You’re busy. You’ve got classes all day, then homework, maybe an after-school job, and of course—a social life. Where does exercise fit in? We often have the resources to exercise right at our fingertips: at the school (or community) gym, for example. That might make fitting in a workout a whole lot easier, but time and convenience aren’t our only barriers. Sometimes just the idea of stepping into a gym can seem intimidating—we call that “gymtimidation.”

“I worry about being made fun of, feeling like I am out of my league or around people that are better than me, [and] feeling out of place,” says a sophomore from Anthem, Arizona. This is a common concern. But it doesn’t have to be. Learning a few exercises and proper form from a trained fitness professional can help us feel as confident on gym equipment as an American Ninja Warrior. (OK, maybe not quite—but close.) Having a friend do it with you helps keep you accountable, research shows.

“I tried all sorts of equipment and had a blast. I had so much fun because I was listening to music and was with my friend. My favorites are the stairs, treadmill, and weights.”—Sandra, sophomore, Anthem, Arizona

“[I’ve tried] bench pressing, bicycling, weight lifting, squatting, elliptical training, running on the treadmill, leg and arm extensions, etc. I [had] a good experience.”
—Gabrielle, senior, Concord, Massachusetts

“[I’ve tried the] treadmill, elliptical, and weights. Yes, [I had a] good experience.”
—Jake, Anthem, Arizona

Getting out of your comfort zone

Most of us are at least familiar with the trusty old treadmill and elliptical, so when we find ourselves in a gym, we tend to head straight for them. But how familiar are you with the other side of the gym? The free weights and resistance machines are all about building strength—and there are a whole bunch of reasons why we should be focusing on that too. The American College of Sports Medicine says strength training is a safe and effective method of exercise for teens and has similar positive health benefits to aerobic activity. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strength training two to three times per week for 20 to 30 minutes.

What’s so good about strength training?

“Strength training does many great things for your body,” says Artie Kamiya, founder of the National PE & School Sport Institute and board member at the Society of Health and Physical Educators. “However, the most important benefits may be improvements in your attitude and the ability to counteract feelings of depression.”

Here are some facts about strength training that might pique your interest:
  • Moderate-intensity strength training has been shown to be a meaningful intervention for anxiety, according to an analysis of multiple studies published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
  • Strength training may help alleviate symptoms of depression and boost mood, according to a review of studies published in Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
  • Strength training is a necessary part of preventing injury and maintaining our bone health, muscular strength, metabolism, and balance.
  • It’s equally important and beneficial for both males and females to strength train. In fact, strength training can help to fend off certain diseases such as osteoporosis (weak bones), which affects women four times more than men.
  • An added bonus: Strength training makes it easier to lug around heavy objects like books, backpacks, and your 87 pounds of homework.

“The benefits will vary from person to person, but generally include the ability to deal with stress, keep a healthy weight, and enjoy life more fully,” says Kamiya.

Where to get started

Many schools have fitness centers for their students that are supervised during after-school hours. If your school doesn’t have a fitness center, check around your community. YMCAs offer discounted student memberships, and there are plenty of other gyms that offer reasonable monthly fees. Make sure the gym is convenient for you to get to so you’re more likely to go, and take a tour before joining to make sure you feel comfortable there.

Your guide to strength training at the gym

Using proper form when you exercise is necessary to prevent injury and reap the maximum rewards. Below, our trainer Stacy Ciarleglio takes you through a beginner’s routine that hits on all of the major body parts, guides you on form and technique, and uses equipment found in most gyms.

Stacy CiarleglioStacy Ciarleglio is head athletic trainer at the Westminster School in Connecticut and is certified by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Board of Certification.

Warm-up

Warm-ups are essential. They help prevent injury by getting the blood flowing through our muscles and by preparing our bodies to perform work.

Foam rolling

Foam rolling position 2 Position 1

Lay on the foam roller on the upper side of your hip. Your body will be perpendicular to the foam roller (as pictured). Lift your legs off of the ground so most of your body weight is on your hip.

Position 2

Use your hands to walk your body forward so the roller moves down your leg toward your knee (position 2). You will come across some tender spots in the muscle known as trigger points. That’s OK. Move slowly over these parts, and allow the roller to work through them. Move up and down the roller on the side and front of your leg (IT band and quadriceps) for about one minute per leg.

Inch worms

Inch worm position 1 Inch worm position 1 Inch worm position 1Position 1

Start on all fours with weight evenly distributed between your hands and feet (position 1) and your hips in the air (i.e., a downward dog position). Slowly walk your feet toward your hands. Try to keep your knees as straight as possible (but not locked), and try to push your heels down toward the ground throughout the whole motion (position 2).

Position 2 & Position 3

When you get as far as you can go before your knees bend, walk your hands out (position 3) to get back into the starting position. Repeat this five times. This stretches the muscles of the low back, hamstrings, and calves, which tend to get tight when we sit for long periods of time. It also engages the core muscles and upper extremity as you support your weight on your arms, preparing those muscles to work harder once you start lifting weights.

The workout

These exercises incorporate major muscle groups in the body and require you to engage your core muscles to perform them properly.

Start with one set of 8–12 repetitions. As you become stronger over time, you can repeat sets.

How to choose the appropriate weights

The general rule of thumb when choosing weights is that you should be able to complete 8–12 reps fairly easily, with the last 2 reps feeling difficult. If you can’t complete at least 8 reps, the weight is too heavy. If you’re not fatigued by 12, it’s too light.

Dumbbell squat

Dumbbell squat position 1 Dumbbell squat position 2

Start with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Keep your toes pointed forward. Hold a single dumbbell with both hands close to your body with arms straight down in front of you (position 1). Keeping your chest upright and your head looking straight ahead, bend your knees to the point that the dumbbell touches the ground (position 2). Keep your heels on the ground throughout the motion. When the dumbbell touches the ground, straighten your knees to return to position 1. This strengthens the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and quadriceps.

Shoulder raise

Shoulder raise position 1

Shoulder raise position 2 frontShoulder raise position 2 side

With a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent (position 1). Your palms should be facing in toward your body. Keep your head upright and your chin tucked. Slowly raise both arms at the same time to the level of shoulder height (position 2). Your palms should be facing the ground now. Be sure to keep your arms in line with your body, not too far forward or too far back. Slowly lower the weights back toward your body (position 1), and repeat. This strengthens the shoulder muscle, or deltoid.

Hamstring curl on a physioball
Hamstring curl on a physioball position 1Hamstring curl on a physioball position 2Hamstring curl on a physioball position 3

Begin by laying on your back with your feet up on a physioball. Keep your arms on the ground at your side (position 1). With your legs straight, lift your backside up off of the floor (position 2). You should be contracting the muscles of your glutes (backside) and hamstrings (backs of the thighs) to perform this motion.

Once you are up off of the floor, curl your knees into your chest (position 3), and then straighten them out again to return to position 2. Curl them in again to position 3, and repeat this pattern.

Machine weights

Start with one set of 8–12 repetitions.

These exercises isolate the muscles of the upper back and will help to counteract the poor posture most of us have from sitting and looking at screens for long periods of time.

Lat pulldowns

Lat pulldowns position 1Lat pulldown position 2 Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width and with your palms facing away from you. With your hands on the bar, sit on the seat, and tuck your knees under the pads (position 1). Keeping your back straight and your abdominal muscles tightened, pull the bar toward your chest (position 2). Be sure to maintain good posture, head looking slightly upward, back straight but with a slight backward lean. Slowly lower the weight by bringing the bar back to position 1. This strengthens the back muscles, most notably the lattisimus dorsi.

Seated row

Seated row position 1Seated row position 2
Sit on the bench, and grip the handlebars with palms facing each other. You should be sitting far enough away from the weight stack that your knees are slightly bent (position 1). Your back should be straight and your neck in a neutral position with your head looking forward. Pull the weight into the middle of your torso by bending your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together (position 2). Slowly lower the weight back to position 1. This strengthens the muscles of the upper back, most notably the rhomboids.

Special thanks to our student athletes

Madie, senior, Simsbury, Connecticut

Madie is a member of the varsity field hockey, ice hockey, and softball teams. She is active in the school community as a member of the GSA, Black & Gold, Peer Counseling, Rac the Shac, and co-president of All Is One: Feminist Alliance. Madie will be attending Hamilton College next year.

The things she likes most about strength training are the mental and physical results and the fun time she has training with her teammates.


Micaela, senior, Suffield, Connecticut

Micaela is a member of the varsity soccer and lacrosse teams. During the winter term, she participates in Strength & Conditioning as an after-school program. She will attend the University of Mary Washington next year where she will also play lacrosse.

Micaela loves every aspect of strength training because she knows it will only help her with her sports and in the long run.


Matt, sophomore, Suffield, Connecitcut

Matt plays lacrosse and also enjoys skiing and football. He is involved with WCLP, Westminster School’s community service program.

Matt likes strength training because it challenges him and helps him improve for lacrosse.

This survey should take about 5 minutes to complete. You will be prompted to enter your name and email so that we can contact you if you're the winner of this month's drawing.

Your data will never be shared or sold to outside parties. View our privacy policy.

I read the article + learned from it
I read the article + learned nothing
I didn't read the article
What was the most interesting thing you read in this article?

Next >>

Article sources

Artie Kamiya, founder of the National PE and School Sport Institute, author, and board member at the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE), Durham, North Carolina.

Barlow, L. (2013, March 6). Women and weightlifting: It’s good for you. BU Today. Retrieved from https://www.bu.edu/today/2013/women-and-weight-lifting-its-good-for-you/

Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The benefits of exercise for the clinically depressed. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 6(3), 104.

Faigenbaum, A. (2016, October 7). Youth strength training: facts and fallacies. American College of Sports Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.acsm.org/public-information/articles/2016/10/07/youth-strength-training-facts-and-fallacies

O’Connor, P. J., Herring, M. P., & Carvalho, A. (2010). Mental health benefits of strength training in adults. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 4(5), 377–396.

Mayo Clinic. (2016, April 22). Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/strength-training/art-20046670

National Osteoporosis Foundation. (n.d.). What women need to know. Retrieved from https://www.nof.org/prevention/general-facts/what-women-need-to-know/

Silva, P., Lott, R., Mota, J., & Welk, G. (2014). Direct and indirect effects of social support on youth physical activity behavior. Pediatric exercise science, 26(1), 86-94.