Weight training in the gym can be overwhelming at times, especially if you’re new to exercise. There are so many different machines and loads of people all doing strange, inscrutable things: grunting, posing, texting, swinging heavy stuff above their heads in ways that look painful and dangerous.
Unlike running or cycling, which are pretty straightforward, with weights, everyone does their own thing: different exercises, different reps and sets, different weights.
But try not to be dissuaded. Weight training has so many benefits and is something I encourage almost everyone to add to their fitness routine at some point, no matter what their goals. So I wanted to break it down, giving you a nice intro on how to structure a programme that relates to your goals.
With weight training, it’s important to get the basics right first and then work your way up. You might spot some fancy lad in a unitard hurling a barbell into the air, but unless you’re determined to injure yourself, it’s best to leave that kind of thing for the time being.
Crucially, the mind and body have to work together – even if you’re physically strong, if you haven’t trained your mind to adapt to new movements with heavy weights, you won’t make any progress. Your body needs to adapt and your joints have to get stronger, and that takes time and practice.
You also need structure to your routines if you’re walking into the weights section with no idea what you’re about to lift, then you’re probably doing it all wrong. Here are some examples to get you started.
Weight training can be broken down into a number of components but I’m going to look at three today: endurance, hypertrophy, and strength.
• Sets: 1-2 Reps: 12+
• Suitable for: beginners, those recovering from injuries, those training for endurance sports such as running or cycling, general fitness and fat loss
You need to get your body acclimated to resistance training by doing lighter weight and higher reps (the number of times you perform each individual lift). Going too heavy too quickly increases your chance of injury. Even if you find the high repetitions a little boring and are tempted to go heavier and do fewer, resist the urge.
High reps teaches your body a movement pattern, and the more you do the more your body can adapt. Not only are you conditioning your muscles, joints and tissues, you’re also teaching your nervous system a new trick. A few weeks of performing high reps with relatively light weights will improve your joint health and increase blood flow to these areas, helping to mobilise your joints and increase your range of motion. The more you move, the more you improve.
Weight selection should be a score of 5-6 out of 10, where 10 is the heaviest you could lift for a single rep, and you shouldn’t be reaching failure (i.e. you should reach your target of 12 reps).
Focus on training the whole body, rather than individual muscle groups. Select six to eight exercises, including presses, squats, pulls and hinges.
Endurance training will help improve your fitness levels, burn lots of calories and, if you don’t have much weight training experience, you will soon get stronger with practice.
• Sets: 3-6 Reps: 8-12
• Suitable for: Those with some experience of weight training, fat loss and building muscle, training for aesthetics
Hypertrophy is my favourite area to train as you can start noticing some visible changes to your body. Your muscles will feel and look better and if you are looking to lose weight, this is a great place to be as you will expend a lot of energy.
Aside from looking good, adding muscle to your frame has lots of benefits to your health and performance. This could be just a couple of kilos to a serious amount of mass.
When you start training, most of your strength gains will be neuromuscular, which is the brain and body working together as described above. Once you’ve made it past a certain point, your body is no longer able to adapt like it once did and you need to focus on strength, building muscle and tissues at a more structural level. This is where you can start to play around with exercises and weights.
Without proper nutrition, you will not be able to add muscle, so hypertrophy also gets our clients paying more attention to their food intake. It’s difficult to build real muscle without feeding it, but if you overfeed the body, it’s easy to put on weight. Striking the right balance is crucial.
When it comes to exercise selection, there are countless options. Some people prefer to train specific muscle groups in each session and some people prefer to do a full body approach. The key is to add volume to each area over time and I encourage my clients to aim for around 18 sets per week on each muscle. Weights should be around 6-7 out of 10 and it’s OK to go to failure. Keep your rest time around 60-90 seconds between each exercise.
• Sets: Reps: 1-6
• Suitable for: Specific sports, strength related goals
Strength is next stage up the ladder, and this is more for advanced trainers. If you haven’t trained before or are just getting back into training, going in at this level will put too much stress on your muscles, joints and nervous system. Lose your ego and earn your stripes first.
This type of training is about maxing out and puts a high amount of stress through your body. The heavier the loads, the more important it is to focus on technique as the risk of injury goes up.
Strict strength training will be more about neuromuscular gains, which means you will not expect to see much mass being added, rather your muscles will get stronger. Some weightlifters will stay in the same weight category for most of their careers, which means they are not adding mass, just getting stronger.
You may have heard of the one rep max test? This basically sees how much you can lift in a single rep, and it’s a great tool to set out the rest of your strength program based on the results.
If you are training in this zone and attempting heavy lifts, make sure you have someone spotting to help if you fail. There’s nothing worse than having a bench press go wrong and being pinned to the bench – at best it’s embarrassing and at worst it can kill you.
Focus on the big compound lifts such as deadlifts, bench presses, squats, rows, lunges and vertical presses. You don’t need to over complicate things – these core movements should be enough to see most people through a successful strength regime.
Remember to listen to your body and don’t feel like you have to work at 100 per cent. Some days you might feel invincible, others you’ll be inexplicably weak. Just ride those waves and you’ll make progress towards your goals.
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