Do you want to build muscle? Get stronger? Burn fat? Get shredded and lean? Shape your dream body? Healthier? Live longer? Feel better? No matter what your goal is there are a few steps that EVERYONE should follow during their first months in the gym.
With so much bullshit information out there, and everyone trying to sell you their product with their “secret method”, EBT is here to guide you to the most important things to keep in mind! Here’s a step by step, simplified approach to everything you need to know before stepping into the gym.
BEFORE STARTING: SET THE CONDITIONS RIGHT
It’s far too common that people decide to “get fit” and start training 6 times a week, doing cardio every weekend, and halving their calories. This is a ticking time bomb before you start binge-eating chocolate and skipping the gym for a month, losing all hope of ever trying to get fit again.
The method above relies on motivation, and motivation is a limited resource (1). Once you run out of motivation you run out of reasons to go to the gym. Stay one step ahead and create reasons other than motivation to go to the gym:
A. INVEST MENTALLY: STAY ACCOUNTABLE
Accountability means that someone else will KNOW if you skipped a workout, and therefore keep you on track even during days where you feel off. Find a friend who has the same goals as you and you are much more likely to stay consistent together. Got no friends? Hang out on our Instagram, share your goals and comment on our posts. Knowing that you have to “prove yourself” to a person or group is a mental investment that will boost consistency.
B. FIND YOU INTRINSIC MOTIVATION
Let’s face it, most people start going to the gym to look sexy naked. Maybe you are single and want to attract that special somebody? Maybe you want to get fit for the beach this summer? The problem with this approach is firstly the constant anxiety of having to look “good enough”, and secondly that you lose all motivation to work out as soon as you “settle down”. It depends on an outer factor, or so called extrinsic motivation. Wouldn’t you rather be in shape you ENTIRE LIFE? We sure want to!
This is why it’s important to find your intrinsic motivation: Doing what you enjoy in the gym so that motivation comes from within. No, this doesn’t mean skipping leg day just because you hate training legs, but rather about finding fun ways of doing what needs to be done.
Ask yourself what you enjoy during a workout: Light or heavy weight? Varied or structured workouts? Body weight exercises or weights? The best workout is the one that you do! A “less optimal” workout that you stick to will give better results than “the scientifically optimal workout” that you stop doing after two weeks (P.S. We still love science).
C. INVEST FINANCIALLY
We value what we’ve invested time and money into. Imagine working for years to buy your dream car, and finally being able to buy that Ferrari. Now consider winning the same Ferrari in a lottery instead. Which do you think you’ll value more? The first one! Investing time and money in something tends to make us value it more. So invest in your health: buy some comfortable workout clothes, shoes, pay a personal trainer to teach you the basics. Consider getting a paid workout plan. These things are not necessary, but “buying in” to the process will help you stick to it!
D. SET REASONABLE GOALS
Ask yourself: If I had to train for the REST OF MY LIFE, how many hours a week would I be able to sustain? You might just want to start with an hour a week, and gradually increase the time you can commit. Most people land around 3-4 times a week. If you can sustain this level of exercise for the coming years, you will get WAY better results than training 6 times a week for 2 weeks
Building muscle requires PATIENCE, and even if you will get noticeable results after a few months, the BEST results come after consistently lifting for YEARS. More exercise is not always better, especially as a beginner. Going too hard with workouts and training too much can REDUCE results if your body is not ready for it.
With the above points, your mindset will be correct for long-term success. Let’s now break down exactly WHAT you need to do.
UNDERSTAND “GYM LANGUAGE”
If you’re new to the game, there are a lot of words used which you might not be familiar with, so let’s make them clear:
Set: Every time you pick up a weight to start lifting it, you are starting a set.
Rep: Lifting the weight “up” and “down” once is one rep. Usually we do many reps in a set.
Concentric Movement: The “up” part of a rep, when the targeted muscle shortens (contracts).
Eccentric Movement: The “down” part of a rep, when the targeted muscle lengthens (relaxes). It is important to keep muscles engaged to control the weight during this part, preventing injury.
Isometric Movement: Using a muscle to keep a weight still, usually by pausing and holding the weight still after having moved the weight “up” in a rep. The targeted muscle is working, but not changing length. It can be quite tiring!
Example: try holding your arms straight out to the sides for as long as you can. This works the shoulders isometrically.
Volume Load: A way to “measure” how big workout is, by looking at the total amount of weight moved in all of your reps in all of your sets. It is calculated by Weight x Reps x Sets. Increasing volume over time lets you build more muscle over time.
Example: If you did 2 sets of 8 reps on the bench press with 50 kg, your volume load would be 50 kg x 8 reps x 2 sets = 800 kg.
Volume: A simpler way to “measure” how big a workout is by simply looking at how many sets done in total during that workout. There is no universal definition of volume, but EBT prefers looking at volume by looking at how many sets have been done, instead of looking at Volume Load. Thus if you want to increase the volume of your workouts, you simply add more sets!
Failure: When you have done as many reps as you possibly can during a set, with the weight being impossible to move during the last rep, you are said to have reached failure.
Rep-Max (RM): With a heavier weight you will reach failure faster. If you can do 8 reps with a certain weight before reaching failure, that weight is called your “8-Rep-Max” or “8RM”. The weight with which you only can do 1 rep, before failing on rep 2 is your “1-Rep-Max”or“1RM”. As you get stronger, you will be able to lift heavier weights and your 1RM weight will become higher. 1RM tests is generally how strength is measured. Don’t try lifting at 1RM as a beginner! You will most likely injure yourself.
Muscle Names: It can be difficult to know which muscles we are talking about when talking about different exercises. So here’s a simplified breakdown of the main muscles you should be aware of:
Muscle Functions: There is a lot of advanced language here, but the basic principle to keep in mind is muscles used for “pushing” movements and muscles used for “pulling” movements:
Muscles used to “push” include: Pecs, Shoulders, Triceps, Quads, Glutes, Calves
Muscles used to “pull” include: Lats, Traps, Upper and Lower Back, Biceps, and Hamstrings
Now that you speak the right language, it’s time to head to the gym!
GO TO THE GYM & LET YOUR BODY LEARN HOW TO LIFT
It might not feel like it, but you DO have some muscle mass on your body right now. This muscle is the foundation for your future results, and for this to happen your brain needs to LEARN how control your muscles to move a weight properly. No matter what your reasons for starting weight training: building muscle mass, getting stronger, performing better at a sport, or simply being healthier, lifting weights is something your body hasn’t been exposed to before. Therefore, you need to give it time. Time to practice holding weights, lifting weights, and moving weights.
You will feel a bit shaky during your first few lifts, but over time, your body will unconsciously learn to control the weight and the movements become smoother and smoother. In fact, most of your initial strength gains can be attributed to your brain becoming better and better at activating the right muscles at the right time during a lift. Three important things to keep in mind during your first months are:
During the lift, think consciously about how you are moving, which muscles you are using, and how close you are to failure.
Make sure you are in control of the weight, allowing you to move with good form.
Stop the set as soon as you lose perfect form. This will unconsciously encourage your mind to only execute movements with good control.
A. EXERCISES: DO WHAT YOU ARE COMFORTABLE WITH
There are thousands of exercises out there, and each has its place in a workout program depending on your goal. Exercises either train a single muscle (isolation exercises), or many muscles at once (compound exercises). Using compound exercises save time and are more “useful” for becoming stronger in real world situations: walking, jumping, lifting stuff etc.
For building muscle mass, your exercise choice doesn’t really matter. For strength development, improving useful movements movement and for building a solid base as a beginner, it is a good idea to base your workouts aroundthe main compound lifts:
These movements require a lot of technique to execute correctly, which is why we recommend you take your time to practice the movement patterns. If do not want to compete in powerlifting, however, you don’t have to include these movements in your program. The movements are, however, very powerful at activating many muscles at once, and can save you a lot of time, which is why we recommend you include at least one exercise with a similar movement to the main lifts.
For example, the barbell back squat can be replaced by the safety bar squat, goblet squat, or leg press. Once again, as a beginner you are teaching your body how to control weights, so stick to exercises that you are comfortable with, and go progress from there.
Keep in mind:
There is a lot of bullshit online about how to execute the three big lifts correctly. If unsure, get a personal trainer or physiotherapist to help you.
If you have prior injuries or joint pain (especially in the back, knees or shoulders) we recommend you get advice from a physiotherapist for suitable exercises.
B. WEIGHT: LIFT HEAVY ENOUGH
You can build muscle with both light and heavy weights. Based on studies on the topic, you have two choices:
1) Choose a light weight and lift it until you can’t anymore (failure).
2) Choose a “heavy enough” weight (at least 15 RM) and stop lifting 2-3 reps before failure. (Remember a 15 RM weight is one which you can’t lift for more than 15 reps. If you can do more than 15 reps per set, the weight is not “heavy enough” and you need to go heavier.)
We recommend option 2 as going to failure can be quite exhausting. In that case go for a 10 RM weight if you like lifting heavy, or a 14 RM weight if you like lifting lighter and “pumping up” your muscles. Knowing how close you are to failure is difficult as a beginner, but will become easier with time.
C. VOLUME: DO 2-3 SETS PER EXERCISE
For each muscle group, doing one set will give you the most bang for your buck (3). Doing two sets instead might increase results by around 30%, while doing three sets may give you around 50% more results (4). Adding more and more sets gives less, and less added benefit. Therefore, a good balance is to start with a “warmup set” with a lighter weight, just to practice the technique, and then go on with one or two focused sets.
D. FREQUENCY: TRAIN EACH MUSCLE 2-3 TIMES A WEEK
Muscles need to be reminded of the demands that are placed on them. Training more often seems to enhance results (5), while more experienced lifters might benefit from having more intense workouts less often. Aim to hit each muscle 3 times per week.
E. REST: 2-3 MINUTES BETWEEN SETS
Longer rest has been shown to enhance muscle gains (6). This isn’t surprising as you will be able to lift more during each set if you are well rested. However, you also do not want to spend hours in the gym every day. The truth is that rest times aren’t as important as the other points made above. Rest long enough that you feel ready to execute the next set with good form. This usually means 2-3 minutes.
RECOVER & IMPROVE OVER TIME
A. PUSH YOURSELF
The average gym meme might make it seem like you need to die after every workout to get results, but this is simply not true. Like we said above, you do not need to lift until failure for results, but you do need to increase demands placed on your body over time (7).
Your body will want to adapt towards the demands you place on it, meaning that training should be difficult enough to let your body know that it needs to change. You should therefore feel at least somewhat breathless after each set, either by doing enough reps or lifting heavy enough (see above).
B. TRACK YOUR RESULTS
This may not be for everyone, but knowing that you are able to lift heavier weights week after week can be a great source of motivation. For each workout, keep track of how much weight, for how many reps, for how many sets your could do for each exercise. You can do this by hand on paper, or do like us and use a free app like “Reps and Sets” for iOS or “FitNotes” for Android.
C. RECOVER PROPERLY
After each workout your worked muscles need a period of rest to be able to perform optimally again. We recommend you allow around 48 hours of recovery for each muscle before hitting it again. You cannot expect to improve week after week if you don’t recover properly. To keep things simple, you can improve your ability to recover by:
Getting Enough Sleep: 8 hours is usually enough for most people.
Eating Right: There is a lot to be said here, but for an overview you can check out our article on Eating Right: Everything You Need to Know and for details check out our e-book Diet Like a Doctor.
Managing Stress: unhealthy levels of stress will stop you from going the gym (8) and even indirectly affect your hormone balance and risk of heart disease a negatively (9).
Improving Aerobic Fitness: you need a certain level of aerobic fitness to stop you from becoming breathless too soon during your sets. If you are breathless before the muscles you are targeting are exhausted, you need to implement some cardio to stop your aerobic fitness being the limiting factor during your lift.
Reducing Body Fat: You don’t need to be ripped, but lowering your body fat to around 15%/25% body fat for men/women will improve your ability to perform and recover from workouts. Losing fat is in large dependent on your diet, so check out our article on “Getting Started with Nutrition”for more info (10).
Also remember, muscle soreness after a workout isn’t necessarily the same thing as muscles needing recovery. Chances are you will get a lot of muscle soreness in the days after your first workout. Don’t panic! This is natural sign that your body has experienced a new movement, as long as the pain doesn’t limit your ability to lift with correct form, you can keep working out.
D. STAY CONSISTENT: REDUCE VOLUME IF YOU FEEL TIRED
If you feel like the workouts are becoming too much, it is much better to make your workouts easier for a week than to skip the gym completely. This way you will not lose the progress you’ve made and still allow your body to recover. To make the workouts easier, avoid lowering weights as this will negatively impact your results. Instead do less sets (reduce volume) per exercise. Alternatively, you can reduce the number of days you work out during the “recovery week” to that your weekly volume is reduced. Cutting back on volume can instead of weight will allow you to keep going and possibly even KEEP making MORE gains! (11-13)
WE’VE PUT TOGETHER ALL THE ABOVE INTO THE EBT BEGINNER WORKOUT ROUTINE
You now have all of the information you need to get started. Put it together into a programme that suits you and let us know how it goes. If you’d rather have us do it for you, we’ve designed a full body workout routine which takes into consideration all of the above. It gives you:
3 full body workouts, with exercises selected by us personally to make sure all vital muscle groups are targeted.
Combinations of the main compound lifts as well as isolation exercises to give you a solid base, no matter what your goal after the beginner phase.
A setup allowing for 48 hours of recovery between workouts.
Information regarding which muscles are targeted by each exercise, and links to corresponding video instructions.
AFTER THE BEGINNER PHASE:
ADAPT YOUR WORKOUTS TO YOUR GOAL
So how long should you consider yourself a beginner? Everyone is different, and some people need a lot of time to learn how to handle weights properly. Once you notice that you are not getting stronger as fast as you were in the beginning (that is, you are not able to add weights to your exercises as fast as before), we would say that you no longer are a beginner. In general this takes about 2-3 months of the above routine should be enough. After that your body should be able to handle a routine adapted more to your goals, be it:
Building muscle mass and sculpting your physique
Burning fat and getting lean
Performing better in a given sport
If you’ve made it this far, you have no more excuses. You know everything you need to start lifting! There are many other details which people obsess over, like rest times and how fast your concentric and eccentric phases should be etc, but these barely matter compared to the information above.
Now get out there and LIFT!
Article by Artin Entezarjou, M.D., Fitness Instructor and PhD Student Co-founder of EBT
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