I'm beginning to lift weights for the first time in my life. Help!
September 20, 2006 10:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm beginning to lift weights for the first time in my life. Help!

I'm doing everything at home, with a fitness ball and some dumbbells (going to the gym is way too much of a hassle). I've got my routine worked out (thanks to Hyperstrike.com), but really, I've got no clue what I'm doing.

What should a lifting newbie know?

What are the common pitfalls?

Any general advice?

I know this is broad, but that is kind of the idea. Assume I know little to nothing.
posted by JPowers to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: BTW: here is my plan.
posted by JPowers at 10:11 PM on September 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Slow smooth movements. Sore is good, sharp pains are bad.
posted by Shutter at 10:23 PM on September 20, 2006

stand (or sit) up straight, don't lock your knees, and hold in your stomach (helps prevent slouching and injury to the back, or so I'm told).
posted by scody at 10:32 PM on September 20, 2006

Allow yourself time to recuperate between workouts. The exercise itself builds no muscle, it's the healing time between workouts. Don't work the same muscles two days in a row.
posted by knave at 10:45 PM on September 20, 2006

Careful with your breathing. Don't exhale then lift. Coordinate breathing with your reps.
posted by scheptech at 11:07 PM on September 20, 2006

What are you trying to do? At first glance, 3x20 isn't going to provide anything but a mild aerobic workout - any weight that's light enough for you to do 20 reps x 3 sets is not going to stimulate much in strength or size. People looking for strength or size gains generally pick weights that will allow sets of 5 to 12 reps. Lower end of that range for strength (eg power lifters tend to do sets of 5), higher for size gain (bodybuilders tend to do sets of 8-12).

If you're new to weights, don't overdo it and go hard. Build up gradually. Leave a day or two in between workouts for recovery.

Which brings me to regular progression and cycling. In order to improve your strength etc, you want to be adding weight regularly. Maybe every workout, or at least every two or three workouts. At some point you will plateau and be unable to add more weight and maintain the number of reps. At that point, you'll take week or two off, and then begin again, with starting weight a little bit more than what you began with last time - and with any luck, you'll max out higher than you maxed out last time.

Check out Stumptuous and ExRx.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:28 PM on September 20, 2006

Also, your routine seems heavily biassed in favour of pressing movements over pulling ones. I realise you're limited with dumbbells, but can you find somewhere to chin/pullup?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:31 PM on September 20, 2006

Slow smooth movements.

Very important! Using momentum to 'throw' a weight into the air to do quick reps is not effective and could really hurt you.

You'd like all reps to take around 3 seconds. You'll get a better picture of how many reps/sets you can do because fatigue will build slowly and you'll be able to read your body's response better.

Also, make sure you feel the right muscles working for each exersize. Unless you concentrate, it can be easy to use wrists/biceps more than back or chest muscles (that you're targeting). Always pay close attention to your form.
posted by cowbellemoo at 11:34 PM on September 20, 2006

I second exrx.net, great site, for example this is how you would want to get in position when bench pressing dumbbells.
posted by bobo123 at 11:37 PM on September 20, 2006

"Hold in your stomach"

You're trying to work your abdominals, but the ones closer to your spine, rather than the outer ones. For this, breath in, then as you slowly breath out, you'll feel your stomach sink in (maybe try lying down first to get the feeling). You want to try and pull this further down, without suddenly flexing (otherwise you tend to use the outer abdominals). It's all to do with core stability and strength.

Other, general advice:

Don't try and go with big weights straight away - you want to concentrate on the correct movement of the muscles you're trying to target, rather than bulk up. Muscles generally work in pairs - one going one way, one going the other (e.g. bicep/tricep). Don't overwork one, as it will tighten, leading to imbalances. A common problem is overworking traps, biceps and pec minors - this leads to shoulders hunching forward, and all sorts of back problems.
posted by djgh at 11:52 PM on September 20, 2006

Best answer: What are your goals? How often can you work out?

So, that routine is bad. Here's a better one - you'll need a bench or some sort of flat surface, even the floor will do. Note that I've including a lot less stability movements on the ball, as you just need to get basic coordination and strength - dumbbells alone will be plenty for that. Use the ball for stretching or maybe crunches right now, not lifting.

Do this 3x a week, all exercises 12-15 reps, 2 or 3 sets. Weights should be selected light, not to failure. "a/b" denotes you alternate the movement on alternate days.

* Squats - body-weight to start, hold dumbbells at sides to add resistance, then bring dumbbells in front of you to make it even harder
* Pull ups/chin ups - this can be tough to get started on - you can place a chin-up bar low in a doorway so your feet are on the ground if you need assistance.
*(a) Standing press - keep your core tight, knees slightly bent
*(b) Bench press - you can do these on the ground but you can also get a used bench pretty easy, check the classifieds
* One armed dumbbell row - you can just use a chair for this
* Tricep extensions (eh...maybe only every other day)
* Back extensions and/or crunches on the ball if you feel like it

After a two months or more of this, you could do some deads instead of squats. If you weren't a beginner I would say you could do that right from the start, but squats and deads are too important and you'll want to focus on them in isolation to start.

Use the previously mentioned exrx and krista's site to start. Another great dumbbell only routine would be this one: krista's dumbbell ony routines.
posted by rsanheim at 12:00 AM on September 21, 2006 [4 favorites]

joes_spleen: Typically, beginners should do very light weights and high reps (tho I think 12-15, not 20) to get the movement patterns down and just get used to using correct form. Only after they do that should they really move on to adding serious weight, low reps, etc...otherwise its just a recipe for injury.
posted by rsanheim at 12:01 AM on September 21, 2006

You really only need eight exercises to build muscle:

- Squats
- Deadlift
- Bench press
- Dips
- Chins
- Standing military press
- Bent-over barbell rows

Number eight is EAT, EAT, EAT.

Do these compound movements regularly, slowly increasing the load as your strength and technique improves, and you will become more muscular.

Leave the ridiculous isolation exercises to morons and bodybuilders who know what they are doing.
posted by dagny at 12:06 AM on September 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

If you are just starting, it would be much better if you did suck it up and do some gym sessions with a trainer, to develop proper form and muscle memory. By yourself, even if you are working with mirrors, it is easy to develop bad form and bad habits, which a trainer can spot and head off as trouble, before you create an injury. In the gym, you can also develop spotting partners who can help you with this, once you've developed your routine and technique with a trainer.

You don't need to go to a gym all the time, but if you make it a goal to go even once a week, you'll probably progress faster and with less risk of injury, than if you try to do it all alone.
posted by paulsc at 12:15 AM on September 21, 2006

Isolation exercises aren't bad. If you want to include bicep curls in your workout routine - give'r. The key is to have fun (so you stay committed to your goals) and to look and feel better about yourself. Weightlifting/bodybuilding is an amazing, perpetual discovery process. Savour every moment.
posted by dropkick at 4:15 AM on September 21, 2006

Resistance training information (set/rep schemes, inducing hypertrophy etc) can be found on my website btw. You'll find the link in my profile.
posted by dropkick at 4:38 AM on September 21, 2006

You need more variety in there. I usually do 3-5 different exercises for each muscle group. It can be something as simple as changing your grip on the dumbbell, but you need to work each muscle in a variety of ways in order to keep it growing. Otherwise, your muscles will only be strong in one specific direction, and weak in all others. For example, try doing a bicep curl with your palms facing down, instead of up. You'll notice that it's much harder. Also, you should be pairing muscle groups based on pushing-pulling (i.e. biceps & triceps, pecs & lats), as some have mentioned.

I second the notion that you need to gradually work up to a higher weight with lower reps (about 8-12). Also, 15 seconds of rest is a little low. I'd go with a minute between each. What you've set up now is basically aerobic, which is OK if you are trying to tone and lose weight. If you want muscle, though, you need to slow down and stack up some weight.

After you've built up some strength overall, look into exercises that use several muscle groups at once - like squats, deadlifts, etc. These might be hard to do depending on your equipment and space.

Most important, listen to your body. Chronic pain in a certain area is very bad. If you're unsure, be cautious.
posted by MrZero at 6:31 AM on September 21, 2006

I gotten second rsanheim and dagny. Ditch that current routine, read up on Krista's site, and redesign a better routine with the new knowledge. I'm also a big proponent of Crossfit which is great for adapting to home workouts. Read the What is Fitness pdf on the Crossfit site and see if that resonates with you.
posted by Durin's Bane at 6:37 AM on September 21, 2006

There's no legs on this list! Squats using your dumbells and the ball against a wall, lunges, lunge lines, weighted step ups are all doable with the equipment you have. And women dig big legs.
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:41 AM on September 21, 2006

1. Figure out what your max is. Work at 80% of this for awhile.

2. Look at pictures of form on the internet. Put up a mirror and get a partner to check you on the form. If the form is wrong you will hurt yourself, get poor results, and look funny.

3. Nutrition is 100% 1/2 mental. Also its like 110% of the game. The rule is eat 1.4 grams per pound of current lean body mass.

4. Go to a real gym at least once a week and watch what people are doing, how they are doing it.

5. Write down what you are lifting and eating. If you don't measure you won't improve.
posted by ewkpates at 6:53 AM on September 21, 2006

Different muscles heal at different rates. I'm recalling, for example, that abdominals can be worked every day, but lower back only about every five days.

Also, a 13-week study showed that supplementing with whey protein and creatine led to cross-sectional muscle area 12 times the control. [Science News, 4/26/03]
posted by dragonsi55 at 7:14 AM on September 21, 2006

Here's my plan. It won't work for you, because I have access to a full gym and rely heavily on weight machines, but it might give you some ideas.

My main goal is to gain strength and be healthy, and I built a routine based on "Weight Training for Dummies," which really helped me a lot.

In order to gain strength, I'm using a system called periodization, where you step by step increase the weights your lifting and change your routine in slight ways. Really serious lifters take a scientific approach to this, and find their one-rep maximum, etc. I'm just doing it by feel.

I write down how much I lift every day. It's pretty exciting to see the gains I'm making. I'm still a wimp, but I'm gradually getting less wimpy by the week.

These are the moves I do:

Monday & Thursday
Chest & Back
- lat pulldown
- assisted pull up
- pelvic tilt
- chest press

- pushups
- shoulder press

-Bicep curl
-Tricep push down
-Wrist curl (to prevent carpal tunnel)


Tuesday & Friday
-Glute machine
-Kneeling butt blaster

-Quad extensions

-Kneeling leg curl

-Inner and outer thigh lifts

-Standing calf raise

-Basic crunch
-Reverse crunch
-Oblique crunch


How much to lift, how often?
- Month One: Prep phase -- do two sets, 12 reps each. Use fairly light weights, don't strain yourself. Rest roughly 1.5 minutes between sets.

- Month Two: Pump phase -- do six sets, 10 reps each. Start with a set of light weights to warm up, then move on to moderately light weights. Still don't strain, but work a little harder. Rest roughly 1 minute between sets.

- Month Three: Push phase -- do 12 sets, eight reps each. Start with a medium-light set to warm up, then move on to moderately heavy weights. Rest roughly 30 seconds between sets.

- Month Four: Peak phase -- do 16 sets, six reps each. Start with a medium-light set to warm up, then move on to heavy weights. Rest roughly two minutes between sets.

-Month Five: Rest phase -- do one or two sets, 12 reps each. Use light weights, and don't worry about skipping some scheduled workout days. Rest roughly one and a half minutes between sets.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:34 AM on September 21, 2006

You need to learn proper form, so you don't injure yourself. The easiest way to do this is to work out with someone who knows what he's doing, but that's not always possible.

Here are some quick tips:

  • Start slowly. Give your muscles, joints, and connective tissue time to adjust.
  • Concentrate on the muscles you're contracting. This makes you aware when you're using momentum instead of muscular contraction to do the work.
  • If you can't do one rep, you can build up to it by doing negatives. For example, you'd start at the top of a pull up, and then slowly lower yourself under control until your arms were straight. A 5 count is a pretty good tempo.

    Pay attention to tempo. A lift has three phases:lower, pause, and lift. A good all-purpose tempo is 3-1-3. Don't neglect the pause, because otherwise you're exploiting the stretch-shortening of your muscles and not fully recruiting the motor units you're attempting to work. You see this when people bounce the barbell off their chest while benching so they can lift more weight. What they don't know is that only makes them look cool to their frat brothers, not to anyone else. To build strength in the lift, you can lengthen the time of the lowering phase or you can shorten the time of the lifting phase, while keeping everything else the same.

  • Let go of your ego. If you do your exercises in proper form, maintaining control of tempo and not using momentum, you'll not be able to lift nearly as much weight as the guys who are in there throwing weights around. Keep an eye on them, because you might need to pull a bar off their chest at some point and because you don't want to get a bar to the face if they drop what they're lifting, but otherwise, don't worry about what other people are lifting. You'll soon pass them up, if only because you don't have to take time off for injuries.
  • Don't obsess over diet or supplements, just keep the carbs down and have a recovery drink less than 30 minutes after training.
  • Read T-mag.

  • posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:34 AM on September 21, 2006

    Against what everyone else says: keep it simple Arnold. I so had an awesome plan with all sorts of workouts on different days and just didn't have the time past the first couple weeks. I would keep it to 2-3 different exercises (bench press, squat, perhaps something to work the forearms). You'll make steroidal gains at first, don't get discouraged when it becomes harder and harder to gain.

    Good advice: keep it slow and don't just drop the weights on your downward motion. Bringing the weights back down is just as important as pushing them back up.
    posted by geoff. at 9:36 AM on September 21, 2006

    It's important to ask yourself what your goals are. If you're not fairly clear on your goals, it's hard to pick a program, as programs will vary with their purpose. That said, avoid anything you find in a bodybuilding magazine. There are several reasons bodybuilding workouts are innappropriate for most people: 1)most people don't take steroids; 2)most people are at least somewhat concerned with performance-bodybuilding is not concerned with performance, only appearance (I can't stress this enough-bodybuilders tend to be all show, no go-find me a bodybuilder, and I can find you an athlete (powerlifter or olympic lifter) who at the same weight is MUCH stronger.

    Also, Dagny's post is sooooo on point. To drive home , that a few simple lifts can take you a long way, I've just started the following program. It's got everything on his list save the bent rows, and two additional exercises. I'm a jiu-jitsu guy who occasionally competes, and I've lifted and worked out on and off since late high school (I'm 24 now).

    Dumbell bench Press
    Clean and Jerk
    Walking Lunges

    Standing Dumbell Shoulder Press

    Hanging Leg Raises

    All the exercises are done for 4 sets of 8 reps, chin ups and dips excepted. Those I do as a ladder-start with a set of 1, then do a set of 2, then 3, etc, as far up as I can go, with only a minute or so of rest between sets. I'm also doing some supplemental cardio, but I won't go into that here. In general, avoid exercises that work only one muscle in isolation-your body doesn't work in isolation, and you will work pretty much everything with the list of exercises Dagny put up. Also, the Clean and Jerk, which I think is a wonderful exercise, is fairly advanced, and I wouldn't recommend it until you have a pretty solid foundation in the gym. Last, but certainly not least, proper form is incredibly important. Crossfit (linked above) has an excellent page that is an index of exercises with links to videos or slide shows of the exercises being performed properly. Great resource.
    posted by HighTechUnderpants at 1:52 PM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

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