Exercise 101: The Beginner’s Guide to Exercise
As a beginner, exercise can seem complicated and this is exactly why I wrote this beginner’s guide to exercise.
There is a whole lot of information out there and it can be difficult to decide what you should even do for exercise, but don’t worry, I got your back.
In this post I’ll let you know:
- The Benefits of Exercise
- The Basics of Strength Training for Fat Loss, Muscle Growth, and Strength
- The Different Types of Cardio and How You Can Use Them
- Answers to the Most Common Questions I Get as a Fitness Professional
Reviewing the Benefits of Exercise
Ok, we all should know by now that exercise is beneficial to your health and fitness, but I wanted to give you a brief reminder of the many benefits of exercise to push you to exercise more. You’re welcome 😉
Yes, exercise can help you get stronger.
Yes, exercise can help you gain muscle mass.
Yes, exercise can help you drop body fat.
Yes, exercise can help you look sexy naked…what a great benefit huh?
What exercise also does is help you reduce stress and anxiety, have more energy throughout the day, build confidence, be more productive, and basically just enhance your entire life. You can see why mutli-billionaire Richard Branson said that his number one productivity key is to exercise on a regular basis – you can’t afford NOT to exercise.
Enough with the mini lecture – it is important and you should do it regularly. End of story.
To get you going on this exercise things let’s take a look at the two categories of exercise you can do.
Strength training can help you accomplish pretty much every fitness related goal you have and can be done by basically anyone – with proper programming of course.
Depending on what your goals are the strength training you do will vary – trust me, there is life beyond simply the basic three sets of ten (If you don’t know what that is I’ll explain next). For maximal effectiveness, all the strength training you perform will be indicated by your main goal or focus.
How do you vary strength training for different goals? Let’s take a look.
Sets, Reps, and Program Variables
Three sets of ten reps is the typical program a beginner will work with and I’ll admit I’ve used this protocol for many of my clients just getting started.
Each rep is one time performing an exercise – 1 squat, 1 push up, 1 pull up – I think you get the idea. Each set has a specified number of reps in it before taking a break or moving on to another exercise. Three sets of ten reps simply means that you’ll do ten reps of an exercise, take a break, do the second set of ten, take a break, and do the last set of ten. This is a very basic protocol, but it is a starting point.
Other program variables you’ll use will be tempo, load or resistance, and rest.
The tempo is going to be the speed at which you lift a weight. This variable often times isn’t changed much and for this specific article we won’t get into that, but you should know that in general you will used a controlled tempo – lowering the weight in about 2 seconds and then lifting it in 1 second. Tempo can be manipulated based on your desired outcome, but a beginner really doesn’t have to worry about this at the start.
The load or resistance is another crucial strength training component and it is often neglected by many inexperienced lifters. At a gym you’ll see plenty of people lifting the same weight they have lifted for three years – they never progress to more weight – and in turn they don’t get the results they desire.
Progressing the load or resistance over time will help you achieve the results you desire.
Rest intervals are another program variable that is often neglected by beginners. The rest intervals are simply the amount of time you take between exercises. Most people at the gym take far too long of rest between exercises. How long should you wait between exercises for maximal benefit? Well, that depends on your goal. Keep reading for a bit more clarity.
Strength Training for Fat Loss
Strength training is very beneficial for fat loss. To best utilize strength training for fat loss you’ll need to:
- Combine multiple exercises in a row. Now, that’s not saying you’ll always do this, but utilizing circuits of different strength training exercises is extremely beneficial for fat loss. The metabolic cost of your session will be drastically increased by this. (Metabolic cost is just the amount of energy you consume through different activities).
- Shorten rest intervals. If you are doing different circuits you might take 60-120 seconds between each circuit, but take no rest between each exercise. This will help get your metabolism going tremendously. If you are going one exercise at a time then take no more than about 60 seconds between each exercise, but ideally around 30 seconds.
Is there more to know about using strength training for fat loss than simply combining multiple exercises in a row and shortening the rest intervals? Of course there is. Those two things will help you a great deal, but there are a couple more things I have to tell you about.
The strength training exercises that are going to help you most with fat loss are the ones that are the most taxing – that work multiple muscle groups and cause a significant amount of fatigue – sorry, but just doing bicep curls all day isn’t going to help you lose a bunch of fat.
The exercises that will help you lose fat are squats, deadlifts, bench presses, military presses, push presses, pull ups, inverted rows, push ups, cleans – these exercises work multiple muscle groups and when combined in a proper program can be very beneficial for burning fat.
In terms of sets, reps, and resistance what you’ll do will vary. Understanding that there is not one perfect way to achieve each goal is important to understand, but there are some guidelines that can help you out.
As a beginner start off with 2-3 sets per exercise or 2-3 sets of each circuit you do. From there you can progress onward. The reps you do for fat loss on each exercise will generally be between 8 and 15, but this again can vary. You may at times do 5 or 6 reps or even 20 reps for some exercises – remember that 3 sets of 10 reps I talked about before? Well, that can be used as a starting point.
Regardless of the sets and reps you decide to start with you want to pick challenging weights for each exercise. If you are doing 10 reps of an exercise you shouldn’t be using a weight you could do 20 or 30 times. An appropriate weight would be something you could do 12 or 14 times, because you will fatigue more with each successive set and may not be able to complete the specified number of reps.
As a general guideline for beginning just pick a weight, try it out, and see how it goes. If it seems too light, add 5 or 10 pounds more. If you can’t complete the reps, decrease the weight by 5 or 10 pounds. No need to make things too complicated at the start.
Strength Training for Muscle Growth
In terms of gaining muscle, your strength training can be somewhat similar to what you would do to lose fat. The rep range you’ll start with will be 8-12 reps, but you’ll venture out from that as well.
As you become more and more advanced as a lifter you’ll be able to use more protocols to help you gain muscle, but as a beginner using straight sets (doing one set of an exercise, resting, then doing another set) and supersets (doing two exercises back to back, resting, then doing both of the exercises again) will be a great way to start. In time you can worry about things such as cluster sets, drop sets, partial reps, forced reps, and other more advanced concepts.
For muscle growth as a beginner you could make progress with 2-3 sets of each exercise, but don’t be afraid to do 4, 5, or 6+ sets as you adapt to training. As time goes on you won’t be able to see the same results from 2 or 3 sets of each exercise, but again the idea is to get started and adjust as you go. Don’t delay getting started simply because you don’t know the exact rep scheme to use, just get started!
Regardless of what protocol you use, it is important to use weights that challenge you. If you want your muscles to grow you have to give them a reason to grow! Why would your muscles adapt and get bigger if there is no stress put on them? Well, they wouldn’t! Causing muscle damage through lifting challenging weights will help your muscles grow.
With gaining muscle, gaining strength, losing body fat, or achieving other fitness goals you may have, I can’t stress enough how important progress is. It really doesn’t matter much where you are currently at. If you focus on progressing every week you’ll be able to achieve significant results. Trust me, it works!
Strength Training for… Strength (Well, duh!)
Okay, obviously strength training will help you get stronger – any average joe knows this. The thing about getting stronger is that it is much simpler than losing fat or gaining muscle. Now, this doesn’t mean it is easy, but like I said it is simple. You’ll definitely have to get used to pushing yourself hard, lifting heavy weights, and focusing on progress, but getting stronger is definitely within reach for you, especially as a beginner.
There are so many ways to tell if you are getting stronger, you know why? Numbers don’t lie!
If you can lift 25 pounds for 10 reps one week and later on you lift that same 25 pounds for 12 reps you have gotten stronger.
Now, what kind of sets and reps should you use to get stronger? Again, the answer varies a fair amount.
You could do 3 sets of 10 reps for an exercise, progress to lift more and more weight each week, and you’ll have gotten stronger.
Also, you could do 10 sets of 3 reps for an exercise, progress to lift more and more weight each week, and you’ll also have gotten stronger.
So is there a difference between these? Of course there is!
Your maximal strength – focusing on lifting the heaviest weight possible for one rep – will be affected much more by lifting heavier weights for less reps. If your goal is to increase the most weight you can squat for one rep then it will work much better to stay in the 1-5 rep range opposed to the 10-15 rep range. This may be obvious to some people, but it is still good to note. The main takeaway is to lift according to what your main goal is.
You’ll hear this from me over and over again – focus on progress to have success. This rings true for getting stronger especially. Progressive overload – lifting heavier and heavier weights – will help you get stronger. The more you can become comfortable with being uncomfortable the better success you will have.
Cardio is a hated word amongst many an exerciser. Why is that? Well, to be quite honest with you… IT SUCKS! Some people may like it more than others, but in general it sucks. This doesn’t give you the green light to skip it, but as a beginner especially you should know the options available to you.
Traditionally, people think of cardio as spending an hour jogging on a treadmill or some other exercise equipment. While this is indeed a type of cardio this is by no means the only type. Let me enlighten you with what else is out there besides simply going for a jog or spending an hour on the elliptical machine (something I’ve never done by the way – not my idea of a good time).
There a few different types of cardio and the first one I’ll talk about briefly is steady state cardio – the type you see most people doing at the gym.
Types of Cardio
Steady state cardio is just that – going at a steady pace for a specified amount of time. This could be done jogging, walking, biking, rowing, using the elliptical, or by using other types of machines. While this type of cardio is mighty boring, it does help you burn calories. Also, because it isn’t too taxing on your system, it can be done rather frequently without taking away from other aspects of your training. It is a tool that you can use to help improve your cardiovascular health, but should by no means be all that you do for exercise. Is this a great form of exercise to start off with? Definitely. I’ve had many of my beginner clients use steady state cardio to help them get back into the exercise habit. However, steady state cardio has its limitations and for many of those people out there using strictly steady state cardio for fat loss I have to say that there are much more efficient ways of doing so.
Low intensity interval training is another form of cardiovascular exercise. With this form of cardio you alternate between a medium intensity and an easy intensity. This could be something like alternating between a fast jog and a walk. You could jog for 1 minute and walk for 1 minute then repeat that for a certain amount of time – that would be a low intensity interval type of workout. This type of cardio will again help you burn calories, but will be a bit more effective than steady state exercise in terms of fat loss because you’ll be exercising at a bit higher of an intensity. While you normally wouldn’t be able to sustain a higher level of intensity over an extended period of time with steady state exercise, with interval training you’ll be able to do just that.
High intensity interval training is the next type of cardio and also my favorite because of its effectiveness and also because it isn’t so boring – a super important factor for me. Like low intensity interval training this type of cardio exercise alternates between a higher intensity and a lower intensity, but this time you’ll be alternating between a high intensity and low intensity – not a medium and low intensity. An example of this would be to sprint for 10 seconds, rest for 30 seconds and repeat. The main idea with high intensity interval training is that it is…you can probably guess…HIGHLY INTENSE – it only makes sense! I could write about high intensity interval training and its benefits for pages and pages (I actually have before in a couple of posts) but as a beginner what you need to know are these things:
- You’ll get in great shape, spending less time, than steady state or low intensity cardio
- It is the best cardio to help you lower your body fat percentage
- It is the most time efficient form of cardio
Is high intensity interval training for everyone? No, not at all.
If you are in horrible shape and just getting back into things you won’t necessarily want to start out with high intensity interval training – it will be much too difficult for you. However, you can ease into it within a few weeks as you get in better and better shape. Take a look at my 21 day beginner workout challenge, start doing some steady state exercise and low intensity intervals, and then progress to some high intensity interval training. Could you start with some high intensity interval training if you really want? Yes, you could, but again if you are too much of a beginner you won’t be able to handle much of it.
Typically, when people think of cardio they think of running, biking, swimming, using the elliptical, or other machines similar to that. You can use the three protocols I mentioned above for all of these, but are there some other non-traditional types of cardio? Cardio that is a bit more fun and that sucks less? Oh yes, there is indeed.
To give you ideas for non-traditional cardio I have to exapand your thinking. More specifically, don’t think of cardio as simply using a machine – think of it more as something that increases your heart rate. You could play basketball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, or other types of games such as these and they would definitely be considered cardiovascular exercise. They also happen to be a lot more fun. I know I’d much rather play basketball for an hour than jog on a treadmill for an hour.
Other forms of cardio that are different than the norm are sled pushes, sled drags, stair running, hill sprints, kettlebell swings, beach sprints, battle ropes, or barbell complexes – you have plenty of options.
Putting it all Together
Alright alright, I know I went through a ton of information already, but I want you to be well informed. It is important to know the basics when you are starting out and you should have a much better idea of what to do. However, I know there are some more things I haven’t covered yet – some questions you still may have. So, if you are still reading then I say read on! You’ll find some answers to common questions I get as a trainer which will help you put all of this new found information together. If you have more questions after reading through the following common questions then leave a comment below or contact me directly– I’d love to help you out!
Weights or Cardio First?
Don’t know if you should do weights first or cardio? Follow the structure I use for the workouts of the majority of my clients which goes as follows:
- Warm Up
- Strength Training
This structure works really well because it doesn’t fatigue you for your strength training which allows you to lift heavier weights and keep good form. Ending with cardio allows you to empty the tank and finish your workout strong. Often times I’ll include a workout finisher for their cardio to really help clients have a kick ass workout.
How Long Till I See Results?
The answer to this question of course varies greatly. Some clients I have will lose 10 pounds in the first month while others may only lose 2 or 3. The same goes with gaining strength or muscle mass – the results will vary. The stricter you can be with your diet and the more you exercise the better results you will get. Also, what you are doing in your workouts makes a big difference. You may be going to the gym 5 times each week, but what are you doing? Are you working hard or just going through the motions?
In general, you’ll notice significant strength gains in 4 weeks or so, differences on the scale in a week or two, and changes in how you look in the mirror in 4+ weeks.
Two things you’ll notice in the first couple weeks will be how your clothes fit and also how you are feeling. With consistent exercise you’ll have more energy, less stress, and just feel better overall – look for these changes as well.
How Long Should Workouts Take?
How much time you have to devote to exercise will be a huge determining factor in how long your workouts are. Could you get results from workouts that are 20 minutes long? Definitely, but this doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the optimal or ideal amount of exercise for you. For example, if your goal is maximal strength you’ll have much longer rest periods than if your workouts are geared towards fat loss, so in turn your workouts will last longer. Just know this: You don’t have to spend hours upon hours in the gym to get the results you want – if you exercise efficiently and focus on progressing each week.
How Many Days Per Week Should I Exercise?
The amount of days per week you exercise will again be dictated by your lifestyle. If you want to exercise 6 days per week, great! If you have 2 or 3 days per week you can exercise then that works too, but it may take you longer to achieve the results you desire.
For a lot of beginners I work with I start them out with 2 days per week of strength training and add 2-3 cardiovascular sessions as well. As a beginner I advise starting slow, but even more importantly I advise starting – doing something is better than doing nothing. If you haven’t exercised in 15 years then exercising 2 days per week is much better than not exercising at all.
How Sore Will I Be?
If you haven’t exercised in a while you’ll be sore once you start – duh, this is obvious. How sore will you be? Well, that will depend on how much exercise you do. The main thing to understand is that being sore is normal. Expect to be sore and know that you will get through it, I promise. Your body will adapt and you will be ok.
How Come I Haven’t Lost Weight even though I’ve Been Exercising?
For those of you looking to lose weight you have to understand something: The scale doesn’t tell the whole story. If you lose 5 pounds of body fat and gain 5 pounds of muscle what is the total difference in body weight? Zero pounds. However, some significant changes have taken place in your body and this is important to understand. The scale may not always show that you have lost weight, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t made progress.
One way to see how you are progressing, more than just your weight on a scale, is to have your body fat percentage tested. One way of doing this is the BodPod system. This is what NFL prospects use at the NFL combine and there are many locations that you can get this done. If you live in the Milwaukee area you can go to UW-Milwaukee and have your body fat percentage tested using the BodPod for $50. It is an easy thing to do and only takes a few minutes. I’ve personally had mine measured a few times and love how easy it is to do. You can sign up for your body fat test at UW-Milwaukee here.
Have More Questions? Leave a Comment Below!
If you have even more questions I encourage you to leave a comment below. I’ll gladly answer your question and help get you on the right track. You can also apply to work with me directly, but I am only taking on a limited number of new clients at this time.