3 ways to not look like a gym noob
Gym machines are good for two groups of people: intermediate to advanced lifters who use them as an intelligent and well planned accessory in a program built around free weights, and old people struggling to delay the inevitable descent into weakness, immobility, and death we all face if we're not lucky enough to be taken out by disease or violence. For everyone else free weights are a much more effective tool for developing strength, size, and athleticism.
But there's a third group who flock to machines like vultures to carrion: beginners. From speaking to people, and thinking about my own first gym sessions, one reason the safety of machines beckons over the unknowns of free weights jumps out again and again: fear of looking like you have no idea what you're doing. As a beginner this fear is compounded, of course, by the fact that you don't.
Learning the ins and outs of form, set/rep schemes, exercise selection, volume, intensity, programming, and periodisation, and how these fit your individual characteristics and goals, is a daunting task that takes years if not decades. Luckily you can learn most of it along the way, and whether you're looking for strength, size, or sports performance there's only 3 things you need to know right off the bat to avoid ending up on a Youtube gym fails compilation. Here they are.
1. What exercises to do (exercise selection)
For beginners, regardless of long term goals, the answer to this is always the same: compound movements. This means squat, bench press, overhead press, deadlift, and pull ups, among others.
Strength gains, at least for beginners, are primarily due to neurological rather than physiological adaptations (Sale, 1988). The two most important are increased motor unit recruitment – your brain's ability to activate more motor neurons and the muscle fibers connected to them – and intermuscular coordination – the ability to make different muscles work together to produce a force. Because they involve more muscles, compound movements encourage both these adaptations more than isolation exercises.
A 2017 study at Padlova University in Italy found that while compound and isolation exercises produce similar changes in body composition (fat loss and muscle gain) the former produce up to 66% more strength gains, even when measuring strength in isolation movements (Paoli et al. 2017). In other words, pull ups will not only make you stronger at pull ups than bicep curls will, they'll actually make you stronger at bicep curls than bicep curls will.
This matters even if you're only interested in building mass. Getting stronger allows you to do hypertrophy focused work with heavier weights, which means more mechanical tension, and ultimately more growth.
2. How to do them (form and intensity)
There are two things guaranteed to incite mockery from serious lifers: terrible form, and ego lifting. Combine these together for a magical dyad that causes covert footage of your antics to appear on the internet.
Luckily the remedy for both these ills is the same: start with an empty bar. This allows you to dial in form without having to worry about getting stuck, and to incrementally increase the load until you find a good working weight.
This is more than a beginners' tip. Serious strength trainees always do several warm up sets before hitting their work sets. The exact number varies, but even the strongest tend to start with an empty bar (or 1 plate either side on deadlifts) to assess how their body feels and cement proper movement patterning. I've been training for almost 17 years; I've started a bench press session with plates on the bar twice, and one of those was my very first session.
Before even stepping in the gym you should have a fairly solid idea of what proper form looks like on the main lifts. Youtube has everything you need to get the basics. If you're still unsure after watching a few videos, ask. It's considered bad etiquette to offer advice unsolicited, but most gym goers will be happy to on request, and will respect the humility it takes to do it.
3. When to do them (programming)
Once you're armed with a few core exercises and an idea of how to do them properly, it's time to put them all together into a program. There are several popular beginners programs freely available online, but in reality anything sensible will work for most. Sensible means:
- Based around compound movements
- Focused on progressive overload (i.e. adding weight to the bar every session, or every week)
- Balanced between upper body and lower body movements
- Balanced between pushing and pulling movements
The most basic program that meets (most of) these criteria is Starting Strength – a 3 day full body routine built around squats, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift (more exercises are added later).
For those with the time to learn more movements, and train 6 days a week, a push/pull/legs routine might be more optimal. Check out this earlier article for an overview of beginner programs and a sample routine which gave me fantastic results.
Paoli, A., Gentil, P., Moro, T., Marcolin, G. and Bianco, A. (2017). Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength. Frontiers in Physiology, 8.
Sale, D. (1988). Neural adaptation to resistance training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 20(Sup 1), pp.S135-S145.
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