Feel Lost In The Gym? Relax, Here’s The First Thing You Do

The best ab exercises, cardio vs weights, and rapid fire Q&A.

It hadn’t dawned on me how scary the gym is for so many people. It’s not that I assumed everyone in the gym knew what they were doing, I just hadn’t thought about it. Everyone just seems to be doing exactly what they should be. Otherwise, wouldn’t they look confused?

What I’ve been discovering more recently is that there is no stereotype for the gym newbie. Everyone has questions; from proper form to the best exercise for your abs to what machines are best to use. There is no line between beginner, intermediate, and expert. There are gaps in everyone’s knowledge of fitness, including mine, but I’ve come to realize that so many people are just looking for the best way to start.

They aren’t looking for a way to switch up their shoulder workout. They’re still trying to figure out what a shoulder workout looks like or what exercise works their abs without straining their back or how much weight they should be doing.

So this article is dedicated to covering the basics. If you find yourself wandering from machine to machine while questioning what you’re even doing here, this one is for you. Let’s begin.

“What is the first thing I should do when I walk into the gym?”

Behind every great workout is a proper warm up. A proper warm up always involves increasing the heart rate. Because blood carries oxygen and other nutrients throughout the body and to the working muscles, increasing our heart rate is key because it will increase the bloodflow to these muscles, thus priming them for activity.

I advise about 5 minutes of any cardio activity of your choice as long as you break a sweat. If you’re dripping sweat after 5 minutes, you’ve went too hard. Your warm up should leave you with a light glow — a thin layer of sweat.

Need specifics? I wrote an entire article on stretching and warm ups—

“Okay, I’m warm. Now what?”

You’ve arrived at the fork in the road. On your left is cardio. On your right is resistance training. What road do you take?

If you’re headed toward the cardio equipment, your goal is probably weight loss. I need you to understand this about cardio: it won’t give you what you want.

When most of us think weight loss, we think that if we drop those 20lbs we’ll have the tight, toned body we envision for ourselves, but that “tone” in our dream body doesn’t come from less fat, it comes from more muscle. Cardio, can’t build muscle, not in the way lifting weights does and because a percentage of each pound lost comes from muscle, if we don’t have a solid weight lifting program in place, we’re losing the lean mass that gives us the sculpted body we want.

Cutting our calorie intake by 500 calories a day, this amounts to a pound per week, and subbing our cardio work for weight training will not only shed the extra fat, but it will build lean muscle that gives our body the definition and “tone” we want so badly.

So the answer to this question, when it comes to weight loss, is always the road that leads to the weight room.

“What kind of weights are best? Should I do the machines or free weights? What about resistance bands? Medicine balls?”

The first thing you have to understand with all your different equipment options is that they are all external loads. Any workout that involves any form of resistance besides just your body weight, involves an external load. It’s important that if you are new to the gym and don’t have a solid foundation of strength that you start by using your body weight and working your way up to external loads.

But not everyone can do a push-up or pull-up!

Valid point. However, just like you can use lighter weights and work your way up you can do the same with bodyweight by manipulating angles. Modified push-ups (e.g. wall, bench, bent knee), modified pull-ups, assisted dips, bodyweight squats, lunges, isometric holds — you can get a full body workout in your living room! A quick Google search will bring you endless ways to build strength using just YOU!

Once that foundational strength is there, we can begin adding external loads by incorporating resistance bands, medicine balls, and even some machines. We use these kinds of equipment as a stepping stone to free weights. We can mimic all the movements we would do with dumbbells and barbells, without the added stress of the stabilization element that is crucial in using free weights. If we don’t have a grip on proper form and movement before jumping to free weights, we put ourselves at a great risk for injury.

Finally, when it’s time to make the jump to free weights we are equipped with not only the prerequisite strength we need, but also the proper movement mechanics needed to execute the same movements we did with bands and medicine balls with free weights.

The best part? You can always go back. You don’t need a gym full of heavy weights to get a great workout. Even the biggest guys in the gym will have a tough time with resistance bands and medicine balls if they are using them the right way.

This 3 step progression (bodyweight>light resistance and movement training>free weights) offers a safe and effective route to building strength and leveling up while learning the proper movement mechanics and form.

“This is really great info, but I have so many more questions. HELP!”

Okay, before I start this rapid fire Q&A I want to urge you to ask ANY AND ALL questions in the comments. I will respond to every single one and it’s truly the best way for you to get the info you need.

Now, lets answer some possible follow up questions to the information I just provided.

Machines vs Free Weights — Which is better?

Neither, both will build strength, endurance, and muscle tissue. The main difference is that free weights force you to use stabilizer muscles that surround the main muscles you use in each exercise in order to maintain proper form, position, and balance. With a machine or cable/pulley, you’re isolating the main muscles involved in the movement and giving those stabilizers a break. The benefit of machines and cables, however, is that the risk for injury is lower because you can’t drop the weight on yourself nor is it possible to lose control of the weight. If you can’t complete the rep, the machine will ensure your saftey. They also promote proper form and are a great way to learn basic lifting technique. In the end, both are effective and used by experienced lifters.

Best ab exercise for a 6-Pack?

Two points:

  1. You will never see your abs unless your body fat is low enough. This is the reason for the “Abs are made in the kitchen” mantra. Nutrition is 90% of the battle when it comes to seeing your abs and having a flat stomach.
  2. Crunches are definitely off the list. They’re old fashioned and ineffective for building complete abdominal strength in comparison to many alternatives. Leg raises, planks and all their variations, V sits, and suitcase crunches activate deep core muscles that aren’t targeted in a crunch.

“But I don’t want to get manly. I just want ‘tone’!”

I get this from women every time I push them on weight training. Somehow, after not touching a weight their entire lives, they think a round of bicep curls will turn them into the world’s strongest man. It’s not going to happen, ladies.

If you want ‘tone’ you want muscles. Maybe not big ones, but you want them. Weight training will increase muscle mass, but only to a certain point. There are limiting factors like your weight, caloric intake, genetics, and the most differentiating factor between women and men, testosterone. Testosterone is an anabolic hormone largely responsible for muscle size and strength. Compared to men, women’s testosterone levels are small. That is why men are typically stronger and bigger than women. This fact alone ensures you will never look “manly”. Focus on being lean first. I guarantee those concerns fade away.

“How often should I be in the gym?”

There really is no rule. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate cardio or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio per week along with strength training. They’re solid guidelines and scientifically backed.

However, what you accomplish during the time you’re in the gym is more important than how much time you spend. If you can target the muscles you need to target or run the distance you need to run or burn the calories you need to burn in 30 minutes twice a week, then do it. I’d rather have 30 minutes of efficient work than 60 minutes of lolligagging.

It all depends on how you structure your workouts. Maybe you have a day for upper body, a day for lower body, and a day for cardio. Maybe you split lower and upper body each into two days plus a cardio day. That’s 5 days. Find what works best for you and your goals.



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About The Author: I’m Zach Newman. I’m an ACE Certified Personal Trainer. Conversation is insanely important to me. Its why I love creating things because creation sparks discussion and discussion is the best way to learn from each other. Whether its about fitness and health, what books to read, or what’s going on in the world today, my goal is to build the best community around conversations that better the lives of everyone involved.

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