Starting Your Strength Journey: A Beginners Guide to Getting in the Gym

The author, Hamilton junior Hannah Fathman, performs a bench press with dumbbells in the Serra Fitness Center. This exercise, along with many others, can be used for beginner gym attendees or everyday fitness junkies (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

The first time you walk through the gym doors can be terrifying; a million mysterious machines that look like medieval torture contraptions, an odd surplus of treadmills and weights you don’t have any clue what to do with. In a world full of “pink pilates princesses,” “that girl’s” and other strange microtrends used to exploit the insecurities of women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) for profit – finding a way to move your body to actually meet your goals can be confusing and overwhelming. 

Not to mention, everybody knows the feeling of walking into a gym and having absolutely no clue what to do. Especially for people who weren’t encouraged to use weight training from a young age, moving away from the treadmills can feel like a terrifying step. 

While the rhetoric of encouraging young women to avoid weights to keep from “bulking up” has been around for ages, and is still used today, it’s nothing short of sexist fear-mongering. You cannot build a masculine body by doing what’s healthy for an AFAB body; not unless you’re dedicated to intentionally doing it, to the extent of completely modifying your life for years on end. Lifting weights is not only good for your health and your confidence – it can also be used to achieve a more “traditionally feminine” body type, if that’s what you’re looking for.

So, you’re ready to take your first steps into the gym? If you take those first steps into the room feeling confident, there’s a higher chance you’ll come back the next day.  Walking in with your head held high and the sense of direction provided in this guide can significantly enhance your workout experience.

Warming Up

For many people, treadmills and other cardio machines are an easy way to get comfortable in the gym. Spending 15 minutes on the treadmill can help you get comfortable in the space and get warmed up.

If you’re ready to do a dynamic warmup, grab a floor mat and spend a couple of minutes doing some basic movements. These are essential for blood flow and mobility, so you don’t strain yourself while lifting. Some movements I default to are arm circles, lunges, high knees and scapular (scap) push-ups.

So you’re ready to start lifting! Here are a couple of exercises that are easy to start with and touch on all the major muscle groups. It’s important to find a couple of exercises that you can become confident in before adding a bunch of new exercises to your routine.

Bent-over Dumbbell (DB) Single-arm Row

Caption: Fathman demonstrates how to do a bent-over dumbbell single-arm row exercise (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Muscles worked: Back, shoulders, arms and abs

Bent-over dumbbell rows are great to integrate into “pull” days, or any full-body workout. If you’re interested in the anatomically correct names of these muscles, try reading this article by Amy Marturana Winderl. 

How to do it: 

Place one knee and the same hand on a flat bench, with a dumbbell in the other hand. Keeping your back straight, pull the dumbbell up to your hip and slowly release it back to your starting hanging position. Repeat on both sides. See a more detailed description here.

DB Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

Fathman demonstrates a dumbbell romanian deadlift (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Muscles worked: Mainly hamstrings and glutes

RDLs will activate the back of your legs along with some back and forearm muscles.

How to do it: 

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing towards you. Keeping your back flat and core activated, hinge at the hip as you lower the dumbbells towards the floor. Once you’ve reached the end of the movement, maintain posture and move your hips forward to stand upright again. This movement is slightly more complex, so I highly recommend checking out a more detailed description with a barbell variation here.

Goblet Squat

Fathman demonstrates a goblet squat with a dumbbell (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Muscles worked: Quadriceps (quads), glutes and hamstrings.

With this specific variation of squat, you can also have some activation of various arm muscles. Read more here.

How to do it:

Set your feet forward and shoulder width apart. Using either one dumbbell or one kettlebell held in front of you with both hands, lower your hips and bend your knees as though you’re sitting down until you reach the end of your range of motion (ROM). Imagine you are pushing the pressure “through your heels” and return to the starting position. See a more detailed description here.

Bicep Curl

Fathman demonstrates a bicep curl (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Muscle worked: Biceps

Biceps are the main muscle activated here, hence the name, but you can learn more about the other muscles in your arm the exercise activates here.

How to do it:

Take a dumbbell with your palm facing upwards, and keeping your elbow tucked at your side, bend your arm towards your chest. Tense your bicep as you reach the top, then slowly and while maintaining control, lower the dumbbell back to its starting position. See a more detailed description here.

Tricep Extension: Bent-over with DB

Fathman demonstrates a bent-over tricep extension with a dumbbell (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Muscle worked: Triceps

How to do it:

Lean over, feel free to grab onto a bench, and while holding a dumbbell at 90 degrees, extend your arm backward, then return to starting position. See a more detailed description here or an overhead variation here.

DB Bench Press 

Fathman demonstrates a dumbbell bench press (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Muscle worked: Pectoralis major (Pecs)

The main muscles worked here are the chest, but others such as the deltoid and triceps are used as well.

How to do it:

Grab one dumbbell in each hand and sit down on a flat bench. I prefer to set one weight on each leg, then, while leaning back, use my knees to bump the weights up to the starting position. Lay down and extend your arms above you, palms facing your feet, then slowly lower the weights to chest level and back again. See a more detailed description here.

Straight Bar Deadlift

Fathman demonstrates a straight bar deadlift. They would like to note that their head should have been in a more neutral position (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Muscles worked: Glutes, quads and hamstrings

The straight bar deadlift activates nearly the entire body. The main muscle activation may come from the legs, but several stabilizing muscles are used as well.

How to do it:

Again, this is an exercise I recommend spending more time understanding before you try it out. Start with a barbell on the ground – or platform if your gym has one – and weights (better yet, bumper plates) on each side and position yourself with the ties of your shoes directly under the bar. Keep your spine straight, chest up and then hinge at the hips until you reach the bar. Grab it, push all the weight through your heels and keeping your chest up, stand up again. As you set the bar down again, ensure you’re maintaining a straight posture. See a more detailed description here.

Barbell Squat

Fathman demonstrates a barbell squat (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves.

This exercise is also great for core stabilization! 

How to do it:

Duck under the barbell once it’s set on the rack, setting it on your upper back and grabbing it with your palms facing forward. Carefully lift it up, and take a few small steps backward. Adjust your feet to about shoulder width, then, while bracing your torso, move your hips backward, keep your chest up and try to reach “depth,” known as the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keeping your chest up, let it lead you first as you stand back up. See a more detailed description here.

Lateral DB Arm Raises

Fathman demonstrates lateral dumbbell arm raises (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Muscle worked: Lateral Deltoid

The focus of this exercise is the Deltoids.

How to do it:

Take a dumbbell in each hand, with palms facing inwards, and slowly lift your arms up and to the side. Try not to swing or bend your arms during this process. You can find a more detailed description and variations here.

Go Get ‘em, Tiger!

All of these exercises can be repeated for 8 to 12 repetitions (reps) for two to four rounds. Depending on your goals, about 30 seconds to three minutes of rest should be taken between each set. If you’re looking at a workout plan, three rounds with eight reps per round would be written as ‘3×8.’ The amount of exercises you do at this stage can depend on your comfortability, time allowance and goals – but choosing five to eight different exercises is usually a good goal.

Remember that there’s no one right way to move your body. Going to the gym is about so much more than being the strongest person there; it’s also about building confidence and community, maintaining health, reaching new goals and learning to claim space. Don’t let insecurity or outdated myths keep you from doing what’s best for you and your body. Now go have fun and move some weights!

About Hannah Fathman 8 Articles
Hannah Fathman is a Junior Political Science major with a Theatre and Spanish Minor from Hamilton, Michigan. They’re focus is on bringing light to social injustices and human rights violations. Mainly, they focus on Race, Gender, and LGBTQ issues. They also enjoy the occasional witty opinion piece. If you have any questions, comments, or stories you’d like to see written, contact Hannah via email at

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