13 THINGS EVERY FITNESS BEGINNER NEEDS TO KNOW
Every journey begins with a step. We answer your biggest questions about starting on the road to a fitter, healthier you.
Starting a fitness journey can be intimidating. There are workouts to learn, diets to follow, willpower to conjure, and self-consciousness to overcome. But making the decision to start a fitness regimen and making strides toward improving your health are the absolute best things you can do for yourself—mind and body. So give yourself a big pat on the back, then listen to the sage advice of trainer, coach, natural bodybuilder, and gym owner Eric Broser.
Here, Eric answers the most common training questions he gets from people who are starting their quest toward fitness.
I don’t know how to use the equipment or do any workouts. How do I get started?
As a complete beginner, the gym can certainly be an intimidating place. This is why I suggest hiring a personal trainer for a good eight to 10 sessions. He or she can teach you what muscle groups each piece of equipment works, as well as proper exercise technique, breathing patterns, and rep cadence. A good trainer will also help you develop a workout program that is suited to your present level of fitness, particular goals, and that addresses any injuries or limitations that you may have.
What type of training should I do to lose weight?
When it comes to losing weight, you need a combination of weight/resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. Many people make the error of performing too much cardio and neglecting weightlifting, thinking that only treadmills, stationary bikes, and stair steppers are responsible for burning fat—but this is far from true.
While cardio will certainly help you burn extra calories, it’s weight training that is going to stimulate the metabolism (so that you become a fat-burning machine), change the composition of your body, and bring about the shape and contours you want. I suggest at least three to four days per week lifting weights and four to five performing cardio—preferably first thing in the morning or right after resistance training.
What type of training should I do to build strength and muscle?
For building strength and muscle, you’ll need a well-designed weight training program that primarily utilizes free weights and compound (multi-joint) exercises. A four-day-per-week program works quite well for most, using a two-on, one off; two on, two off pattern. This allows you to hit each muscle group hard once per week while providing you three days for rest and recovery (which is when actual growth takes place).
I suggest starting with about four exercises for three sets each for major muscles like the back, quads, hamstrings, chest, and shoulders. For smaller groups like biceps, triceps, traps, abs, forearms, and calves, you’ll do well with just three movements for two to three sets each. Perform one to three warmup sets before each exercise (more are needed earlier in the workout), and then work sets of 13 to 15, 10 to 12, and 7 to 9 reps.
How often do I need to work out?
How often you need to work out depends on your fitness level, goals, and time limitations. The loftier the goal, the more time you will have to spend going after it. That said, if you have a very demanding job, a family, or other important personal responsibilities, you may not be able to spend hours per week working out. Then you’ll need to be patient when it comes to reaching your goal.
To make decent progress you need to hit the gym at least three days per week for an hour at a time. However, as time passes, you’ll begin to require more time in order to see continued progress. I suggest starting out with three gym sessions per week and adding to your program every month or so.
How much time should I spend in the gym?
Like the last question, this depends on how fit you currently are, what goals you have set for yourself, and how much time you have to devote to working out. For some people it may be best to schedule three hour-long workouts per week, while others may find it more convenient and beneficial to train five to six days per week—but for only 30 minutes.
In other words, it’s best to think about how many total hours per week you’ll spend in the gym, and then decide how best to spread it out. Another important point to consider is the quality of time and not just quantity. Someone who is very dedicated and focused on their training can often get far more accomplished in just 30 minutes than someone who’s there for an hour but constantly distracted by their phone, chatting with others, and watching rather than doing.
How much rest do I need?
Certain exercises are far more demanding on the body than others and require more rest between sets. For example, a set of 15 reps of barbell squats will not only tax the thighs, glutes, and lower back, but will also have you breathing like a freight train. You may find that you need a good three to four minutes before you are ready to get to the next set. On the other hand, performing 15 dumbbell side laterals may only require 45 to 60 seconds of recovery time.
Another point to consider is what your primary goal is and how weight training will work best to reach it. Someone who’s in the gym to build massive size and power will want to rest for longer periods in between sets so as to be able to lift maximum weight for maximum reps. When you’re looking to burn body fat and increase endurance, it’s best to keep your heart rate elevated and move quickly from set to set, even if the weights are lighter.
As for between workouts, you may find that as a beginner that a full day of rest is needed in-between weight training sessions. However, as you progress and become more resilient, it’s possible to train for days without a break, just as long as you never work the same muscles two days in a row. Cardio can be done daily.
Should I start a supplement regimen?
At the beginning of your health and fitness journey, the main focus should be on implementing an intelligent and efficient workout regimen and a healthy and balanced nutrition program. Anyone who tells you to immediately jump on all sorts of sports supplements is either misinformed or trying to make a buck (well, most of them). After spending eight to 12 solid weeks in the gym, working hard and consistently while carefully following a sound diet, it’s appropriate to think about adding supplements into the mix.
Is there really a 30- to 60-minute window to consume protein post-workout? Why?
It’s actually true that within the first hour after working out intensely with weights, the body is in a special metabolic state where protein and carbohydrates are partitioned toward muscles and away from fat cells. This is because, during this period, insulin sensitivity is extremely high, which means amino acids and carbs will very readily be absorbed, assimilated, and stored directly into damaged muscle cells. This allows for repair, recovery, and recuperation to start immediately, and over time you’ll get far better results than eating your post-workout meal outside of this anabolic window.
I’m severely out of shape. Is there anything that isn’t safe for me to do?
While it’s likely safe for you to begin a light workout program, preferably under the care of an experienced and educated personal trainer, it would be best for you to consult with your physician before even stepping into a gym. Getting the green light from your doc will give you peace of mind and keep you from needlessly causing yourself harm, illness, or injury, especially when you are taking steps to improve your health and wellness. Don’t be disheartened; just talk to your doctor first to get a physical and come up with a strategy.
Do you recommend any non-workout activities to get fit?
Absolutely, yes. Not only are outside activities great for your body, but they’ve also been proven to improve your mental wellbeing—depression is often a factor for people who find it difficult to get in shape. These types of activities are especially great when it comes to getting in your cardiovascular training. It’s far more enjoyable to hike, dance, bike, run stairs, or swim than to walk on a treadmill every session.
How do I know my training is working? What performance measures should I be tracking?
Carefully tracking your progress is extremely important when embarking on any kind of physical fitness program. If possible, it’s a good idea to meet with a coach or trainer every two to four weeks to have your weight, body fat, and complete measurements taken. You can take it a step further by having regular blood tests via your primary physician if you are trying to regulate general health measures like total cholesterol, the ratio of LDL to HDL, triglycerides, and blood pressure.
Oddly enough, a very good indicator of progress is feeling how your clothes fit. Obviously, if you are looking to get bigger and more muscular, you know you are headed in the right direction if your shirts are fitting tighter in the arms, chest, and through the back. The scale is not always a telltale sign of whether your program is yielding results, since it’s very possible for people, especially women, to drop several sizes without losing a single pound. Always remember that muscle weighs more than fat, but it takes up far less space.
What do I do when I hit a plateau?
When stagnation sets in, it’s time to look carefully at your overall program and decide what changes need to be made to kickstart progress once again. Sometimes it’s a case of simply adding in more work or tweaking your diet by adding or subtracting calories (depending on the goal). Other times you have to ask yourself if you are truly giving it 100 percent every day in the gym. Simply showing up is not going to get the job done—you need to focus, concentrate, and give your all to every set and rep.
Another possibility is that your body and mind have adapted to the exercises and types of cardio you have been doing and need a change. Try changing some of your weight training movements, switching to different cardio machines, using more or less resistance, or altering rest between sets.
I’m really struggling, how do I stick with it?
This may be the toughest question of all to answer. The desire and will to keep pushing yourself day after day has to come from within. While the people close to you may lend their support (and you should question anyone who doesn’t), it’s still you that has to take the journey. You’re the one who has to skip the cheat meals, pass on the booze, pump the weights, and sweat on the treadmill, bike, and stepper.
But just like anything in life, few things worth having come easy. And honestly, nothing is more important than your health. That said, a few suggestions I have that may help are:
- See if a friend, family member, or another gym goer will work out with you. It’s great having a partner.
- Watch inspirational videos or movies that can help psyche you up to go to the gym.
- Always wear headphones with your favorite motivational music when you work out.
- Contemplate how you will feel about quitting. Think about looking back months from now and knowing what you might have accomplished had you stuck with it.
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