Just like booze hounds call New Year’s Eve “Amateur Night,” gym rats have a name for January 1: Newbie Day. Most of them despise it, since their turf is suddenly invaded by hordes of fitness freshmen who wouldn’t know the difference between a Romanian deadlift and a Bulgarian squat if they’d grown up in Eastern Europe. MF knows the gym can be a jungle, and we don’t want any of you antelopes getting eaten up by the hulking hyenas at the squat rack. That’s why we’ve put together this training cheat sheet. We’ve got textbook answers — as given by the world’s foremost experts — to all your questions so you can reach your goals sooner and with more dignity.
But this guide isn’t only for rookies looking to gain a foothold in their quest to get in shape. It can also be of service to workout veterans. Remember, many of you gym know-it-alls can still use a pointer or two. (In fact, we put a quiz together to see where you place on the beginner spectrum, tough guy.) So unless you’re a personal trainer or an Olympic weightlifter, our guide will ensure that, this year, you make the grade.
Q: How do I get started?
A: Whether you want to get big arms and ripped abs, or you just want to be able to see your toes when you stand on a scale, achieving your goals is dependent on taking the right steps. According to MF training adviser Craig Ballantyne, C.S.C.S. (see “Fitness Jive” on page 71 for a glossary of bolded terms), here’s what to do (in order):
- Get a complete physical if you’re sedentary, or were active but have been warming the bench for the past few months. If you’re over 30, obese, or have any pre-existing medical conditions (such as high cholesterol or blood pressure), get Doc’s approval before starting any program.
- Talk to a trainer, preferably a C.S.C.S, or certified personal trainer. Get a fitness assessment and discuss your goals, then have the trainer design a program that addresses them.
- Record your current food intake in a notebook, or check out fitday.com, where you can log it for free. Get a sense of how much you’re already eating before determining how many calories to add or subtract.
- Base your diet on protein (such as lean beef, chicken, and fish) and high-fiber/low-sugar foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains). Each meal should have a high nutrient-to-calorie ratio — talk to a nutritionist for specific recommendations. Readjust your eating schedule so you consume around six small meals per day, rather than three large ones — this raises your metabolism and lessens the chance of your body storing calories as fat.
Q: Do I have to warm up?
A: In the words of Caddyshack’s Ty Webb, “This isn’t Russia” — you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. But consider this: “Not warming up guarantees you won’t perform as well, and increases your risk for injury,” says MF adviser Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S. We call that a no-brainer, especially since it requires only about 10 minutes of your workout time. To warm up for a cardio workout, you simply perform the activity you’ll be doing at a lighter intensity, going just hard enough that you begin to break a sweat within 10 minutes. For a weight workout, the best approach is a “dynamic” warmup, accomplished by performing two sets of five repetitions for five or six large-muscle exercises in a circuit, using only an empty bar. For instance, you might do one set of squats, pushups, good mornings, lunges, and rows in succession, rest just long enough to catch your breath, and repeat one time. You’re then ready to move on to the first exercise in your workout, where you should begin by performing a specific warmup for that movement. Simply do one warmup set of 2-3 reps for every 50 pounds you plan on lifting for your upper body, and one set for every 100 pounds you lift for your lower body. So, if you’re going to perform the bench press with 135 pounds, you should do 2-3 reps with 50 pounds and another 2-3 reps with 100 pounds before starting your “real” sets.
Q: Do I really need to stretch?
A: Not the way most people do it. “Static stretching” — holding each stretch in the same position for a few seconds (such as bending over to touch your toes) — only produces a temporary increase in your flexibility. “I liken static stretching to the old Stretch Armstrong doll,” says MF adviser Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S. “You stretch it and it slowly returns to shape.” To make a more permanent change in the flexibility of your muscles, static stretches would need to be held for about 20 minutes each. “Besides subjecting yourself to inhumane levels of boredom,” adds Hartman, “that type of stretching can actually weaken the connective tissues of your muscles and joints, impairing sports performance and increasing your risk for injury.” A better way to increase flexibility is by performing repetitive dynamic movements and strength-training movements, such as lunges, squats, and good mornings, throughout their full, pain-free range of motion (the farthest your body can travel without pain while keeping good form in the exercise). As time goes by, your range of motion will increase, and you’ll develop improved strength and flexibility throughout the entire movement.
Q: How much should I lift?
A: The beginner’s rule of thumb: Use the heaviest weight that allows you to complete every repetition and maintain control over the speed of the weight at all times. Here’s an example: Say you’re doing 10 repetitions of the bench press. You should be able to lower the barbell to your chest at the same rate of speed from top to bottom for each repetition. “If the speed of the bar starts to accelerate at the halfway point of a rep, you’re no longer able to control the weight,” says Hartman. “It’s controlling you.” It will take a bit of experimentation to determine the weights you should use for each exercise. If you lose control over the weight before you’ve finished the number of repetitions you were striving for, you went too heavy. If you were able to complete all repetitions but felt like you could have done several more, you went too light.
Q: On some exercises, it hurts when I lower the weight past a certain point. Is that OK?
A: No — not even if you like that sort of thing. “Everyone has a slightly different anatomy, as well as different levels of flexibility,” says Joe Stankowski, NASM CPT, owner of AbsoluteFitnessUSA.com. The key for the best results is to raise and lower the weight (or your body) using flawless form through the greatest range of motion that you can achieve, pain-free.
Q: What program should I get on?
A: There are more ways to answer this question than there are notches on Charlie Sheen’s bedpost. Basically, it depends on your goals. But as a beginner, don’t bother trying to create your own workout. You won’t be nearly as good at it as the professional strength coaches who do it for a living. Instead, use a “pre-made” routine like the ones we provide every month in our Personal Trainer section, which are designed by the world’s top fitness experts — we promise you’ll get better results.
Q: Why am I fat?
A: “Fat people like to blame their genetics, and thin people like to think fat people are lazy,” says Lou Schuler, co-author of The Book of Muscle (check it out at louschuler.com), “but the truth is somewhere in between.” For example, a 2000 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that about 40% of your obesity is due to genetics. That means 60% is attributable to the hours you spend Googling your ex-girlfriends while downing marshmallow Peeps. Bottom line: We sympathize, but you need to take some responsibility, too.
Q: Can I just do cardio and skip weights?
A: Sure, but you’ll be missing out. Weight training provides benefits aerobic exercise doesn’t (and vice versa), whether you’re trying to improve your general conditioning or just lose fat. So you’re shortchanging your body by doing just one or the other.
Q: I want bigger guns. How much should I train arms?
A: Your arms aren’t like your girlfriend: They don’t require constant attention. In fact, if you’re performing compound movements for your upper body (such as chinups and dips), your pipes are likely already getting all the stimulation they need to grow. Any more, in fact, such as bombing them with curls and pressdowns, can lead to overtraining. “Muscle grows in response to heavy loads,” says Cosgrove. “Since you lift more weight doing a chinup, it’s a better choice for building your biceps than a curl.” The same goes for choosing a dip over a pressdown. Compound movements — exercises that involve more than one joint — have the added benefit of working more muscles than isolation exercises (movements that involve only one joint). The chinup’s main function is to build your back, but it also hits your core. Compare that to the measly curl, which only hits your biceps. So don’t worry about your arms. Unlike some ladies, they’re low-maintenance.
Q: Should I take supplements? A: It takes a brave man to go it alone, but you’ll go a lot further in your fitness goals with a little help from your friends — particularly your good pal protein. Protein is the most basic and important component of muscle, and you simply can’t get bigger, or leaner, without it. And now that you’re strength training, you’ll need a lot more of it — between 0.7 and 1 gram per pound of body weight each day.
While most of your protein should come from whole foods, protein supplements — in the form of shakes and bars — are a quick, convenient way to meet your requirements, and they boast other benefits as well.
“Studies show that protein supplementation can increase lean-body mass, may enhance immune function, decrease muscle breakdown after training, and maybe even increase strength,” says sports nutritionist and MF adviser Rehan Jalali, president of the Supplement Research Foundation. “When choosing a supplement, look for one that contains whey-protein isolate and concentrate, casein, egg albumin, and soy isolate — this combination should give you the most cost-effective and nutritionally rich mixture available.”
Jalali also recommends taking a multivitamin/multi-mineral formula, since exercise depletes these stores quickly. “Make sure you get one that’s specifically designed for people who exercise — it should be especially high in vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, calcium, and potassium,” as all are essential for muscle growth.
After a few months of solid training, Jalali says you can start to experiment with other nutrients, such as creatine and thermogenic fat burners (depending on your goals). “Still, the best course of action is to focus on good nutrition and smart training — don’t think supplements will make up for them.”