I think a lot of people are intimidated when they first join a gym. They walk in the door and they simply don’t know where to start. Do you use the machines? The dumbbells? Barbells? How heavy should they be? Should they just do cardio?
I’m just guessing here based on my own experience, but I would be willing to bet that most people settle on using machines for weight training, and on cardio. Some people make the huge mistake of only doing cardiovascular exercise.
Weight training is essential for long-term fat loss results.
Our bodies consume calories for energy. Different tissue types require different amounts of energy for maintenance. Fat, for example, uses about two calories per day, per pound. In contrast, one pound of muscle will consume approximately six calories per day!
In other words, muscle burns three times as many calories as fat does. I am sure you have figured out now that the more muscle you have, the more calories you can consume without gaining weight.
Why is this important?
Well, the phrase “use it or lose it” comes to mind, and it applies to your muscles unfortunately. When you introduce a calorie deficit to your body, whether through exercise or diet, or a combination of both, your body will immediately begin turn to stored fuel for nutrients. Ideally, this stored fuel would come entirely in the form of fat. But the body also looks for ways to make itself more efficient, and if it detects that you have more muscle mass than you need, it will begin to use them as a fuel source as well.
This is why so many people who successfully use diet and cardiovascular exercise to lose weight, gain it all back and then some. In the process or losing weight, they have not only lost fat, but also muscle. The end result is a slower metabolism then when they started!
Strength training helps to prevent the loss of muscle mass.
The good news is that when you use your muscles, your body knows it, and will respond accordingly. Depending on many factors, you body will either gain muscle, or at least maintain it. As you gain muscle, your metabolism increases, and as your metabolism increases, you have the potential to burn more fat.
If you maintain your muscle mass during fat loss, you will be far less likely to gain regain you excess fat later on.
Weight loss should not be your goal anyway.
The scale is the absolute worst tool you can use to measure fitness. Firstly, your weight can fluctuate by several pounds in a single day, depending on what you’ve eaten, how much water you have drunk, or even when you last went to the bathroom. It’s terribly inaccurate, and even if it was, weight loss is a useless way to measure fitness anyway.
The problem is that the scale does not know the difference between fat, muscle and water. Losing two pounds of fat is good. Losing two pounds of muscle is bad. Losing two pounds of water means you just woke up, or you’ve exercised, or it’s hot outside.
Your goal should be fat loss, not weight loss. It is entirely possible, and healthy to lose fat without losing weight, and this is done primarily through strength training.
I am not saying that you should not do any cardio, because you should. But it should be a compliment to strength training only, not the main event, and not an alternative.
What my average day at the gym looks like:
As a mentioned previously, I take a very common sense approach to fitness. I do not log every exercise, or count every calorie. I follow a full body workout plan, and trust my body to tell me what I need to know.
So when doing any exercise, I follow only one basic rule: Do at least three sets, lift as heavy as I can, and lift until failure, as long as I can do a minimum of six reps on the first, and no more than twelve.
That’s it. If I do more than twelve reps on the first set, I increase the weight, if I can’t do at least six, I reduce it.
I also only ever do full body workouts. The reason I do this is because I enjoy working out some body parts more than others, and when I attempted to split up my routine, I found myself skipping out on the body parts that I did not enjoy training so much, and redoing the portions of the routine I found more fun instead. This is obviously a bad thing.
Alright, so here we go with the routine (current as of the date this article was published):
- Chest: Incline dumbbell presses (how to).
- Chest: Push-ups. They way I do these is with two steps set up on either side so that my hands can rest on them, This allows me to drop a little deeper and get a wider range of motion (how to).
- Back: Wide grip pull-ups. I do these on an assisted pull up machine. This is one of the few exercises that I recommend using a machine for, and it only assists you with weight, and does not reduce your dependency on “helper” muscles (how to).
- Back: Seated cable rows. This is a mid back exercise (how to).
- Shoulders/back: Upright barbell rows/military presses. (how to, and how to). I like to do both of these exercises as a unit. I will start by doing as many military presses as I can, and after I fail, immediately transition into upright barbell rows. Afterwards, I usually do a couple of sets or barbell rows on their own for good measure.
- Biceps: Bicep curls. The key is to make sure you squeeze at the top of the movement, and do everything in a smooth motion, with no jerkiness (how to).
- Abs: I keep it really simple. Medicine ball crunches. These should make you hurt (how to).
- Legs: Because I have naturally muscular legs, I don’t go out of my way to work them out, so again, a very basic combination of the hack squat (how to), calf raises (how to), and leg curls (how to). Again, I break my rule and use machines to workout my legs because I have genetically poor knees, and I experience pain when doing free weight leg exercises.
And that is essentially it! One potential problem with doing a full body workout is that you will already be tired by the time you get to the later exercises, and possibly not be able to lift as heavy. I solve this by simple shifting the order of the exercises occasionally, or just doing the entire routine in reverse.
But what about cardio?
Personally I prefer to get my cardio outside the gym. I make a point of walking places as often as possible, and I enjoy cycling. I think the key to cardio is to do something fun, while getting exercise, so I suggest you choose a fun activity that you won’t have to force yourself to do.
If you must do it in the gym though, twenty to thirty minutes of high intensity cardio on the machine of your choice should be sufficient when combined with an intense strength training workout.
If you are unsure about any of these exercises, invest in just one session with a personal trainer. They can show you how to do them properly, and more importantly, determine if they are the right exercises for *you*.
When you leave the gym, you should always ask yourself if you worked out as hard as you possibly could. If you leave knowing you could have done more, you owe it to yourself to try harder next time.