Finally... You just convinced yourself and decided to commit and get yourself into shape.
You literally went to town on your gym outfit. New sweatpants, gym shirts and the all important new pair of training shoes are all laid out on the bed. You even remembered to get training gloves, a good training belt, a water bottle and a very cool looking gym bag to complete your go to accessories list for your gym workouts.
Your first month's membership? All paid up. All set then. Very well, but now what? Did you plan what exactly you are going to do once you walk through those gym doors?
Maybe you read an article in a fitness magazine or watched a Youtube video that inspired you. Is the athlete in the article an advanced weight trainer and following an exercise program suitable for a beginners? Worse case scenario, your friend, who has been a gym fanatic for years and already competed on stage, hands you his best and most intense workout schedule.
But most probably, once you walk through those doors, your general floor instructor will do what almost 99% of gyms do when joining for the first time... Introduce you to circuit training, which you are suppose to follow for the first few weeks.
(A circuit is a combination of exercise machines, roughly placed in the shape of a circle. Each machine trains a different muscle group. You train for a set period of time, an alarm goes off and you move on to the next machine and start exercising as soon as the next alarm sounds. The idea behind circuit training is to exercise each muscle in you body and get you body as a whole conditioned and used to weight training.)
In general, I agree with the principles and goals of starting out with circuit training. I agree with the goal to get your whole body ready and prepared, by exercising and training every muscle in your body to allow it to get used to weight training. I disagree with the practice of starting out with circuit training for 2 reasons:
1. I don't agree with the idea of using a group of exercise machines to prepare your body for weight training. Obviously certain muscle groups can be trained very effectively by exercise machines, but I prefer using the actual exercises you will be using later on during your more advanced weight training programs. There is just no real substitute for doing exercises you will end up doing anyway at a later stage, especially the use of free weights (barbells & dumbbells).
2. More often than not, you are left to your own devices doing circuit training week after week. Inevitably you end up getting bored out of your mind or getting despondent after seeing no results after months of doing the same thing over and over again. The big unfortunate outcome is that you give up. The point is, no matter what your definition of getting in shape is (building muscle, getting a well-toned body or losing fat), at some point you must move on to a more specific workout program targeted towards reaching your goal. Circuit training was just supposed to be a starting point. Don't blame yourself though.
Here I lay the blame with big gym franchises and authoritative fitness magazines and online authorities who, I feel, should pay more attention to educating their members/readers. Teaching exercise basics, following up on your progress and goals, and adjusting a trainee's program accordingly (or at least point them in the right direction), should form the foundation and number one priority of any fitness authority or institution.
With that out of the way, I am going to take you through a full body workout program, using exercises you will probably be using throughout your training "career". Remember, this is a starter program. It is not for anyone who has already been training for a while and are already on an intermediate to advanced level and accustomed to weight training.
So, I am going to assume the following: You are over 30 and/or starting to train for the first time, or haven't trained for more than a year and are starting all over again. Before starting the exercise plan, please heed the following warning:
Make sure to consult your physician before attempting any of the exercises described in this article.
I am going to lay out the program first, then explain how it should be performed, before moving on to each exercise and explain it in more detail.
Flat Barbell Bench Press
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Lying Leg Curl
Lying Triceps Extension
Standing Barbell Curl
Standing Calf Raise
The table above shows the total number of exercises and sets that makes up one training session
In the following session I will describe how you should proceed through the program and how each exercise should be performed.
How To Follow The Program
The program consists of a full body workout followed 3 times a week for the first 3 to 5 weeks. Before starting the program, please take note of the following.
- Take it easy on yourself, you are just starting out. If you find it hard to cope with 3 full sessions per week, don't hesitate to restrict it to 2 sessions per week. Where you would have trained on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, simply reduce it to a Monday and Thursday. Try and stay active during non-workout days though, by going for brief walks or even doing some cycling. Staying active helps to keep your metabolism active and "up to speed".
- Ideally, completing one exercise program should take 40 - 45 minutes maximum. (Read my article about optimal time spend in the gym here). At first, you may have some difficulty finishing the session within this time, especially if you haven't done any exercise for some months or even years. That is completely fine and understandable. You can drastically reduce the time and stress on your body by doing just one set of each exercise. Remember you are just starting out so your body is adjusting to sudden change. Just don't get too complacent, so try and increase your sets back up to 2 per exercise during your second or third week.
- You WILL feel sore and stiff a day or more after each training section in the beginning. I can almost guarantee it. This is very normal. Don't worry, it get's better as your body adjusts and you get used to the exercises. (To be honest, I still look forward to being a bit sore the day after training a muscle group. For me it is a sign that I trained properly and exhausted my muscles sufficiently. No, I am not a masochist, it is just a "happy pain" many a seasoned fitness enthusiast enjoy, knowing the results that stems from the "pain". ) If you find the soreness to be intolerable, you can lessen its effects by deploying any of the 2 previous points. Just hang in there and don't quit. It will get better.
- One last point before moving on. As already mentioned, please take the time to go see your physician for a quick checkup before commencing with the program. Especially you heart and lung function is important and must be functioning properly. You will be putting your body on a lot more stress than it was probably used to for years, so just play it safe and make sure everything is in order.
Time to move on to the performing actual exercises. Follow it as closely as possible, and try and keep good form throughout each exercise. Here are the steps:
Follow These Steps
As already mentioned, the program consists of a full body workout followed 3 times a week for the first 3 to 5 weeks.
Each workout consists of 2 sets, and each set consists 10 repetitions.
When choosing the appropriate weight, choose a weight that you can do a maximum of 15 repetitions with. (Yes, you will be doing 10 repetitions, but as you do more sets with little rest in between, you will soon realize how hard it is to finish 10 reps. Especially as you get more advanced and move on to 3-4 sets).
Start each exercise as described, making sure you use a controlled movement (no jerking or throwing the weight around). Use 3 seconds to lower the weight slowly to bottom, before applying force and lift/contract it all the way back up over a period of 1 second.
After finishing your first set, rest only for 30 - 40 seconds before starting you 2nd set, no more. Use the same rest period when adding a 3rd or 4th set.
When you finished your 2 sets, rest as little as possible before moving on to the next exercise on the list. No more 1.5 to 2 minutes maximum rest.
This completes one workout session, which should not last longer than 45 minutes, but will most probably take you approximately 30 minutes.
And that is how one workout session is done, performed 3 times a week. The goal is to make you body used to weight training while starting to transform at the same time. If you are a quick starter and your body adapts rapidly to the exercises, here are a few ways to move to the next level. (This forms part of the slightly more advanced or "intermediate level" workout plan, before training regimes become more specific and start splitting programs into differently sections as well as using multiple exercises per muscle group.)
- Once you reach a point of finishing your workout well within half an hour and you still feel energetic and "fresh", it is time to step up your training. Add a 3rd set to all of your exercises, but stick to the same amount of repetitions and time resting between sets. You will be surprised just how much of an impact adding just one set to all your exercises have.
- The second step to advance, should be used whenever you reach the end of your 2nd or 3rd set (whichever is your last set of an exercise). Once you are able to finish 10 full repetitions of any exercise on your last set, you should increase the weight in order to keep your muscle under sufficient tension. In other words, you must always battle to finish 10 repetitions of the last set of an exercise.
I don't want to get ahead of myself and stick to the topic of your "first or starter program". At least now you know how to keep advancing once you reach a goal in your training.
Next up, the exercises themselves. What major muscle groups the exercise target and how it should be performed.
Here are the exercises in no specific order of importance, but just following the list. I will just point out that, if you look at the list, you may have noticed that your bigger muscle groups are targeted first and smaller ones last. The reason for this is simple. When you start your workout you have more energy and since your bigger muscle groups require more energy, it just makes sense to do them first. As your energy diminish, you move on to the smaller muscle groups that require less energy.
Flat Barbell Bench Press
Muscles Exercised: Pectoral
Hold bar more than a hand's width outside shoulders. Lower bar slowly until it touches your lower chest and push it back up rapidly to the starting position. Repeat.
Muscles Exercised: Lats (Upper Back)
Grip the curved section of the lat pulldown bar and pull it all the way down behind your neck until it touches your shoulders.
Slowly let it lift all the way back up until your arms are fully extended and allow it to stretch your back. Repeat.
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Muscles Exercised: Shoulders (Deltoids)
Although not shown in illustration, please use some back support. Preferably use a bench with an adjustable back, set at 90°.
Hold the dumbbells just above shoulder height, elbows all the way out and flush with your body. Push the weights straight up and let them touch at the top of the movement, while making sure your elbows stay out throughout the movement.
Lower weights slowly to the starting position, keeping elbows out. Repeat.
Muscles Exercised: Upper Legs (Quads)
Place feet at least a body width apart for stability. Slowly lower the platform past a 90° angle until the back of your legs and calves almost touch.
Push the weight back up rapidly until your legs are straight, keeping your knees together. Don't "lock out*" your knees at the top of the movement as it may damage your ligaments. Repeat.
Lying Leg Curl
Muscles Exercised: Hamstrings
Hook your ankles behind supports. Curl your legs up slowly until it reach an angle of at least 90° before returning to the starting position. Repeat.
Lying Triceps Extension
Muscles Exercised: Triceps
Using an EZ-bar, start by holding it about the width of your body with arms straight.
Slowly lower the bar down and backwards to just behind your forehead. Push it back up in the same fashion until arms are extended. Keep your elbows together throughout the movement. Repeat.
Standing Barbell Curls
Muscles Exercised: Biceps
Using an EZ-bar, start by holding the weight about the width of your body with arms extended. With your arms tucked in tightly against you body, curl the bar up until fully contracted.
Slowly lower it back down to the starting position. Using just your elbows, keep the rest of your body as still as possible. Repeat.
Standing Calf Raise
Muscles Exercised: Calves (Lower Leg)
Adjust the height of calf raising machine to allows you to stand with your calf muscles fully stretched while still under weight.
Keeping your legs straight (but not locked out*), slowly lower your body until you feel your calves fully stretched, before raising it up again until your calves are fully contracted. Repeat.
Muscles Exercised: Abdominals
While laying on a flat surface, raise your upper body until shoulders are lifted off the ground. (Imagine trying to pull your shoulders towards your pelvis.)
Lower back to starting position. Repeat.
* "Locked out" or "locking out " means straightening your arms or legs so far that your elbows and knees literally "clicks" into a fixed position where all the load is taken off the muscles and transferred to the joints and ligaments, putting a lot of pressure on them. This can potentially lead to serious injury or damage.
And there you have all you exercises explained in as much detail as possible. A few notes on the exercises:
- All the exercises illustrated targets a primary muscle group which is mentioned. Quite a few secondary muscles are used in the exercise as well though, especially during compound (multiple joint) movements. Most of the illustrations show these secondary muscles that come into play.
- Although the ideal grip for exercising the target muscle group is described, a variety of different grips and grip positions can be used to change the emphasis of the exercise, and changing something as simple as a grip position, can completely change the primary muscle that gets targeted. More on that in a later article.
I hope this exercise program will help you make a good start when embarking on your path to getting into shape. At the very least it should make things a lot clearer for you, and point you in the right direction.
If you are looking for a complete workout plan, from beginner to advanced, including valuable information as to what diet to follow and when to eat what, read my guide to the best programs I can recommend here.
As always, feel free to leave me a comment or suggestion, and remember to join my mailing list to get informed whenever a new article is released, as well as helpful hints & tips and news on new developments.
Until next time, if you haven't yet, you now have no excuse not to walk through those gym doors.