There are many variables for a beginner to think through when deciding how to start a training program in a gym setting.
The first thing a beginner needs to do (in reality, everyone needs to do this) is decide on a clear idea of what they want to accomplish. Need to lose weight? Build a little muscle? Are you training for something specific, like a New Years resolution to run the NYC Marathon this year? Have you decided to take up a sport or activity like tennis or cycling? All of these considerations need to be taken into account if you intend on actually accomplishing anything in a reasonable amount of time.
For the teenager and young adult, it tends to be mostly about aesthetics and social mingling…wanting to look better and meet people. For the 30’s-50’s somethings it tends to be some combination of aesthetics, mingling, specific training for a new hobby like tennis, and physical health. And once we hit the 60+ category, health tends to take paramountcy, though aesthetics almost always remain in the background. Humans never seem to stop wanting to look better… Keep in mind that there is constant debate among “experts” as to proper protocols and where to focus your beginning efforts. The main thing to remember is that as a beginner you need to develop a foundation of general fitness, as I’m assuming you’re starting from scratch, out of shape, and in a state of complete “de-conditioning”. That means you need to develop a baseline of aerobic fitness (think endurance), and musculoskeletal strength and coordination.
Many trainers will argue that you should start on exercise bikes or elliptical trainers and weight lifting machines, as these pose the lowest risk of accidental injury. I cannot agree with the latter. Weight lifting machines are important tools, but they do nothing to train foundational core coordination among all the normal musculoskeletal interactions that occur in real life movements. They are safer to do in the gym (from the health club’s liability perspective), but many experts (myself included) would argue that learning and depending on machines in the beginning leaves you more vulnerable to injury in real world situations because you don’t learn how to coordinate you body movements and your muscular system when you need to do some actual pushing or pulling. If you don’t know what your doing, hire a good trainer for a few lessons. It doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment if your goal is to learn how to do a few exercises correctly. If you make it a priority, almost anyone can afford 3 or 4 hours of proper instruction.
Also, if you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are starting out in your 40’s or older you should get yourself a good medical check up first. So let me take you through some exercise recommendations for the novice. Commit to 45 minutes/day, 4 times a week. And Don’t tell me you can’t fit that in, cause my bullshit detector will go off. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired after work, or a have a little muscular soreness from a previous workout at this level. Just show up and do the best you can. Any four days will do. Stick to this order. Follow this routine for 4-6 weeks. Don’t get fancy. Don’t improvise. And make sure you eat properly with quality proteins, carbs and unsaturated fats. If you’re trying to lose fat weight, cut down on portion sizes. If you’re trying to build and gain muscle weight, add 1 or two high quality small meals to your day. That’s it. No magic formulas.
- Day one: bike or elliptical for 45 minutes. At level one, get your rpm (bike) or strides per minute (spm; elliptical) to about 80. Stay there for 10 minutes, then gradually begin increasing the level of difficulty by one, every 60-120 seconds (resistance or level) while maintaining a steady 80 rpm/spm. When you start huffing and puffing in order to continue, reduce your resistance down to a more comfortable level (not necessarily all the way down to 1 again) until your breathing becomes almost comfortable and your legs stop burning. Then repeat the process. Do this as many times as you can fit in for 30 minutes, then spend the last 5 minutes cooling down at level 1 at a slower speed. Done. Please read my blog posts on intensity, before starting this workout, here, and also here.
- Day two: Hit the weights. Start with Dumbbell Squats. You won’t know how heavy to go because you’re a beginner, so do a warm up set of 10 reps and see how hard it is to finish. If it feels less than a moderately intense effort; 7/10 on a ten point scale; then grab a set of light dumbbells and try again after resting 60-90 seconds. Keep trying until you determine that correct starting weights to use. Then do 3 sets of 10 reps with 60-90 seconds rest between each set. If you don’t know proper form, find a bench or low medium platform and sit on the edge of it while holding your weights. sit with good posture, then stand up strongly, slowly returning to the sitting position on the edge, without relaxing completely, and repeat. You are doing a “box” squat and all you need to do is remove the “box” when you get used to the movement pattern.
Push ups come next. Do a warm up set of 6-10 reps, rest for 60-90 seconds, then try to complete 3 more sets, 10 reps (or as many as you can finish if you can’t finish 10) each, with 60-90 seconds rest in between each set. Push ups can be done modified (on knees) if proper form cannot be maintained.
Next up are Lat Pulls . Since a 1st timer won’t know how much weight they can pull, the first set is an experiment. If you’re a male, try loading 50% of your body weight; if female try 30%. Attempt to complete 10 reps. If you cannot, make it slightly easier and try again after resting 90 seconds. If you completed 10 reps, and could have continued to do more, make it slightly harder, so that 10 reps becomes a real challenge (see this link on intensity). Do three fairly intense sets (7/10 perceived exertion), 10 reps each.
Now it’s time for dumbbell shoulder presses. Like all the others, you first need to determine how heavy your dumbbells need to be. The same intensity rules apply. If you’re female, grab a pair of 7.5 or 8 lb. dumbbells, a male should grab a pair of 10-15 lb. dumbbells. Try to do 10 reps. match the weight and the reps to the desired 7/10 intensity, and make any weight adjustments (up or down) you need to in order to get the proper workout. complete 3 sets, 10 reps each, once the correct weight has been determined. This exercise can be done seated or standing, but avoid supporting you back against anything, if possible. Doing it without back support will enhance abdominal conditioning as well as the other associated muscles of the core.
That is the whole weight lifting workout. Every major muscle of your body has been stimulated to adapt and get stronger. Once you’ve really learned it it won’t take more than 30 minutes to complete. If you have energy left at the end, hop on an elliptical, bike, or treadmill and move at a moderate pace for an additional 15 minutes to get a little extra calorie burn and endurance training.
- Day three repeats day 1
- Day 4 repeats day two
Always remember to follow the intensity rules I’ve laid out in my previous blog posts (linked above, and here, here and here), for both weight training and cardio/aerobics training during the 4-6 weeks you will follow this beginner routine.