Beginner’s Fitness Guide

If you are a new fitness enthusiast and have no idea where to start out or simply don’t want to get a personal trainer to guide you, this article is for you. It will attempt to give you a slightly better understanding of how health and fitness works.

Contents

  1. General QnA
  2. Diet

    • Introduction to diet
    • General dietary advice
    • Macronutrients
    • Micronutrients
    • Specific foods you should eat
    • Healthier cooking methods
    • Counting calories
    • When/how often should I eat?
    • Why starving yourself is bad
    • Summary
    • Female specific notes
  3. Exercise

    • Introduction to exercise
    • Cardio vs weights
    • What cardio should I do?
    • Lifting weights, Identifying a good program
    • Lifting weights, General guidance
    • Lifting weights, Example programs
    • Lifting Weights, Notes for women
  4. Measuring progress
  5. More QnA
  6. Acknowledgement and Thanks


PART 1: General QnA
-I don’t want to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I just want to look more in shape. Should I read this?

Yes you should. This guide was intended for the fitness beginners. If you’re a bodybuilder or serious athlete you probably know all these already.

-I’m female. Does this apply to me?
All of it applies to be frank. The principles of diet & exercise is the same for all humans. Don’t worry about becoming a manly she-beast. Most women can’t gain muscles anywhere close to the level men can. Female bodybuilders lift very seriously and probably eat twice the amount of a normal person with additional male hormones to boot. There are a few female specific notes in this guide but they are minimal as general fitness usually applies to both male and female.

-There are so many advices out there. Which one should I listen to?
Methods for improving overall fitness are actually very well understood. In fact, there hasn’t been any “astronomical” or “groundbreaking” discovery like you would expect in a physics lab. Very little has changed in the last 30 years or so. Most of the contradictions are usually arguments over detail that the beginner need not care about. There is almost universal consensus among professionals about what works and what doesn’t. That’s what this guide is based on. Unless you are obese or aiming for professional extremes, fitness only boils down to 2 things: Diet and Exercise.

-Can I just exercise away the fat at my belly? I just need to get rid of the fat at that area.
The short answer is no. The so called “spot reduction” is a myth. You can’t exercise one part of your body and make the fat at that area alone disappear. The only thing you can do is reduce your overall body fat.

-I want to have a mean looking 6 pack/I want to have a shapely body.
If you want to get a 6 pack or have a defined body, you have to reduce all the fat in your body. There is a saying that goes, “Abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym”. If your abs are covered with a layer of fat, any exercise you do will be useless. At most you will have very strong abs. But as long as the fat remains, your one pack is here to stay. Abs generally become visible around 12% body fat but it can vary from person to person.

-If I have a health problem/injury can I follow this guide?
This guide assumes that you are a normal person. If you have a medical condition, then your doctor’s advice is the best advice. If your doctor says don’t lift weights, then you don’t lift weights. The dietary advice here is quite universal. If your dietary restrictions disagree with this article, then you best follow doctor’s advice.

Does this article apply to teenagers?
The science of the human body remains the same. That means all of these apply to adults and teenagers alike. The only thing you need to worry about when it comes to growing teens is their diet. As long as it does not mess with their hormones then the general advice here is probably safe. If in doubt, always consult a professional. To be honest, a teenager should not be worrying about diet and workouts unless there is a medical condition – in which you should be consulting a doctor. If your teen is being groomed to be a high performance athlete, they should have expert advice from proper coaches and dieticians.

-I’m vegetarian. Can I make use of this information?
General health and fitness applies to everybody – even vegetarians. Being vegetarian means you will encounter some problems obtaining the nutrients you need. Humans are omnivorous and there is a reason for that. There are certain nutrients we cannot produce naturally and must be obtained through dietary means. Lucky for us, we now live in an age where nutritional supplements can greatly fill that gap. There are many protein supplements that will give you the necessary nutrients missing from a vegetarian diet. The amount of dietary supplement will vary from person to person and should best be discussed with a dietician.


PART 2: Diet
Introduction to diet

Diet is the most important factor for your health and overall appearance. Diet (not workout) determines how huge/lean you are.

  • If you consume more calories than you can expend, you will get bigger.
  • If you consume fewer calories than you expend, you will get smaller.
  • If you consume just enough for your daily needs, you will stay the same.

This is true regardless of your metabolism, genetics, body composition, or whatever your friends tell you. Your body must obey the laws of physics and biology. In the end it’s all about calories in vs calories out. If you eat too much, you will get bigger. This also applies to muscles. If you don’t eat big, you can’t get big muscles. You can lift 1000 times a day but if you don’t eat more calories than you expend, you won’t gain a single milligram of muscle mass. Exercise and your choice of food plays a big role in determining whether that extra weight is a result of muscle or fat. But in general, gaining weight comes from the stuff you eat.

The picture below tries to describe how your body would look like with a different fat-muscle composition. Those who are interested in looking good should strive to be somewhere in the middle of the chart. The extreme ends on the left and right side are very bad. Most of us are just somewhere in between. Click the picture below for a larger picture.

Fat Chart.

-General dietary advice
Now that you know diet determines how heavy you get, we can talk about changing your eating patterns. This sounds like a big deal but it’s really simple.

The obvious culprits: Fast food, carbonated drinks, ice cream, sweet stuff. These should all go. These type of food are high in saturated fat and trans fat, very calorie dense and has little nutritional value.
Focus on: Meals that are traditionally cooked. Eat whole, naturally occurring foods. As a general rule of thumb, if your food is naturally occurring or you can make it by hand yourself, then it is good.

Eating the unhealthy food once in a while in reasonable portions is ok. But only if the rest of your diet is already in order.

-Macronutrients
Carbohydrates, fats and protein are known as macronutrients. All are necessary and none are exactly evil (yes, even fat is not totally evil).

Carbs provide energy for your body. They are the main source of energy. The problem is that people over consume carbs usually from soda and sweets or from starch etc. If you have to cut down on 1 macronutrient, cut down on carbs (yes I said carbs, not fat). Carbs provide 4 calories per gram.

Protein is formed by amino acids. Protein is necessary for your body to maintain and repair muscles. Most people get enough protein but once you start heavy workouts, they generally require more for optimal results. Protein helps you

  • lose fat
  • build muscle
  • make you less hungry
  • helps you recover faster and better from all kinds of exercise and decreases soreness
  • helps to keep off weight loss due to muscle catabolism

Since we are talking about protein, let’s talk briefly about some myths. There are claims that protein is bad for your liver. But really it isn’t. You may also have heard that the body wastes protein if you eat more than a certain amount (usually 30g or more) at once. Again, this is not true. There simply isn’t enough evidence for this to be conclusive. Unless you have liver complications, any normal person should not have problems with proteins. There are medicines out there that stresses your liver more than any amount of protein can.

A good rule of thumb is to get about 1.7 – 2.2 grams of protein per Kg of body weight. If you workout more, you should eat more. If you cannot get enough protein via natural foods, protein powder can be used. Proteins provide 4 calories per gram.
**Do take note that you do not need to get all your protein from supplements. Most normal people will get some protein through their daily diet such as from fish or eggs.

Fats are not evil. Eating fats doesn’t mean that your body fat will instantly appear in your belly or ass. The body doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to go crazy and replace your diet with everything “no-fat”, “low-fat”, “skim” etc. Fats are quite necessary to perform body functions. We generally classify fats as good or bad. LDL cholesterol is bad. HDL cholesterol is good. The main problem is people over consume saturated fats and trans fats (which raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol) and under consume healthy fats like monounsaturated fats (olive oil, canola oil) and omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, flax seed oil). As long as you consume healthy fats, then it is not bad. Fats provide 9 calories per gram.


Many diets talk about an “ideal ratio” of carbs, protein and fats. Having the right ratio may mean less wastage and more efficient delivery of nutrients and energy to your body. However the bottomline is: the body doesn’t care about ratios. It cares about how much protein you are getting irrespective of total calories. Get enough protein and vegetables, then see how much carbs and fats you want to add to fill up your energy tank (calories).

Finally, fad diets (keto, zone, no fat, no protein, your village elder’s mojo diet) are mainly about carbs vs fat balance. Others are about specific foods. You should know by now, there is insufficient evidence that any of these are better than others. If you choose to believe in any of these, just remember that in the end, it’s all about proteins and calories. If you get your protein and calories right, your dieting plans will work – if not, it won’t.

-Water
Despite such a short paragraph on water, it is one of the most important! Drink more water. Water regulates every bodily process in some way. It is the most simple, cost-free thing you can do to improve your overall health. There is no harm drinking more, but there is harm drinking too little.

-Alcohol
If there is anything as a useless source of calorie, alcohol is it.  Alcohol itself has 7 calories per gram. Most alcoholic drinks are calorie dense due to their sugar content. If you want to build muscle, cut down on alcohol consumption. Some in moderation is fine.

-Dietary fibers
Green leafy vegetables. Eat more of it. :) The more the better.

-Micronutrients
Vitamins and minerals
Micronutrients are nutrients your body needs in small quantities like vitamins and minerals. If your diet is optimal, you would usually not need to worry about this. However, most people do not have optimal diets. You can get these from supplements at the pharmacy. Just remember to always put diet, training and rest before supplements. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is a minimum value for preventing nutrient deficiency. It is not the optimal amount for performance. But it is a reasonable baseline.

One supplement that is extremely beneficial and is backed with lots of research is Omega-3 fatty acids. This is most commonly found in fish oil, flax seeds. If there is one supplement everyone should take, it would be this one. Don’t focus on total mg of fish oil. Instead, take enough fish oil to get a total of approximately 720mg of EPA and 480mg of DHA a day.

-Specific foods that you  SHOULD eat.

  1. Lean animal protein sources.
    • If you’re bulking up (trying to gain mass) then fattier meats are acceptable.
    • Meats like turkey and chicken breast, skinless
    • All forms of fish. Fatty fish are also good for the Omega-3 content.
    • Whole eggs. The unhealthiness of whole eggs is a myth.
  2. Whole grains. All fruits and vegetables including beans and nuts
    • Whole wheat bread
    • Whole wheat pasta
    • Brown rice
    • Oatmeal (worth mentioning that the bodybuilding community likes to call oatmeal “the breakfast of champions” because it is just super awesome food)
    • Whole grain breakfast cereals and muesli
  3. Healthy fats
    • Olive oil, Omega-3 fatty acid
  4. Dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt.

 **Notes for vegetarians
Not eating meat or animal products means that you have an imbalanced diet. You will have to supplement your diet somehow with the necessary nutrients. But everything else is the same. Eat a variety of foods, eat whole grains, limit your saturated and trans fat intake. Dairy, protein powder, eggs, and tofu can help with this. Vegans have it the hardest of all: pea, hemp, lentil and soy protein are all available, although studies have shown these forms of protein  are inferior to milk proteins.

-Healthier cooking methods
You want to cook in a way that keeps as much nutrients as possible while adding little to  no unhealthy fats.

  1. If it’s a vegetable, eat it raw
  2. Steam or boil
  3. Bake, broil or roast without adding fatty products like margarine
  4. Smoking and grilling
  5. Using vegetable oil.

-Counting Calories
In the end, losing the fats really boils down to getting the right amount of calories and getting the correct protein intake. As far as the other macronutrients are concerned, eat more of them if you want to gain muscle and eat less of them if you want to lose fat. You cannot gain muscle and lose fat at the same time – unless you’re a total beginner (for a short while), using steroids, or willing to wait a decade to see significant changes. The body just doesn’t work that way.

To gain muscle, go for [35 to 40 * (current bodyweight in Kg)] calories per day, every day. For example, if you’re 70Kg you want to aim for [35 to 40*70], so 2450-2800 calories per day. You want to gain about 9Kg per month, any more and you’re just getting extra fat, any less and you’re not building muscle fast enough; so adjust calories accordingly, upwards to ensure growth, or downwards to prevent excessive fat gains. Yes, you may gain some fats along the way; that’s the way things are. Yes, you will probably have to eat way more than you are comfortable with. The people that say “I eat a lot and I’m still skinny!” aren’t eating enough or aren’t correctly counting their calories.

To lose fat, go for [22 to 27 * (current bodyweight in Kg)] calories per day. For example, if you’re 90Kg, aim for 1980-2430 Cals/day. Make sure to keep protein high to spare lean body mass, and reduce your carbs and fats. Yes, you’re going to lose some muscle; that’s the way things are. Yes, you will still need to lift weights 3x per week.

To maintain your current bodyweight, aim for [30 to 33 * (current bodyweight in Kg)] calories per day.
Source:[1][2][3]

A good tool to calculate these numbers is the Fat Loss Calculator from Scooby’s Workshop. Fill in your data there, and then look at the “Daily calories to maintain weight (TDEE)” box. Use that number to set your goal. If you’d like to lose about 2Kg (~3500 calories) per week, subtract 500 calories from that number. If I need to eat 3000 calories a day to maintain my weight, I will lose about 2Kg a week eating 2500 calories a day. Conversely, I will gain about 2Kg a week eating 3500 calories a day.

Finally, a quick note about counting calories:
-Almost everyone over-estimates the calories they burn. Your early workouts may feel really tough, but usually that’s just your body over-reacting to your sudden desire to not be a lazy bum. If you don’t time yourself, a few minutes can easily feel like 30 for your first few workouts. Time your workouts to make sure you do the full run.
-Almost everyone under-estimates the calories they eat. Actual servings eaten may not correspond to the generic serving sizes on nutrition labels or calorie counting sites. For instance, you might eat 200g or oats, but the standard serving size is typically something like 150g. This goes for almost everything, so try get the correct numbers.

If you follow the numbers exactly, there’s no way to fail. That’s science in action!

-When/how often should I eat?
It doesn’t matter. Many will claim that you can speed up your metabolism by eating more meals a day, however studies reveals that this is not true. Common sense says three meals a day should be fine. If you are trying to force yourself to eat more so you can gain weight (e.g. for bodybuilding), you probably need to eat more big meals per day just to get enough calories into your body. Remember your mass is a direct relation of calories in vs calories out. As long as you get your necessary calories in by the end of the day, you’re okay. The same applies to meals late at night. If you eat a huge meal you may have problems falling asleep, but that’s about it. The idea that the body will store more calories if you eat after a certain amount of time is a myth.

When it comes to workouts, keep it simple. Have some protein and carbs ~1 hours before workout, and some protein and carbs 0-1 hours after. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, you want to eat protein and carbs for your workout. Eating some before will allow you to train harder, and you want to eat some afterwards because working out induces both protein synthesis as well as breakdown, and to inhibit this, some carbs and a good serving of protein are needed.

-Why starving yourself is bad
By now you already know that weight loss is all about calorie in vs calorie out. So logically if cutting 500 calories a day will make me slimmer, cutting 2000 would be even better right? Not really… When the amount of calories goes below a certain threshold, your body will think you are one of those starving refugees that you see on TV and the your body’s survival instincts kick in – doing some things that will hurt your long term weight loss plan.

Read that again: Starving is a bad way to lose weight!

Why is that so?

  1. When you starve, your metabolism slows down. In order to conserve energy, your body will burn fewer calories to keep itself alive. As soon as you stop starving yourself, you’ll gain weight really quickly because your metabolism has not recovered.
  2. You tend to lose muscle more than fat. Your body naturally tries to conserve fat and cannibalize muscles if it thinks it is starving. After all muscles require a lot of energy to maintain and it is simpler to break down protein for energy compared to fat. Obviously this is bad because your real goal is FAT LOSS, not muscle loss. This is how some people can lose 20kgs but still look incredibly flabby. Also, losing muscles slows your metabolism even more – further amplifying the rebound effect once you stop starving yourself.
  3. Your life will be total hell. You’ll feel horrible and lethargic. Your mood will be horrible. Your diet will fail and you’ll binge to regain everything you lost.

You want a tolerable calorie deficit to sustain weight loss over the long term. Be safe and stick to about 500 fewer calories a day than you can burn. That’s about 2kg loss a week.

-Summary

  1. How huge you are depends on your diet, not your exercise.
  2. The good rule of thumb for daily consumption of protein is 1.7g – 2.2g of protein a day.
  3. How fat/lean you are depends on how much calories go in vs how many calories go out.
  4. 1gram of protein = 4 calories
    1gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
    1gram of fat = 9 calories
  5. To build muscles, care about how much protein and vegetables you get. Calories from carbs and fat are just there to fill your energy tank. If you overestimate the calories, you get fatter. But it is better than calorie deficit as the body will break down muscles to get energy. Some may refer to this as bulking up.
  6. To get the 6 packs, you need to lose fat while maintaining the muscles. Get the calories right while consuming sufficient proteins. Some refer to this as “cutting”.
  7. For workouts, eat some protein and carbs about 1 hour before training. And within the 1 hour after your workout ends, get some protein and carbs. Make sure you have sufficient energy or your body may cannibalize your muscles for energy.
  8. Never ever starve yourself to lose weight. It actually makes it worse.

-Female specific notes
Women’s nutrition are 99% similar to men’s. However there are some things to take note:

  1. Women need less calories than men of the same height.
  2. Make sure to get enough iron. Iron deficiency is common in young women. RDA’s recommendation for iron is 50% higher than that for men. (15mg vs 10mg).
  3. It is generally accepted that women need more calcium and Vitamin D because they are more prone to osteoporosis
  4. Women generally have 6-11% more body fat than men. So having 25% body fat for women is still considered acceptable and normal. (Normal men typically have 15%). Nature intended this for child bearing purposes. So don’t go crazy when you find out you have 20% body fat. That is an acceptable healthy figure for females.


PART 3: Exercise

Before we begin, a short word about…

FromVSFunction

 

-Introduction to exercise
So how is exercise important? I already know how to lose weight based on the diet article above. Why would I need to exercise? Here’s why:

  1. Exercise determines HOW you gain or lose weight, and your body composition generally. You can diet down to, say, 60kg. But do you want it to be 60kg of sleek, sexy muscle, or 60kg of gross, flabby loser? Exercise largely dictates the outcome.
  2. Exercise burns calories, which makes it easier to lose weight in conjunction with diet.
  3. Exercise builds muscles, which requires more energy to maintain – and in turn increases your metabolic rate at rest. This ultimately is the long term solution to maintaining a slim and sexy body. Way better than cardio!
  4. Exercise determines your strength, endurance, and resistance to injury and illness, all of which are pretty great good reasons to want to exercise.

So exercise makes it easier to lose weight, and plays a big role in the composition of your body. There are two main kinds of exercise, cardiovascular (aka cardio, aerobic, etc.) and weight lifting (aka weights, lifting, resistance training, etc.)

-Cardio vs weights
Are you trying to lose weight? Lift Weights! Lifting burns tons of calories, and lifting weights while dieting will cause you to retain more muscle and lose more fat than just diet and/or cardio. Because the name of the game to looking AMAZING is FAT LOSS, not just purely weight loss. Do you want to be that person who loses lots of weight and still looks flabby and useless? Of course not.

Are you just trying to “tone up”? Lift Weights! “Toning” is kind of a nonsense term, because you don’t actually “tone” anything. You can only lose fat and gain muscle, and lifting weights helps you do both, by burning calories and promoting muscle growth. As mentioned before, you get huge by eating huge, not lifting weights; lifting just determines how much of your weight is muscle vs. fat.

Are you a woman? Lift Weights! because we already explained why lifting won’t turn you into a she-man, and all the other benefits still apply to you. And if you are a 1 in 1,000,000 woman who can pack on muscle mass like a man, just stop working out as hard and it will go away.

But what about cardio? Cardio is good for everyone because it improves your overall endurance and ability to exert yourself over an extended period (aka stamina). It promotes cardiovascular health and contributes to increased bone density. Additionally, it pretty much makes everything else function better: cardio helps stabilize hormone levels (increasing testosterone and increasing insulin sensitivity), improves endurance and recovery, helps the body fuel calories away from the fat cells and into the muscle, helps with weight maintenance/preventing the “yo-yo effect”, generally keeps you healthy, and finally burns calories.

Cardio is neither required for burning fat, nor prohibited when building muscle – that’s just an excuse by lazy people. All in all, resistance training (aka weight lifting) is more important for looking pretty (yes, even for girls and pretty boys), but for general health, cardio is essential. Oh, and doing cardio in a fasted state provides no benefit, contrary to popular belief.

-What cardio should I do?
Pick any one. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you stick to it. Work up to 30 minutes of it at a time, and do it fast enough that you’re breathing hard and working up a sweat. From there, constantly try to increase the intensity of your workout. This can be done in a number of ways:

  1. For running and biking, increase the distance covered
  2. For treadmills, increase the duration or speed.
  3. For exercise bikes and elliptical machines, increase the duration or resistance setting.

Always start with a warm-up where you spend a few minutes working out at low intensity, and then gradually work up to full speed and/or resistance. This will make you feel better during the workout, and reduce the chance of injury.

An example of an excellent starting cardio plan is the Couch to 5Km plan, which starts from couch potato level and will transform you into being able to run a 5Km without stopping in just two months.

If you have bad joints, look at swimming or an elliptical machine, or biking (real or stationary). These will let you get a serious workout without pounding your joints to bits.

-Lifting Weights, Identifying a Good Program
There are many good weightlifting workout programs out there. It really does not matter which ones you pick, provided that you do them properly. You will notice that the good ones all have several things in common.

Firstly, they are based almost entirely on compound movements. Compound movements are simply weight lifts that involve the movement of 2 or more different joints. For instance, a bicep curl only involves one joint (the elbow). A bench press involves two kinds of joints (elbows and shoulders). Compound is much better than isolation (1 joint), especially for beginners, for several reasons:

  1. They do a much better job of stimulating overall muscle growth and development comapared to isolation movements.
  2. They allow you to work out more efficiently. You can hit every major muscle group with a small number of exercises.
  3. They more closely resemble ways you will exert your body in real life. They are better at producing practical, useful strength.

Examples of compound movements include:

Isolation movements aren’t evil or worthless, but they are a poor choice for beginners interested in overall muscular development.

Secondly, good programs work out the entire body. You will never get the results you want just doing your arms or chest; it doesn’t work that way.

Thirdly, good workout programs make you move a substantial amount of weight. Doing some program where you do a huge number of repetitions with tiny weights won’t do you much good (this applies even if you’re a girl). To stimulate muscle growth, you have to place a substantial load on the muscle. That means using enough weight that you can only do 5-10 repetitions of a compound lift before needing a rest. The exact number of repetitions or sets you do isn’t important, but you can’t get results without placing a real load on your muscles.

Fourthly, good programs have you using barbells and/or dumbbells, not machines. Machine exercises are inferior to using free weights in almost every situation. One exception you might consider is a lat pulldown machine if you aren’t strong enough to do chin-ups and don’t have an assisted chin-up machine available, but even here the real exercise is markedly superior. Further reading: Why weight machines are bad for almost everyone.

Any workout regimen that works the full body 2-3x per week using a few sets of low repetition compound movements, adding weight periodically is optimum for beginners. You will gain a load of strength and size which is great for a beginner aiming to look better and stay healthy and in shape.

-Lifting Weights, General Guidance
Track your progress in writing! Write down how much you lifted & how many times you lifted it every session. Every week, focus on beating your numbers from last week. If you cannot do this, it’s time to analyze your diet and your sleep habits, because something is wrong.

Don’t be afraid of barbells or dumbbells. The key to safely using them is to focus on good technique (form), and to increase the weight you are using gradually. Only do the exercise for as long as you can do the exercise properly and control the weight. If you can’t control the weight, reduce the weight until you can.

Do a good warm-up. A few minutes of light cardio is a good general warm-up. Then before you do each exercise, do 8-12 reps with very light weight. Many weight lifting workouts have a built-in warm-up, where you start with a light weight and then increase the weight gradually with each set. See this link for further information about warming up.

It is not important what weight you start with, but where you end up. Be conservative at first, but from then on constantly try to add weight or increase the number of repetitions for every exercise from workout to workout. If you do this, you’ll be working very hard soon enough. 2.5% more weight per week is a realistic goal, and at first you may gain more like 5% per week. That sounds small, but it adds up to a huge strength improvement in a year.

You have to push yourself to get results, but don’t be stupid. Soreness and stiffness are normal; genuine pain is not. If you hurt yourself, give yourself plenty of time to 100% recover from an injury before you start again, or you’ll just re-injure yourself.

Most barbell exercises can be substituted with their dumbbell equivalent, or vice versa, and achieve the same training effect. As a beginner, you may find it easier or more comfortable to work with dumbbells, and this is fine. The only exceptions are squats and deadlifts, because it can be difficult to get enough weight on dumbbells without making it very awkward.

You need days off from lifting. Do not try to lift on off-days in a lifting program in an effort to make faster progress; you’ll over-train and start doing worse, not better.

A final note on resting between sets: many programs have different philosophies on this, but it generally doesn’t matter how long you leave between each set. 3-5 minutes rest has shown to be just fine for strength gains.

-Lifting Weights, Example Programs
The following are good, proven programs to follow for weight lifting. Don’t get put put off by the jargon-heavy articles. Some of the programs are more bodybuilder-oriented or athlete-oriented, but in truth they all do the same basic things and work on the same basic principles. For a normal person working hard at them, they’ll produce the results a normal person would want: more strength, more muscle and less fat. Keep in mind that you won’t be dieting or taking supplements like those guys, and you’ll be starting with weights you can handle and working your way up gradually. So there really is no problem for a normal person – male or female.

Simpler beginner routines:

Good beginner routines:

Good intermediate routines:

  • Bill Starr’s Linear 5×5 (This is a very good, basic workout from a renowned strength coach. This is aimed at the intermediate lifter and is great to do once gains have stopped on Starting Strength.)
  • Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 (3 or 4 days/week) – this is a rather typical powerlifting program. You can find the answers to common 5/3/1 questions here.
  • Joe DeFranco’s Built Like A Badass (3 days/week) – this is a bodybuilding program.
  • The Texas Method  – excellent transition program for athletes coming from Starting Strength.

For those still unsure about which program to follow, Rohit Nair has written a great web application called the Fitness Program Picker, which recommends a program for you based on your desired goals.

-Lifting Weights, Notes for Women
The same principles apply to both men and women. Seriously. You can follow a “super power lifter manly program” as hard as you can for years and never get big, just leaner and stronger and better looking.

If you somehow start to get visible muscles you don’t want, reduce your calorie intake, or reduce the intensity of your weight workouts and make up the difference with more cardio. Without continued heavy lifting, the extra muscles will go away. Remember that gaining muscle is a slow, gradual process.

There is an excellent article on women & weight lifting here: T-Nation – Fun With Women!
Stumptuous is a brilliant dedicated site for women and lifting that closely aligns with the principles covered in this guide.

-Stretching
A couple of quick notes about stretching, because it’s a common beginner question and there are a number of myths associated with it.

Firstly, static stretching (any stretching done in place, holding for X number of seconds) should never be done before exercise. It can cause muscles to tighten rather than relax, putting the body at a greater risk of injury and limiting the muscle’s capacity to perform. Instead, perform active movements simulating the exercise you are about to perform  (see here for a sample warm-up protocol). Before a weightlifting session, perform the lifts you are about to do with little or no weight. Before a run, perform a light jog. Before playing sports, do some quick plyometrics or active warmups.

As far as stretching after a workout, this is is the best time to perform static stretches because the muscles are warm. A reader suggested the Runner’s World Complete Guide to Stretching.

If you have posture issues, a combination of stretching, strength training, and maintaining proper posture can correct them. MobilityWOD provides great daily workouts for those with posture issues, joint problems, or simply people who want to improve flexibility and performance.

-Summary

  1. Exercise determines how strong you are and what your body weight is made of.
  2. More muscles means higher resting metabolism, which translates into staying fit longer. Having muscles are the best long term solution to keeping a slim body.
  3. In most cases, lifting weights will be superior to cardio (good for strength, burning fat, building muscle)
  4. Cardio is still important to increase endurance and stamina.
  5. A good weight lifting program typically consists of compound movements, workout the entire body, uses substantial weight, uses barbells/dumbells instead of machines.
  6. Static stretching should not be done before exercise. Doing it after exercise is best.


PART 4: Measuring Progress
The most important thing about measuring progress – any kind of progress – is to track it in writing. Whether it is weight you are lifting going up, or weight on your body going down, write it down!

-Watching your weight
Your body weight isn’t everything – composition is more important – but it is certainly good to know. What follows are tips for tracking your weight.

  1. A common pitfall in tracking weight is to weigh yourself at different times of the day. You body weight can easily swing 2Kg based on how hydrated you are, when the last time you ate or had a bowel movement was, and so on. For most consistent results, weigh yourself first thing in the morning, preferably after doing your big business. Incidentally, this is also a lower weight than any other time of the day.
  2. Don’t weigh yourself every day, you’ll see too much random variation to know if anything is going on, and the overall change you are looking for is only going to be a few kg a week. So weigh yourself once a week.

Progress beyond weight watching
The thing about your weight is that it doesn’t tell you what you’re made of, just how much of you there is. The name of the game is losing fat, not muscle.

So what happens if fat goes down and weight stays the same or goes up? You made up the difference in lean mass, of course. You shrink in areas that were full of fat, because muscle is more dense than fat. People on good programs often see larger changes in clothing sizes that their weight change would suggest. This is a good thing, because your real progress in terms of appearance is better than the scale is telling you.

The best way to track your overall progress appearance-wise is by measuring yourself with a tape measure in areas you want to get bigger or smaller, and by taking pictures of yourself at regular intervals. This way you can see how your body composition is changing for the better. Here is a short guide on how to take body measurements.

As I noted earlier, for lifting weights you should always track your progress in writing. Really, you can’t effectively implement a good weight program – even a simple one – without doing this.


PART 5: More QnA
-I read about (insert diet or fitness program here) and it isn’t mentioned in this guide. Is it any good?
The answer is maybe. This guide only covers the basics. Fitness and nutrition are big subjects. If the program is for beginners does it look similar to the other beginner routines mentioned above in this article? If it is, then it’s probably good. If it’s not for beginners, have you started with a beginner routine and worked your way up? If so, you’re probably at a level where you can decide whether said program is good or not.

Here are some signs someone is trying to rip you off:

  1. Extravagant claims of massive improvement in a short period of time with little or no effort. If it sounds too good to be true, guess what? It is.
  2. Claims of secret or suppressed knowledge that “the [diet/fitness/medical/exercise] establishment” doesn’t want you to know about. Claims that all well-established forms of exercise like running and lifting weights are wrong.
  3. Claims about spot reduction or converting fat to muscle, both of which are impossible. Losing fat and gaining muscle are possible, but you don’t literally turn one into the other.
  4. Use of meaningless language like “toning” or “sculpting” instead of talking about quantifiable changes to body composition, strength or endurance.
  5. Magical language. Your personal spirituality is beyond the scope of this guide. But if you start hearing things like “energy fields” or  “internal cleansing” of various “toxins” that are never actually explained and  that always remain vague are usually strong indicators that someone is trying to con you.
  6. Overuse of scientific-sounding language that is never actually defined. Real programs may have some jargon in them, but they will explain what the jargon means. At worst, you’ll be able to easily find the meaning of their terminology, because they’re using real concepts with a real scientific basis. Con jobs tend to throw lots of big words at you in the hope that you just give up and assume that they’re smarter than you are, and you can never find out what they actually mean, because they just made it up to sell you something.

I drastically changed my diet for the better, and nothing happened after a week. Or, I suddenly stopped losing weight for a week after weeks of weight loss. What happened?
Maybe nothing. Sometimes weight loss has minor hiccups for no apparent reason. Maybe you had an extra glass of water the night before, or just retained some extra water for some random reason. If you are sticking to a good diet, give it another week or two before you worry about changing things.

All else being equal, to stay at 120kg takes more calories than it does to stay at 80kg, even if the difference is all fat. So if you lost a lot of weight, this may be a contributing factor.

I’m really sore from working out. What do I do?
You might be experiencing what bodybuilders call DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness, and it is most commonly experienced after working a new muscle group for the first time, or after a long time without training. This type of soreness can be unpleasant, but is best ignored, as it will go away after repeated training of that set of muscles. If it is nagging you, you may want to take an extra day off or do a reduced version of your regular workout until it improves.

Ibuprofen is the over-the-counter painkiller of choice for muscular pain. You shouldn’t ignore the instructions on the label, but prescriptions of 800 milligrams for minor pain are commonplace (the over-the-counter dose is 2 tablets of 200mg each). You can also alleviate soreness with a foam roller or any other types of deep tissue massage. If you’re unsure, consult a professional or prolong your rest period. Just don’t end up prolonging your rest for 1 month :P.

**IMPORTANT** Don’t confuse soreness with pain; outright pain is often a sign of an actual injury. If you injure yourself, stop working out the injured area until it is 100% recovered. If you experience severe pain and/or loss of range of motion, see a doctor.

I experience a sharp pain in my side when I’m doing cardio. What’s going on?
Probably nothing more than a “side stitch”, a fairly common complaint of runners, especially new runners just getting into shape. Curiously, there is no good scientific explanation for this pain, but it will go away on its own. As your fitness improves, you will generally stop experiencing them.

I experience sharp pain in my shins from running. What’s happening?
Probably “shin splints.” This is just caused by straining or overworking the muscles to the side of the shins. Taking a break from running until the pain goes away is generally all that is necessary. Normally the muscles adapt over time and you quit getting shin splints. If not, the problem could be caused by flat feet (fallen arches), which can be treated with insoles that help overpronation. A physiotherapist can aid with this part.

I’ve been lifting weights for a while, and have suddenly stopped making progress even though I’m trying hard. What happened?
A1: You may have simply over-trained and need a rest. Take a few days off, and then go back at it again.
A2: Your body may have adapted to the workout you are doing. You can’t keep doing exactly the same workout all the time and continue to get impressive results, at some point your body gets used to it and you start to have diminishing returns. To change things up, you can:

  • Change the number of reps per set, while keeping the total number of reps about the same (for instance, going from 5×5 to 3×8)
  • Change from dumbbells to barbells or vice-versa
  • Change to a variant on the same exercise, or a different exercise that works the same muscle groups

A3: At some point you will need to eat more to continue making rapid strength gains. Of course, if you don’t want to get bigger anymore, at some point you will have to accept some limit on your strength gains. We explained this in the diet section above.

Is it safe for children to train with weights?
Yes, it’s safe. No, it does not stunt growth.

I’ve heard that cooking protein denatures it and makes it worthless. Is that why athletes drink raw egg shakes?
Unless you severely burn them, cooking protein-based foods or supplements does not affect their nutritional value. There’s no reason to drink raw egg shakes unless you like the taste or the convenience, or you want to feel like Rocky.

Are ketogenic diets (Atkins) safe/effective?
First, refer to the general principles in the diet section and understand it.

If your ketogenic diet consists of eating clean, healthy food with a calorie deficit, it’s going to work. Some people claim that ketosis is inherently better than a carb based or carb inclusive diet. While it is true many people consume too many carbs and need to cut back on them, and while some people simply feel better on a low carb or even ketogenic diet, others do not, and on average, ketogenic diets do not burn more fat or spare muscle better than non ketogenic diets. Any claimed benefit of ketogenic diets that would work for everyone is mostly mediated by the higher protein content in comparison to regular diets; and obviously, you can also eat a low fat, high carb, high protein diet, and many people are doing just this and benefiting from it.

In conclusion, different diets work for different people. Many people trying to lose weight feel that the strictness of many ketogenic diets helps them stick to their plan. It doesn’t hurt to try it and see if you like it.


Acknowledgement and Thanks

This article has been partially reproduced and edited with permission from Liam Rosen – whose original article can be found here. Many thanks for allowing us to use your material to spread good information about fitness!