A Brief Guide to Weight Lifting
A lot of people on Ars have asked me for advice on working out or particular lifting methods. I thought I’d finally get around to whipping up a bit of a guide.
Who is this for? This guide is for anyone from beginners to experienced fitness geeks. I’ve left out a lot of really advanced techniques, as they can be dangerous if not performed correctly, but I’d be happy to field any specific questions you may have.
I’ve also tried to include some exercises that require no gym or special equipment. I know actually going to a gym can be an intimidating experience or it can be expensive, so I want to offer up some things you can do in the privacy of you home. Eventually, you’ll probably work to a point where you’re comfortable in a gym and/or you want to use some of the equipment they offer.
I know this is long, but there’s a LOT to say about working out and general fitness. You’ll note that I don’t touch on specific cardio techniques or eating habits. There is a ton of advice in The Ars Weight Loss Challenge or Chugg’s thread…lots and lots of good stuff, so no need to repeat it here. You don’t need to read the whole Weight Loss Challenge, just skim a few pages and jump right in. There are lots and lots of experienced fitness geeks just waiting to answer your questions.
Also, I’ve described a lot of exercises here. I’m not a professional writer, so the description may be a bit off. Crossfit.com has videos of each of these movements, so if you have any difficulty understanding my descriptions, go there for help.
The advice provided in this post is to be used at your own risk. I am not a doctor. I am not a registered ISSA personal trainer. I am a gym rat who has been lifting weights and playing sports for over 20 years, and have done some amateur personal training with great success. You should consult with your doctor before beginning an exercise routine for the first time.
SOME NOTES AND GENERAL TIPS
While I recommend beginners—true newbies—start out on machines (more on this later), eventually, you’ll progress to free weights. When you do, I recommend starting out with barbells for most lifts. The movement and load of free weights has a very different feel than machines. Dumbbells have a very different feel than barbells. Using dumbbells requires your stabilizer muscles to come into play, and machines minimize the impact weight lifting has on those muscles. A barbell allows your body to compensate for slight strength imbalances. Eventually, your skill will improve to allow you to incorporate and/or substitute dumbbells to help bust through plateaus and provide some variety in your workout.
- Grip the bar tightly, almost squeezing it. This will increase your strength in the movement, and ensure that the weight doesn’t get away from you. The tensioning principle will also keep your stabilizers in play.
- Most “Personal Trainers” are, quite frankly, either idiots or are simply not qualified to give you advice on how to carry your groceries, much less lift heavy weights. They’ll tell you they’re “certified” meaning that the gym they work at had them sit through a PowerPoint presentation for two hours one day…or the took a multiple choice test. If your gym foists one of them onto you, then remember that they work for you. Make them help you determine the heights and starting weights on machines or free weights. A general rule of thumb: sit where your body feels natural. Do not let them anywhere near a freaking exercise ball.
I know this sounds harsh, but it’s not. If you think I’m overstating my case, go pick up a “Men’s Workout” magazine, where they have models doing really stupid exercises that are more dangerous than beneficial (such as overhead presses on an exercise ball)…then go to the gym and see how many “personal trainers” are making their clients do exactly the same thing.
If you feel the need for a real Personal Trainer—and a qualified PT can make a world of difference—find one with a degree and an ISSA certification. Look for experience. Expect to pay a fair amount of money, but demand results. A quick rule of thumb…if they try to make you do an exercise that makes you feel silly, then it’s a gimmick, and they’re a quack.
- Listen to your body! A dull ache in your muscles after you work out is fine…a sharp pain means don’t do that! Your body has certain limited ranges of motion. Any exercise that doesn’t follow those ranges naturally is dangerous. Your movements (the path the weight travels through the air) should almost always be directly away from gravity. Your body should typically be situated parallel or perpendicular to the floor. When doing presses, your upper arms should not go much past parallel; same for your thighs when doing squats.
- Gym Etiquette: Always return your weights to the rack. Never bang your weights together at the top of a movement or let them fall to the floor at the end. You don’t look like some tough guy who just finished a powerful set…you look like a dork who’s trying to push more weight than he can handle. Do not wear tight clothing to the gym. No makeup. Guidos, lose the chains & jewelry. Be functional. Don’t wear dirty clothes to the gym. A towel should last one workout…two tops—then wash it (it’ll be loaded with bacteria anyway). Wipe down your equipment when you finish using it (even if it doesn’t look sweaty…it’s just polite). Never, ever walk between someone who is looking in the mirror while they’re doing their set—they’re using the mirror to watch their form. Be considerate of people. Don’t bob your head along with the tunes on your iPod…you’ll look like a dork. No grunting. No ogling the hotties, fellas. Feel free to look, but be discreet. (That goes for you women of Ars, too!)
- During your workout, work larger muscle groups first. There are several reasons to do so: you’ll work larger muscle groups (meaning you’ll be lifting heavier weights) when you have the most energy. Smaller muscle groups act as stabilizers during larger lifts, so pre-exhausting them by working them first means less overall strength on the more important (and dangerous) moves.
- A word on hand placement. Many people are proponents of a “wide” grip, meaning that your hands grip the bar outside of your shoulder width. I personally find this to be an uncomfortable position, and advise that you find a grip you’re comfortable with. An easy way to find this is to take a barbell with no weights, lie on a bench and do a few reps with varying grips.
- Use a Spotter on heavier lifts. Just ask some guy working out next to you for a spot. He’ll help you out. Always be ready to give a spot in return. When you spot someone, tell them ahead of time how you’ll spot them. For example, I always tell someone, “I’m not going to touch the weight unless you stop moving it.” That way, they know what to expect from a spot. Ask if they want a “lift out”, meaning you help them lift the weight out of the rack. When you do spot them, and the person can no longer move the weight by themselves, don’t just grab it and rack it. Use the minimum force possible to get the weight moving again…I usually just “finger” it up for them. A little force goes a long way on a spot, as they’re just trying to get the weight past a sticking point. However, be prepared to grab it and pull it up if they give out completely.
- You’ll see a lot of people using straps, weight belts, and gloves. I recommend none of these. Both can be used to increase the amount you’re able to lift by stabilizing your core in the case of weight belts or minimizing a weak grip strength (straps & gloves).
Grip strength is of critical importance; if you rely on straps, you’ll never get strong enough to perform the more important lifts. I spent years with straps before I lost the set I had when I moved. A few weeks without them, and I realized that my grip strength was terrible. I was barely strong enough to do a few pull-ups without them. I haven’t used them since, and my grip strength has grown in leaps and bounds. Gloves can be used to improve your “grip” by increasing the friction between your hand and the bar. I prefer the feel of the bar in my hand, unencumbered by the padding of gloves. YMMV, of course.
My issue with Weight Belts is pretty simple. A lot of people use them for squats, thinking that it improves their squat lifting power—and it does, to an extent. It also neutralizes one of the greatest benefits of the squat; namely that it works the core muscles in addition to your quads, hams, and glutes. Build your core if you want a strong core. If you’ve had a hernia or lower back problems, then let your doctor advise you on whether or not to use a weight belt.
- Free Weight: Exercise consisting of a weight that is held. Range of motion is uncontrolled, other than by exerciser’s own muscles. Examples: Bench Press using Olympic bar & weight plates, Dumbbell Lunges.
- Machine: Self contained workout unit; typically consists of a stack of weights and uses either a pin placed in the weight stack to determine the amount of resistance OR has holders for weight plates. Usually has pre-determined seating and pads in place to constrain movement to a certain range of motion. Examples: Nautilus machine, most machines found in “weight rooms” at apartment complexes and hotels.
- Olympic Bar: Standard 7’ bar found in most gyms. Weighs 45 lbs (approximately). Found near benches & squat racks. Don’t forget to add the weight of the bar when calculating how much you’re lifting!
- Dumbbell: Typically a fused, fixed weight unit (although several companies offer adjustable weight dumbbells) consisting of a handle at either end of which sits a weight.
- Barbell: Long Bar with ends designed to hold weight plates. Examples include the Olympic bar and curl bar (straight bar with angled handles designed to make curls easier on the forearms).
- Squat Rack: Parallel racks, usually bolted to the wall, with a slat running upward at an angle and notches to hold barbells.
- Training Split: Refers to how you divide your training regimen; common training splits include Upper/Lower (in which your upper body is worked one day and your lower another), and Pushes/Pulls (Pushes—exercises where the weight is being pushed away from your body—performed one day, Pulls—exercises where the weight is being pulled toward your body the next). Some people prefer to isolate body parts, working one body part each time they go to the gym.
- Repetition (rep): The movement of a weight from starting position to load and back to starting position.
- Set: Group of repetitions.
- Plateau: Point in training where no more gains are made. Plateaus can occur in weight lifting (I can only bench X amount of weight), aerobic activity (I can only run a mile so fast) or in weight loss/gain (I can only lose X pounds; I can only gain X pounds).
- Core: Muscles of the trunk or torso; group of muscles from your crotch to your solar plexus. These muscles are responsible for stabilizing the body.
TRAINING SPLITS, FREQUENCY & RECOVERY
Throughout my weight training & athletic career, I’ve used more training splits and varied the frequency in more combinations than I can count. The best advice I can give is this: Find what works for your body and stick with it…for a while. The human body is highly adaptive, and you will find that it adjusts quite well to the stresses of exercise. As an experienced exercise wonk, I find that after about 4-6 weeks on a new program, my body simply no longer responds.
When this adaptation occurs, you have hit a plateau—it seems like no matter what you do you cannot make any progress. To work through a plateau, the best thing I’ve found is to completely shake things up in the gym. Do cardio first. Do cardio last. Take some time off. Take up a sport. Just do something new. My personal favorite plateau buster is to try a new split.
Training splits are as varied as the people who do them. I think I’ve done most of them at one time or another, and my personal favorite is a two-day upper/lower split, performed twice weekly. This means that I’ll do upper body on Tuesday, lower body on Wednesday, then upper body on Saturday, and lower body again on Sunday. It’s a fairly intense cycle, but it keeps me out of the gym during insanely busy times (Monday evening) and puts me in the gym when I have more time—the weekend. It works for me, but by all means, experiment and find out what works for you.
Many people recommend a full body workout. This is a great concept for someone who can only make it to the gym three days per week….but then only if they are religious about going. The problem with the three day/week routine is that you cannot easily miss a day, as the routine can’t be performed on consecutive days. I prefer a bit more flexibility in my workout schedule; if I can’t go on Tuesday, then I can push my workout back a day and do upper body on Wednesday, lower on Thursday, and still have plenty of time to recover before the weekend.
Now, a word about frequency and recovery. I am a very experienced gym rat, and I am blessed with a easy gainer’s body—meaning I make fast gains and recover very quickly. I highly recommend that when you’re starting out to not work out if you’re still sore from your previous workout. Muscle soreness is not a bad thing—in fact, it means you did something right. You broke down your muscle, and your body will rebuild it with longer, thicker muscle fibers. Yay! However, that soreness in your muscles means that your muscles have not yet recovered. Give them time. Contrary to what average guy may think, muscle growth does not happen in the gym. Yes, you may get pumped after a great set, but your muscles have not grown one micrometer. Growth occurs during rest, typically at night while your sleeping, and your body is repairing itself. This is why people “split” their workouts to begin with. Tear down a group, then work on something else while the first group repairs itself. As you become more experienced, you’ll learn to listen to what your body is telling you. Typically, I’d recommend at least 48 hours of recovery for a muscle group before you hit it again.
In any event, you’ll need to find a routine that allows you to balance your time in the gym with the rest of the demands in your life. Only have 30 minutes a day at lunch? You’d be a good candidate for a 5-day split working each body part once per week. Or perhaps you’d prefer the 3-day, full body workout; there is no right or wrong, just experiment and find what works for you.
That said, the remainder of this post will focus on a 2-day split. You can perform it once per week, if you’re time limited or if your body doesn’t recover quickly enough.
Now, on to the fun stuff. I’ve grouped these exercises by body part. They can be performed with barbells or dumbbells, whatever is more convenient and/or comfortable for you. The percentages listed in the muscles worked area are not based on anything other than gut feeling. I have applied no science to this and it is merely to show you the different emphasis that a particular movement has. These should be interpreted like this: an incline bench press puts more stress on the front deltoids than a flat bench press. Nothing more, so don’t get too caught up on the numbers.
Also, you’ll notice that I’m a bit Old School when it comes to my workout recommendations. They generally involve multi-joint, compound exercises that work large muscle groups. I recommend very little to no isolation movement once your move past machine work. The goal here is to build strength and gain some size, and doing preacher curls with 10 lb. weights won’t cut it. You want the big lifts…your smaller muscle groups will be worked indirectly. There are thousands of exercises out there, and if you have questions on others not listed here, just ask. I’ll be happy to chat about them.
- Bench Press
Muscles worked: Pectorals (primary-75%), front deltoids (secondary-10%), triceps (secondary-15%)
Movement: Lying on a flat bench, begin by lifting the bar out of the rack. It should be above your body, generally in the line with your nipples. Lower the weight to your chest slowly. Touch the bar to your chest lightly—DO NOT BOUNCE THE WEIGHT, and push the weight back up to it’s starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: Your feet should be flat on the floor and roughly shoulder-width or greater apart, whatever is comfortable. You will see people with their feet on the bench, do not imitate this. Your lower back will have a tendency to come up off the bench; keep your lower back ON the bench, flat. It is important that the weight be aligned properly above your chest. Aiming to keep the line of the barbell either directly above your nipples or slightly closer to your face will prevent you from dropping the weight on your solar plexus or pinning yourself to the bench at your throat, and will ensure that your pectorals receive the load.
This exercise should be a staple in anyone’s workout. It is a multi-joint, compound exercise, meaning it incorporates several large groups of muscles, burning a lot of calories. No chest workout is complete without a bench press.
This tends to be the Money Exercise for most guys. I’m telling you right now, every guy who lifts weights over time will let his ego get the best of him. He’ll load the bar up with too much weight and get stuck with 300 lbs on his chest. This has happened to me. More than once. Even worse, it happened to me in a gym at 5AM and I was the only person there. I had collars on the bar, so I couldn’t tilt the plates off, I had to roll the damn thing down my torso. It is VERY embarrassing, to say nothing of dangerous and painful. FIGHT YOUR EGO. Eight reps with perfect form at 200 lbs is FAR better and safer than four reps with bad form at 250. You’ll get there, just give it time.
- Incline Bench Press
Muscles worked: Pectorals (primary-70%), front deltoids (secondary-20%), triceps (secondary-10%)
Movement: The bench should be set up to provide anywhere from a 35° to a 50° angle. You will be sitting up, at an angle from the floor. The movement of the weight is the same—namely, opposite gravity. Sitting on the incline bench, begin by lifting the bar out of the rack. It should be over your body, generally in the line slightly above your nipples (i.e., closer to your head than your abs). Lower the weight to your chest slowly. Touch the bar to your chest lightly—DO NOT BOUNCE THE WEIGHT, and push the weight back up to it’s starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: Your feet should be flat on the floor and roughly shoulder-width or greater apart, whatever is comfortable. I prefer to perform this exercise with dumbbells on a stand alone adjustable bench, as they provide a greater range of motion. If you do perform this with dumbbells, here’s a safe way to get the weight into starting position (shoulder high): Sitting on the incline bench, place the dumbbells on your knees. When you’re ready to begin the set, lean back (placing your back on the bench), and “kick up” your knees to help lift the weight up to shoulder height. Do one at a time. When you finish the set, raise your knees slightly and let the weight come down gently back to rest on them. Do NOT drop the weight on your knees or on the floor.
Muscles Worked: Pectorals (primary-50%), front deltoids (secondary-20%), triceps (secondary-30%)
Movement: On a dip machine (or any machine with two parallel handles), grip the handles, with your arms straight, supporting your weight. Bend your elbows, allowing your upper body to move towards the ground. Push back to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: Are Dips a chest exercise? A triceps exercise? Short answer: both. A lot of people feel that if you lean your chest forward during the movement, you’ll focus on the lower range of your pectorals…OK. I have little opinion on it, as you can trout out a study showing that it’s primarily a triceps routine and that it does little for the chest…whatever. What I can assure you is that the dip is a great upper-body exercise, hitting your pecs, shoulders, and triceps.
This movement can be hard on your deltoids, so be careful. If you cannot perform these, find a Dip Machine at your gym…they’re counterbalanced, so it lessens the weight you’re actually lifting, and you can work up to dips.
- Decline Bench Press
If you guys really want to know about this one, say so. I don’t really recommend it for beginners or even experienced guys. There are better ways to spend your time in the gym, IMO (like Dips!).
- No Equipment Alternative: The push up
We all know how to do push ups. They’re a fantastic way to build upper body strength, and there are endless ways to perform them…feet elevated, head elevated, wearing a weighted backpack, you name it. Essentially they are performed with your feet together, back straight, supporting your weight on your flat hands. Lower your chest to the floor, touching it lightly, then back up. That’s one rep. Do not bounce.
Push ups are great for business travelers. I’ll often just take a backpack, throw a phone book or two in it, strap it on and do pushups till I can’t move.
- Overhead Press (or Military Press)
Muscles worked: Deltoids (primary-90%), triceps (secondary-10%)
Movement: The starting position will find you sitting upright (on a fixed angle bench, or an adjustable set vertically—or slightly less than vertical), with the weights resting at shoulder height. Press the weights vertically above your head, then lower to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: These can be performed with a special bench using a regular barbell with weights or dumbbells. I prefer dumbbells for their greater range of motion and easier setup.
These should be a staple in anyone’s shoulder routine. It hits all three deltoid heads (front, side, and rear), and is a great overall shoulder developer.
Muscles worked: Trapezoids (primary-98%), stabilizers (secondary-2%)
Movement: Standing, grip the weight (dumbbells or barbells) with your hands hanging naturally at your sides (dumbbells), or slightly to the front (barbell). Contract your traps (make a shrugging motion) so that your deltoids move up towards your ears; lower the weight to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: Do not roll your shoulders to the front or back. You’ll see many gym rats using straps, rolling their shoulders or using ridiculous weights and grunting. Don’t be that guy. Use good form and a weight you can grip unassisted. Don’t swing or sway your body or cheat with your legs to get the weight up—make sure your feet stay flat. Be very cautious when performing this exercise; it’s easy to use too much weight and pull your upper back or neck.
- Dumbbell Raises (side or front)
Muscles worked: Deltoids (primary, 85%, side or front depending on the movement), Trapezoids (secondary, 15%)
Movement: (Side) Standing, holding the weight naturally where your hands fall, lift the weight out to your sides; lower to starting position. That’s one rep. At the top of the lift, your palms should be facing the floor. Don’t raise the weight much beyond shoulder height, as past that point, other muscles than your deltoids are working. (front) Same as side, except that the weight starts in front of your legs and lifts straight out in front of you.
Notes: There are dozens of variations on this lift. You’ll see people doing them leaning on an incline bench backwards, or doing them bent over at the waist (trying to isolate their rear deltoids). Frankly, I think dumbbell raises as a whole are pretty much a waste of time, unless you’re desperately trying to etch details into your already-developed deltoids. Most people perform them incorrectly, rocking on their feet, leaning back or forwards, trying to use too heavy a weight, or using such a light weight that all they’re really doing is grinding their shoulder joints.
If you still have energy for this lift after doing overhead presses, then either add more weight to your presses or add another set.
- No equipment alternative: Shoulders are tricky to work with a body-weight only exercise, but It’s easy to improvise. Just lift something over your head. Take a jug filled with sand or a heavy book, and use it just like you would a dumbbell.
- Pull Ups
Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi (Lats) (Primary-75%), Biceps (Secondary-15%), Stabilizers, Upper back (Secondary-10%)
Movement: Holding yourself up on the pull up bar, hands slightly wider than shoulder width, palms facing away from you. Contract your back, pulling yourself up. When your chin reaches the level of the bar, slowly lower yourself to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: These are very hard to perform, and most people hate them. They are also wonderful multi-joint compound exercises that are awesome for back development. When you’re learning how to do these, you probably won’t be able to do very many. That’s OK. Pick a number, and do as many sets as it take to get there. Say you want to do five, but can only do two. Do two, rest, and then do another. Repeat until you hit your target. If you can’t do any, you can substitute Pull Downs (see below) until you’re strong enough, but I highly recommend training for these. Hate me now, thank me later. Also, do not muck with the direction your palms are facing—you’ll work radically different muscles. Doing pull-ups with your hands facing you is called a “chin-up”. Also, some people will do them on parallel handles with their hands facing in toward the center of the body. Both of these exercises place a much greater emphasis on the biceps and are nowhere near as good at working the back.
- Pull Downs (machine)
Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi (Lats) (Primary-65%), Biceps (Secondary-25%), Stabilizers, Upper back (Secondary-10%)
Movement: Sitting in a pull down machine, there will be a bar hanging above you and a weight stack in front of you. Sit facing the machine (not out away from it), place your knees under the pads, and grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width. The bar will probably have an angled grip on either end…I find that a bit wider than I like, but if it’s comfortable, go for it. Contract your lats, pulling the bar towards your chest. Return to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: This is probably the second best back developer, even though it’s machine based. Keep your torso vertical as much as possible. You’ll see guys leaning back almost parallel to the ground…this is because they’re using too much weight. Don’t be that guy.
Oh, also, adjust the seat so that when the weight is in it’s starting position, it’s slightly suspended above the rest of the weight stack. This will keep the muscles tensed, and prevent the weight stack from banging and making a racket.
- Rows (Seated, Bent-Over)
Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi (Lats) (Primary-65%), Biceps (Secondary-15%), Stabilizers, lower/upper back (Secondary-20%)
Movement: (Seated, performed on a machine) Sitting on the bench, the bar or handles will be out in front of you. Gripping the bar with your palms facing down, contract your lats and pull the bar or handles towards your chest. If the bar or handles can touch your chest, then great; if not, just pull them as far as your natural movement will allow. Slowly return the weight to it’s starting position. That’s one rep.
(Bent-Over Row) Starting position is standing, bent over at the waist, with your arms hanging naturally towards the floor gripping the weight. Contract your lats, raising the weight up towards your chest; lift as high as is comfortable. Return the weight to start; that’s one rep.
Notes: You will often see people perform the Bent-Over Row with dumbbells, leaning over a bench with one knee and hand up on the bench and the weight hanging straight down. This is the proper form when done with dumbbells. You can also do this with barbells. Either is fine…find whatever’s most comfortable for you movement wise. Do not sway your back. Do not swing the weight up. You should be lifting it opposite of gravity.
Important: It is very easy to injure your lower back with this exercise by using too much weight or improper form. Be very careful, start with very light weights until you’re sure you have the movement down pat.
- No equipment alternative: Find a tree. Do pull ups from low hanging limb. Almost any object can be used for rows.
General Advice & Caveats: Biceps are a tricky one. Again, this is a Money Exercise for most guys, because they want big guns. OK, I can help you there. One thing to remember though: biceps (and triceps) already get a LOT of work from doing pulling movements and pressing movements, respectively. If you want big arms, you’re much better off focusing on heavy lifting in your major lifts (bench press, pull ups, pull downs, or rows); your arms will be forced to grow. I’m not recommending ignoring them completely, but you’ll see people devoting hours to arm training, and frankly, I think that’s a huge waste of time. Why spend so much time on a muscle the size of a grapefruit (if you’re lucky)? Lift big, throw in some heavy incline curls, and I guarantee you your arms will take care of themselves.
- Seated Incline Dumbbell Curls
Muscles Worked: Biceps (Primary-98%), Stabilizers (Secondary-2%)
Movement: Seated in an incline bench, start with your arms holding the weight hanging naturally down on either side of you. Curl the weight upwards, toward you shoulders. Do not swing the weight. Lower the weight slowly. That’s one rep. Alternate reps between arms (right then left or vice versa, but one at a time).
Notes: I recommend Seated Incline Curls over other curls due to their greater range of motion. If you want to be strict about it, turn your hands so that your palms face somewhat forward. This will help keep the bicep a bit tense, and should help eliminate rocking to get the weight up. Don’t lean to one side or the other when performing a rep.
- Standing Barbell (or Dumbbell) Curls
Muscles Worked: Biceps (Primary-90%), Stabilizers (Secondary-10%)
Movement: Standing, holding the weight so that your palms face forward, curl the weight toward your body. Return to start slowly. That’s one rep. With dumbbells, you may alternate hands or perform them both together.
Notes: Keep your torso straight throughout the movement. A lot of people will preach “cheat reps” on these, but I don’t recommend them for less experienced weight lifters.
- No Equipment Alternative
Pull ups! Chin Ups! Fill a jug with sand. Lift your kid. Curl a bag of mulch. The sky’s the limit.
There are a million ways to work your biceps, but I’m only going to cover these here. If you have questions about others, or are looking for more variety, I’d be happy to give some pointers.
General Advice & Caveats: See above. Again, guys devote tons of time to training a tiny muscle that gets tons of stimulation from other exercises. Fine to work them, but I wouldn’t spend too much time. I’m only going to cover push downs here, as IMO they’re about the best exercise for triceps available. You’ll see a lot of guys doing the one-dumbbell-over-the-head press, but those can be dangerous, and for even experienced lifters, it’s hard to get enough weight in place to overload your muscles. Kickbacks (bending over a bench and extending your triceps behind you holding a weight) are a good option too, but they’ve fallen out of vogue.
- Push Down (Press Down)
Muscles Worked: Triceps (Primary-95%), Stabilizers (Secondary-5%)
Movement: Stand so that you have a weight stack & handle setup facing you. Grip the handles, bending slightly at the waist. Pull the weight down to where it’s pretty much in front of your face, and the weight stack is suspended in the air. Now, keeping your elbows at your side, press the weight down towards the floor. Return slowly to starting position, keeping your elbows close to your sides. That’s one rep.
Notes: I tend to go heavy when I work my triceps, but using the strictest possible form. You’ll see people do these with ropes, flaring their wrists out at the bottom of the movement, but they almost always go to far…this actually reduces the load on your triceps. Rather, keep your hands in pretty much the same angle from start to finish, and you’ll keep the stress where it belongs.
Muscles Worked: Quadriceps (front of legs), Gluteus Maximus (rear end), Hamstrings (back of legs), Stabilizers
General Advice & Caveats: Squats are one of the best overall muscle developing exercises there is, if not the best. They work your entire lower body and your trunk. They will strengthen your core, improve your balance, and are calorie intensive. They are the number one exercise to perform for legs, assuming you’re medically fit. If I had to pick only one exercise for lower body, this would be it. They can be performed without weights, dumbbells, or barbells.
Movement: Load a squat rack with a barbell and weights at a height roughly around your upper chest/neck. Facing the squat rack, step under the bar so that the bar rests across the back of your shoulders—not your neck! Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder width on the bar. Now, stand up, taking the barbell with you resting across your shoulders. Back up slowly to where the horizontal bars are under you. This is the starting position. Now, squat down so that your rear end lowers toward the ground. Don’t let your thighs go much past parallel to the ground. Stand back up to your starting position. That’s one rep. To rack the weight at the end of your set, simply walk forward and place the barbell back in one of the notches.
Notes: Squats can be very dangerous, so be careful. Don’t let your knees go much past your toes. I’ve found that it helps to imagine that I’m pushing all the weight through my heels; this keeps me from letting the weight come too far forward. I would also recommend that beginners use collars to keep the plates in place, as this can be an awkward movement to get used to.
- Leg Extensions (Machine)
Muscles Worked: Quadriceps (front of legs)
Movement: Sit in a leg extension machine so that the backs of your knees rest on the edge of the seat and your feet hook around the pads. Bring your feet up; return to resting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: I really hate this exercise, but enough people do it, so it bears mentioning. Theoretically, it is supposed to isolate the quads, but I find that it just hurts my knees by making them the rotation of the weight bearing unit rather than a larger joint like the hip. To each his own, I suppose, but I think there are much better ways to spend you time working your legs.
- Hack Squat
Muscles Worked: Quadriceps (front of legs), Gluteus Maximus (rear end), Hamstrings (back of legs), Stabilizers
Movement: The hack squat is basically a squat performed seated. Find the hack squat machine and add weights. Sit in it, placing your feet up on the metal pad in front of you. It’s kind of like getting ready to give birth. Brace the weight by straightening your legs out, then turn the safety knobs out. Squat by allowing the weight to come toward your chest, then pushing it back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: If you can’t comfortably perform a regular squat, this is my second most recommended exercise. It incorporates most of the same muscles as the squat, but is generally safer to perform. Given that it’s a machine based exercise, it won’t help strengthen your stabilizers the same way a free weight squat will, but it’s still a fantastic exercise.
Muscles Worked: Quadriceps, Gluteus Maximus, Hamstrings, Stabilizers
Movement: Standing normally, step forward with one leg. Bend that leg so that your trailing leg’s knee drops toward the ground; straighten back up and return to stand. Perform same exercise, but switch legs. That’s one rep.
Notes: I’ve included lunges in the “Quads” portion of the guide, but it is really a total lower-body exercise.
This exercise can be done with or without weights. You can use a squat rack to place a barbell (with light weight) across your shoulders, then perform the lunge. You can simply hold two dumbbells and perform the lunge.
You’ll see a lot of people (mostly women) doing “Walking Lunges” where they hold dumbbells and some Personal Trainer has them doing lunges across the gym. Guys, NEVER do walking lunges. I’m sorry to be a bit sexist here, but there are certain exercise guys should just never do (see also: adduct/abduct machines). :razz:
Muscles Worked: Quadriceps, Gluteus Maximus, Hamstrings, Stabilizers (especially lower back)
Movement: With Deadlifts, the weight begins on the floor. Squat down, gripping the bar in front of you. Now stand up, keeping your back straight. Squat down, return the weight to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: I’ve included Deadlifts in the “Quads” portion of the guide, but it is really a total lower-body exercise. It takes some practice to get right. I highly recommend watching some of the videos or slide show at Crossfit.com for the proper movement.
Your head should be up and facing forward the whole time. Your back should stay straight throughout the movement. Remember, you’re lifting with your legs here, not your back.
- Stiff-legged Deadlifts
Muscles Worked: Hamstrings (back of legs), Gluteus Maximus, lower back.
General Advice & Caveats: Stiff-legged Deadlifts are another great multi-joint compound exercise. They can be performed with dumbbells or barbells (or anything really). This movement can be tricky, but when performed correctly is one of the best ways to build your Hamstrings.
Movement: Holding the weight naturally in front of you, bend over slightly, bending your knees slightly. This is your starting position. Lower the weight almost to the floor, bending at your waist. Stand up again to starting position—that’s one rep.
Notes: Keep your back straight and your head facing front. If you round your back, you’re shifting the emphasis of this movement from your hamstrings to your lower back. The best way to prevent that is to do this movement in front of a mirror and keep you head facing forward, watching yourself the whole way. Also, the weight does NOT need to touch the floor, but it’s OK if it does. How far down the weight goes will depend on your flexibility and the size of the plate you’re using. You’ll know that you’re performing the exercise correctly when you feel the stretch in your hamstrings.
- Leg Curls (Machine)
Muscles Worked: Hamstrings (back of legs)
Movement: Situate yourself in the Leg Curl Machine so that your knees rest just off the pad and your ankles are under the pads on the back of the machine. Curl your ankles toward your rear end, then lower the weight back to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: I share a personal dislike with this exercise, akin to my dislike for Leg Extensions. It makes the knees the rotation joint, isolates a large muscle group, and ignores your stabilizer muscles. I mention it because I see a lot of people doing them. If you like them and get results, then great…I just think there are better alternatives.
Muscles Worked: Calves (back of lower legs)
Movement: No matter what machine or method you use to work calves (and there are tons), the basic movement is the same. Place the balls of your feet on the edge of a surface; push up onto the balls of your feet, then lower yourself back into position. That’s one rep.
Notes: Calf training should be approached like almost any other muscle group, with a caveat. To put it simply, your calves get a lot of work just moving you around. They tend to respond to higher weight training than most muscle groups. I tend to prefer the leg press for working calves, as it doesn’t stress your joints by having your legs support tons of heavy weight over your body.
No Weight Alternative for Legs
Muscles Worked: Chest, Triceps, Core, Quadriceps, Gluteus Maximus, Hamstrings
Movement: Standing normally, drop down into pushup position. Perform a pushup; after the pushup, bring your feet up to under your chest. Leap upwards, extending your arms high. Land in starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: OK, this one goes against the “feeling silly” rule from before. However, all of the movements are natural, it doesn’t require any special weights, and can be done just about anywhere. Need a quick workout, but only have 10 minutes? Go into your back yard and do three sets of 10 Burpees, and you’ll be DONE. These are much more difficult than they appear, and are a fantastic full-body exercise. Trust me, you will be sweating after these, and it doesn’t take many reps to get your blood pumping.
Abs & Core
General Advice & Caveats: Ah, Abs. There has been SO much written on the subject that I’ll just hit the highlights here. The biggest caveat is this: you won’t see your abs with a layer of fat covering them…but that does not give you an excuse to skip working them. A LOT of people, experienced weight lifters, skip abs training or take it very lightly. Common excuses: “I’ll do them when I get my body fat down—you can’t even see them right now.” “They already get worked out from everything else I do.” “I don’t want my waist to get bigger.”
Look, abs are just like any other muscle group. They respond to progressive load training. Yes, the are in use all day, along with the rest of your core, keeping you vertical. They still need to be worked, if you ever hope to see them. Your abs & core form the foundation of your body. You cannot build a strong house on a weak foundation.
- Sit Ups
Muscles Worked: Abdomen, lower back
Movement: Lying on your back with your knees bent roughly 90°, hands touch (lightly touching) the back of your head. Contract your abdomen, moving your head and elbows up to touch your knees. Lower back down slowly. That’s one rep. Don’t bounce, and don’t raise your rear end trying to get leverage.
Notes: Sit Ups have a bad rap, I know. There is a LOT said about how bad they are for you and how crunches are better; I won’t even go into the whole hip flexor debate. The biggest problem sit ups have, in my opinion, is that most people do them wrong. They use their hands to pull their head up, or their head is resting on their chest (straining their neck), or they try to do them as fast as possible (incorporating all the bad movements). There is a reason why those military types do lots and lots of sit ups…they work. When done properly, they are a great abs/core strengthening exercise.
Muscles Worked: Abdomen
Movement: Lying down with your hands either across your chest or lightly touching your head, knees bent roughly 90°, contract your abdomen so that your upper back & head rise off the floor. Lower gently to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: A lot of people make the same mistakes with the crunch that they do with the Sit Up. They’ll pull their head with their hands, or bounce to get leverage. Crunches are a concentration exercise…think about your abs while you’re doing them. Focus on contracting them—your upper body will rise as a consequence.
Crunches can be performed with or without weights, or on a decline board to increase resistance. If you do these, make sure your feet are securely under the pads at the end, or you’ll fall on your head. A lot of people do them on an exercise ball, believing that it “works the core”, and they’re not entirely wrong, but I prefer them on a level surface. Increasing the range of motion leads many people to use other muscles or their hands. Be careful.
- Leg Lifts
Muscles Worked: Abdomen, lower back, hip flexors
Movement: (Lying) Lay with your legs extended out naturally. Gripping something (edge of a bed, a bench, your workout partner’s ankles), raise your feet up so that your legs & torso form a 90° angle. Slowly lower your feet to starting position. That’s one rep. (Hanging, either from a Pull Up bar or supporting your weight on your elbows in a machine of some kind) Raise your feet up so that your legs & torso form a 90° angle. Slowly lower your feet to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: You’ll see some people do these hanging, and they’ll abbreviate the movement by bringing their knees up rather than their feet. This is akin to doing Push Ups from your knees rather than your feet…it lowers the resistance. Some believe that it works your “lower abs”, but so does a full range of motion leg lift.
- Cable Crunch
Muscles Worked: Abdomen
Movement: Kneeling in front of a cable rack, gripping the rope or handle to your chest, contract your abs so that your upper body moves toward the floor. Slowly return to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: This is a pretty easy way to add resistance to Ab/core training. It’s a bit awkward at first…you’ll tend to hit your head or not find a comfortable position for the cable. I don’t like it because many people will use their arms & back to pull the weight down, minimizing the impact on the abs. I’d much rather see someone do crunches on an decline board while holding a medicine ball or weight plate to their chest.
- Ab Machine
Muscles Worked: Abdomen, lower back
Movement: Find your proper seat placement in an Ab Machine. Typically, it’ll be where the pads hit your pecs. Set your weight with the pin. Now, with the pads tightly against your upper body, contract your abs so that your upper body curls toward the floor. Return slowly to starting position. That’s one rep.
Notes: Flat out, I don’t like this machine. Most people perform this exercise with poor form. The movement encourages you to “push down” on the pads with your upper body, and often will strain the lower back. I’ve seen people bounce their chest against the pads to jump start the weights moving. Ugh. Most people just don’t perform this one strictly enough to really reap the benefits, so I recommend other alternatives. If you do them right, really focusing on contracting your abs, they it’s a great exercise.
OK, so now you know how to perform the basic exercises. How do we put it all together? How many reps should I do? How many sets? What exercises? The simple answer is that it depends on YOU.
How much time do you have? What are your goals? Bigger muscles? More “tone”? “Tone” is a bit of a misnomer—what people really mean is they want to see their muscles. This will involve losing fat and gaining muscle.
Some guidelines for general fitness:
- Warm up with 5 to 10 minutes of light cardio. Walk briskly on the treadmill, skip rope, climb some stairs. The object here is to get your body moving--get your blood flowing to your muscles. This is very important for avoiding injury.
- Keep your rep ranges in the 8 to 12 reps per set.
- Generally perform three sets.
- If you want to gain muscle size & strength, lower your rep range from 5 to 8; keep your sets around three, but lift much heavier than you otherwise would.
- Do not hit the same muscle group on consecutive days. This includes Abs.
- Mondays and Tuesdays are the most busy days in the gym. Everyone’s trying to undo the damage they did to themselves over the weekend. Mondays are notorious chest days, Tuesdays are leg hell. Be aware of this phenomenon and adjust your routine accordingly if you don’t like waiting for equipment.
If you need to double up your workouts (since you have limited time in the gym), work opposite muscle groups…for example, chest & back on the same day. This will prevent you from overworking your stabilizing and secondary muscles. In other words, when you work chest, you’re working your pectorals, deltoids, and triceps. None of those muscles are significantly involved when you work your back.
- If you are new to resistance training, start out using machines. For the first four to six weeks, you don’t get to use the free weights. Get your body used to lifting weights in a controlled environment. Learn your body’s and an exercise’s range of motion. Also, when you do get ready to move on to free weights, you’ll have some kind of idea as to how much weight you can use…although it’s only a ballpark idea, as free weights and machines have a VERY different feel to them.
WHAT exercises should I do? How many Sets & Reps? Increase the weights each set or not?
As a guideline, each set should be heavier than the previous one. I won’t get into the physiology behind the progressive training principle…Google away if you want to know more. However, you have to be careful. In general, don’t increase the weight more than 10-15% between sets. On machines, I’d just go down a peg in the weight stack.
So…if you start on the bench press at 135 lbs. (2 45lb. plates and the bar), your next set should be about 15 lbs heavier (add a 5 and a 2.5 to each side). Your third set should be 15 lbs. again heavier, but this time remove the 5 and the 2.5 you just added and put on a 10 and a 5 to each side. I always try to have the heaviest plates possible on the bar…it’s purely psychological, but I’d much rather have one 10 lb. plate on the bar over four 2.5 lb. plates. But that could just be me.
That said, here are some ideas as to which exercises to do. Feel free to be flexible, but keep the main lifts (bench press, squats) in the routine.
- Bench Press, 3 sets of 8 reps (3x8)
- Incline Bench Press (3x8)
- Dips (3x8)
- Pull Ups (if you can) or Pull Downs (3x8)
- Rows (3x8)
- Overhead Press (3x8)
- Incline Curls (heavy) (3x5)
- Barbell Curls (3x8)
- Push Downs (heavy) (3x8-10)
Arms (Biceps & Triceps)
- Squats (3x8) (can substitute Hack Squats)
- Lunges (3x8)
- Deadlifts (3x8)
- Stiff-legged Deadlifts (3x8)
- Sit Ups or Crunches (3x12)
- Leg Lifts (3x12)
- Weighted Crunches on Decline Board (3x8)
Abs and Core
WHEN should I do them? How frequently?
A lot of this depends on you. What does your schedule allow? How often do you want to work out? Tinker with these to your heart’s content, but so long as you don’t work the muscle group on consecutive days. If your recovery will allow you to only hit each body part once per week, try one of these:
If you can work out 5 days per week, you spend a day hitting each body part.
Thursday: Shoulders, Abs
If you can only work out 4 days per week, you’ll need to double up on some days.
Monday: Legs, Abs
Wednesday: Chest, Back
If you can only work out 3 days per week, you’ll need to double up even more.
Monday: Legs, Abs
Wednesday: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
Friday: Back, Biceps
I’m not a fan of the Full Body Workout because it doesn’t really allow a lot of flexibility in your schedule. You are pretty much limited to a Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. Some people love them.
In any event, with a full body workout, you’ll probably need to focus more on the big lifts, and less on isolation exercises. You want to do more multi-joint compound exercises, as these will involve all your muscle groups. I’d do something like this:
Full Body Workout
- Bench Press (3x8)
- Pull ups if you can, otherwise Pull Downs (3x8)
- Overhead Press (3x8)
- Dips (3x10)
- Incline Dumbbell Curls (3x8)
- Squats (3x8)
- Stiff-legged Deadlifts (3x8)
You’ll note that I omit specific triceps work…they receive plenty of stimulation from the bench and overhead presses. Also, if you enjoy doing a full body workout, you can do this on Monday, but then on Wednesday, substitute out some exercises. Say Incline Presses instead of Bench Press, Barbell Curls instead of Incline Curls, and Leg Lifts for Crunches. Keep your body guessing.
Now, I’ll wrap this up by including my workout. It’s really very intense and uses scary things like compound sets and push-presses that I didn’t cover here. The reasoning is that these are advanced movements, and they can be dangerous if you’re not experienced. I’d be happy to chat about them if you’d like to know more.
I use a 2 day, upper/lower split, performed twice per week.
Tuesday, Saturday: Upper
- Bench Press and Pull Up Compound Set
Set 1: Bench Press (8 reps at 255), then 8 Pull Ups
Set 2: Bench Press (8 reps at 270), then 8 Pull Ups
Set 3: Bench Press (8 reps at 285), then 8 Pull Ups
- Incline Bench Press (Dumbbells) and Incline Curls Compound Set
Three sets: Incline Bench Press (8 reps with 100 lb. Dumbbells), then Incline Curls (5 reps with 60 lb. Dumbbells)
- Overhead Dumbbell Presses
Three sets (8 reps with 85 lb. Dumbbells)
- Clean & Press and Bent Over Rows Compound Set
The Clean & Press is performed by holding a barbell naturally in front of you across your thighs. Then you flip your hands upward so that the weight is resting across your upper chest & shoulders; you then press it up over your head. Lower the weight back to your chest, then flip it down to your thighs. This is a very intense move, requiring a lot of power. I do them with moderate weights in a compound set with Rows. All sets are performed with the same weight:
Three sets: Clean & Press (100 lbs.), Bent Over Rows (225 lbs.)
- Cardio: 30 Minutes of High Intensity Interval Training on the Elliptical Machine
Wednesday, Sunday: Lower
- Squats: 3 sets of 8 (225, 240, 275)
I don’t use a lot of weight on squats, preferring to use extremely strict form.
- Stiff-legged Deadlifts: 3 sets of 8 (135, 160, 185)
- Hack Squats & Calves Compound Set: 3 sets of 8 (315, 405, 495) Calves: sets of 15
Make sure you put the safeties in place before doing calves.
- Cardio: 45-60 Minutes of Cardio (stationary cycle or rowing machine)
Again, this isn’t for everyone. It’s very intense. I move from set to set. My total upper body workout (without cardio) is about 45 minutes. The lower body (less cardio) is about 30 minutes.