Wednesday, January 25, 2012

6 essential tips for beginning weight lifters

It's been quite a while since my last update on this blog, and my training has progressed past the body weight program I was doing back then.  My fianceĆ© bought me a barbell weight set for my birthday back in November, and I been researching the subject of resistance training as much as possible ever since then.  Today, I am going to share some of the most important findings of my research on resistance training.  It may be a bit long-winded, but I promise it'll be worth the read.  So without further ado...

 • Use compound lifts
Compound lifts are the best choice for beginners, and usually even more advanced trainees.  They are exercises that use the largest muscle groups simultaneously, which induce the greatest training effect from weight lifting.  Whether the goal is muscle gain or fat loss, compound lifts are the "go-to" exercises that should be the foundation of the routine.  Isolation lifts--exercises that target a specific muscle--have their place, but a well-designed program that uses compound lifts will hit practically every muscle in the body (noticed I said "well-designed).  Only highly advanced trainees have the need for isolation lifts, and even then, most of their programs are still built around lifts that use whole groups of muscles, not just a specific one.

Deadlifting is a great compound exercise

 So which exercises are the best to use?  That depends on your equipment, your body leverages, and your personal preference.  Despite endless arguments on fitness forums over which exercises are the best for muscle growth/fat loss, basically any compound lift used will be effective if the weight is increased over time.  Obsessive details, like questioning whether to use squats or leg presses to build the leg muscles, really don't matter in the long run.

Here is a list of good exercises that beginners should use to form the base of their training:

Legs (quads and hamstrings)
  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Leg press
  • Split-squats
  • Lunges
  • Step-ups
  • Glute-ham raise
Back
  • Rows (any variation)
  • Pull-ups
  • Chin-ups
Chest
  • Bench presses (any variation)
  • Push-ups (weighted or unweighted)
Shoulders
  • Overhead press (seated or standing)
Even women should use compound exercises, like the bench press

 This list is by no means exhaustive, but these exercises are the most common and generally very effective.  Some readers may ask, "Where's the tricep kickbacks?  Calf raises?  Leg extension?"  Beginners needn't worry about these extra exercises.  Compound lifts will hit those muscle groups, plus others in the surrounding area of the body.  Bench pressing will hit both the chest and triceps so there is no need for the isolated tricep work.  Squats, when performed properly, will hit the butt, the front and back of the thighs and the calves all at the same time... and allow you to use greater amounts of weight than isolating one muscle.

Generally, beginners should start with a program that is proven to be effective, and usually these type of programs include a multitude of compound lifts.  If you are trying to create your own program as a beginner (which isn't recommended, but it happens), make sure you are using compound lifts as the staple exercises of your routine.

 • Practice good form 
This is the best tip for beginners to really engrave into their minds about training.  It goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip.  Resistance training is beneficial to the human body in so many ways, but it can also wreck the body in one session if proper care isn't employed.  One wrong move with too much weight and it can spell the end of your training, not to mention possibly putting you on the couch (or in the hospital) for a few days. 

Although that scenario might seem scary enough to discourage some from weight lifting, knowing how to perform the exercises properly and with a manageable amount of weight is all it takes to keep that from happening.

Before you even touch the bar, you should take the time to watch tutorial videos on how to maintain proper form on all the exercises you plan to do.  Unless you have a personal trainer/coach, this is going to be the simplest way to learn and correct your form on various exercises.  Just below, I've linked the best tutorials on form for the most common barbell exercises.

Squats
So You Think You Can Squat, part 1
So You Think You Can Squat, part 2
So You Think You Can Squat, part 3

Deadlift
Mark Rippetoe: Deadlift Setup

Bench press
So You Think You Can Bench, part 1
So You Think You Can Bench, part 2
So You Think You Can Bench, part 3
(This series goes on to part 7, but the main concepts are in the first three videos)

Pull ups
How to Do a Proper Pull up

Barbell row
StrongLifts Member Tom - Barbell Row (although this isn't a tutorial video, "Tom" demonstrates how to do a proper barbell row: flat back, squeezing the upper back muscles to initiate the movement, resetting from the floor on each rep.  Study this video for all those key points)

These are the most complex lifts (not including Olympic lifts, which should only be done under the supervision of a trained coach) that basically require video tutorials to learn.  However, you should strive to maintain good form on even more simple exercises like the overhead press, or even bicep curls.  Great form is what stands between you and injury.  Not only that, but good form encourages smaller muscle groups to get stronger instead of using a larger muscles to compensate.

What about machine exercises?  Well, generally machines are built to only move in one stable motion, so form is generally not as hard to learn as with barbell lifts.  However, you should still be mindful of keeping the chest up and out, and the lower back flat even on machines.  This will ensure proper muscle groups are being use in the movement and prevent injury.

There is a lot of talk on fitness forums about how a certain amount of "body english," or movement of the body to help lift heavier weights, is sometimes acceptable.  I have found that this is generally not the case until trainees hit very advanced levels of fitness.  As a rank beginner, proper form should ALWAYS be maintained in order to engrave the movement pattern into the trainee.  If form starts to deteriorate, stop the lift and come back to it another time.  Also, take short videos of yourself while performing the exercise so you can see how good your form is.  Even if you feel like your form is spot-on when actually doing the lift, a video clip will show you flaws in your form that you didn't even know about.

• Be Patient
Generally speaking, when people first start out lifting weights, it is to improve their body composition in some way.  While weight lifting is great for that purpose, like anything else, it takes time to show its effectiveness.  Many beginners jump from program to program on a weekly basis, and then end up frustrated that they aren't seeing the results they were promised.  When the results don't come in that short time frame, ultimately many trainees give up on it and claim that it didn't work.

It takes a lot of time for our bodies to adapt to a training stimulus.  Beginners should focus on working on a routine for AT LEAST 8 WEEKS, minimum.  This is sufficient time for the body to adapt to the stimulus of the training program.  The longer and more consistent the training is, the better the results will be.  One of my favorite exercise/nutrition gurus, Lyle McDonald, concludes that "training should be focused around making the most gains possible from the least training possible."  Basically, he means that you shouldn't switch programs just for the hell of it.  Instead, you should keep doing what works as long as you can before switching up your routine.  That way, when the gains of your "beginner" program don't work anymore, you'll be able to progress to something more advanced to keep the gains coming.  If you're switching everything up all the time, not only will you see lackluster results, but you won't have anything to progress to once the time comes.

Lyle McDonald has an excellent series on beginning weight training.  Most of my training is based on recommendations made in that series.  If you would like to take a look at it for yourself, follow this link.


• Check Your Ego
We all have a certain capacity to want to show off, even if it is only to impress ourselves.  It's just human nature.  However, if you have taken up weight lifting with a specific goal in mind (which I'm sure most people do when they start lifting, at least initially), it's pointless to let your ego get in the way of true progress.

Don't be tempted to use a ton of weight for your first few workouts.  Beginners need to practice exercise form first and foremost, and then the weight can be added on gradually.  The weight you initially pick should be a weight you can do for 15 or more reps without fatigue, attempting to accomplish perfect form with each rep.  Truly rank beginners will make gains from even the smallest amount of weight, so there isn't a real downside to using lighter weights at first.  On the other hand, using far too much weight will make it very easy to injure yourself, or possibly keep you from progressing at the very least.

Letting your ego get in the way is asking for injuries

If you haven't noticed by now, quite a few of these tips go together hand-in-hand.  Checking your ego is the first thing you should do before starting a weight lifting session.  If you can do that, you'll be prepared to use effective exercises (compound lifts as mentioned earlier) and you'll make sure that your form is spot-on before moving the weights up.  If you can't make the rep range you were aiming for with perfect form in that session, try it again next time and it will probably be much easier.  Just remind yourself that you aren't just lifting the weight to show off in the gym, you're lifting for purposes both in- and outside the gym (better body composition, greater strength, improved health, higher athleticism,  ect.).  Lifting a much larger amount of weight than you can handle will undoubtedly stall your progress with time, and almost assure that you will injure yourself eventually.  And how long will that injury set you back?  A week?  A month?  Three months?  

Use a weight you know you can handle, and keep the progress going.  If you are patient (another one of the tips), you'll be pushing more weight than you ever thought you could.

 • Supplements aren't necessary (time and hard work is)
Anyone who reads fitness/bodybuilding magazines will attest to the fact that they are literally covered in supplement advertisements guaranteed to make you bigger, stronger, slimmer and sexier if you use them.  Sometimes even professionally written articles will insert a plug for the latest high-tech supplement, making people wonder if the actual workout is really doing that much in comparison.  Certain articles may even go so far as to say that a workout will be totally ineffective without a certain supplement.

I am here to tell you without any uncertainty that SUPPLEMENTS AREN'T NECESSARY AT ALL.  A good workout plan with sound nutritional practices will go much farther in the quest for fitness than any supplement will.  This is not to say that all supplements are completely ineffective (I'll come back to the few that deserve attention in a little while).  However, depending on supplements instead of hard work and patience is asking for failure.

Before I start linking references to how useless supplements can be, I'd like to just explain something on a bit more simple level.  Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and the Earth itself is perhaps millions, if not billions, of years old.  We've been living off what this planet has created for us since we existed.  Now, looking back at the last century (perhaps just the last six decades), we've learned how to modify and/or create foods that are either highly modified versions of what the Earth has provided or completely artificial altogether.

Supplements: Not necessary
   I hate to sound all "hippie-ish," but what seriously makes man think that he has "outdone" nature by modifying or separating out the nutrients that nature has provided for us for thousands of years?  Man's arrogance convinces us that we can use our intelligence to "outdo" real food with supplements and substitutes.  Yet, when science objectively pits our creations against nature's creation, nature always comes out on top.  Take a look at a good example for yourself. And this is, by no means, the only study of its sort.

Now my point is this: Why put your faith in a few decades of experimentation with human food technology when the Earth itself has had millions of years in the making of nutritious food for us to consume and live healthily?  There is still much we don't know about how our bodies work and how nutrients interact with our bodies and other nutrients.  We do know, however, that protein, fruits and vegetables have been a staple in human health for ages.  This is what nature provides for us--animals for protein, and fruits and veggies that grow in the Earth itself.  Instead of removing individual nutrients from foods or making up artificial nutrients and marketing them as "supplements" to a diet, why not just eat the nutritious food that we already know has proved itself over the course of thousands of years?  But I digress...

Anyway, I'd like to discuss why supplements aren't necessary for beginners looking to improve their performance or improve their physique.  First of all, if you are eating enough protein and your calories are in check for your goals (lower for fat loss or higher for muscle gain), supplements in the form of BCAAs, EAAs and even whey protein aren't necessary.  Sure, they can provide convenience if you are too busy (or lazy) to eat enough protein during the day, but make no mistake--they are absolutely non-essential if you get enough protein through other food sources.  This article highlights some of the details about why they aren't necessary.  Keep in mind that even though the article's main focus is on BCAAs, it can apply to just about any supplemental protein.

Many of the people who buy supplements are basically scared into it by advertisements claiming that your muscles will fall off (in a more professional terminology) immediately after your workout if you don't ingest a certain supplement.  Likewise, many ads will claim that performance during a workout will suffer without a particular supplement, eventually leading to lackluster progress.  These claims are far from the truth. Progressive overload is all that is needed to keep improving from workout to workout, and adequate protein is all that is needed to ensure muscle loss doesn't occur after working so hard to obtain it.

What about the claims from meal replacement supplements that convince people to eat every two to three hours or their fat loss will stall?  Again, utter bullshit.  Martin Berkhan has an entire site devoted to the dieting practice of intermittent fasting.  Along with highly successful client pictures, Berkhan also includes studies and reviews based on objective science why humans can abstain from eating for 16 hours in the day and still make amazing strength and physique gains.  Supplement companies that advise you to eat six times for maximum gains are only trying to maximize the gain on their wallets.  There is no objective evidence to suggest that obsessive eating is necessary for any fitness enthusiast, beginner or not.  I'd high recommend you check out Berkhan's site (and this article in particular) to learn more about the "6-meals-a-day" myth.

If you think the supplement industry has your best interests in mind, think again.  While there are a few exceptions, most supplements are only designed to do one thing: make money.  As unfortunate as it is, supplement companies know how to appeal to their audience and will do most anything to make people buy their products.  This includes taking information out of context, using their own company-sponsored research, or even just flat out lying to the consumer.  In a field where there is so much emotion involved as well (anyone who has dealt with ridicule from others for being overweight can attest to this), supplement companies know how to latch on to that emotion and exploit it.  Alan Aragon knows this too, and he does a wonderful job of ripping a certain company's  supplement claims to shreds in this article

Aragon has also researched and reviewed several other supplements that claim to have great effects for their users.  However, based on scientific research and critical analysis of said research, Aragon has come up with a list of the most useless supplements to help others avoid being suckered into buying them.   You can bet all of the companies will tell you otherwise... that their products are the best thing to hit the fitness market in years.

So what supplements are actually useful?  Creatine has a long track record of effectiveness and safety to warrant using it.  Beta-alanine is fast becoming the next creatine, with recent studies showing that it can be effective to some degree.  As mentioned earlier in the section, protein powders can be useful for those on the go or for individuals who can't be bothered to cook real food.  Again, none of these are essential to beginners starting out.  They may provide additional benefit in some people and for some goals, but are completely optional for good results.

I am becoming a bit long-winded here, and there clearly isn't enough space to discuss every kind of supplement and whether or not it is effective.  However, my main point was to demonstrate how supplement companies try to make you believe that results are unattainable without them, and how this is far from the truth.

• Do the warm-up/mobility work
I will be brief about this tip, since I have discussed it elsewhere on my blog.  Beginners and advanced trainees alike will benefit from a good warm-up and mobility work.  This will help keep minor aches and pains at bay, and it will also keep injuries from occuring due to lack of range-of-motion.


Well, that's it for now.  I have used all of these tips in my own training since day one and I can attest to their effectiveness, especially when followed as a whole instead of just individual parts.  Like I said before, many of these tips go hand-in-hand so it benefits you all the more when you apply all of them to your training.  Keep these points in mind and your beginner routine will take you very far!