Seven Lessons for the New Lifter

Read this so that your gym fail photo doesn't end up on some random guy's blog...
Read this so that your gym fail photo doesn’t end up on some random guy’s blog…

*This article was originally published on JackedPack.com in mid 2014. For reasons not revealed to me, Jacked Pack have since removed the blog from their site. So I figure I’m entitled to re-publish my original articles here now.

You’ve just set foot into a weight room for the first time, bringing with you a body full of testosterone and a head full of good intentions but misguided information. Let’s get you started off on the right foot.

1. Warm Up

I’m not one to say that your warm up needs to be some elaborate thirty minute concoction of Yoga, Pilates, physiotherapy exercises and circus tricks. However, I do believe it should consist of more than a few arm circles, a set with the bar, and an obligatory flex in the mirror.
If you’re otherwise healthy, commit to  just ten minutes of dedicated warm up time before you hit your main lifts.

Though the exact mechanisms behind it are still unclear, self myofascial release* techniques such as foam rolling tends to work out pretty well for many, so a couple of minutes spent there wouldn’t go astray.

From there, some specific mobility drills for typically restricted areas such as the ankles, hips and thoracic spine are worthwhile and should only take a couple more minutes.

Then, you could join it all together in some more elaborate dynamic drills to really start integrating movements and getting your blood flowing.

Finally, you can really get yourself ahead of the pack by incorporating a couple of sets of explosive movements to fire up the nervous system and better prepare you for the heavy work to come via the post-activation potentiation, as well as working to improve general athleticism.
Some type of jump before lower body work and medicine ball throw before upper body work ought to cover it.

*I tentatively use the term “myofascial release, as I don’t think it accurately describes what’s happening. When someone smarter than me comes up with better terminology, I’ll take it.  

2. Goblet Squats

So you’ve heard you should squat. That’s good. It’s a foundational human movement, and loading up the squat exercise has been a proven mass and strength builder since the dawn of physical culture. So if you’ve decided to make squats a staple in your training program ahead of more artificial and less complex exercises such as leg presses and leg extensions, you’re on the right track as far as I’m concerned.
But please, do us both a favour: spend your first few months, or at least weeks, resisting the urge to throw a heavy bar on your back in the vein of Tom Platz, and instead opt for the humble yet underrated goblet squat.
There is something magical that happens with the goblet squat, where the front loaded weight encourages an upright posture, increases core stability and promotes extra depth. It is a fantastic option for grooving correct squat mechanics and should serve as a foundation for years of squatting with good technique. Because you don’t want to be that guy at the gym who loads up the bar with three wheels a side only to start quarter squatting.
Start with 3-4 sets of 10 reps at whatever weight dumbbell you can manage. Progress until you can do 15 reps. Then, grab a heavier dumbbell and start again. Most gyms will have dumbbells up to 50kg/110lbs. When you can goblet squat that one for 15 reps you’ll probably be: A) stronger than most people in your gym, and B) well and truly ready to put some respectable weight on a bar to back squat or front squat it.

3. Other leg work and glutes

Make leg work your priority. Far too many guys today skip leg training and can be seen wearing track pants to the gym even in Summer. Don’t be that guy. Embrace leg training. Make it your priority. Learn to love it. Your lower body has far more strength potential than your upper body, and it is the foundation of most athletic endeavours. Plus, abs and biceps are so 2004. Today, it’s all about the glutes. And guys, girls really do check out your glutes.
Deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts – on both legs, one leg or staggered stancesplit squat variations, lunge variations, hip thrusts, back extensions, lateral work, calf work…rotate all of them in and out of your training.

4. Control your own body

I’m not one of those coaches who says that you have to be at an Olympic gymnast level of strength on every bodyweight exercise before ever picking up a weight. However, I certainly believe that you should work diligently towards becoming proficient at the basics. For example, I’ve got nothing against the lat pulldown exercise at all. But, if you’re spending all your time there because you’re not very competent with pull ups, well that’s a deficiency that’s worth attacking rather than avoiding.
Similarly, bench press variations are great and are often a staple for building strength and size. However, don’t for a second go thinking that push up variations are pointless and aren’t worth your time and training energy. Similar story for single leg exercises, core training, and rows, too.
Again, I’m a meathead lifter at heart, but it’s nice to be able to display some basic athletic competence.

5. Economy of movement

Big before small. Fast before slow. That’s the gist of this one. In practice, this means that you do your squats before your leg extensions, and you do your chin ups before your bicep curls. Don’t fatigue the small muscles first and have them become the even weaker link in a bigger chain.
Sure, your favourite pro bodybuilder likes to “pre-fatigue” his quads by hitting leg extensions before he squats. When you win a Mr. Olympia you can train in whichever order you wish. Until that day however, big exercises first.

6. The back half of your body

In a similar vein to #3, along with legs, the posterior chain is often woefully neglected by gym newbies. Guys, there’s far more to your body than what you see in the mirror.
Posterior chain strength is critical to athletic performance, has massive strength potential (i.e. it will play a major role in all your other big lifts) and helps maintain an aesthetically pleasing physique (i.e. it counters the desk jockey look).
Rows. Deadlift variations. Rows. Back extensions. Rows. Hip thrusts. Rows. Face pulls. And last but not least, rows! These should be a staple.

7. Gym etiquette

Bring a towel and use it. Wear deodorant. Unload your bar when you’re finished, and put your dumbbells back in place. Don’t hog multiple pieces of equipment in a crowded gym, and let others work in. And never, ever, start talking to a stranger while they are mid-set or mentally preparing for a big lift.
These aren’t polite suggestions.

Go and be better

If this offends your otherwise best intentions, I can’t apologise for it. I’m looking out for you, I swear. Consider this a bit of tough love. The fact is, I could walk into just about any major gym and know that at least 90% of what I’m going to witness will make my eyes bleed. And, the worst offenders are almost always inexperienced guys who let their egos get way ahead of them.
Pay your dues. Heed this advice. You’ll come out the other side far better for it, I promise.

Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below. And of course, sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out.  

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