I have yet to encounter a beginner who knows everything they need to know about weight training. In fact, as expected, the total opposite is most often true. A person decides to start training, and then looks for advice on what to do. They know what they want to do (lose fat, get big muscles) but have no idea where to start.
Here is a sweeping generalization…most people look for advice in the wrong place. They turn to the muscle magazine where the freak of the moment is discussing how he got huge doing reverse curls while upside down wearing anti-gravity boots, or their dad, who ‘used to bench press 400 lbs’, or their mate who is a bit older and has been going to the gym for a year or so, making him 11 stone rather than 10 and earning him the nickname “Big man” down the youth club…..or even more upsetting, the ‘fitness trainer’, who takes them on a tour of a gym showing them how to properly use the leg extension and pec dec and prescribes ‘3 sets of each one every day’.
Given the popularity of the internet today, we have a new resource for people to go to for ‘a routine to get big/lean’. The outcome of this usually varies between going to the wrong site and ending up following a routine equally bad as the magazine example, or going to a site where people know a bit more and being prescribed ‘the beginners workout’.
Being a qualified personal trainer and sports therapist, I have a slight problem with all of the above! There are professionals in every field for a reason. I’d often like to ask the people that recommend routines over the internet how they have managed to work out the following:
· If the person has any postural or structural issues
· If the person is able to control their core muscles
· If the person needs balance work, speed work etc
· If the person has any injury history that may affect training
· If the person is able to do the exercises you are prescribing
· If the routine you are prescribing will correct any imbalances they may have
· If the person is conditioned for the rep/set range you have given
· If the persons firing patterns for basic movements are currently correct
For example: everyone that has a basic knowledge of training knows the following to be true – “Deadlifts are a great exercise!” That statement is true, however if I had to choose, I would NOT include them in a routine prescribed as a blanket ‘beginner routine’. Here is my reasoning: having trained a variety of individuals of different ages, as well as being a casual observer in many gyms I have trained in over the years, and my conclusion is – most people can’t deadlift. Indeed, I myself cannot do a conventional deadlift without putting myself into a potentially dangerous position, and have had the back injuries and months off training in the past as a consequence! Whether it’s due to tight hamstrings, weak glutes, inactive glutes, and inability to activate the core or any number of other reasons cannot be discovered without consulting one on one with a trained professional, and most of the time any problems that are stopping people from deadlifting correctly can be fixed relatively quickly and easily. However, if someone starts doing the exercise wrong and continues unchecked they can quite easily end up injured. This is where the ‘deadlifts are dangerous’ rumours start!
So, what do you suggest?
What I suggest for all beginners is to get an initial assessment and prescribed routine from someone that knows what they are doing. Honestly, the number of times I read/hear “I’ve just joined the gym and I’ve bought some whey, weight gainer, creatine and tribulus, what routine should I do?” My reply would be something along the lines of ‘get your priorities straight.’ People are very quick to waste money on miracle weight gainers, but will not pay about the same amount of money for a routine that makes sure they are training with correct form and less likely to get injured? Quick exam time: How much will all your supplements help when you can’t train for 6 months because you’ve hurt your back?
With that said, for the people that have no option or access to people that know what they are doing, here are some guidelines.
1. Ensure you are flexible enough to perform any exercise correctly
You’d think this was pretty obvious, but the number of people that shouldn’t be squatting that I see still doing the same awkward movement months later because they haven’t paid attention to their flexibility is huge! Tip: if you can’t squat parallel without rounding your back, you shouldn’t be squatting. Do something else and work on your flexibility a lot until you are capable of doing the movement you want to.
2. You may need to do movement prep to get your body working properly
Somewhat related to point one, if you have problems doing certain movements then a specific warm-up may be of use to you. If you have tight shoulders and insist on doing bench press, it’s probably a good idea to stretch the pecs and lats and activate the rotator cuff before trying to press. If your glutes are not active, you should probably stretch your hip flexors and work on glute activation before getting under a bar. Specific movements and sets and reps depend on personal circumstances, but it is worth doing. Here is an example from my experience: one day I went to do box squats. I was in a rush, so I thought I’d skip the warm-up. Everything felt heavy! 200 kilos, which was ten less than I’d done fairly easily the week before when tired, nearly stapled me to the box! At this point I had a common sense breakthrough and did some basic hip stretches and glute activation between sets, then threw on 220 for a 10 kilo PB and got it fairly easily. So, in my case, not doing movement prep before squatting = 20 kilos less on my 1 rep max. A fair trade off for 5 minutes of looking like a girl I think you’ll agree…
3. If you don’t know how to activate your core, don’t do that!
That = heavy deadlifting, heavy squatting, heavy overhead pressing……in fact heavy anything. If you don’t know how to keep tight in the core, you will be the guy round backing deadlifts, leaning back turning overhead press into a ghetto incline, etc.
Much as I hate the modern trend of ‘working the core’ by standing on BOSU balls and doing cable pushdowns kneeling on a swiss ball, I reckon the guy that first suggested it had a good idea: If the middle of your body is like jelly, how do you plan on putting a bar on your back and squatting, or picking anything up, or carrying anything? Of course, people have taken the idea too far and turned everything into a ‘core’ exercise, but in most people, especially sedentary people, some training on how to activate the core is useful before beginning heavy training. An example of how to do this is to hold a basic plank position. This will require you to hold everything in the midsection tight, otherwise the hips will drop and you will feel pressure in the lower back.
4. Unilateral work is your friend. (Buy it a drink)
If you have never trained before, I’d bet you have one arm stronger than the other. Probably one leg stronger too. You are probably tighter on one side and have various other imbalances you haven’t noticed yet too. In this situation, sticking a bar on your back and squatting may not be the best plan (especially if you have poor core control, flexibility, etc. as we have already covered) What may be more beneficial is something like lunges, split squats, Bulgarian squats (which have the added benefit or also being a hip stretch) or any of the many other single-leg variations which will probably work the muscles as effectively, but work towards balancing out the body rather than promoting imbalances and possibly leading to injury.
5. Do not load faulty movement patterns
Another one you’d think may be simple enough. If you can’t squat without a bar on your back, you can’t squat. Don’t load the bar up and do your weird version of the hokey-cokey (round back remix) in the squat rack. Do something else and practice squatting without weight until you have the movement pattern correct, then squat away (points 1, 2 and 3 permitting!) Also, remember that the mechanics of your squat are always changing. If you put more weight on the bar, the mechanics change. If you weigh more, the mechanics have changed. The lesson here is to always be thinking about form, always giving yourself cues, getting good training partners to check your form or videoing yourself and being a harsh critic. Strive for perfection and you are less likely to allow your form to worsen as the weight gets added to the bar.
In conclusion, the best thing a beginner could do is get someone who knows what they are doing to check their imbalances/firing patterns/form etc and prescribe a routine to ensure that the start of your training career is productive and safe. However, if you are unable to do that, at least have some common sense and try to follow the basic guidelines above. Good luck with training, here’s to a long injury-free lifting career!
© Alex Gold Training, 2005.
This article was published at http://affordablesupplements.co.uk on Thursday 12 October, 2006.