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Training Cheat Sheet

Whether you're an absolute beginner or getting back into it after a long layoff, we can help you survive the gym jungle.

Q: 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, NASM CPT, owner of AbsoluteFitnessUSA.com. 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.

Q: What program should I get on?
A: There are more ways to answer this question than there are notches on Charlie Sheen's bedpost. Basically, it depends on 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 in our Personal Trainer section, which are designed by the world's top fitness experts -- we promise you'll get better results.

Q: Why am I fat?
A: "Fat people like to blame their genetics, and thin people like to think fat people are lazy," says Lou Schuler, co-author of The Book of Muscle, "but the truth is somewhere in between." For example, a 2000 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that about 40% of your obesity is due to genetics. That means 60% is attributable to the hours you spend searching your ex-girlfriends online while downing marshmallow Peeps. Bottom line: We sympathize, but you need to take some responsibility, too.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: Should I take supplements?
A: It takes a brave man to go it alone, but you'll go a lot further in your fitness goals with a little help from your friends -- particularly your good pal protein. Protein is the most basic and important component of muscle, and you simply can't get bigger, or leaner, without it. And now that you're strength training, you'll need a lot more of it -- between 0.7 and 1 gram per pound of body weight each day.

While most of your protein should come from whole foods, protein supplements -- in the form of shakes and bars -- are a quick, convenient way to meet your requirements, and they boast other benefits as well.

"Studies show that protein supplementation can increase lean-body mass, may enhance immune function, decrease muscle breakdown after training, and maybe even increase strength," says sports nutritionist and MF adviser Rehan Jalali, president of the Supplement Research Foundation. "When choosing a supplement, look for one that contains whey-protein isolate and concentrate, casein, egg albumin, and soy isolate -- this combination should give you the most cost-effective and nutritionally rich mixture available."

Jalali also recommends taking a multivitamin/multi-mineral formula, since exercise depletes these stores quickly. "Make sure you get one that's specifically designed for people who exercise -- it should be especially high in vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, calcium, and potassium," as all are essential for muscle growth.

After a few months of solid training, Jalali says you can start to experiment with other nutrients, such as creatine and thermogenic fat burners (depending on your goals). "Still, the best course of action is to focus on good nutrition and smart training -- don't think supplements will make up for them."

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