There's probably no other pursuit that people enter into with more ignorance than lifting weights. If you wanted to plant a garden, you wouldn't just throw some seeds aimlessly in your backyard and pour water on them. If you wanted to tune up your car, you wouldn't start tooling on it with a monkey wrench and hope for the best. That would be stupid, right?
So why do people take such a cavalier and illogical attitude when it comes to their own bodies? Especially when the activity is lifting dense iron objects that have the potential to crush your face. It's idiotic. Going into the gym with no plan and doing what you feel like, or worse, thinking you know exactly what to do without having had any kind of instruction first on how to train yourself spells doom. Sooner or later, you will get injured and you will get nowhere.
Like many of you, I was once a complete idiot in this regard, too. My philosophy was like so many other people's: "Ok, I'll go in and do a little of this and a little of that. Couple sets of curls and, when I'm tired, I'll go home." For any ladies out there reading this, I have to tell you that you're the worst offenders. I see so many women whose thinking seems to go like this:
"I know I need to work out. I know I'm supposed to lift weights. I don't want my chest to sag when I get older, so I'll do the chest fly machine. I want toned arms, so I'll do curls. I don't want to look like a man, so I have to lift light weights. How many reps was that? Felt like 20. I want to get leaner, so I'll jog on the treadmill for 20 minutes. Wow, what a workout. I really killed myself today."
No, you didn't. You were active and burned calories, and that's nice, but you didn't set any goals, your workout was unbalanced, you didn't keep any records, and you have no idea how to improve your performance the next time out to make sure your body adapts.
Here are some of the basics on how to work out:
- You have to follow the law of progressive resistance. This isn't optional. If next week's leg workout doesn't find you lifting heavier weights or performing more total reps than this week's did, you wasted your time. Your body is placed under no extra demand, and will not change. The same goes for cardio. If you don't run harder or longer, you don't get leaner or more cardiovascularly fit.
- You have to train the whole body. The sport of bodybuilding has poisoned our minds with the notion that we have to do just arm exercises to train the arms, just leg moves for the legs, and if we don't regard our backs as a priority, we can give them much less attention or skip them entirely. Wrong. If you get nothing else from this post, let it be this: it doesn't matter what your ultimate goal is (big arms, a flat stomach, a 400-pound bench press), you have to train every major muscle group with equal enthusiasm to get there. Don't like doing squats? Tough. I bet you don't like being fat and weak even more.
- You must keep a log of what you do in the gym. It's the only way to know for sure if you're beating your old records. You should also take measurements to see if your waist is shrinking/muscles are growing over time. Otherwise, you're just guessing. Things you think are working could be doing nothing. Things that are working you may not even notice. Take a pen and a pad or notebook to the gym and write down sets, reps, rest periods, weights you used, levels on the treadmill you got to, etc.
"Golly," you might say. (Well, I hope you wouldn't use the word "golly", but you get the idea.) "That's a lot to remember. How can I make sure I do all that stuff to make progress?" It's simple. Get on a program, preferably one that you've seen in Men's Fitness or something that's written by a qualified trainer who has several years of experience, a college education, and a certification from a respectable organization like the ACSM, NSCA, or NASM.
The strongest, fittest, most knowledgeable athletes and trainers in the world follow programs written by other people. It's not really something you ever graduate from. A common excuse I hear is, "well, I know my body...". Most people don't know their bodies at all! They have no idea how they respond to certain exercises or what they need to do to achieve X goal. Therefore, they shouldn't have an ego about it. Put your trust in somebody who's trained a bunch of people and gotten good results for them. More than likely, you're not that special and what they've used that worked for other people will work fine for you.
And when you're on a program, don't touch it! Don't think that your arms won't grow from two sets of biceps curls, so you need to do five sets instead. You're defeating the purpose. Do what you're told, and reap the benefits.
End of sermon.