When you’re just starting out in the world of weight training, it’s rather like going on an epic journey, which may seem daunting, but is well worth the effort in the long run.
The first thing to do when you’re a free weights beginner is to learn how to stay safe. Basic safety principles should be followed at all times – and one of these is to make sure you use an experienced “spotter” when lifting weights. Ready to assist should you have any problems, a spotter is a person who looks out for you.
Even an experienced weight lifter can hit problems, whether it’s by lifting too much weight, doing too many reps or suffering general fatigue. When doing bench presses, for example, you may end up trapped under the barbell, which could have serious consequences – so you would need a spotter! It can be a friend who goes to the gym with you, or a fellow gym user who agrees to help.
You should also use safety equipment, such as a “power rack”. This is a metal frame which features “spotter bars”, so that if you drop the barbell, it should catch and hold it – although this doesn’t cancel the need for a human spotter as well. You can adjust the spotter bars to the required height, so that you won’t be at risk should you fall while performing squats, or should your arms give out when you’re in the middle of bench presses.
You will hear the phrase “correct form” in the weightlifting community. Using correct form means performing the weightlifting movement so that it targets the correct muscles without injury. It describes your posture during any exercise. Before you perform a lift, have an experienced trainer or lifter check your form and correct it if necessary.
The general rule is that your back should be straight, your shoulder blades pulled back and your abs engaged. As a beginner, always get advice from someone more experienced before you tackle anything.
Also, you should never “ego lift” – when bench pressing, feeling the burn and pushing yourself with a comfortable weight, don’t put on more weights just because you see someone else with double the weight on their bar! When you start to lift and find out it’s too heavy and you’re in danger of hurting yourself, this is known as ego lifting. It can be dangerous!
Most people take up weightlifting to build up strength and size and this can be done by using the gym to its full advantage. However, this doesn’t mean trying hundreds of different routines each week! The best way to get going is to stick mainly to compound exercises, when several joints move at once and several muscles are being worked. Stick to a routine for at least three months.
The main three compound exercises for powerlifting are the deadlift, bench press and squat. Other exercises, such as bicep curls, are known as “isolation” exercises, as they target only one muscle group. Beginners should focus on compound exercises for the best results. This will help shape your body more quickly.
It’s also beneficial to record your workouts in a diary, noting every exercise, rep, set and the weights you’ve used. Practice “progressive overload” – the core of resistance training. This describes the method of gradually and routinely increasing the stress placed on your body, making it adapt and grow stronger.
Although you may feel like training non-stop, you must have rest days in your schedule, allowing your body time to recover. Many beginners’ programmes recommend training three days per week to start off with.
Make sure you eat a balanced diet – if you don’t eat properly, your physique won’t grow. Track your calorie intake – to build up muscles, you must eat a caloric surplus, as well as making sure you consume enough macronutrients which are carbohydrates, protein and fat. Use an online calorie calculator and buy a food weighing scale, then record your daily food intake to ensure it’s in line with your goals.
Most people who take up weights wish to be more toned or “ripped”, which means having a lower body fat to show off your muscles. It’s not possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, as losing fat means consuming a caloric deficit, while building muscle means eating a caloric surplus, so the two contradict each other.
When you train with free weights, you must decide whether you’re in a “cutting” or a “bulking” phase, and plan your calorie intake and workouts accordingly. You can learn to “clean bulk” by having only a small caloric surplus, enabling you to gain muscle but not fat.
Finally, learn some useful beginners’ routines before you start. There are many popular routines to help you build up your strength and muscle. Check out online sites, such as Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Strength Training Programme, for ideas of how to start out and progress.
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