I often write of the incredible ways God has allowed me to work with Him in ministry. He presents opportunities regularly and once in a while, I just happen to be paying enough attention to notice and act on them. I share these stories not out of a desire to garner recognition for myself, but only to bring glory and honor to God. He brilliantly orchestrates these perfect situations where we can share the love of Christ — if we take advantage of the opportunity. Last week, I failed miserably and it has been eating at me ever since. (more…)
Almost daily, I am asked by different people (mostly women) for advice on getting started working out. As much as I can, I try to help each one individually, but can’t always spare the time it takes to really tackle that subject. So I want to share something here that I hope will encourage and inspire each of you to get started with strength training. This is what I would like to say to ANYONE who wants to begin, but doesn’t know how. This is also good advice to anyone who has been at it a while and still feels a little lost.
Tonight, David and I just finished the 24th and last workout in a 6-week structured program for hypertrophy. The plan cycled two lifting routines through different numbers of reps, sets, and weights. Sometimes, we would do 5 sets of 5 (using higher weight for a lower number of reps). Other times, we would do 4 sets of 10 (so slightly less weight), and other times, 3 sets of 15 (less weight, building endurance).
We divide our overall workout plan into smaller, measurable, and finite programs. We choose programs based on our goals and where we perceive our weaknesses to be. We identify issues we want to address and choose a plan to accomplish it. There are many benefits to having a structured plan and I would like to share just a few.
Benefits of a Workout Plan
You can choose a workout plan to reach a specific goal. Want to get lean? There’s a workout for that. Want to get stronger? There’s a workout for that. Want bigger muscles and increased definition? There’s a workout for that. Want to improve your endurance? There’s a workout for that. Want to increase your power? There’s a workout for that.
Elimination of “Guess Work”
A structured plan has a start, an end, and every workout in between is prescribed in detail. Every time you walk into the gym, you know exactly what you’ll be doing, how many times, and for how long. When you go in without a plan, you waste time trying to figure it out on the fly. And how do you know when you’re finished? If you leave it to, “whenever I feel like it,” you’ll likely leave long before you have completed an effective, complete, and challenging workout.
Antidote to Excuses
With a defined workout plan, you know at the outset the date by which the program should be completed (barring injury). You know that if you miss a workout, you’re going to get behind and miss your end date — miss two or three and it’s a snowball effect. And a beautiful thing about a structured workout plan is that it includes your rest days, too! You can plan your rest days on weekends if that suits your lifestyle or on any days that your schedule makes it hard to fit a workout in. But plan your rest days, don’t just let them happen because you don’t feel like working out. Even when you don’t feel like it, knowing that you have a scheduled rest day soon might just help you do it anyway. Discipline means you do some things you don’t feel like doing because they are good for you and because you committed to it. Giving in to your every whim and inclination is not discipline — it’s weakness.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
When you know exactly what exercises you are doing well in advance, you can have the opportunity to ask, “Do I know HOW to do all of them? Do I even know what a Romanian Deadlift is?” If you don’t how to perform every exercise on the routine — look it up! There are many reputable sites that offer instruction, including video, on virtually every exercise you can think of. Watch how the workout is done correctly. Make notes of body alignment and position. Pay careful attention to warnings to avoid injury.
Practice it in the privacy of your home, even if you must use a broom for a barbell or a couple of water bottles for dumbbells. It’s not about weight at this point, it’s about learning the proper technique. At the gym with an audience is not the place to figure it out. During a workout, if you come to an exercise that you don’t know how to do, one of two things may happen. You might do the exercise incorrectly, which will render it less effective or may even cause injury. OR, you are going to skip it completely. Either way, you’re only cheating yourself out of a good workout.
You can stand anything for a while. Your workout plan may include an exercise you don’t particularly like — or maybe even hate. Yes, I’m thinking of YOU, Bulgarian Split Squats. With a finite workout program, you can remind yourself that this workout won’t last forever and maybe the next program won’t have that exercise! In the mean time, you grow in discipline as you suffer through and reap the benefits of the exercise.
While I admit, Bulgarian Split Squats are one of my least favorite exercises to do, I also understand that they have incredible benefits for my body. In fact, maybe the reason I don’t like to do them is because they are very difficult and challenging. I do them anyway because that’s what it means to be disciplined.
When you track every rep, every set, every workout, and chart your progress, you can measure and celebrate your improvements. From the beginning of this hypertrophy workout to the end 6 weeks later, I added 15% to my bench press workout weight and 26% to my squat workout weight! If I wasn’t charting that, I wouldn’t have an accurate assessment of my accomplishment. And darn it, I’m gonna celebrate that! (Maybe with a donut, maybe not.)
Also in your workout log, you can track your body measurements, your weight, and even how you feel. I often make notes in my log such as, “I wasn’t feeling great tonight,” or, “I got very little sleep last night and I was tired during my workout,” or, “I was on fire tonight! Great workout!” You can look back at your logs and associate your lifestyle choices with the quality of your workout. Also, if looking back over your logs, you notice a day when you weren’t able to lift as heavy as normal, it will help if there is some kind of note — sick, tired, injured, whatever.
When you walk into a gym, perhaps for the first time, does it feel as if everyone knows you’re new to this and you’re totally lost? I know that’s how I felt when I first started. Even though much of that was my imagination, it was an intimidating feeling. Carrying a clipboard or notebook will automatically make you look more experienced.
When you have a plan, you move intentionally from one thing to the next. You don’t waste time and your workout is much more efficient. And at the end of a 4 – 6 week structured program, you have the satisfaction of looking back and saying, “I charted a course, I made a plan, I saw it through, I did it.” That is a great feeling!
Everything works. Nothing works forever.
If you haven’t participated in exercise for several months (or years), then practically any activity you begin will produce some results in the beginning. BUT, after 4 to 6 weeks of any workout program, your body begins to adapt and your progress will be thwarted. Our bodies are amazing machines, and darn it, they are annoyingly efficient. A 300-pound person walking 2 miles will burn more calories than a 150-pound person walking 2 miles, even if the intensity and speed are the same. So, as you lose weight, you actually burn fewer calories doing the same exercises!
Your body will only use resources to make you stronger if you make it. The first time you attempt to bench press 50 pounds 10 times, you may only be able to lift it 8 times, so your body says, “I failed. I need to be stronger in order to accomplish what is being asked of me.” A few weeks later, however, you may be able to bench press 50 pounds 10 times with ease, so your body says, “OK. Mission accomplished. I’m good.” You have to change it up to continually force your body to adapt to new challenges — maybe now you need to lift 52.5 pounds 10 times? Or 50 pounds 12 – 15 times?
In cardiovascular exercise, such as running, you may have to run faster, farther, or for a longer time to increase the challenge on your body. Or change the program by doing intervals — sprint 60 seconds, then jog 30, repeat.
One of the things I love about strength training are the virtually infinite number of variables and combinations thereof you can manipulate to change your workout. Of course, the obvious way to make an exercise harder is to increase the weight, but what if you are limited in equipment? To tax your body in a new way, you don’t have to just think harder, but different. Here are a few of the variables in a strength training program. Have fun changing them up!
- Change the number of sets or reps. Maybe for one workout, you do 5 sets of 5 reps. Next time, you may do 4 sets of 10 reps. Another time, 3 sets of 15 reps. Every one of these combinations exerts your body in a unique way.
- Change the tempo of the exercises. Lifting the way faster (or in a more explosive, but controlled way), increases your power. Lifting and lowering the weight more slowly taxes the muscles in an entirely different way, building endurance. Same weight, different approach.
- Change the split. In most workout programs, you will rotate between 2 and 5 different workouts. Some split the program into upper body/lower body, others target more specific muscle groups, still others are split into push exercises/pull exercises. Picking a different split works you out in a different way.
- Change the order of exercises. You can do the same workout you’ve done 5 times, but by reversing the order, you keep your body guessing.
- Change your position. Even slight modifications to your body position (within the limits of what is safe) targets your muscles in a whole new way. Take a wider stance when you squat to work inner thighs more. Take a more narrow grip on bench press or push-ups. Take a wider grip on lat pull-downs or pull-ups. Working your muscles from a different angle presents a new and unique challenge to your body.
- Change the time of day you workout. If you usually do your strength training in the morning, shake it up and do it after dinner. Keep your body guessing!
- Change the exercises. A quality workout program should target every major muscle group (not necessarily all in the same session, but as a whole), but for any muscle group, there are myriad exercises that are effective. For the chest, for example, you have bench press, pectoral flys, push-ups, cable cross-overs, and more. Shake them up!
So, how often do you want to change? Smaller changes, such as number of reps or sets, or the amount of weight you lift, should be tweaked throughout a structured program to maintain the challenge and intensity. But every 4 to 6 weeks, you will want to look at a more major change with a new program. Don’t change more often than that
It provides a “reset.”
At the beginning of any new program is a perfect time to regroup, reevaluate, and reset. I like to drop my workout weight by about 10 to 15% and focus instead on completing the exercise with PERFECT FORM. It’s easy over time to get careless and a little sloppy. At the very least, when done with bad form, the exercises become less effective. At worst, you risk serious injury. OK, at VERY worst, people will laugh and point at you because you are doing it wrong. These are all good reasons to revisit and practice perfect form. I look up videos of the exercises, make a list of proper techniques, and do it correctly. Ironically, the day after those “less weight, perfect form” workouts, I’m much more sore. Perfect form often trumps higher weight that I “cheat” to lift.
If I’ve convinced you that a workout plan is an essential place to begin your program, then perhaps you’d like help putting one together. I have YEARS worth of them that I’ve collected and created from different articles, books, and websites. I’d be more than happy to share.
Here are a couple of Break-In Workouts You Can Use:
You can do these for the prescribed number of weeks, or, until you feel comfortable enough to move on to something else. For some people, it will take the whole time while others will become bored rather quickly.
Break-In Workout Programs
This program alternates 2 workouts and you do 2 workouts per week on non-consecutive days for weeks 1 to 4, then off one week. You will do 2 sets of 15 reps for each exercise. When it reads “Superset,” you do the two exercises indicated back to back and that’s one “super set.”
For this workout, you will alternate two workouts, but also cycle the numbers of sets and reps. You can do 2, 3, or 4 workouts per week, just don’t workout two days in a row. At the end, use the page titled “Special Workout” to see how far you’ve come. For the “Special Workout,” perform each exercise with the weight you used for the first workout and do as many reps as you can.
For both workout, you can do cardio of some sort if you want to, but I would not do cardio in the same session as a lifting workout. If you do cardio first, you will be tired and not perform as well (or may even get injured). I also advise you to keep your workouts to no longer than 45 minutes to an hour. If you just like to do cardio, do it on your off days or at a separate time (like cardio in the morning, lifting after dinner — at least 2 hours apart, though).
Some More Thoughts on Strength Training
Free Weights are Better
I like free weight workouts a lot more than machines. When you lift a bottle of detergent or a gallon of milk, it isn’t on a pulley following a set course. With free weights, you work a lot harder than with machines because you incorporate other muscles to stabilize yourself. Also you move the way your body was designed to move, not according to the designated path of a machine. I use SOME machines, but they are NOT the cornerstone of a good workout. Free weight squats are more effective than the leg press machine. Free weight bench press, using dumbbells or a barbell is more effective than using a pectoral fly machine.
Compound Exercises Maximize Results
The more muscles you use, the more calories you burn, so I also like compound movements (exercises that require multiple muscle groups.) A bicep curl really only targets biceps, but a lat pull-down or a pull-up hits your biceps and back. Shoulder presses challenge mostly your shoulders, but a bench press hits shoulders, chest, & triceps.
Don’t Be Afraid to Lift Heavy
Some women are afraid that lifting heavy weights will make them look like a man. It won’t. If you’re using a dumbbell that you can lift more than about 15 times without even feeling challenged, then you are not using heavy enough weight. Choose a weight that is appropriate for the number of reps you are doing. If you are doing 10 reps, then #9 & 10 should be hard. If you are not using heavy enough weight to challenge the muscle, then you are not giving the muscle any reason to grow bigger or stronger.
Just Get Started
The hardest part is just following through on the commitment to get started. (OK, actually the hardest part might be climbing steps the day after a hard leg workout, but don’t let that scare you.) When you don’t know where you are going or how to get there, you will wander aimlessly, but when you know your destination and you have a plan to get there, you are unstoppable!