Starting out on a programme of resistance training can be intimidating for both men and women, meaning many people avoid this important aspect of fitness. Common concerns include: ‘what if I’m doing it wrong?’, ‘what weights should I be lifting?’, ‘how often should I be training?’ and ‘what on earth is a pyramid set?’ Okay, so the last question is slightly specific and certainly shouldn’t be worrying beginners, but it does serve to demonstrate the level of jargon involved in weight lifting. Giant sets, super sets, hypertrophy, negatives, forced reps, 1RM, 10RM; there’s a lot of complicated terminology flying around. While it is absolutely not necessary to know technical names, it can help you feel more confident when you take to a bench.
So, in an attempt to make all newcomers feel more confident in their ability to jump on a machine or pick up a barbell, here are my answers to some frequently asked questions about resistance training (aka, the questions I asked when I first started). Got a question for me? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should I use resistance machines or free weights?
Really this is up to you. Arguably, there are benefits to both. Resistance machines are, on the whole, very simple to use. The most complex thing you are likely to come across is how to vary the seat height or weight start position, and that will vary depending on the brand you are using. I still struggle with some machines.
Resistance machines are very good for beginners; you can easily find the weight that suits you and there is normally a handy diagram demonstrating what muscles you are working. Admittedly, purists will generally gravitate towards free weights, like dumbbells and barbells, but there is definitely more room for error when using free weights. You need to make sure you’re using good technique in order to avoid injury. In reality, a mixture of both free weights and machines would be ideal.
How many sets and repetitions should I be doing?
This entirely depends on your goals. Busting out 20 repetitions – or ‘reps’ – at a low weight might make you feel like you’ve worked hard, but if muscle growth is your aim, you’ll be waiting a long time for results. Very very simply, you should be doing 12+ reps for muscle endurance, anything in the 8-12 rep range should be used for muscle growth (also known as muscle hypertrophy), while anything at 6 reps or under will be increasing your muscle strength (the power you’re able to exert).
In order to work out the weight to use, you might need to use trial and error during your first gym session. Start light and see how each set goes. The weight will depend on the number of repetitions you intend to do. For muscle growth (which you should be aiming for if you want a ‘toned’ physique) you should be using a weight that you can do for 8 repetitions but not more than 12. If you get to 12 easily, then try a heavier weight.
In terms of ‘sets’ (the number of times you repeat your 8 repetitions), you should be doing 3-4 sets for muscle growth, and 4-6 sets for muscle strength. Rest for between 1-3 minutes between your sets, unless you’re focusing on endurance, in which case rest for between 30 and 45 seconds.
Endurance = 12+ reps/ 3 sets/ rest for 30-45 seconds between sets
Muscle growth = 8-12 reps/ 3-4 sets/ rest for 1-2 minutes between sets
Muscle strength = 6 reps (or under)/ 5-6 sets/ rest for 2-3 minutes between sets
How often should I lift weights?
If you are just starting out, you’ll start noticing a difference with as little as two resistance training sessions per week. Three would be ideal though, on non-consecutive days, so your muscles have the chance to recover. For these sessions, you should ideally be looking to do full body workouts, two exercises for your upper body and two for your lower body.
Monday: Chest, legs and core
Wednesday: Biceps, triceps,legs and core
Friday: Back, shoulders, legs and core
When you have maintained this training regime for a while, you might want to increase the number of sessions per week, which is when you can start being a bit more focused with what muscles you are targeting. Personally, I head to the gym between five and six times per week and alternate between working my upper body and my lower body.
For example, my week may look like:
Monday: Legs and core
Tuesday: Biceps, triceps and shoulders
Wednesday: Legs and glutes
Thursday: Back and core
Sunday: Chest and core
Will everyone judge me if I do something wrong?
You should never be afraid to ask someone if you don’t know how to work a machine. Generally, I’ve found that gym-goers are a friendly bunch, and are more than happy to lend a hand if you want a bench moving or help with adjusting your seat height (all the time). There are also, normally, personal trainers on hand, if you want a few quick hints or tips to get you started. Again, don’t be afraid to ask them for help. You’ll look a whole lot better on the gym floor if you’re using the correct technique with low weights than trying to lift heavy weights clumsily.
It’s easy to say ‘don’t worry about other people’, but the reality is, you won’t believe the statement that ‘no-one cares’ until you actually get out on the gym floor. Even then, you might have your moments. I was recently reminded of this myself, when I voiced concerns about practicing a handstand. Realistically, people will see you in the gym, and people are also likely to make judgments – but no more so than if they saw you on the street, in a bar, or in a restaurant. What’s more, they may be worrying just as much as you. Own your space in the gym and you’ll look the part, even if you don’t feel it.
What is a ‘superset’?
If you’re a beginner, it would be my advice to stick to basic sets until you feel more confident with what you are doing. If, however, you want to maximise your time, or mix up your routine, you could always try a different type of set (also known as a ‘training system’).
A ‘superset’ is two different exercises performed back to back with no rest between them. Usually in a superset, the two exercises are for opposite muscle groups. For instance, biceps followed by triceps. A ‘tri-set’ is a set of three different exercises performed back to back, while a ‘giant set’ is four exercises. Differing to a superset, however, tri- and giant-sets generally work the same muscle group(s).
When you get into resistance training, you may also hear people talking about drop sets, pyramids, negatives and forced reps. Here is a quick explanation of each.
Drop sets: Start at a high weight and perform the exercise until just before you are about to fail, then immediately decrease the weight and perform the exercise until you are about to fail again. Drop the weight around 3-4 times overall and don’t rest between drops.
Pyramids: Start with a low weight and perform for a high number of repetitions. Take a break, then increase the weight and perform a lower number of repetitions. Take a break then, once again, increase the weight and perform a lower number of repetitions. This is known as an ascending pyramid. Reverse the process for a descending pyramid, or combine both for a full pyramid.
Negatives: Help yourself or get a training buddy to help you lift the weight, then use your own strength to lower the weight (slowly). Lowering the weight is known as the ‘eccentric’ phase of the lift, and we are generally a lot stronger during this motion. An example of a negative set would be jumping up to the bar when performing a ‘chin-up’ and then slowly letting yourself down again.
Forced reps: Perform a basic set until complete failure, then a friend will step in and help you perform 2-4 more reps of the same exercise.
What is a 1RM?
1RM, or ‘one rep max’, is the amount of weight you can lift for one repetition. When you get more advanced, you will use your 1RM to calculate the weight you should be lifting for muscle strength and growth. You might see 6 reps at 80% 1RM written on training porgrammes. This simply means that if your 1RM is 40kg on a chest press, you should be lifting 32kg for 6 reps. 80% 1RM would generally be used for strength training. (NB some people will also calculate their 10RM).
What is DOMS?
DOMS stands for ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’. It is the soreness you feel in your muscles in the days after training. It generally comes on between 24 and 48 hours after training and usually only occurs if you’re working a new muscle group or have done a new exercise. Warning, it can last for a few days, but will improve greatly when your muscles get used to training. Incidentally, it’s normally the ‘lowering’ part of the exercise that brings on DOMS, so negatives are a prime culprit.
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