The Training and Fitness Cheat Sheet for Beginners


Most gym rats despise it when 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.

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. So unless you’re a personal trainer or an Olympian, our guide will help you make the grade.

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 upon taking the right steps. According to Craig Ballantyne, C.S.C.S., here’s what to do (in order):

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Record your current food intake in a notebook, or an app like MyFitnessMap or Fitbit. Get a sense of how much you’re already eating before determining how many calories to add or subtract.

4. 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.

Do I have to warm up?

A: 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 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 50lbs you plan on lifting for your upper body, and one set for every 100lbs you lift for your lower body. So, if you’re going to perform the bench press with 135lbs, you should do 2-3 reps with 50lbs and another 2-3 reps with 100lbs before starting your “real” sets.

Do I 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 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.

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.

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, N.A.S.M., C.P.T. 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.

What program should I get on?

A: Basically, it depends upon 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, which are designed by the world’s top fitness experts—we promise you’ll get better results.

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.

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.

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