There are big, buff dudes throwing weights around, scary machines with huge weight stacks, what seems like a million different pieces of equipment…. the weight room can be an intimidating place.
Despite all the fears you have, resistance training should be an integral part of your training routine. It’s important to note also that the picture I painted above and the image you have in your head aren’t a necessary piece of the weightlifting puzzle. You can get a fantastic resistance training session done:
- At home with just your bodyweight
- In the lady’s area of the gym
- By using only machines
Regardless of your set up, there’s no reason you can’t get stronger, more defined and create the body you desire.
When first committing to a resistance training program there are a few things to consider. You need to make sure you are healthy and able to complete the program. So, make sure to get approval from your primary physician first. Once you’ve been given the all clear, you can get cracking!
The first thing to know about resistance training is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Yes, there are general guidelines that we follow that have been backed by years of research, but at the end of the day it is a completely individualised experience. With that said, your first step is to get your frequency correct.
Frequency is how often you train – 2 x per week, 5 x per week, etc – essentially, how often you are placing stress on your muscles and giving them a reason to change.
Early on, especially if you’re venturing into the resistance training realm for the first time, this will be quite low. Anywhere from 2-3 times per week is a good idea. Generally, I’ll start you off with 2 sessions. This allows you plenty of time to recover between sessions and ensures you are more likely to complete the sessions. If you only have to get to the gym twice a week, it’s much more likely that you will go compared to 5 times per week.
Second priority is your duration.
Duration is how long you spend in the gym. In a similar vein, you don’t need to be in the gym for 90 minutes if you’re just starting out. You’ll likely overdo it and potentially injure yourself. At the very least you’ll do way more work than is needed to get a response. When resistance training you should be looking to do as little amount of work as possible to get some changes and adaptation from your body. And by that I don’t mean you should be lazy and skip the gym… “you said do as little as possible!”… no, not like that.
You want to leave your body with some room to grow and adapt. You want to be able to raise intensity, lift your frequency or increase your duration when needed to create more change. If you go 100 miles an hour right from the start, it doesn’t leave you with as much room to move. You’re already pushing the limits way more than needed.
On the other hand, if you can get a great response and change your body with 2 x 45-minute sessions per week, why would you want to do 5?
More isn’t always better.
Aim to get a response from your body without overdoing it. Then you can scale up when you need to create more of a stimulus because your body has adapted. This is called progressive overload. It’s the most fundamental aspect of resistance training and is something that you need to constantly be aware of.
The third thing to consider when getting started with resistance training is your intensity. Despite all the ‘beast mode’ and ‘no days off’ Instagram posts you might have seen, going hard every session isn’t necessary for great results. Especially if you’re new to this. Like I mentioned above, you need to leave room to scale up.
When you first begin, you want to sit around the 15-20 rep range and develop perfect technique. You can’t develop perfect technique if you’re working at an 8 or 9 out of 10 on your RPE Scale (how hard you’re working from 1-10, 10 being maximal effort). Your first couple of weeks should be a 5-6 on this scale. Trust me, if you’re coming from no exercise or a bit of a lay-off, this is plenty of intensity.
It allows you to focus on technique, ingrain good motor patterns and pathways between your brain and muscles & once again, gives you room to scale up when your body adapts to this stimulus.
You see, your body is an adaptation machine. Anything you throw at it causes it to adapt and change. Think about the first time you drank coffee, it didn’t take much for you to be bouncing off the walls, did it? Now look at you; you need 4 cups to get through to lunch time. I’m joking and exaggerating there of course, but you get the idea. You built up a tolerance to the caffeine. Just like your body builds up a tolerance to your resistance training. If you want to continually progress, you need to make sure you can give it a new stimulus to adapt too.
Finally, when starting resistance training, you have the exercises that you’ll be performing.
Now these can vary depending on where you train, what equipment is available to you, and much more. Essentially, you want to be performing movements that will give you the most bang for your buck. If you’re in the gym for 45-minutes, are you going to get more benefit from doing a big, compound lift like a squat or a small isolation exercise like a bicep curl?
The squat, of course.
Not only are you developing a fundamental movement pattern that you’ll need to use in everyday life, but you are also targeting and shaping many muscles at once. This is the key to your first few months of resistance training; complete big lifts to hit the whole body, every session.
And given that you’ll only be training 2-3 times per week, you’ll have plenty of time to recover between sessions. This allows for the optimal amount of work to be performed for each muscle group, without going overboard.
Now, what about machines versus free weights (dumbbells/barbells)?
There’s no denying it, the muscle building potential and overall health benefits of free weights far outweigh those of machines. However, not everyone who walks into the gym for the first time has the ability or confidence to use free weights. Not to mention, you probably don’t need too anyway. Your muscles don’t know what you’re doing exactly, they just know to contract and relax. You can achieve that though machines just as you can through free weights. There is however, a little more involvement and stability required when performing free weights so that’s why I give them the nod. But as I said, early on, machines can be your best friend.
They are less intimidating, they require a smaller learning curve, they’re easier to load and unload (you literally just move a pin) and you can progressively overload just like you can with free weights.
So, my advice is to start on machines until you have a solid understanding of your movement and mechanics. Or invest in a trainer that can take you through specific exercises and ensure you are moving safely and correctly.
As for the specific exercises I’d recommend for beginners getting started in the gym; stick to big, full body, compound lifts/machines:
- Leg Press (machine) or Squat (free weight)
- Chest Press (machine) or Bench Press (free weight)
- Compound Row (machine) or Bent Over Row (free weight)
- Overhead Press (machine) or DB Press (free weight)
Those 4 lifts would be plenty to get you going. Perform 3 working sets per exercise, 2-3 times per week and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success.
As you get more familiar with the gym and certain movements, you can even sprinkle in some more exercises focusing specifically on areas you want to develop and shape (abs or calves for example).
The important thing to remember is that you are still new to this, and as such, your body doesn’t need a lot to adapt. Beating your head against the wall going ‘beast mode’ every session so you can’t walk the next day is not only a recipe for injury or burnout, but you’re also minimising the adaptation period and ruining your chances of long-term success. Start slow and enjoy your body making extreme changes early on without a lot of effort… trust me, it doesn’t last forever.