by Daniel Schou
The Pen and Barbell guide to your first month of training at the gym.
PART I: BEFORE ENTERING THE GYM
One compulsory goal and seven principles that applies to every beginner
No matter how your own personal goals might look like - be they grand in scope and generally outlined, or zoomed in and miniscule in detail - I would still like to impose on you an extra ambition that initially should overshadow all the others: your first goal is to fall in love with the gym experience. This is an absolute must if you have even remotely advanced ambitions linked to your weight training. You must ensure your own passion for the training in itself if you are to harvest the results that it promises. If you don’t find enjoyment in the exercising you will never be properly engaged in the gym experience and thus you will never reach any elevated goal.
In order for you to be as entranced as you should be by the weight training you will have to learn to train according to certain principles. These principles and guidelines are the same that more advanced gym goers adhere to. I don’t believe in letting a beginner follow a slimmed-down approach to working out. That will only make the person in question quit too soon. Instead, I recommend the beginner to try to enjoy all the different joys of gym training already from the very start. Therefore, when you have finished reading this article I recommend you to read another article of mine where I elaborate on what I consider to be 7 principles that ensures good results in the gym.
This means that as a beginner you should start training with the following principles in mind:
Keep the tempo high throughout the session. And, if you are working out in company of somebody else, make sure that your (minimally held) dialogue touches on absolutely nothing but the task at hand, namely putting in all the necessary effort in the exercise that you are performing at the moment.
Have a learning attitude already from day 1 at the gym. Quality is more important than quantity. Learn how to perform the different exercises in a rewarding way and how to compose a routine that relates to your own personal goals.
Firstly, prioritize getting to the gym. Remind yourself on a daily basis of your goals and remember that you only regret the workouts that didn’t take place, never the once that did. Secondly, once you’re at the gym, remember that you get good at what you do – and nothing else.
Following a typical beginner's program is a shortcut to boredom. Few people fall in love with the gym experience by following such a program. In my opinion a beginner should adhere to the same principles as the more advanced. This will ensure continued motivation and a much more immediate feeling of results and progress.
You might be following a recommended beginner’s program (hopefully this one), but nevertheless you should already from Day 1 have a clear picture of what it is that you yourself is aiming to achieve. You should see any workout program – be it made for beginners or the more advanced – as a recommendation, a rough guideline, not an absolute truth. If you love an exercise – put in some extra sets. And the opposite, if an exercise feels all wrong, then put it aside (just as long as you replace it with something else, so that the accumulated workload doesn’t diminish).
When the first week is behind you there will be reasons to feel proud, exhilarated and strengthened, but there will not be any reason to slow down or to use words such as “I did it”. You are not finished. You are not through. You have just started. And you haven’t “done it”, you have just started doing it. This was week 1 of many. Now you are on your way. It is time to continue.
Remember, you have been given a compulsory goal, to fall in love with the gym experience. One way to make this easier for you is to be, from day one at the gym, aware of the infinite possibilities of change and variety that is offered to you in this temple of the barbell.
Do not buy into the old myth that beginners should acquaint themselves with the “safe” machines before taking on the free weights. It is the free weights – the barbell and the dumbbells – that are going to captivate you, if you allow them to, not some gigantic machine designed to let you train your calves or what not. If you are to make this a habit (as indeed you are) you should already from the start let yourself enjoy the feeling that comes from mastering the free weights. This is where the beauty of weight training awaits.
The concept of progressive overload
Another aspect of weight training that I strongly recommend you to pay attention to from day one is the concept of progressive overload. Simply put, this means that you must always strive to increase your intensity and your total workload if you are to enjoy consistent and continuing results.
My suggested beginner’s program below consists of four different workout days. This means that, in order for you to ensure lasting (and hopefully, in time, accelerated) progress, you must already on your fifth workout session try to improve upon your first encounter with that day’s schedule. Simply put: Day 5 is like Day 1 – but slightly harder. And Day 6 is like Day 2 – but slightly harder. And so on. These increases can be made in several different ways. You can, for example, increase the weights. If you find yourself unable to do so, you can do one extra set. Or you can make sure that the rest intervals in between sets are shorter than the last time you performed the same exercises. You can improvise and perform an extra exercise of your choosing. You can get your first taste of what is called ”drop sets” – in other words: you perform a set, after which you, instead of resting, perform a few extra reps with a lower weight. There is a multitude of ways to keep pushing yourself. It is part of the fun that it is up to you, from session to session, to find ways to keep making this happen.
Two important statements regarding gym culture
Take the following two statements to heart regarding gym culture: no, the gym veterans will not stare at you – and yes, you should use the mirror extensively and in an absolutely shameless manner. You can trust me on both of these assertions. The reasons for the latter are several (increased concentration and sense of presence, for example), but the most important is that it makes your workout session safer. There are exercises that I think should always be performed in front of a mirror (for example the seated shoulder presses with dumbbells where the mirror helps you ensure a balanced and controlled performance).
Accordingly, make it a habit from the very first workout session to face off with your reflection and don’t shy away from the free weights room just because you find other people in there; on the contrary, make sure to really bask in the good feeling of mastering those dumbbells alongside all the other good-natured enthusiasts. It won´t take long before you have realized that they have eyes for one person only, namely themselves.
A few more advices before taking part of the beginner’s program
To fuel your motivation read the article in which I list and elaborate on some of the many benefits that you can expect to gain by starting to lift weights: The article is named 9 reasons to start lifting weights and you can find it here.
Drink more water than you are used to. If you are not in the habit of drinking water regularly throughout the day then you should make a point out if it now that you are to enter the world of weight training. It will result in increased energy levels, better stamina, fuller muscles and quicker recovery.
Don’t go to the gym immediately after having eaten. Make sure to have at least an hour in between your last meal and the workout session. Training with a full stomach will hinder you from having the ultimate gym experience and put an unnecessary brake on your progress.
Keep a journal. This goes hand in hand with the above mentioned notion of progress. Spend a few minutes after each workout to scribble down the most essential facts concerning the just finished session, such as exercises, number of sets and reps, etcetera. This will help you nourish what I hope will soon be a full-fledged gym addiction.
A recommended workout program that lets you get a taste of the full experience
Read up on this program and then bring it with you when it is time to have your first workout. Make sure you have a clear picture of each and every exercise before going to the gym. Check the routine that I give below. Do you know what the different exercises are, what they look like and what they aim at achieving? If not, make sure to check them out online or through some other channel before you actually go to the gym – and once you are there, don’t hesitate to ask the personnel if you feel you want your pre-knowledge to be illustrated or repeated.
The reason why I think you should make an effort to have a clear picture of the different exercises beforehand is that I want you to reserve as much energy and time as possible to the actual lifting. I don’t want you to waste your enthusiasm and stamina on improvisation and learning. You won’t get properly “into it” if you spend the time in between exercises trying to figure out what to do next. Concentration is a major part of a good gym experience and if you are, in time, to become more advanced in your training and in your results then you should start honing that sense of presence from the beginning.
PART II: THE WORKOUT PROGRAM
A few words on the layup
Below you find my recommended beginner’s program. It consists of four different workout sessions. After Day 4 you go back to Day 1, and so on. Before I list the exercises in question I give you a brief summon up of the thoughts behind each day’s design. I want you to start working out with a concrete yet dynamic plan – and I want this plan to allow you to get a taste of different aspects of gym training. You will find this program challenging, rewarding, fun and exciting.
For the program to be sufficiently efficient – and for you to fall in love with the gym experience, as you have now, if you have read this far, committed yourself to do – I think you should go to the gym at least 3 times a week. That is the minimum. The ideal would be 4 or 5 sessions per week.
Finally, don’t hesitate to mix up the order in which you perform the different exercises. If a machine is temporarily occupied, don’t waste time waiting for it – go do something else and come back later.
A few suggestions regarding the warm-up
You will notice that each day starts with 10 minutes of warm up. This can, of course, mean a lot of different things. Try out the different suggestions outlined below. Make sure to always follow suggestion no 1, without exception. When you want to take things further try prolonging the warm up by adding suggestion 2 or 3.
Suggestion no 1: low-intensity cardio.
Choose between the treadmill, the cardio rowing machine and the crosstrainer machine. Perform 10 minutes of steady, low intensity cardio. The aim is not to break any personal records. You are warming up, not pushing yourself.
Suggestion no 2: Dynamic stretching and foam rolling.
Mimic the kind of movements that you know awaits you in the day’s workout schedule. Stay controlled at all times. Be deliberate and slow in your movements. Concentrate on activating the muscles in your body. Note that this is very different from what we traditionally think of as “stretching”. This is more about finding your posture and waking up the body than actual stretching. Finish it off with a minute or two on the foam roller.
Suggestion no 3: Barbell warm-up.
During my many years of hard weight training this has been the way that I most often warmed up. In fact, over long periods of time it has been my only way of warming up - and I have never gotten injured, not even once, despite training hard and often. This having been said, though, I still strongly recommend that you, as a beginner, always start out with suggestion no 1, the 10 minute low-intensity cardio session described above.
A barbell warm-up is exactly what it sounds like. First, grab a barbell. Make sure it is light. Let it be empty if it is an Olympic 20 kg bar; that is the maximum weight you should use, regardless of how strong you are. Remember that this is your warm-up; you are not exercising as yet. Methodically work your way through a few reps of each of the following movements: the deadlift, the standing military press, the bent-over row, the trapezius lift, the biceps curl. Then do another round – once more performing a few reps of each movement. Finish off with a few reps of Sisyphus squats and Calf raises, relying solely on your body without the use of additional weight. Furthermore I recommend you to make it a habit to always give each exercise a warm-up set of its own, meaning a set where there is no real effort involved and that is performed in order for you to let your body “tune in” to the new movement. This will improve your muscle awareness and thus reduce the risk of injury.
About Day 1
This day is about performing classic compound movements. What this means is that you will lift heavy weights through the use of large muscle groups. You will learn to master the most classical and traditionally used exercises imaginably, such as, for example, the bench press and the rowing. These kinds of exercises will make you spend a lot of energy and let you get a taste of high intensity. Over time these exercises will help you build a strong foundation and a muscular frame.
What is to be achieved: Major burn. Big time effort. High intensity. Building a frame and a foundation.
Word of the day: energy.
Targeted muscle groups: legs, pecs, back.
Warm Up - 10 minutes
Bench press, barbell - 3 X 8-12
Chin-ups/Lats Pulldowns in machine - 3 X 6-12
Rowing, machine - 3 X 6-10
Leg Extentions, machine - 3 X 8-12
Leg curls, machine - 3 X 8-12
Bench press, inclined, barbell - 3 X 8-12
Leg presses, machine - 3 X 6-10
About day 2
This day is about zooming in on particular muscle groups and perform exercises that lets you focus all your energy into a (when compared with day 1) smaller part of the body. The exercises in question are often referred to as “isolation exercises” – and that is exactly what day 2 is all about: learning to isolate a selected muscle, be it the biceps, the shoulders or the triceps. This means that, as far as possible, you will be aiming to feel the targeted muscle – and nothing else. In general these exercises require less energy than the compound movements, featured in Day 1, where big parts of the body are involved. This, however, does not mean that day 2 is an easy day, on the contrary: isolation exercises will often be the fastest way to being able to enjoy what is called the pump, which also means that they will introduce you to the kind of “good pain” that you will soon grow not only accustomed to but actually quite fond of.
As for me calling the triceps extensions “Rocky” this is an homage of mine to the childhood memories of Rocky Balboa’s raised arms, where one could clearly discern detailed cuts and striations where the biceps meets the triceps. This exercise mimics that triumphantly raised arm and will, over time, help you approach that same amount of chiseled muscle quality.
What is to be achieved: Pump. Isolation. Precision. “The good pain”. Chiseling the details of your physique.
Words of the day: concentration and precision.
Targeted muscles: Biceps, Triceps, Shoulders, Calves
Warm up - 10 minutes
Biceps curl, barbell - 3 X 8-12
Triceps pushdowns, cable, 2 hands - 3 X 8-12
Seated shoulder press, dumbbells - 3 X 8-12
Seated calf press, machine - 3 X 10-15
Shoulder lateral raises, dumbbells - 3 X 8-12
Inclined biceps curl, dumbbells - 3 X 8-12
Seated triceps extensions (“Rocky”) - 3 X 8-12
About day 3
This day is about technique, performance and presence. It is not as much a workout session as it is a kind of self-guided technique school.
Oh, did I forget to mention: it is also about abs. This means that, in spite of the initial gentleness of this workout session, it is also about facing a certain amount of burning pain and starting to learn how to feel comfort outside of your comfort zone. No, that was not a typo.
Perform the below listed exercises concentrating not so much on intensity as you do on quality. This is about going through the motions and heightening your muscle awareness. You are learning both your mind and your body what these exercises are all about, what they aim at achieving and how they are best performed.
What is to be achieved: an improved performance and a bettered form that will fuel your longing for the next truly heavy workout session. When you do, for example, 3 X 10 of the inclined bench presses, you shall use a weight that you could have kept pressing for at least twice as many reps. Remember, you are not training your pecs today, you are training your bench press technique.
After having dedicated yourself at least 20 minutes to this technique honing it is time to get down on the floor and start tormenting your abs. This latter part of day 3’s session is totally different than the first part. Here you will aim for maximum intensity, maximum effort and maximum endurance. Allow yourself 60-90 seconds of rest in between sets and an extra couple of minutes in between exercises. As you will see below I want you to finish the session with an abs exercise that is free of choice.
Word of the day: technique. Followed by burn.
Targeted muscles: initially none. Later on the abs.
Part 1: technique
Bench press -3 X 10-20
Inclined bench press - 3 X 10
Lats pulldowns - 3 X 10-20
Standing bent over rows, barbell - 3 X 10
… and 1 more, free of choice… - 3 X 8
Part 2: abs
Myotatic crunches on Bosu ball - 3 X as many as possible
Lying leg raises - 3 X as many as possible
Static plank - 2 X as long as possible
An abs exercise of choice - 2 X as many as possible
About day 4
This day is about calisthenics and using the resistance of your own body weight.
I hold body weight exercises in high regard, especially when combined with free weight exercises. Calisthenics will help you increase your metabolism and improve your muscular stamina and endurance. When performed with short resting intervals it will also put a healthy and rewarding element of cardio into your weight sessions.
Usually I don’t go through whole workouts consisting of just body weight exercises. I prefer to use calisthenics as a way to occasionally spice things up. This having been said, I still do see strong advantages in putting in an exclusive calisthenics session in a beginner’s program. It is a safe and gentle, yet effective, way to push your limits from week one.
If there is an exercise that you find yourself unable to perform, don’t let this stress you, just calmly compensate for it by doing 1 more extra set of something else. There are, for example, many people that, as beginners, can’t perform chins. If you are among those then just distribute 6 extra sets over the other exercises.
When it comes to this day’s program I recommend staying true to the order in which I have listed the exercises. Changing the order could result in unwanted fatigue that hinders perfect form.
Targeted muscles: the whole body.
Words of the day: exhaustion, endurance and stamina.
Pushups - 3 X as many as possible
Chins -3 X as many as possible
Sisyphus squats - 3 X 15
Shoulder pushups - 3 X as many as possible
Bench triceps dips - 3 X 15
Biceps chins - 3 X as many as possible
Dips - 3 X as many as possible
Lunges - 3 X 10/side
As a beginner you should train in accordance with the same principles as the more advanced.
Make sure to regularly fuel your motivation by reminding yourself of your goals and of the benefits of weight training.
Keep a journal that allows you to monitor your progress.
Make sure to drink a sufficient amount of water throughout the day.
Use my recommended beginner’s program for the first month of training. This will allow you to experience the variety of gym training in a way that will inspire and motivate you to make weight training a regular and ongoing part of your life.
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