Xtra Xtra Large: A Beginner’s Guide to Getting Big
So you want to get bigger and/or stronger, eh? If you’ve never stepped foot in a weight room before, it can be daunting. With all of those strapping guys, grunting and comparing pecs and stats, the air is thick with sweat and condescension.
The trick is this: if you want results, you’ve gotta get in there and do the work. Sure, you can take a group ex class, but if you want size, it will do you zero good. The difference is that in class, you’ll gain muscular endurance. You’ll do twenty to fifty reps (no, seriously) with a low weight, and you’ll hurt.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, muscular endurance. However, if you’re looking to gain some mass, you need to work on your muscular strength. Short sets (5-8 reps) with heavy weights will make you stronger.
If you want to LOOK like someone who lifts, you’ll need to shed body fat with a specialized diet, but we’ll talk about that another day. For now, let’s get you started in the weight room.
Best Options for Learning New Strength Exercises
1. Get a personal trainer. If you tell them you only want one session to teach you how to safely do the exercises, you should be in good shape if you pay attention and write things down.
Because gym memberships are way down in this recovering economy, many centers are offering a free session when you join. Take advantage of it.
2. Watch videos of properly executed exercises on Youtube, and others, and follow the correct form. Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery, it’s the best way to keep yourself from getting hurt.
Expert Village has a great Youtube series called “Weight Lifting Exercises for Beginners,” that I highly recommend. I’d start with bicep curls and move on from there.
3. Ask a gym employee to show you some essential exercises. It’s their job to show you how to safely execute. They may not have time to show you everything, but something here and there will help.
4. If all else fails, you can ask the buffest guy in your gym for help, the one who always seems to be there. This technique is best employed following these guidelines: don’t bother him mid-set; don’t bother him if he’s listening to his Ipod, and don’t bother him if he’s swearing.
You’ll find there are cliques at the gym just like everywhere else, and there’s usually one guy who is friendly and well-liked by all. That guy is your new best friend. Often you’ll recognize him because he’ll offer to spot you when you’re new and hurting mid-set.
Hints and Helpful Ideas
There are some things you’ll need to master before you try more complicated movements. The things I recommend for beginners are a combination of body weight exercises and those requiring dumbbells.
Some of you don’t have the time or cash for a gym membership, and dumbbells are relatively inexpensive. Also, body weight training can be done anywhere. If you travel a great deal, you now have no excuses. If you can’t get away from your screaming rugrats, you can accomplish these in your living room.
An added bonus is that hardcore gyms often have racks of free weights, but not many machines. It’s a serious lifting (and old school) mentality that if you can’t do it with bars and bells, it doesn’t need to be done. Right or wrong, it’s prevalent.
Plus, these exercises are often the simplest. I’m not asking you to do a clean and press just yet because it requires excellent form (“soft lock” to knees, suck in abs, tighten glutes, lift bar to shoulders, switch the grip, press overhead and lock out elbows…). It’s just too much to ask of a beginner.
I’d be willing to bet that with a few tips, you can master the perfect push-up, though, and bicep curls are nearly impossible to screw up.
A Firm Foundation
Bicep Curls: Keep tension in the muscle the entire movement, especially at the bottom. Keep elbows near the body, but not digging into the body. I like to take 8-10 seconds per rep.
Triceps Kickbacks: Place one knee on the bench, and stand on the other. Bend over to create a straight line with your body, and hold weight on the side of the standing leg. Use a lighter weight than you feel like you need, it will burn a few reps in. Feel the muscle lock at the back of the movement.
Lateral Raises: There are two ways to do this exercise, and I suggest that you start with the bent-arm variety until you build strength. Start with dumbbells at sides, and raise arms to out to the sides to shoulder height (higher strains the shoulder girdle, which is bad news), then lower. Slower is better here.
Frontal Raises: This is the same at the lateral raise, except you want a “soft lock” in the elbow and to raise the arms in front of the body. Again, stay at shoulder height and no higher.
Push-ups: One of the best exercises on Earth, push-ups increase strength in the chest, arms, and back. Concentrate on a military style push up until you develop the upper body strength to employ a wider stance. The goal is nose to the floor, push to the top, executed to failure.
Pull-ups: This is the hardest exercise for new lifters, especially for women. Don’t drop to arms locked out straight, as you’re creating more work for yourself getting back up, as well as taking the work out of the back. Do what you can, again to failure.
Abs: It’s no secret that I think Pilates is the best workout for abs. If you want the quick and dirty, you’ll need an exercise for obliques, one for lower abs, and one for upper abs. If you can get it, Ab Ripper X from the P90X series is amazing. It’s quick, motivating, and killer.
Squats: Sumo squats are the best for the glutes and work the quads pretty hard. Start with legs wider than hip width, toes pointing at a 45 degree angle. Squat deeply, taking 6-8 seconds per rep.
Lunges: Form is key to staying injury-free. Be sure that when you lunge, your knee doesn’t come over your toes. I like to lunge forward for two sets and then lunge backward for two sets, just to confuse the muscle a bit.
Calf Raises: Since the calves lift so much weight each day, the best way to make these more difficult is to place your heaviest dumbbells (or a bar if you have one) on your shoulders. Raise your calves until it hurts, then do so more. When you think they might explode, do 5 more. That’s one set.
To increase difficulty: add weight, or hold weights while performing lower body exercises.
1. Track your progress. A tracked number grows, and you want to grow.
2. Keep at it. You’ll fall into a rhythm of lifting 2, 3 or 4 days a week, depending on your goals and time frame. I started with three days a week, then worked up to two 2-day splits. You’ll know what’s right for you when you don’t dread going in.
If you don’t lift enough, you’ll dread it. If you lift too much, you’ll dread it. You may not jump for joy at every workout, but you’ll know you’re in the zone when you get in there and do the work without pissing and moaning.
3. You’re going to be sore. Get used to it, then get over it. It’s not a reason to skip a workout, unless you’ve injured yourself. Remember that to build muscle, you’ve got to create minute tears in the muscle fiber. Pain is part of the deal.