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.
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. So unless you're a personal trainer or an Olympian, our guide will help 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., 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.