? Same. But apparently that’s where we could have been going wrong.
Zone 2 training is a popular technique right now, and after interviewing two experts well-versed in the method, I decided to try it on my run. The name of the game is to go as slow as possible, to maintain a heart rate within your zone 2.
This has been game-changing; rather than coming back totally whacked, I feel energised, and studies show that it has huge benefits for our cardiovascular health. Maintaining this level of intensity has also meant that when it comes to my weightlifting workouts later in the week, I’m fully recovered.
Here’s how an average week looks now:
- Monday: Run/yoga
- Tuesday: Reformer Pilates
- Wednesday: Rest day
- Thursday: Full-body weights workout
- Friday: Rest day
- Saturday: Run/yoga
- Sunday: Rest day
Everything I’ve learned
Between training with Third Space PT Loui Fazakerley until July 2022 and joining Thornton in November, I was a lone wolf. Fazakerley had equipped me with everything I needed to bash out the exercises we worked on in our time together (namely, squats, hip thrusts and Romanian deadlifts), so that’s what I focussed on. I would head to my local David Lloyd gym and do near enough exactly the same workout that Fazakerley and I did together. I knew it like the back of my hand.
I’m well-aware that not everyone has access to a PT. But if, like me, you find that you lack confidence when training on your own, find a workout buddy to go with you, or ask the staff at your gym or studio to help you if you need it.
Thornton tells me that doing the same exercises over and over is all well and good if you ‘want to get better at something’. ‘Master the technique and repeat,’ he explains, adding that ‘the main benefit is conditioning, as your body becomes accustomed to these exercises, and you become more efficient and confident with your form.’ So I persisted.
Three months in, and doing the same old workout was starting to become tedious. I’d also noticed that I wasn’t progressing much; I couldn’t seem to squat or deadlift any heavier, and I didn’t feel confident enough to try new exercises that I hadn’t practiced with Fazakerley. It was at this point that I started to train with Thornton. If anyone can help me break through my plateau, it’s him, I thought.
On the progress front, he explains that the reason I have come to a halt is because ‘you get significant strength and neural adaptation within the first six weeks of training. After 12 weeks, you will likely hit a plateau.’
His go-to solution? Periodisation, i.e. cycling different training methods. ‘Let’s say you have hit a strength plateau (training with 6-8 reps per exercise), you would then complete a phase of hypertrophy (training with 10-12 reps per exercise), to help your muscles grow. You would then go back to another strength cycle, with the theory being that you can now lift heavier and become stronger as your muscles are bigger.’
We agreed on a goal of full-body strength and identified that I had indeed hit a strength plateau, but periodisation isn’t something we implemented since Thornton caveats that you would need a lot of ‘training volume’ – not something I have a) the capacity or b) the willingness to do – one weekly workout for the win.
Thornton’s alternate suggestion is that we incorporate different exercises. I’m hesitant; everything I’ve ever learned so far reinforces the notion that if you want to get stronger, progressive overload on the same exercises is the way forward. But, as Thornton tells me, you can still progress by overloading your muscles with different exercises. It comes back to the principle vs method theory.
‘The principle is to work your muscles, but the methods can vary,’ he explains. ‘If you think of the exercises in terms of anatomical motions, the actual exercise can be swapped to suit your equipment or preference.’
Here are a few examples of swaps we implemented:
- Back squats > goblet squats
- Romanian deadlifts > sumo deadlifts
It worked a treat. My workouts flew by as I was doing something new and interesting every time, and I started to feel myself regaining strength. As Thornton corroborates, this increase in strength was only incremental as I had made my biggest gains during the first 6-12 weeks, but I could certainly feel it.
We performed a body composition scan at the start of our time training together in November, and again in April, and the results show that we well and truly managed to smash through said plateau. Read on for my full results.
This period was a bit of a write-off TBH. First came Christmas and all the nights out/food/drink, then we were thrown into the depths of winter when the idea of getting up and going to the gym was the last thing I wanted, then I had eye surgery and was unable to exercise (bar walking) for three weeks. Unsurprisingly, this meant I lost significant strength, but Thornton taught me some handy techniques for rebuilding it pretty fast.
‘It’s completely normal to lose strength after 2-3 weeks of not stressing your muscles,’ he reassures me. ‘The solution would be to strengthen your muscles in different ranges, before attempting to lift your usual weight.’
He gives the example of deadlifting: ‘If you are struggling to deadlift heavier, increase your range of motion in a deficit deadlift (standing on a step or bench), until you can lift the same weight with more range. Then, in theory, you should be able to lift more when doing conventional deadlifts.’
Sumo deficit deadlifts
We practiced sumo deficit deadlifts to help rebuild strength in my glutes for back squats (something I am eternally weak at but DESPERATE to be good at). ‘Adding in a deficit encourages more range of motion in your glutes,’ Thornton tells me. This is something I am still working on, but over time, it should help me hit a full range of motion in back squats, while carrying a heavier weight.
My goal was to improve full-body strength. As Joe and I decided to switch up my exercises and I didn’t spend substantial time perfecting my form in any specific moves, I didn’t focus on the amount of weight lifted (either 1RM (1 Rep Max) or otherwise), so I used both RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) and body composition scans to determine my progress.
RPE-wise, my results ebbed and flowed. As mentioned, there were times when I felt unusually weak, but I know this is down to other lifestyle factors; poor sleep the night prior, feeling stressed, or suffering with PMS, for example. After years of exercising, I now know that scaling back is the best thing to do in these instances. On the whole, when these factors are in check (and my nutrition is on point – more on this to come), I can safely say that lifting heavy feels far less strenuous than it did at the start of the year.
Now for the interesting part. Over the past 12 months, I have gained 1.5kg of muscle muss, which I’m thrilled about. It wasn’t my goal to lose body fat – I am naturally lean and holding onto excess body fat isn’t one of my struggles in this life – but it turns out I’ve lost 2.6% of my body fat, as well – while maintaining the same weight. I’m still within the healthy range, as Kirsten Oddy, a nutritionist and women’s health expert tells me, ‘the healthy body fat range for females is thought to be 15-31%, with the lower half being the range for athletes,’ caveating that ‘this is individual and there are other metrics that can determine the health of a person, and body fat percentage will also naturally increase as women age,’ but I would rather have maintained what I had.
Back in 2016, I was also diagnosed with osteopenia, the predecessor to osteoporosis where my bones are weaker than normal, and a recent bone density scan (a.k.a. a DEXA) on a health retreat in January showed that my bones are still weaker than normal. I know that a low body fat percentage can contribute to this, but I also know that strength training is proven to increase bone density. As Oddy explains, ‘Low body fat comes with a low level of oestrogen which can have a knock on effect to things like low bone density and an increased risk of osteoporosis.’
She adds that, ‘A low body fat percentage in women can cause your menstrual cycle to go haywire. This can happen as the body stops producing important hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone, resulting in missing periods, although this is usually temporary and restores when weight is gained.’
When asked why I may be losing body fat as well as gaining muscle without intending to do so, Oddy tells me, ‘Having more muscle can naturally lead to a higher metabolism. The more muscle mass you have, the more energy you expend (and fat you can burn) even at rest. This could ultimately result in a lower body fat percentage.’ Her advice is to up my calories within a balanced diet.
If you’re also a regular strength trainer/weightlifter, here is everything that has made a significant difference to both my progress and how enjoyable my workouts are. Shout out to Thornton for his unwavering knowledge.
1.Incorporate plyometrics in your warm-ups
Box jumps were a staple in every warm-up with Thornton. This isn’t something I’d ever done before, so I was keen to understand the method. ‘Using plyometrics and light power before a lifting session encourages maximum muscle fibre recruitment,’ Thornton explains. ‘The explosiveness means that all of your muscles are required, which prepares them for the heavy lifting to come.’
2. Use a foam roller in your warm-ups
Before now, I’d always stretched as a warm-up, but Thornton is a proponent of foam rolling over stretching. ‘Using a foam roller can help alleviate muscle tenderness by releasing myofascial build up: essentially, adhesions in your muscles and connective tissue. By applying pressure to pinpointed spots on muscles, tendons and ligaments, foam rolling can loosen tight soft tissue and can improve blood flow.
‘Your muscles become more filled by blood than they would if you stretched, which allows for a greater range of motion as you get into your workout.’
Several studies have found that stretching in a warm-up could actually be to blame for injury, while one study compared the benefits of static stretches, dynamic stretches and foam rolling for flexibility and strength, and found that foam rolling was considerably more effective for improving flexibility and mobility, meaning that you’re more able to hit a greater range of motion when lifting.
I foam roll for around 5 minutes before every workout, hitting my hamstrings, calves, quads and glutes.
3. Avoid using a barbell pad (except for hip thrusts)
I no longer use a barbell pad for squats
When I first started weightlifting, I used a barbell pad to omit the pain I felt on my spine when doing back squats. What I didn’t realise was that this could have been making the lift more challenging.
‘Pads take the bar a few centimetres away from your back which means they change the centre of gravity and make you less stable,’ Thornton explains. ‘If the bar is sitting flush to your back, it allows optimal stability and better kinaesthetic feedback to your body.’ In layman’s terms, different muscles and joints in your body will be able to send messages to your brain to tell you how the lift feels. With a barbell pad in the way, you may not recognise this information, and therefore might struggle to nail your form.
Admittedly, I felt apprehensive about losing the pad as it felt so uncomfortable, but I promise you, you will get used to it. My spinal vertebrae are unusually pronounced, but I have never bruised. Try and rest the bar on the fleshy part of your neck and traps.
4. One workout per week is enough for results
I am walking, talking proof of this one, and as mentioned, studies also show it to be true. If you’re already busy enough, don’t feel like you need to fit in as many as you can. Doing so could actually be detrimental as studies show that rest days are required for muscle hypertrophy as this is when your muscle fibres have time to repair.
5. Do full-body workouts over workout splits if you’re tight for time
When training with Fazakerley at the start of my weightlifting journey, we would perform one lower-body session and one upper-body session per week. After reducing to one weight workout per week, every session has been full body (i.e. they include exercises to hit every muscle group).
There is a wealth of studies showing that workout splits (either push/pull workouts, or lower-/upper-body workouts) are more effective for muscle growth as they usually equate to a higher training volume on each muscle group (more workouts > more training volume), but one study compared split-body training to full-body training and found that full-body sessions are just as effective for maximal and explosive muscle strength, and muscle mass.
Think of it like this: consistency is key; if striving for several workouts per week to hit different muscle groups is going to overwhelm you and demotivate you, one full-body session that you never miss will wind up being more effective.
6. Perform trisets of each body part for efficiency
Every workout I did with Thornton included at least one triset (a set of three exercises with minimal rest between each). These included one lower-body exercise, one core exercise and one upper-body exercise. Thornton tells me that the core move is best done between your upper- and lower- move, to give extra recovery time as your core exercise typically won’t be as strenuous as your lower- and upper- body moves as it will recruit fewer muscles and therefore won’t put as much stress on your central nervous system. Here’s a triset example:
- Exercise three: Landmine press
7. Incorporate posture exercises to perfect form
Something I have long struggled with but have noticed improving since starting weightlifting is my posture. No doubt helped by #desklife, my shoulders are getting rounder by the day, and I’m conscious of it.
Thornton recommended we include ‘posture reset moves’ within each workout, to encourage me to keep my shoulders back. This has been one of the most useful tips I have picked up. It reminds me to maintain good posture and form during my workouts, which means I do them to the best of my ability and hit the muscles I intend to. It has also transferred into daily life; I’m more aware if I’m sitting slumped at my desk, so I can correct myself more often.
8. Core strength is extra important for people with long limbs
At 5’10”, I’m taller than average, and both my arms and legs are particularly long. Thornton tells me that for most people with my build, core strength should be front and centre of your workout routine. ‘Your core is the centre of your body and helps stabilise everything around it; if you have long limbs, the ends of your body are further away from your core, so it needs to be stronger to maintain power at all ends,’ he says.
Thankfully, years of yoga and reformer Pilates have worked in my favour – studies show that both are particularly effective for core strength and I find most ab exercises pretty comfortable, but Thornton warns that I will need to actively maintain this.
Core exercises are included in every weightlifting workout I do now. Here are some favourites:
9. Adapt your rep ranges to suit your goal
If you’re a weightlifting newbie, rep is simply short for repetition; it means one execution of a single exercise. On the very rare occasion that I did any sort of strength training before last year, I’d stick to the 3 x 10 rule, performing 3 sets of 10 reps of every exercise.
This was first popularised in the 1940s, and it is a good place to start, but once you’ve built up a bit of experience and you’re looking to tailor your training to suit specific goals, here are the four most basic and proven schemes according to your goals, courtesy of Thornton:
- Muscle power: 2-4 reps
- Muscle strength: 6-8 reps
- Muscle hypertrophy (growth): 10-12 reps
- Endurance: 12+ reps
You should also consider how long you rest between each set of reps.
- Muscle power: 2-5 minutes rest
- Muscle strength: 1-2 minutes rest
- Muscle hypertrophy (growth): 30-90 secs rest
- Endurance: 30 secs rest
For me, I wanted to improve my strength, so Thornton and I would do 6-8 reps of each exercise, with 1-2 minutes rest between each set. I also wanted to encourage hypertrophy in my glutes which I find are most easily activated with hip thrusts, so we aimed for 10-12 reps.
Single-leg hip thrusts
My upper-body is much weaker than my lower-, so for postural upper-body moves, we stuck with higher reps of 12, and a lower weight, to ‘ensure you worked the desired muscles with a manageable load,’ Thornton explains.
‘Time under tension and volume are the key factors,’ he adds. ‘We also did some drop sets (where you drop the weight but continue with reps, with minimal rest) to save time, while ensuring we elicited a response from your muscles.’
10. Target all three planes of motion to build strength
Every lift I did before training with Thornton was a sagittal plane movement; it involved hinging forwards and backwards. But apparently I was missing two big planes, both of which are fundamental to improving strength: frontal and transverse planes.
Studies show that multi-planar training is significantly more effective for speed, agility, strength, power endurance and flexibility than single plane training, as including all planes of motion means you hit all muscle groups and are less likely to have any muscular imbalances. Thornton was hell bent on getting every plane in. Here are a few examples of exercises that hit each plane.
- Sagittal plane: Back squat, step ups, deadlifts, bench press
- Frontal plane: Lateral raises, sumo squat, side lunges
- Transverse plane: Pallof press, clamshell, plank with rotation, curtsy lunges
11. Don’t be afraid to switch up your exercises if you get bored
I’ve explained the principle vs method theory above, but it’s one I want to reiterate. I am all too familiar with sticking with the same exercises for years on end, but know that if you’re getting bored or have hit a plateau, switching them up is probably the answer. There are myriad ways to work your muscles.
12. Implement periodisation to break through plateaus
Again, this is one I’ve already touched upon, but an important one to note. If you hit a plateau (which we likely all will, at some point or another), periodisation could be the fix you need. It’s about cycling your rep ranges to optimise your training; if you hit a strength plateau, you might do a phase of hypertrophy training to build your muscles, then go back to strength. Just remember that this will require a lot of time and volume. Not an option? The next point is another proven solution to breaking through plateaus, and one that I implemented.
13. Strengthen your muscles within different ranges
If you’ve hit a plateau and aren’t sure where to go (poet and I didn’t know it), try switching up your exercises so that you are doing the same movement with a deeper range of motion. Slowly increase the weight you lift in this position, then, when you go back to the original exercise with a shorter range of motion, you should be able to lift heavier.
Scroll up for an example of how this could work with an exercise.
14. Eat more, every day
Anyone who knows me will know I could eat for England, and never more so than since starting weightlifting. Research shows that strength training could inadvertently burn more calories than other forms of exercise since muscle is more metabolically active. In other words, it burns more calories at rest than fat, so you continue to expend energy after exercise.
It’s hardly surprising then, that I am hungrier than ever (both on exercise and non-exercise days), and as Thornton tells me, if I want to get stronger, I need more energy to build my muscles. I’m not one for counting my calories, but I recently tracked a few days out of curiosity, and I am consuming more now than ever before.
15. Eat more protein to repair your muscles
Your muscles are made up of protein and the process of weightlifting breaks down your muscles’ natural protein structure, so you need more to trigger the repair response and encourage stronger, more robust muscle to grow back. Without it, you’ll likely feel weak and may suffer with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), since you essentially make micro tears in your muscles during each workout and protein is what sews them back together.
I can’t say I suffer with DOMS – Thornton tells me my body has likely conditioned to the strength training that I do, but I am sure the protein I consume helps. I eat meat or fish with every meal, and supplement with Form Nutrition protein powder (the Chocolate Hazelnut Performance Blend is my fave) into my daily oats. Form Protein is genuinely delicious, and unlike a lot of protein powders, has no grainy texture whatsoever.
I’m also a big fan of Natural Fitness Food’s protein. The brand is stocked at Third Space (they have a small cafe area in the Soho branch), and I’d often treat myself to a shake post-workout.
Thornton advises aiming to consume 2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day.
16. Consider supplementing
Creatine is one of the most-researched fitness supplements on the market. Practically all of that research is positive: it has been proven to help build muscle mass and improve strength as 95% of it is stored in your muscles and, as well as support for your ATP energy system (meaning you’re capable of carrying out more intense workouts and lifting heavier), it has been shown to promote muscle gain by drawing water into the muscle, increasing levels of a hormone called IGF-1 (which increases muscle growth) and improving your performance ability and recovery.
Besides muscle strength, leading female physiologist and nutrition scientist Dr Stacy Sims tells me that creatine is also proven to improve brain, gut and heart health when taken in smaller doses (3-5g per day), so its benefits certainly aren’t limited to the gym.
I’m not yet on the creatine hype, but it’s something I often consider, and I know lots of women who strength train swear by it.
Something I did try within the last year is Athletic Greens. It’s a greens powder that has been doing the rounds on social media, said to contain 75 different vitamins and minerals and touted as the ‘only daily supplement you need’. I am pretty disciplined with my nutrition, but I was keen to see whether this could help my energy levels as I often finish a working day ready for bed at 5pm (despite sleeping for around 10 hours per night).
I subscribed for four months and, sadly, didn’t notice any positive effect. In fact, the supplement seemed to make me break out (it contains high levels of vitamin B12 and biotin, both of which have been linked to acne). Since I stopped taking it in February, my skin has cleared up.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t try it, but I am saying that what you see on social media and/or read about isn’t a blueprint. What works for someone else may not work for you. I have read plenty of rave reviews about AG1; this is purely my experience.
17. Include an anaerobic finisher
Weighted StairMaster finisher
Every workout with Thornton ended on a big ol’ burnout. One was intervals on the Stairmaster machine with a Bulgarian bag on my shoulders, another was rowing intervals in a hypoxic oxygen chamber (where oxygen is limited to mimic training at altitude and train your lungs to cope with lower levels), and another was intervals on the SkiErg.
Why? ‘At Third Space, we like to ensure that all clients get exposed to different energy systems,’ Thornton says. ‘We were covering everything but your anaerobic system, i.e. when your body produces energy without oxygen, compared to your aerobic system, which is when it uses oxygen to produce energy. It’s a very short form of exposure to full-body cardio to the point of sub-max heart rate at very intense levels.’
Try three-five 30 sec intervals on any cardio machine, with 15 secs rest between each interval.
Will I continue with weight training? Absolutely. Weight training is a part of my life now, and I urge you all to start. Take my word for it: it will change your life. Trust me.
An exclusive full-body strength workout
- Box jumps (+ foam rolling + stretches) to warm-up
- 4 x 10 squats
- 4 x 10 hip thrusts (2 sets with feet positioned to target glute Medius, 2 to target glute Maximus)
- 12 x plank hip taps
- 12 x landmine press
- Repeat x 3
- 12 x leg press
- Core exercise (1 min single leg lift holds/weighted plank)
- Repeat x 3
- 4 x lengths Suitcase carry
- 12 x Lat pull-down
- Repeat x 3
- 4 x sled pushes