How to Start Lifting Weights, Part 1
By braeburn in Culture
Fri Jul 12, 2002 at 09:17:59 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)
I've been lifting weights in the gym (centering on what's traditionally called powerlifting) for about 2 1/2 years now. While that's
not very long in terms of a weightlifting career, I was taught from my very first workout how to properly lift by very experienced
people. In the years that I've been lifting, the same fact has struck me over and over again: very few people who frequent a gym
and seriously want to lift weights know the proper ways of doing so. While this might strike some as elitist, it's a serious concern
of mine: lifting improperly leads to injuries, sometimes serious ones, and spreads misinformation about the sport. Also, recently
I've seen a lot of discussion at a lot of sites about the growing waistline of the average American, and in the spirit of other
K5 content such as the Fat Bloke's Guide to Becoming Less Fat, I
thought there might be some interest in an article about lifting, and how to get started doing it properly.
This article is mainly focused towards those of us in the audience who are hardgainers, that is to say, genetically typical. The consensus
seems to be that anywhere from 70% to 90% of the population are "hardgainers", those people who have no special genetic gifts
towards getting a large muscle mass, and are prone to easily overtraining, a term that will be discussed in a later paragraph. However,
the advice applies to everyone; those of you who hit the genetic jackpot will just get to gain even faster now. :)
Right now, I plan to divide this series into 2 or possibly 3 articles: this first is a discussion of what I'll call the "golden rules" of lifting. Some practical details like rep selection, exercise selection, supplements, and the like, will come in article number 2, and
finally in number 3 some discussion of common myths and mistakes I see in the gym.
Even though this article will be a bit abstract, you can apply these rules to your lifting program right now if you're too impatient for the next installment. Before I dive into the meat of this first article, though, I'd like
to define a few terms that most people will probably know, but I just want to make sure we're all on the same page.
- A rep is a complete movement, or unit, of one exercise. For nearly every exercise with weights, a rep has two phases: a positive
phase and a negative phase. The positive phase is that phase where you are exerting the bulk of your strength against the weight: pushing up from
the chest during a bench press, coming up from the bottom position during a squat, pulling yourself up to the bar during a chinup, or
doing a crunch during abdominal work are all positive phases of a rep for that specific exercise.
Likewise, the negative phase of a
rep is the other part of the rep, where you are lowering the weight, your body, or "relaxing". Usually the positive phase of the
rep is the hard part, and the negative phase is the easy bit, but this is not always the case, as sometimes it takes quite a bit of strength
to lower a weight in a controlled way. When people in the gym talk about doing negatives, they're referring to the practice of (with a spotter) performing
only the negative phase of a rep in an exercise, usually with much more weight than you could safely perform a positive with. Some people believe this
can stimulate or shock your muscles into further growth if you happen to stagnate during a cycle.
- A set is a group of reps. Most people measure how much work they have done in the gym by recording how many sets, how much weight for that set,
and how many reps per set of a particular exercise they've done. A warmup set is simply a set done to warm up; a work set is a set where you are actively trying to work and increase weight in a certain exercise.
- A cycle is a period of time, usually measured in weeks or months, during which you perform the same set of exercises with the goal of increasing your strength in those exercises. The average cycle lasts about 8-12 weeks. Many times cycles will be structured in such a way that as your cycle goes on, you reduce the number of reps and work sets, building to a climax where at the very end of your cycle you perform only one rep of an exercise on your last work set; this is the elusive "one-rep max", the maximum amount of weight you are capable of lifting safely in a particular exercise.
- Overtraining is when, either because of not enough rest, lifting too much weight, or simply just exhausting your body's recovery abilities by extending your cycle too long, your gains start to dry up, and you can no longer consistently increase the weight you're lifting on a weekly basis. If more than 2 or 3 weeks go by, and you're not increasing your weight on a specific exercise, you've probably overtrained yourself, and it's time to rest. More on this is described below.
With that out of the way, let's begin! Here are what I think of as the cardinal or "golden" rules of lifting:
- If you lift patiently, consistently, and in good form, while maintaining a good diet and resting enough, you will become stronger.
This probably seems like one of the more obvious statements one could make about exercise, but let's examine the requirements more closely.
- Patiently - Never try to rush your progress in the gym. Never, ever try to lift more weight than you know you are ready for. Never shortchange yourself on rest in an effort to do more work in the gym. Be patient - most hardgainers should work one exercise or body part once or (at most) twice per week.
If you are not patient, if you try to rush your gains, if you wear yourself too thin, you will overtrain quickly, get frustrated, and want to quit. Worse, if you try to lift more than you're ready for, you're asking for an injury. If done properly, your lifting career can and will last years and into old age.
- Consistently - You need to work out on a schedule. Once you have this schedule tuned to what works for you, you need to make every effort not to let yourself fall away from it. Of course, maintaining a schedule 100% isn't always possible - we all have times where because of jobs, children, illness, etc., we can't be completely consistent. Still, try to get into the habit of going to the gym consistently. Buy a notebook and record your workout every time you go. Get into the habit.
- In good form - this is one of the most important points in lifting. More important than how much weight you lift is how you lift it; more important than how many times you lift a weight is how many times you correctly lift that weight. Buy a book that teaches proper exercise form for each exercise you plan to do (I'll make some recommendations later), or have someone who knows what they're doing teach you and watch you. In the big movements, like squat, deadlift, and others, perfect form is absolutely crucial. People often avoid squats and deadlifts because they've heard stories about how they'll ruin your knees and your back. This is a shame, since in my opinion the squat and deadlift are two of the most productive exercises you can do, if done properly. If you lift with improper form, you can indeed damage your knees and back. However, if you learn to perform these exercises in good form, not only will you remain injury-free, you'll probably be amazed with the gains that you make.
When you start an unfamiliar exercise, resign yourself to the fact that you may need to take as much as 3 to 4 weeks of performing that exercise with light weight, or no weight, and simply concentrate on mastering the form. Having someone watch you during this phase and correct your form is invaluable. After a while, you'll be so conscious of the proper form and your body that you'll know when you start to deviate. I can't stress enough how important the proper form is. I see so many people in the gym who are on the road to injury, and I think that's a damn shame.
Accordingly, if you can't complete a set of a certain weight with great form (although you know you could cheat a little and get the set), you shouldn't go up in weight the next time you perform that exercise.
Good form also includes good breathing - breathing properly is a part of your form. The most important rule about breathing is that you should never hold your breath at any time while performing a rep. Ideally, you should breate out on the positive phase, and in on the negative phase. You may need to take more than one breath on a hard rep - this is okay, as long as you do not hold your breath at any point.
- Diet and rest - if you want to gain muscle, you need to give your body the materials to make that muscle out of. Also, most people will find when they start lifting that their metabolism skyrockets; Henry Rollins once wrote in an article that a few weeks after he started lifting, his father took to calling him "the locust" because of his tendency to move through the house devouring anything edible.
You will discover through trial and error how much food is appropriate for you without getting fat or crippling your gains. One thing that can really help you nail this down is calorie-counting. This is a really complex subject, so I don't really want to go into it too much here. However, for a good while after you first start lifting, your diet will not be the most important thing towards making gains, so it can be something you start to research later.
Getting enough rest and sleep is also very important. Try to get at least a good 8 hours a night of sleep, and if, on your rest days from the gym, you find yourself running around and generally not resting, increase the number of rest days in your schedule. Not enough rest will cause overtraining.
- Structure your cycles sensibly to avoid overtraining; know when you've overtrained and how to overcome it.
Almost everyone will overtrain sooner or later, be it due to lack of rest, nutrition, or simply because your body cannot recover anymore. A natural way to structure your cycles, once you get to know your body better, is to try and arrange things so that you are just at the point of overtraining at the end of your cycle.
When you overtrain, you'll find that suddenly you can't add 5 pounds to the bar like you've been doing, or you may even find that you have to go down in weight to complete a set in good form. The solution for overtraining is simple: rest. At the end of a cycle, when you've started to overtrain, you should take 7 to 10 days completely off of lifting, and I mean completely off. Sit around. Eat something fun - you only live once. Sleep. Enjoy the outdoors. If you must exercise, make it something extremely easy and low-impact.
Then, when you return to the gym, start a new cycle at, say, 75% of your best weight for the previous cycle (these numbers may differ if your last cycle ended with you doing one-rep maxes - in which case, you should know enough about cycles not to need to read this). This workout will likely feel pretty easy, and you may feel a bit lazy for doing such an easy lift. Don't worry, it'll get harder.
Assuming everything's going smoothly, proceed over the next few workouts at 85%, 90%, 95%, and then finally 100% or perhaps include an extra week at 97.5%. Once you get to about 95% of your previous best, the workouts should be getting pretty hard. However, you'll find that because you took that full 7-10 days off and then slowly built back up, you now have recovery ability to spare, and you should be able to increase your previous personal best. Continue until the end of your cycle, and repeat. This slow, steady process of increasing your personal best, like drops of water into a bucket, will have a cumulative effect, and eventually you'll be lifting impressive amounts of weight.
- Everyone's body is different.
There are people in the gym who can eat what they want, do a lot of curls and nothing else, sleep 5 hours a night, and still look great, all bulgy and buff in the right places. These people hit the genetic jackpot. Unfortunately, most people are not so lucky, and if you're not one of these people, trying to compare yourself to an easy gainer will only make you frustrated. And, even among those who are hardgainers, there is a huge amount of variation genetically, and in body type.
For example, some people simply cannot gain well on the squat - their body type is not suitable to it as an exercise. No matter how hard they try, they can only eke out very slow gains with very hard work. Note that even these people, if they continue to apply themselves to the squat, will indeed make gains, because they are following rule #1. But it's probably not the best exercise for them.
People who perform poorly in the squat (and I'm one of these people) tend to be taller and lankier, with long limbs and narrow torsos. People with shorter limbs and wider torsos tend to be able to simply terrorize on the squat, making enviable gains. However, these people tend to have more trouble with the deadlift, while people with longer limbs (again, I'm one of these people) tend to excel on it. My deadlift personal record is a good 60-70 pounds better than my squat personal record; the movement is just so much more natural for me. If you have a body structure that makes you particularly suited to a specific exercise, my advice to you is to work that exercise for all it's worth. Sure, you may have one exercise that's light-years ahead of another, but what's so bad about that? Exploit your genetic gifts as much as possible.
- Prefer the big, compound movements to smaller movements or isolation exercises; prefer free weights to machines, if you're able to lift free weights.
For your average lifter, unless you are a bodybuilder, or already really defined, isolation exercises are pretty useless. By performing a big, compound movement, such as the squat, deadlift, bench press, pullup, or stiff-legged deadlift (to name a few), you are working a large amount of muscle mass, and the gains you make will increase the size and strength of muscles throughout your body. If you're too weak to perform a rep in one of the large movements (for example, you're not strong enough yet to do a full chinup unassisted), perform a smaller movement or use smaller weight until you can (in the chinup example, do a pulldown on the machine until you can do a pulldown with about 90% bodyweight - at this point, you should be strong enough to do at least one chinup).
If, for some other reason, you can't perform one of the big movements, try to do as big a movement as you can; for example, though both are productive, squat is more productive than leg press. Both are much, much more productive than, say, a leg extension. Therefore, you should favor squat over leg press if possible, and leg press over leg extension.
Hard work in the larger movements will produce better gains than hard work in smaller movements, and much better gains than isolation exercises will do. It is very hard to get a very strong body, overall, just doing isolation exercises. They do have their place, but are not very useful until much later in your lifting career.
Machines have their place, but free weights, again, will be more productive, since they involve various muscle groups for stabilization. Also, some machines enforce a particular form on you that may not be proper or may not suit your body type. As such, you'll get more benefit from a free-weight squat than you would with one of the machine squats, such as with a Smith machine, which will eliminate some of the stabilization musculature you'd otherwise be exercising, and enforce a particular path that, for me, requires me to lean forward more than is safe for a squat.
Hopefully, these rules will help most of you who are interested in lifting. If it seems like the K5 community is interested in this article, I'll continue the series with a discussion of the common myths, misconceptions, and downright mistakes I see in the gym. In the meantime, for those of you who want more explanation, here's a list of some books and websites that should help you out:
- The Insider's Tell-All Handbook on Weight Training Technique, by Stuart McRobert. Despite a really silly title and cover design, I consider this book to be required reading for anyone lifting weights. It describes in detail the proper form for nearly every valuable exercise you can do in the gym, with lots of pictures of both good and bad form, and descriptions of common mistakes people make in certain exercises. If you want to know the correct form for any exercise worth doing, you should read this book. I've found it at several different libraries, so you can check there if you're interested.
- Beyond Brawn, by the same author (and featuring the same silly cover design). This book talks in great detail about pretty much everything else related to lifting, including nutrition, rest, mental preparation, support gear, and the like. Very valuable.
- Hardgainer, the online presence of Hardgainer magazine, also affiliated with Stuart McRobert. Lots of articles have been reprinted online and make for educational reading.
- Cyberpump, a site which I personally haven't explored too much, but a lot of people have been talking about, and seems to have the right idea. This site has lots of resources including forums, Q+A, articles, and the like.
Good luck, and good lifting.