Despite looking or acting like it, none of us was born in the gym. We all had to start somewhere, nervous, a little shy, with little to no experience on where to start. Even those gym buffs with rippling muscles drinking protein shakes were once beginners. It's a crazy thought, but true.
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Before stepping foot into that gym, you know that exercise is supposed to make you feel and perhaps even look good. Still, you wouldn't be here unless your doctor told you it was necessary. For that alone, I commend you for your bravery. It's no small thing to show up to someplace already out of your comfort zone. But, with that kind of attitude, you're already on your way to getting your goal. And with this essential guide to use as a framework, you'll be unstoppable.
I'm a personal trainer now. However, when I started at the gym, I didn't know a thing about fitness, only that it involved some effort. Instagram didn't exist then, so I didn't have fitness influencers to follow. Instead, I watched what other people did and then tried to cobble together a workout plan that felt good (to me). Nowadays, we have tons of fitness professionals and amateurs to learn from. However, there is always a risk when watching someone more advanced and becoming enamoured by their skills or fancy moves in the gym. If you take that risk, there is always the possible outcome that you perform an action before you've perfected the basics, which could result in getting hurt. Therefore, knowing where to start and what to do is essential because, over time, overusing and underusing muscles can create muscular imbalances, resulting in that scary phrase – dysfunction. And dysfunction, over time, can cause injury. Injury, as we all know, is not the ideal situation. Sometimes it can keep us from progressing towards our goals for a little while we heal, or it can take us much longer to recover, and we backslide our progress. Our goal, at all costs, is to avoid injury.
Strength or cardio?
Some people love lifting heavy objects, and some people love cardio. It's easy to assume that because you love doing something, that's your calling in the gym. However, the point of training is to strengthen areas of ourselves that are weak or weaker, which involves training all parts of our body. Since we all have hearts, lungs, and muscles, we should all do cardio and weight training. You can plan these on separate days if you'd like or do them in the same session. If you want to do them in the same session, set your intention from the start. Would you like to lift heavy or do fast, intense, or long cardio? A fast run before weight training may deplete your energy resources and muscular strength before you reach the weight rack. Likewise, fast or distance cardio after weights may make you feel like a wobbly newborn Bambi. Choose your session goal before you begin.
You'll need to take rest days from the gym. I know your enthusiasm must be off the charts. However, it's during the rest that we get stronger.
Your gym sessions may look like this:
1. Monday: Gym
2. Tuesday: Gym
3. Wednesday: Rest
4. Thursday Gym
5. Friday: Gym
6. Saturday: Rest
7. Sunday: Active rest (walking, pilates, yoga, swimming, etc.)
Of course, there are many ways to plan your program according to your goals; this is just one suggestion. The stronger you get, the more active you become, and the more active rest days you may have rather than complete rest days.
What exercises to do
The body does seven fundamental movements. It doesn't matter if you're a beginner or an advanced athlete in the gym; every action you take involves one or more of the seven fundamental movements. Your job, as a beginner, is to perfect those fundamental movements before moving on to more challenging exercises. Start with two sets of eight repetitions. Once you have mastered the basic movement, move to three sets of 10-12 repetitions before adding any resistance. You can do all of these in the same session when you first begin. Each session will likely be no longer than 30-40 minutes, and that's ideal for when you're first starting.
These actions mimic your daily life – such as squatting to pick up something heavy from the floor or bending to tie your shoelace. By progressively strengthening these movements, you'll be able to see a change in your body and become more confident in the gym.
For example, if you feel wobbly, the squat can start with a chair under your glutes with a handrail beside you. When you start feeling stronger, you can remove the rail and the chair and add a resistance band to your legs. Over time you can adopt dumbbells at your side and start performing all natures of squats, such as sumo squats, ski squats, single leg squats, and move up to barbell squats if you feel so inclined.
For bending, you may start with a simple "good morning," a bodyweight movement that practices the appropriate way to hinge your hips and utilize your core muscles. You can progress that movement throughout its various stages until you perform the deadlift pattern with light weights or anchored resistance bands.
Lunging is fun because you can move in many different directions with the lunge. There are front lunges, reverse lunges, side lunges, explosive lunges (lunge jumps), curtsey lunges, elevated lunges – you name it. You can have a lot of fun with this one, but like all the others, you must master the basic lunge first.
If you're struggling, there are knowledgeable staff at the gym who can teach you the basic movements. If you want to have fun at the same time, bring a buddy to the gym who already knows their way around a little bit to help guide you. There is also always the option of hiring a personal trainer to watch your movements to help you do them correctly. But ultimately, don't worry; you've got this.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach