Archived from my FB page of Dec 28, 2016
I have directed these monologues at my friend Charynn McCurdy, but they are more or less my accumulated recollections of lessons learned, over a few more years than are comfortable to remember these days, bumming around different kinds of gyms. I've largely avoided referring readers to any particular source material, but we have reached the stage when doing so becomes a necessity.
For detailed instruction on pretty much anything to do with weight training, Mark Rippetoe is your go-to source. His book "Starting Strength - Basic Barbell Training" (Amazon link below) will teach anyone who can read English how to safely and productively train with weights. He basically starts from the pretty much irrefutable premise that, if you want to get strong enough to lift heavy things, you need to lift heavy things, and do so in the manner that your body naturally does that sort of activity.
That said, and I have no argument against his position, I'm nevertheless going to advocate that a beginner, especially one in Charynn's position (a young sailor who will have to alternate her training environment from a shore-based gym to the facilities that can be built into whatever ship she deploys aboard), would be better off starting out working on the machines available in almost any gym not dedicated to a specific training regimen (or not a martial arts gym - these sometimes have their own "machines", but they are combat specific, and not for beginners either) (personal note; Charynn and I first met in a martial arts class. This is mostly me just covering the different types of gym that might be available to any reader, she's well aware of what martial arts training is comprised of). I think it reasonable to assume that the gym/fitness center available on a modern US Navy base will be reasonably well equipped and maintained. I use Anytime Fitness personally for my weight and endurance training.
There is another aspect to this advice that should be commented on. There is a form of "gym etiquette" that basically holds that others should be left to their own training unless they ask for help or are obviously in trouble. This gets observed more in the breach than in practice. You know that whole clubbing/bar scene of getting dressed up to attract a "date"? People (not just women either) routinely dress much less provocatively to get laid on a hot Saturday night than they do to get sore and sweaty doing exercise.
- [Pro Tip: Wear utility underwear (especially knickers - the "wet fart" is a real and all-to-common weight training gym event) (or pretty much any other physically strenuous environment come to that; grappling training anyone?) underneath uniformly dark-colored sweat pants or long-legged shorts, a long-waisted (a size too large might be in order here as well) T-shirt/sweat shirt, and good weight training athletic shoes (something that provides a uniformly level foot structure that doesn't pre-load your ankles to twist to the side under stress - the old-school Converse high top basketball shoes are a reasonably available example) (For women, I can recommend the Otomics brand name of shoe as well). Also, roll a pair of sweats or shorts into a compact shape and keep them in your gym bag with your towel and the other gear you will gradually accumulate (see: wet fart, above). You'll know you're accepted by the experienced, serious lifters when they give you a little friendly stick about the quality of your fart. It's that kind of atmosphere, if you'll pardon the terrible pun.]
Everybody occasionally gets distracted by the scenery at the gym. Be polite, nod your head in a friendly fashion (if you think you won't attract a shark-pack by doing so) (being a more-than-attractive girl, Charynn no doubt learned how to dodge that years ago), maybe offer a compliment on form or technique, and get on with your own training. You will get hit on at the gym (even my old ass, to my considerable surprise - the End Times may indeed be upon us). Try not to be a hitter yourself; it's poor form, if nothing else.
The thing to keep in mind about weight training is that it is data-heavy driven behavior. That is, there is a number (more commonly a complex of inter-related numbers) for literally every exercise you can do with a weight. I've touched on this in earlier essays: "Max weight", "max rep". For a complete beginner (or anyone starting out again after a long-ish lay-off from weight training), there are a few basic body areas to concentrate on initially. In no particular order of importance, they are:
There are machines designed to focus your workout on these muscle groups solely. Any modern gym has a staff trainer; do consult him/her as to which machine is which, and how to use it properly.
It has to be acknowledged that this isn't actually the most optimum training you can do. All of these muscles come into play on any of the basic Olympic weight lifting forms, for example. Your initial focus is to determine how much weight you can lift in each of these body categories, and how many times you can lift that weight in each category. Be prepared to take notes (seriously).
Keep in mind, max weight is how much weight you can lift, one time, using correct lifting form for that body part.
- [One of the less-than-compelling arguments for machines over free weights is that a machine forces the lifter into more-or-less "correct form". Whose definition of correct form is left unanswered, of course. My argument in favor of machines initially can be divided into two areas of concern: ease of initial data division by body part/area, and reduction of distraction from training at all. The first seems obvious to me; the second is an aspect of motivation I haven't touched on earlier. If you rely on a training partner or group or class, you will fail to train regularly due to schedule conflict. Training on machines is by its nature a solitary approach to weight training that relies on no one but yourself.]
Max repetitions is how much weight you can lift a certain number of times (commonly 8 to 10 times) in a row, and for how many reps in a set of reps (max set isn't an actual "thing"; commonly lifters will train for 8 to 10 reps per set, and adjust the time between sets, as well as the number of reps in each set, or the weight lifted in each set, to prevent "plateauing" - not something a beginner needs to worry about). A common weight training routine might be: 3 sets of 10 reps on each major body part/area, each training day (this will change with accumulated experience - dividing the body parts into complimentary training groups [arms/calves, chest/back, shoulders/legs, for example], to be trained on different days, is an idea that naturally comes along with adding weight and training devices to your routine).
- [A common rule of thumb to give your training some external point of reference is that you "should" be able to lift roughly 25% of your body weight directly overhead in a Military Press, at least your own body weight for your chest Bench Press, and at least 150% of your body weight from your Leg Squat. You will be a while getting up to these levels of lifting performance. Probably well into the free weights stage of your training. Don't get frustrated; nobody can do this when they are getting started. This is a generic example of the sort of external training metric you can use to guide your training development on your own.]
Once you have accumulated this basic training data and physical capability, you will be ready to consider adding dumbells to your training routine. When you do, you will no longer be a beginner at weight training, but expect this to occur only after probably 2 months of regular training (4 days a week minimum), and more likely longer than that. A regular training session for a beginning lifter will probably average about 20 to 25 minutes of weight training, with at least 20 minutes of endurance training (topic of Part The Fifth, forthcoming).
Keep in mind that your initial training is to achieve a desirable muscle mass to body fat ratio, as well as a generally firmer body composition, before beginning to add muscle mass. You need to achieve a desired physical dimension before adding to your body weight, or you will simply be adding bulk to an already over-padded form. This is only achieved when your diet reduces the quantity of body fat to the desired level, and thus the routine experience of having to allow additional time before beginning training to add specific muscle bulk (a note on that: women have an incredibly difficult time adding very much visible specific muscle bulk without resorting to extreme physical training or chemical assistance. Frankly, women just don't "bulk up" in the same way that men do. Get over it, and don't let a fear of that result stop you from beginning weight training).
Remember, it's a journey.
Post-script: I see that I haven't mentioned abdominal muscle training. Can you do a sit up? Whether or not you can (yet), can you do a supine leg lift? Lie on your back on some available area of reasonably clean (don't get pissy about a little dirt, you're already sweaty and stinky and it will all wash off, I promise) floor, place your hands palm down beside your hips, now lift your straight legs about a foot off the ground and lower until your feet are almost touching the floor again. Repeat at least 20 times.
Once you catch your breath, move your hands to the side of your head, now sit up (if you need to lodge your straight legs or feet under something at first, you're cheating) (keep in mind the ancient training adage: if you're not cheating, you're not trying hard enough to get good enough that you don't have to). Repeat at least 20 times.
On a related note, can you do a regulation push up? If you can't, don't drop your knees to the floor, use the "snake motion" by pushing your shoulders up until your arms are fully extended and then snaking your hips up until your body is in alignment again. Lower yourself until you are almost touching the floor and repeat at least 20 times.
These three daily exercises will keep your abs well toned, and your back strong enough for them to have something to leverage all that strength against without injury.