How to Start Lifting Weights, Part 2
By braeburn in Culture
Tue Jul 16, 2002 at 05:47:52 PM EST
Tags: etc (all tags)
Part 1 of this series contained a bit of an introduction and some
discussion of the general rules of lifting weights. In this second installment, I'll discuss some of the more practical matters of
lifting, including exercise selection, rep selection, spotting, supplements, and the like. This article will attempt to continue
much in the same vein as the first article: I will be focusing on lifting to build strength, with a deliberate emphasis
on safety, for the beginning lifter.
Before you start
While I intend to continue this series with a third part discussing various misconceptions floating around in the fitness world, before
we begin it's important to get one very dangerous myth out of the way: the myth of "no pain, no gain". Most people have heard
this statement at some point in their lives. It is absolutely untrue, and downright dangerous. You should not feel pain at
any point during your lift; if you do, stop that exercise for that workout immediately. Now, to be clear, there is a distinction
between the discomfort one feels when working a group of muscles intensely, and actual pain from an injury or improper lift.
The first is natural and even desirable; the second means you have either injured yourself, will injure yourself shortly, or that you
are otherwise doing something wrong. They are very different sensations, and you will be able to recognize the bad kind if you ever encounter it.
Better yet, make sure you are performing all of your reps in good form with appropriate weight, through the advice given in this article
and other resources, and you'll never experience the wrong kind of pain.
Location and equipment
Most people, when they step into a gym for the first time, are confronted with a wide, intimidating array of machines, bars, people, and random bits
of metal and rubber. Lots of people find themselves completely overwhelmed, especially in the free-weight area, crowded with big people, grunts,
and heavy pieces of metal swinging around. So, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss some of the basic equipment in the gym,
and specifically those pieces that you'll use if you decide to do the lifts I describe later.
The most basic piece of equipment you'll be using in the gym is the standard-sized Olympic barbell, which is around 7 feet long.
The center of the bar is usually smooth, then some distance from the center becomes knurled or textured. Each end of the bar has what are called
sleeves of larger diameter than the bar itself, where you load the weights. On many bars, these sleeves rotate independently of the bar; this is so, when
you perform a movement where the bar rotates (for example, a curl), you don't have to exert the torque required to rotate the sleeves and the plates on
them. An unloaded Olympic bar weighs 45 pounds.
Plates in the gym come, standardly, in 2.5, 5, 10, 25, 35, and 45 pound sizes. Some gyms
carry 100 pound plates, which you usually find around a leg press machine. Also, some gyms carry plates which have been coated in rubber and are
about the diameter of a 45 pound plate. These plates are called bumpers and despite their rarity they can be very valuable. Bumpers usually
come in 25 and 45 pound varieties.
You will also find a wide variety of smaller bars in the gym of various shapes and textures, including short straight bars that have fixed amount
of weight on them. Finally, every gym carries an assortment of dumbbells, which are usually about 10 inches long. Most gyms I have been in carry
dumbbells up to about 100 pounds in weight.
Calipers are things you put on the sleeves of a barbell outside of the plates to prevent the plates from sliding by holding them firmly
in place. The 2 common styles are the type with screws, which look like a very short section of pipe with a turnable screw drilled through, and
the "squeezy" type, which sort of resemble short springs with handles. With the former you simply untighten the screw, slide the caliper
onto the bar, and tighten the screw firmly, but not too tight. With the latter, you squeeze the handles to expand the diameter of the spring-section,
slide the caliper on the bar, and then release.
Benches in the gym come in many different forms, including ones that incline and decline. The most basic and most useful is the standard flat
bench. The flat bench is either just a bench, useful for many different exercises, or a flat bench designed to perform the barbell bench press.
The bench press bench has, at one end, a pair of posts with rests on top to hold the bar (these should be adjustable in height), and sometimes
a metal catch partway along the post which is meant to act as a safety.
Squat racks are, at their most basic, 4 upright posts of metal arranged in a square and welded together with other
metal posts; the two upright posts in the front are shorter than the ones in the back, and the two supports joining the tops of the front and
back sides of the rack have pins, or stops, along their length, so that you can set a bar at different heights. On the other hand, a power rack,
sometimes called a cage, looks simply like a wireframe metal box, usually around 8 feet high. Holes are drilled in the front and back upright posts
so that, looking at the cage from the front, you can look through the holes. These holes are where you insert the safeties, metal bars that
catch the weight should you drop it, or need to set it down. The holes in the back are also where you attach the pins which hold the bar when you're
not using it. Some cages have a set of fixed pins in the upper half of the cage and holes for the safeties in the lower part. On
this page, the guy in the picture is performing squats in a power rack.
Clothing and gear
Wear clothes that let you perform a full range of motion (such as squatting down towards the floor, standing up again, and raising your arms up) without restricting you. Personally, I wear a slightly loose t-shirt and a pair of jogging shorts. Avoid clothes that are overly baggy or overly tight.
You should feel comfortable in the clothes you're wearing; fashion is not a concern. :) Don't wear a watch or other jewelry, and keep keys and other
things out of your pockets. Buy a good lock so that you can stick these things in a locker, and carry the key either in a pocket or tie it into the laces
of your shoes. Try to wear shoes that have as flat and thin a sole as possible; shoes with big squishy heels are not the best. Try to choose your wardrobe
so that you're at a comfortable temperature in the gym. You want your clothes to be warm or cool enough that you don't really notice the ambient temperature.
Buy a small notebook and pen to keep with it, and make sure you bring this notebook along with you on every workout. You might want to bring some water
if there's not a good water fountain located conveniently. It's considerate to bring a small towel to clean up after yourself if you tend to sweat. That's all the gear you need to start. You do not need gloves, anything with straps or hooks for grip support, or a weight belt.
Before each workout, spend around 10 minutes on a bike or treadmill, set at low resistance, to warm up. You simply want to start your heart
beating a little bit and raise your core temperature, not do any actual work, so keep the resistance minimal. Then, perform a few quick, light
stretches; stretching will be discussed at the end of this article in more detail. Don't stretch hard, just lightly as part of your warmup.
I'll be discussing specific exercises later in the article, but here are a few guidelines regarding reps, sets, and resting. It's important to note
here that these things are very specific to you as a person; like part 1 mentioned, everyone's body is different. If you feel more productive
doing more or fewer reps or sets, or resting more or less than is discussed below, do so. The numbers talked about below seem to work for the bulk of
people I've talked to, but again, your mileage may vary.
- Reps and sets
For most exercises 3 or 4 sets is optimal, i.e., 2 or 3 warmup sets combined with 1 or 2 work sets, resulting in a total of 3 or 4 total sets
(you can work out the combinations). Likewise, for most exercises 10 reps per set seems to work well for most people. If you can stand doing a higher
range of reps, especially in the bigger movements like squat, go ahead and do so; some people swear by the 20-rep squat, although doing 20 reps for all my sets of squat would probably kill me. It all depends, again, on what works for you. While it's also fine to do less than 10 reps per set, be careful of getting down into very low rep ranges, like 5 reps or less per set, until you're confident in your form and thoroughly familiar with the exercise. The amount of weight you use should increase
or remain constant on each set, preferably coming to a climax on your last work set.
Some people advocate the pyramid method, where you increase the weight, then decrease it, but I haven't seen this work very well. Reduce the weight increases as the sets go on; for example, if you're doing 4 sets and you're going to increase the total amount of weight by 30 pounds during your workout, consider increasing by 15 pounds after the first set, then 10 after the next set, then 5 more for the final set, bringing the total weight added since your first set to 30.
After every set, record in your notebook how many reps you were attempting, and how many you actually got. Put some notes in about how hard or easy the
exercise was after all your sets are done. Keep this record up to date by making it a habit to record results after every single set.
- Form and breathing
Remember your form. Even if the set you are currently doing seems light and easy, don't let your form slip at all; as the sets get harder and harder
stay vigilant about your form. If you cheat and break form (yes, this is called cheating) to complete a set, you really haven't succeeded on that set,
and should repeat the same weight
at your next workout instead of going up. Also, remember to breathe properly during your set. Exhale on the positive phase, inhale on the negative,
and do not stop breathing; take multiple breaths if you have to.
Take a rest between each set your perform. How long to make your rest period is a hotly debated topic, but again, the basic rule of "whatever's best for you" applies. Once you find good length, try to keep that length pretty constant in successive workouts. As the weights get heavy you'll probably want to rest a little more, and that's natural, but don't let it get out of hand. In the hard exercises, such as squat or deadlift, I average 1 set every 5 minutes.
Your lifting will always benefit from having a spotter there to assist you if required. A good spotter knows the mechanics of the exercise you are performing and will know how people's form tends to break down when the reps get too hard. He or she will tell you when your form starts to slip, and will remind you of proper breathing should you start to hold your breath. Good spotters know when you are just sticking a bit and may pull yourself unaided through the rep, and when it's time to provide actual assistance. If you have a good spotter (usually a workout partner), you're set. However, keep in mind that ultimately you are responsible for all these things, not the spotter, and that most spotters in the gym are not good spotters. Feel free to give your spotter instructions before the lift, even if they're just someone random you asked for a spot; remember, it's your lift, not the spotter's. For example, when I ask for a spot on bench press, I tell my spotter not to help me unless during a rep the weight starts to come down again (sometimes on the positive phase of a rep I will struggle and the weight will stop going up; at this point, however, I may still be able to get the rep in good form, so I don't want a spot yet), or unless my form starts to break down (for me, when my form breaks on a bench press I start to lift the bar unevenly: I tell the spotter this as well).
However, you can perform some exercises perfectly safely without a spotter: for example, if you squat or bench press in a cage, the safeties will allow you to perform these lifts safely by yourself, as long as you do not foolishly try to get a rep despite bad form, instead of accepting that the lift is over for now and setting the weight down on the safeties.
- Miscellaneous tips
It's a good idea to drink some water during your workout, but keep the amounts small (a mouthful or two) and spaced out (between sets, for example). If you
drink too much water too quickly during a heavy workout, you may vomit.
Some people prefer lifting on a completely empty stomach; some people like having eaten something beforehand. If you eat before you lift, give yourself a
good hour and a half, at least, after you eat before you get into the gym to get your food digested. Again, if you lift too soon after you eat, you'll
If you can, consume something nutritious and easy to digest as soon as possible after your workout is done. Liquid meal replacements are ideal for this.
Maybe 30 minutes or an hour after your workout, eat something solid. Both of these meals should
have a good amount of carbohydrates and protein. You may start to feel pretty cranky and irritable if you let several hours go by without eating after a lift.
Even if you generally lift alone, it's really important to get someone to watch you at least once every couple of months to check for form deterioration. If you can't find anyone who knows about lifting, borrow a video camera from a friend, and convince someone to give up an hour of their day to come to the gym
and film you performing a workout. Watch the tape later, check your form, and correct any mistakes.
Now is the time to get a good, relaxing stretch in. Perform several stretches to help promote flexibility. Stretches will also help your muscle recovery.
Unfortunately, I don't have very good advice about specific stretches to perform. I'm hoping that people will post comments with recommendations below.
At the least, stretch your calves, hamstrings, and groin. The guideline of "no pain" continues to apply during stretching. You should not
feel pain while stretching, and if you do, you're stretching too hard.
What to expect
If you are still new to lifting, or have recently started your cycle over after taking a break, you are probably going have some muscle soreness the
next day or possibly even 2 days later. If this is your first lift ever, you are probably going to be exceptionally sore, so be prepared. However, you
will probably notice as your cycle goes on that you're only occasionally getting sore. This is natural as your body adjusts to the stress you're putting
it under, so don't be concerned. Lack of soreness does not mean you had a poor workout.
If you are just starting to lift weights, you will probably be quite surprised at how rapidly you can increase your poundage on almost every exercise. You
will probably be able to go up by 10 pounds per week for quite a while. Eventually, these very rapid increases will start to become trickles, first becoming
only 5 pound per week increments and then either become 2.5 pounds per week, or 0 pounds per week. When you reach this point - congratulations! You have
just completed your first cycle. Unfortunately, you shouldn't expect such rapid increases in poundage in later cycles like you experienced when you first started. While exciting,
these are mostly due to your neurological system adjusting to lifting weights. Your muscles are indeed getting stronger, but your muscle responses are
also becoming much more efficient. Eventually your gains come mostly from your muscles increasing in strength, which is not as quick a process as
adjustments in your muscle response. But increases in muscle strength are the whole idea, so let this fact encourage you rather than discourage you.
Finally, I've come to the portion of the article where I'll discuss a few specific lifts. First, a caveat: many people will probably disagree with this
choice of lifts. People will approach you in the gym telling you you'd be much better off performing exercise X instead of squat, for example. These
alternate exercises may work for these people, and they may work for you, too. The lifts I'll discuss below are not the end-all, be-all of lifting. As long
as you are lifting safely, feel free to experiment and find what works best for you.
That said, if you can and do persevere in the lifts I describe below, you will probably find that they are among the most productive lifts you can do. The
three lifts I will describe are the squat, deadlift, and bench press. I perform and choose to explain these lifts for a couple of very good reasons. The
first is that these are the three competitive powerlifts. If any of you ever decide to enter a powerlifting competition, these are the lifts you will
be judged upon. As such, they have been standard measures of bodily strength for many years.
The second reason is that your performance in these three exercises is a very good measurement of functional strength. For example, everyone has lifted
something heavy from the floor, like a box full of books. The strength you use here is the same strength you're developing in the deadlift. If your car has
ever stalled in the middle of the road and you had to push it into a parking lot or onto the side of the road, the strength you used is the same strength
you develop through the squat and the bench press.
Finally, in addition to being extremely productive, useful exercises, once you learn the form correctly you can perform all three alone if need be. Perform
squat and bench press in a cage with the safeties in the proper place; if you feel your form start to slip during a rep, immediately lower the weights
in a controlled way onto the safeties and stop that particular lift for the day. Perform deadlift with bumpers on the bar, or arrange some kind of
padding or carpeting where the weights touch the ground, and if your form slips, either immediately lower the weight to the ground and stop, or drop
the weights if you have to.
I'll only describe these three exercises briefly so you can get some idea of them; at the end of the article I'll provide some links to more thorough descriptions with pictures. Make sure you thoroughly understand the exercise and how it is supposed to be performed before you attempt it, and then the first few weeks
you attempt it, perform the exercise with an unloaded bar, then progress a few pounds at a time. All three of these exercises are technically complex enough that you should invest at least 3-4 workouts just concentrating on learning the form. Having someone who know the proper form watch you during this phase is highly recommended.
I consider squat to be in some sense the mother of all lifts. It is very physically demanding, and works so much muscle, that most people agree if you can perform the squat, you absolutely should. A properly performed squat will develop not only your legs but almost all of your back and some abdominal musculature. The short version of the squat explanation goes like this: stand upright with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width, your toes pointing about 30 degrees outward, and a barbell placed across the upper portion of your traps (not on your neck, and not too low - see one of the pictures in the articles linked later for a better idea of where this location is). You should feel centered with the weight of your body and the bar on the center of your feet, neither leaning forward nor leaning back. You should be able to wiggle your toes off the ground anytime during a rep.
Keeping your back straight (imagine standing straight up with good posture, shoulders slightly back, sideways next to a mirror - this is what your back should look like, i.e. flat or slightly concave, throughout the lift), and the weight over your heels, lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor, then return to the upper position. Do not allow your knees to move inward during the positive phase. That's one rep of the squat.
There are a couple places where people tend to cheat during the squat. The first is leaning forward too much, which you will feel because your weight will
be on your toes or towards the front of your feet. The second is letting your knees move inward when you press up. This puts a lot more stress on your
knees. Third is letting your back round during the squat. This is particularly insidious because it's one of the more dangerous mistakes and harder to
detect. Finally, sometimes people tend to twist their torsos a bit or come up unevenly.
Perform the squat in a cage or squat rack with safeties at the proper place, even if you have a spotter present.
Deadlift is very productive for almost all of your back musculature, your grip, and also your legs.
There are a few variations on the deadlift involving foot position (and even different bars), but the one I perform, and the one more people seem
to be comfortable with is called the sumo-style deadlift, and is performed with a straight Olympic bar. Use bumpers if possible; if your gym doesn't
have bumpers, try to deadlift on carpet or some kind of padding.
You don't even need a cage for the deadlift, just the bar and some open space on the floor. The reason you want padding on the floor, or
bumpers on the bar, is to reduce any impact from when you set the bar down, and to prevent the plates from breaking if you have to drop the bar.
This is important, because it's basically impossible to spot someone on deadlift.
Step up to the loaded bar on the floor; stop with your shins about 3 or 4 inches away from the bar. With your toes about 45 degrees outward, place
your feet a bit wider than shoulder width. Let your arms dangle down between your legs and squat down a little, and if your arms just brush the inside
of your legs you'll know you have about the right foot spacing. Now, stand up and get your back flat, like in squat. During the deadlift, your
lower back remains absolutely in this position. When you bend, your bending is at your hips only. Your back never ever bends or rounds at all.
Letting your arms fall straight down, lower yourself down by bending your legs and bending slightly at the hips until your hands reach the bar. Your
shoulders should be much higher than your hips, and your back remains flat. Firmly grip the bar in both hands with your knuckles facing away
from you (palms towards you). Squeeze the weight off the ground by pushing with your legs while exerting enough force with your lower back
that your shoulders and hips remain in the same relative positions. Continue moving upward, straightening your legs and your hips until you are
standing fully upright. The bar will brush lightly along your shins as the bar raises; this will help you keep the amount you're straightening
your hips versus your legs at the proper ratio, so to speak. The weight should, again, be over the centers of your feet.
Don't throw your hips forward or excessively pull your shoulders back at the top of the lift.
Begin lowering the weight by bending at your knees, not at your hips. About when the bar reaches your knees you will need to bend at your hips to
continue lowering the bar. Again, the bar will brush lightly against your shins as you lower it. Lower the weight until it touches the ground; your body
should be in the same position as when you picked the weight up. This is one rep of the deadlift.
The most common mistake in the deadlift is letting your back round, either when you lower the weight or when you pick it up. Also, avoid the tendency
you may have to let your hips go up when you pick the weight up from the ground; that is, don't let your legs straighten and your shoulders remain
in the same place. The phrase I keep in my head when deadlifting, since I tend to do this, is "Shoulders first." The same as with squat,
don't twist, bring the weight up unevenly, or let the weight get over your toes or too far back. Don't let the weight drift too far from your
legs, and be careful of scraping the weight up your shins too hard.
- Bench press
The bench press primarily works your chest, arms, and shoulders.
I'm not going to really explain the mechanics of bench press at all, since the entirety of the bench press section from Stuart McRobert's book, which I recommended
in article 1, is reposted online with pictures at hardgainer.com; this is an excellent set of instructions, and links are provided below.
However, I will mention some common mistakes. An important rule that a lot of people break: keep your ass on the bench at all times. People who bench
in the gym with their feet on the bench and their butts in the air are putting a large amount of stress on their spinal column. Your ass should
not leave the bench. Also, if you're not going to bench in a cage, always have a spotter present, since failing on a bench press without a spotter
is very dangerous. Read the articles that I'll link below about bench press, since they offer these tips and many more.
Diet is such a complex subject that it really makes for its own article. I'll provide a link
below to a good article about nutrition and lifting; this article should give you enough to get started, and then later on you should be able
to find several more articles on other sites.
A final note: supplements
Someone asked in the previous article's comments about supplements, and whether they were necessary or useful. This is another hotly debated gym topic,
so I'll offer my personal beliefs here; many people will probably disagree. The only supplements I view as being useful are protein powders, since it's
hard sometimes to get as much protein in a day as you need, and liquid meal replacements, which provide a good amount of protein, carbohydrates, and
calories. Liquid meal replacements are ideal after a workout when you should consume some calories quickly, or if you're very busy and don't have
time to eat all the full, solid meals you should eat.
Most other supplements, I have found, either provide no benefits or only temporary ones. Plus, supplements are very expensive. I believe that you
would get more benefit spending this money on good quality, clean food than you would via supplements. Many people talk about the benefits of things
like creatine and andro; if you feel you could benefit from something like this, make sure you do research from a reputable site (i.e., not a vendor)
so that you understand generally what the supplement claims to do and how it does it.
Finally, when you buy supplements, including liquid meals and protein powders, check the ingredients to make sure you're not getting something
unexpected. Sometimes vendors stick things like ginseng or yohimbe bark into workout drinks; this may not be your cup of tea. If you're a vegan,
watch out for casein or other dairy and egg proteins. Aspartame is another big ingredient to watch out for in supplements, if you're not comfortable
with aspartame or other sugar substitutes.
See you in part 3.