Taming the Weight Room 3: The Exercises

This is the third in this series. Find the first here, and the second here.

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Now that we’re familiar with the basic weight lifting philosophies and the basic equipment, lets move on to the basic exercises. I will be approaching this from a strength-building philosophical standpoint rather than a body-building one, as that is what I focus on in my own training and that of my clients. Both philosophies will increase strength and produce aesthetic results. It’s really a matter of personal preference.

There are really only a few you need to know to get started. Once you’ve got those down, it’s easy to pick up new exercises, as most of them are variations on the basics I’m going to discuss today. Most exercises fit in to one of four categories, which are as follows:

1. Upper Body Pushes

These exercises rely primarily on the anterior (front) muscles of the upper body to push a load away from you. The press and it’s variations (including pushups) fall into this category.

2. Upper Body Pulls

These rely primarily on the posterior (back) muscles of the upper body to pull a load toward you. The row and it’s variations (including pullups) fall into this category.

3. Lower Body Pushes

These rely primarily on the anterior muscles of the lower body to push a load away from you. The squat and it’s variations fall into this category.

4. Lower Body Pulls

These rely primarily on the posterior muscle of the lower body to pull a load toward you. The deadlift and it’s variations fall in this category.

The simplest place to start is with these four basic motions. So that’s what I’m going to cover today. Doing one exercise from each of these categories will give you a full body workout that works all the major muscle groups (including your core).

The Press

The two main variations of the press are the Bench Press and the Shoulder Press. Both can be done with either dumbbells, cables or a barbell. Click on the links to see a brief tutorial for each exercise. Pushups also fall under the Press category and are an extremely effective exercise for building strength and muscle mass.

The Row

Two main variations of the row are the Bent Over Row and the Upright Row. These can be done with dumbbells, cables or a barbell. Pullups fall into the Row category and, like pushups, are very effective for building strength and mass.

The Squat

The Squat is one of the most effective and versatile exercises for building lower body strength and muscle mass. There are dozens of variations, but lets focus on the basic Squat form for now. Start with just your own body, and as you build strength you can add weight in the form of dumbells or a barbell.

The Deadlift

Everyone loves the Deadlift because it builds a killer booty! Start with dumbbells and work to get your form solid. When you are confident with your form, move to a barbell. You can also do Single Leg Deadlifts.

Putting a Workout Together

As I said, simply doing one exercise from each of these four categories gives you a very effective full body workout. When you are just getting started with weight lifting, this really is all you need. Sticking to the basics will give you a very solid base of strength and skill, and once you are competent with these basics you can add more variety and intensity.

I have my clients start with a basic 3 x 8 format: 3 sets of 8 reps. We stick to this for a couple months to establish that basic foundation of strength, and then begin to mix up the reps and sets. Here’s how I determine the proper weight for each individual:

Begin with a very modest weight and do a set of 10 reps of the exercise you’re working on. If that is easy, do a second set with a slightly heavier weight. Keep adding weight until you find the weight you can do 8 reps with, but fail before reaching 10. That is your ‘working weight’. Work with that weight until you can do 3 sets of 8-10 efficiently, and then add weight the next workout. This will happen quickly in the beginning. As you progress in fitness, your strength gains will slow down – this is normal.

So to recap: a basic beginner workout will include one exercise from each of the four categories I listed above. Start with a rep/set format of 3 sets of 8. You do not need to do dedicated core work if you don’t want to, as all of these exercises will strengthen your core by forcing it to do it’s job – stabilize your spine while the rest of your body performs a task (you’re welcome to include dedicated core work if you want, though. It certainly won’t hurt!)

Start slow and prioritize getting your form down solid. If you feel unsure of your form, consider hiring a personal trainer for a session or two to troubleshoot. Youtube can be a great resource for learning form.

If you’d like a more formal program, there are several I recommend. Nia Shanks has several really effective plans. Stronglifts 5 x 5 is simple, straightforward and effective. Starting Strength is pretty much THE bible for strength training basics. There’s also my First 100 Days and Basic Lifting Programs. Any one of these will give you an effective, simple foundation. You don’t need a formal program though. The fundamentals will get you really far! I always say, the basics are called basics for a reason: they work. And ultimately, they’re really all you need to get stronger and build functional and beautiful muscle mass.


Taming the Weight Room 2: The Equipment

This is the second in a series of blog posts, you can find the first here.

Today I’m going to give you a ‘tour’ of a typical weight room, familiarize you with the equipment you will find there, and give you some tips for finding your bearings in this unfamiliar place. When you know what the equipment is for and how to use it, it’s a whole lot less intimidating!

There are two main categories of weightlifting equipments: free weights and weight machines. Many people feel more comfortable starting out on machines, so we’ll start there.

Weight Machines

Weight machines are large pieces of equipment that are used to work one muscle or muscle group in one motor pathway. Their appeal is that they are easy to use (you can usually find instructions for their use right on the machine) and reduce the risk of injury to the user. Both of these factors make them appealing to beginners, and machines can be a good starting point for someone just getting acclimated to the gym. They have drawbacks, however. Because they force the body into one motor pathway over and over, there is a risk of overuse injuries. And, because they isolate a single muscle or muscle group, they don’t allow the body to work as a unit and strengthen stabilizing muscles. If you do decide to start on machines, move to free weights as soon as possible.

Cable machines are very large pieces of equipment that utilize weight stacks connected to handles via a system of pulleys and cables. Cable machines are much more versatile than standard weight machines, and allow the body to work more as a unit, thereby allowing for improvements in core strength and stability. Most cable machines allow the user to do a wide variety of exercises.

Expert Village has a great collection of tutorial videos for using weight machines properly, find them here.

Free Weights

Dumbbells and barbells can be more intimidating to beginners, which is unfortunate because they’re far more effective for building full-body strength than machines. There are two main benefits to free weights:

They recruit more muscles. With free weights, you aren’t locked into one motor pathway, so your body is able to recruit more stabilizing and supportive muscles to accomplish the task of moving the weight. This allows your body to get stronger in more natural chains of motion, which translates to better real-world functionality. When you’re working in a standing position, free weights force your core to engage to do the job it is intended for: stabilization. The end result is that your core strength improves without needing to devote time to core isolating exercises. I do very little dedicated core work but have well developed abs nonetheless, because I do lots of free weight exercises that keep my core engaged to stabilize.

They’re more fun. Lets face it, for most of us, sitting in a machine and doing the exact same repetitive motion multiple times can be a little dull. Free weights provide more variety and challenge, and as you get stronger and more skilled you can advance to increasingly intricate moves, like snatches and clean and jerks.

Hiring a Personal Trainer to get you started with some basic coaching in form and proper use of weight equipment is a very good idea, but if it’s not an option there are lots of great resources to draw from. Exrx.net has wonderful exercise tutorial descriptions and videos.

Some basic free weight tips:
-the long barbell that you load weight plates onto is called an Olympic bar and its standard weight is 45 pounds
-when you calculate how much weight you’re lifting, include the weight of the bar
-the ‘Power Rack’ is the tall metal cage looking contraption used for squats. Some people call it the squat rack or squat cage. I found a great basic tutorial for it’s use here.
-use ‘clips‘ or ‘collars‘ to secure weight plates onto the bar
-most weight plates are made of metal and come in standard weights of 1, 2.5, 5, 10, 25, 35 and 45 pounds. Bumper plates are made of rubber and are designed for use in Olympic lifting and any lifting where dropping the bar during a lift may become necessary. They generally come in 10, 15, 25, 35, 45 and sometimes 55 or more pounds.

Other Equipment

Other equipment you may find in your weight room:

-Kettlebells are fun and a great way to add variety to your workouts. Exrx.net has great kettlebell tutorials.
-steps and boxes for box jumps, step ups and other exercises utilizing elevated surface
-sandbags – I love my sandbag. You can use it in place of a barbell or dumbbell for almost any exercise, and do other things like shouldering that you can’t do with standard weight training equipment.
-battleropes, agility ladders, medicine balls and more. If you find a piece of equipment you want to add to your routine, youtube is a great place to look for tutorials and ideas.

Hopefully this gives you a better sense of familiarity with the equipment you’ll find in a typical weight room. In the next installment of this series I’ll discuss the exercises themselves, and go over how to put a basic workout together. Stay tuned!


Taming the Weight Room

My original intention for this blog post was simply to lay out some basic tips for getting started with weight lifting, form a ‘total newbie’ perspective. I asked for questions on my facebook page, though, and was so inundated with questions that I realized this will probably need to be a series of blog posts. Thank you for all the input you guys! I had no idea how needed this post was!

To keep things simple, today I’ll begin with a brief rundown of the benefits of weightlifting, and a brief description of the different forms of weightlifting. In future posts I’ll cover the basics for getting started, how to ensure proper form, a discussion of women and ‘bulking up’, and nutrition tips for supporting a weight lifting program.

First lets touch on WHY weight lifting is important. If you haven’t read my Strength Trianing For Women post on 180degreehealth.com, go do it now. In it I discuss the health benefits strength training provides, especially for women:

-increased bone density
-fat loss
-improved metabolic function
-lean mass preservation
-relief from anxiety and depression
-pain relief
-improved insulin sensitivity

And more.

Now that we have that out of the way, lets talk about some basics.

What IS Weight Lifting?

There are several different approaches to weight lifting and strength training. I’ll discuss some of the most common here.

Bodybuilding is focused on aesthetics, with a primary goal of building muscle mass and achieving a desired physique. A bodybuilding program typically will include more isolation exercises that focus on a specific muscle or muscle group; bicep curls and tricep extensions for instance. Workouts are typically dedicated to working a different body part each day, ie ‘leg day’, ‘bis and tris day’, ‘back day’ etc. Building mass and definition is a higher priority than building strength.

Powerlifting is focused on building strength. The primary goal of powerlifting is to lift the most weight possible in a single repetition, and there are three lifts that powerlifting focuses on: the squat, the deadlift and the press (usually bench press). Weights are heavy and rep ranges are usually low.

Olympic Lifting is the form of weight lifting that is featured in the Olympic Games. Like powerlifting, the primary goal is to lift the heaviest weight possible in a single rep, but the lifts are different. The Olympic lifts are the Clean and Jerk and the Snatch. Both involve moving a weight from the floor to overhead in one or two quick, explosive motions. Both are intricate lifts that require a high level of skill and athleticism.

Bodyweight Training is a form of training that utilizes the weight of a person’s own body to provide resistance to increase strength and muscle mass. Pushups and pullups are the bodyweight exercises you are probably most familiar with. Plyometrics are explosive bodyweight exercises, such as jump squats, that increase speed and power.

Circuit Training combines weight lifting exercises, bodyweight exercises and aerobic exercise in a fast moving, high intensity series of exercises, performed consecutively, with the goal of increasing strength, endurance and cardiovascular fitness.

Crossfit is actually a fitness company with thousands of affiliates around the world. Crossfit workouts include elements of powerlifting, bodyweight training, circuit training, Olympic lifting, gymnastics, and other modalities with a goal of building a broad base of competency and fitness across disciplines.

What is Best?

There is no ‘best’ form of weight lifting. Each discipline has it’s strengths, and the key is finding one that you enjoy and will be consistent with. No matter which one you feel drawn to, there will be people who will tell you it is ‘wrong’. People are as passionate about their exercise dogma as they are about their diet dogma. Any of the disciplines I listed above can provide the health benefits of weight lifting. It is important to find a competent coach to teach you proper form, especially when getting into heavy lifting. I’ll discuss how to find one in a future post.

My own training includes many of the disciplines I listed but if I had to classify it I’d say it is a combination of powerlifting and bodywieght training. That is what I enjoy the most. And enjoying what I’m doing is what keeps me engaged and consistent, and THAT is what is ultimately most important. So experiment, find what you enjoy!