Beginner's Guide to Working Out

 As a personal trainer, I wanted to take the time to answer some of the most frequently asked questions by people who are new to working out. Feel free to let me know if I've missed anything!

How do I lose weight?

It’s actually way simpler than you might think: maintain a caloric deficit. Consume fewer calories than you burn. It doesn’t matter of you’re morbidly obese or you’re cutting for a show, this basic principal still applies. Note that eating a healthy diet makes this far easier - lots of fruits, veggies, lean protein and water will help you stay satiated for far fewer calories than fatty junk foods (not to mention you’ll have way more energy, and just feel better).

To find out how many calories you should be eating in a day to lose weight, you have a few different options. The first is to determine your maintenance calories with an online calculator, then subtract 250-500 per day from that (to lose about 0.5-1lbs per week).

The other option (my personal favourite, because everyone is different!) is to start by just honestly tallying up how much you’re currently eating each day. Once that’s determined, start by subtracting 250-500 calories per day. If you haven’t lost any weight in a couple weeks, subtract that amount again, until you start seeing progress.

Another important note - increasing the amount of calories you burn per day (ie. exercising) will also help you stay in a caloric deficit. However, it’s best NOT to rely solely on this method. Doing a whole hour of cardio will only burn a few hundred calories (plus will likely make you hungry for snacks by the time you’re finished) … or, you can simply avoid eating a bag of chips or a piece of pizza, to have the exact same effect.

That’s not to imply that exercise isn’t important in your weight loss journey - quite the contrary! However, instead of focusing on doing hours of cardio a day, this should only be used to supplement your diet (1-2 hours a week is fine for most people). Your focus should instead be on resistance training. Lifting heavy weights 2-4 times per week plays the important role of ensuring you maintain your muscle mass as you lose weight. Want to avoid that “skinny fat” look, and get “toned” instead? Make sure you’re doing resistance training!

How do I lose weight in ___ area?

Unfortunately, spot reduction is a myth. Where you lose weight first (and last) is determined by genetics. However, you *will* eventually lose weight in all your problem areas. You just need to be patient, and keep doing what helped you start losing weight in the first place.

The good news is, the more weight you lose, the more visible the progress will be (especially if you’re doing a good job focusing on just fat loss, while retaining muscle). Going from 250-240lbs probably won’t be noticeable, but losing those last 10lbs will make a huge difference (since a few pounds will make up a far greater percentage of your total body mass). So the progress will be hard-fought for, but definitely worth it!

How do I gain muscle?

It’s a combination of progressively harder resistance training, eating enough food, and lots of patience.

When you’re exercising, just going through the motions isn’t good enough. For optimal muscle gain, you should be performing each set with a weight that you can lift continuously for around 30-60s (this should amount to around 8-15 repetitions). If you feel like you can go for longer, choose a heavier weight.

Perform each repetition slowly (about 1 second concentric, pause, 2-3 seconds eccentric, pause), through a full range of motion. To clarify - the concentric portion of a lift is when you’re moving against gravity, and the eccentric portion is when you’re moving with gravity. Exercises involving long static holds (like planks) are great for endurance, but they won’t amount to much muscle mass gained.

I cannot overemphasize how important good form is either - for avoiding injury, hardwiring the correct neural pathways, and maximizing muscle gain. Especially when you’re just starting out, choose light weights, and make sure optimal form comes naturally before you start increasing the intensity. It’s way easier learning it correctly the first time than fixing bad habits later.

How much food should you be eating? It varies widely between people. Start with your maintenance calories, add a couple hundred to that (it doesn’t have to be a lot!), and measure your results. Be patient with your progress - men can expect to gain 1-2lbs of lean muscle a month, and 0.5-1lbs for women (beginners may gain a little faster). Eating enough protein is also vital to gaining muscle - a general rule of thumb is around 1 gram of protein (each day) per pound of lean body weight (ie. how much you weigh, minus the amount of fat you have).

How do I get stronger?

It honestly depends on your experience level. If you’re just starting out, doing a normal resistance routine focused on gaining muscle will make you stronger. However, if you’ve been working out regularly for awhile (close to a year), using heavier weights (1-6 reps max) will help you get stronger a lot faster.

If you’re focusing more purely on strength gain, it’s important that each repetition is done as perfectly as possible (even moreso than for other training goals). That means stopping 1-2 reps shy of failure. Doing just one sloppy rep can severely impact your strength output for the rest of the workout. Don’t be afraid of taking longer rests between sets either (up to 2-3 minutes), as you want to be ready with as much energy as possible before you start your next set. It also goes without saying that heavier weight = greater chance for injury, and proper form will help prevent that.

Is it possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time?

Contrary to popular belief - yes. Especially if you’re a beginner! Just make sure you’re eating around maintenance level calories (along with enough protein), doing resistance training 3-4 times a week, and you’ll start seeing body composition changes.

However, if you’re significantly over/underweight, or have already been working out for some time, you’ll see much faster progress if you focus on one goal at a time. The main difference here is going to be diet - eating less if you’re trying to lose weight, or eating more if you’re trying to gain weight. Regular resistance training plays a part in both shedding fat and gaining muscle.

How should I be structuring my workouts?

For the vast majority of people, full body workouts with compound exercises is the way to go. (For those who don’t know, compound exercises are those which use more than one joint at a time - think squats, bench press, rows, etc.)

The popular back/chest/shoulders/arms/legs split routine (or any variation of it) is good for advanced bodybuilders, but not ideal for beginners. Bodybuilders exercise like this because they need a much greater stimulus to properly stress any given muscle group, and more rest between days training that muscle group as a result of their increased workout intensity.

For a beginner, it’s better to hit each muscle group multiple times a week (this is great to hasten learning and growth). You won’t need as long of a rest period before training the same muscle again, because it won’t be as fatigued after each workout.

Compound exercises give you the greatest bang for your buck because you’re working out so many muscles in one movement (and burning way more calories at the same time). Isolation exercises (those working one joint at a time, like bicep curls or leg extensions) are best for bodybuilders who really need to hone in on a single muscle.

Doing resistance training 3-4 times a week is a good goal to shoot for. Workouts should be around 45-60 minutes, with around 6-8 exercises done during that time. Try to keep rests between sets to around 60s (this is all very generalized, and can change depending on experience level and goal). Space rest days evenly between workouts if you can.

Start your workouts with the exercises which require the most energy (usually those which involve lifting the most weight), saving any isolation/ab exercises for the end.

What should I be eating?

If your goal is a change in body composition (gaining muscle/losing fat), the amount of calories you’re consuming is the most important thing to pay attention to.

If you’re consistently working out hard but failing to gain/lose weight, chances are you need to make alterations to your diet. For weight loss, that usually means eating at a deficit of 250-500 calories per day; for weight gain, eating at a surplus of 200-300 calories per day.

What exact foods you’re eating has an impact on how easily you can stick to your calorie goals, as well as your energy levels.

Consuming around 1 gram of protein per pound of lean bodyweight (per day) is a given, regardless of what your fitness goal is. This helps to maintain satiety, and preserve/increase muscle mass.

Eating lots of fruits and veggies (as well as drinking 2-3L of water a day - more for some people) is a great way to feel full without consuming too many calories. It also just contributes to all-around health and energy levels.

Eating lots of fatty foods should be avoided if weight loss is the goal - not because fat makes you fat per se, but because they are so calorically dense. Only one tablespoon of peanut butter or olive oil is 100 calories! Conversely, if your goal is to gain weight, adding more fatty foods to your diet (healthy fats, if possible) can help you hit that calorie goal easier.

And carbs? Not as evil as people make them out to be. Think of them as the energy that fuels your brain and your workouts. Having around 50% of your calories coming from carbs is about the norm. It’s likely beneficial to raise this number even higher if you’re an especially lean individual, or you’re regularly working out at intense levels.

When should I be eating?

The easiest way to time your meals properly is to think: “What will I be doing in the next 2-3 hours?” Eat according to the activity you’re about to do. That doesn’t mean you should be having a giant meal right before your workout, but ideally your biggest meal of the day would be several hours before you exercise. This will give you the energy you need, plus ensure the calories you consume are shuttled into your muscles instead of fat reserves.

If you’re about to do an intense workout, the best thing to eat beforehand (around 15-30 minutes prior) is a light snack of healthy carbs (like some fruit). For optimal recovery, aim for 20-30g of protein within an hour after you workout (if you miss this window though don’t worry about it). A protein shake is probably the simplest and most convenient way of doing this, but whole food is just as good.

What supplements should I be taking?

If you have a healthy, well-rounded diet, including 2-3 cups of different veggies each day, enough protein per pound of bodyweight (from sources that include sufficient amounts of each essential amino acid), and adequate omega-3 fatty acids - then you’re golden, and probably don’t need any supplements.

However, the vast majority of the population would probably benefit from a simple multivitamin and omega-3 supplement, just to help fill any nutritional gaps they have.

If you’re getting enough protein from whole food, then you probably don’t need to add protein powder. However, if you’re struggling with this, then protein powder is a great way to easily increase your daily protein intake. Whey protein is the most bioavailable and has a complete amino acid profile, so it’s the best choice for most people. However, if you’re vegan (or lactose intolerant), there are lots of plant proteins available. You just need to pay attention to the amino acid profile of each one (possibly mixing and matching different plant sources if you need to).

As for all the other supplements out there, it’s honestly on a case-by-case basis as to whether they’d actually help you or not. If you’re a beginner, unless you have any specific requirements or deficits, you probably don’t need them.

Is stretching important?

Yes. Please stretch (or do some other form of myofascial release, such as foam rolling), or you’ll eventually regret it. Regular exercise makes your muscles slowly form clumps of tissue and fascia. Neglecting to release these can result in restricted range of motion, and eventually pain.

Static stretching should be done at the end of your workout. Aim to stretch each worked muscle near its end range of motion for around 60s total. Don’t stretch before your workout, as this can impede strength output.

Is warming up important?

Yes. Warming up is paramount to increasing blood flow and activating your muscles properly before you move onto more intense, metabolically demanding exercises.

Ideally, during your warm-up, you should be actively moving your muscles through the same ranges of motion you’ll be doing for your workout. This can be as simple as doing the exact same movement, but with minimal weight - for example, doing a few sets of bodyweight squats before doing barbell squats.

You want your warm-ups to elevate your heart rate, but not be so intense that they start tiring you out and detract from your workout. Usually 5-10 minutes of light activity is enough.

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