How to Structure Your Weight Lifting Routine
Nobody wants to walk into a gym to lift weights knowing nothing about weight training. First of all, it is obvious, and who wants to look as clueless as they feel? But you are not clueless if you have read my “perfect workout” series. You know to immediately roll and loosen up your joints, to then move into some corrective work, then to do movement preparation drills. Now you are ready to lift…
Let’s start with my basic “Rules of Lifting”
First, begin by working the biggest muscles first, then moving to smaller ones. If you are going to include your legs into your lifting that day, start with squats or deadlifts. If you are giving your legs a day off, start with back exercises.
Second, focus on complex moves. Complexity is in…isolation is out. A “complex” lift is one that uses several muscle groups, and as a consequence, movement occurs at multiple joints. A squat is a perfect example of a complex lift. In the squat, you not only use the gluteals and hamstrings to extend the hips, but you also use the quadriceps, hip flexor group, and the stabilizing muscles of the entire core. Compare this to the knee extensor machine, a classic isolation movement occurring at a single joint. In this move, you sit on a chair, hook your ankles under a pad, and extend your lower legs. This is an isolation move occurring across the knee..not only that, but it is an isolation move that you almost never do in real life. Below is a sampling of both types of lifts. An isolation move or two won’t hurt, but focusing on the complex moves is better overall approach. Additionally, if you are going to do both types of lifts, do the complex moves first. The biceps curl can wait till the end (for all of you mirror gazers…).
Complex lifts (multiple joints move): Squat, Deadlift, Lunges, Bench press, standing military (overhead) press, Horizontal rowing, pull ups
Isolation lifts (single joint movement): biceps curls, adductor/abductor machines, triceps extension, leg extension, seated hamstring curl
Third, learn perfect technique. If you do this first and foremost, and you focus continually on technique (even when you fatigue) you will not get injured. On the other hand, if you are sloppy, it is very possible that you will hurt yourself as you lift heavier loads. This cannot be over-emphasized. We are not talking rocket science, though. I learned by reading books and watching others. These days, not only can you read, but YouTube makes it easy to learn the basics. Just make sure you are watching a trained professional, not an actor/actress from a reality TV show (you know who I’m talking about).
Begin lifting light. For the first few weeks, you get stronger NOT by lifting heavy, but simply by training your nervous system how to do the moves. Once you have good form and the movement patterns are grooved into your brain, it’s time to get serious. Begin light for a warm up set or two, and then work hard! You will not “bulk up.” The last repetition of your work sets should be difficult. If the final repetition is easy, or even moderately easy…go heavier!
Take a day or two off between lifting for the same muscle group. You have made teeny little tears in the muscle fibers by asking them to lift heavy weights. But don’t panic…this is good. If you feed your muscles and rest them appropriately—they heal and come back even stronger. This is the whole point of weight lifting. It is called Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand (SAID principle for you exercise physiology nerds). Your body adapts to what you ask it to do. If you want it to get stronger, you must ask it to lift heavier objects than it is used to lifting. It then adapts, and, poof, you are stronger.
Now that the basics are covered, how about the more specific questions of what moves, how many exercises to do, how many reps and sets to do, with what frequency should I lift, and how hard should it feel. How will I know if I am doing too much? Too little?
A beginner should try to work every muscle group at least twice a week. Once a week…not good enough unless you are just trying to maintain the muscle mass you already have (and even then, twice/week is better). Three times a week is even better, but only by a little bit, so if you are really working hard to fit it in, at least get in two workouts per week. What are the muscle groups to target?
Legs: Both front (quadriceps) and back (hamstrings) of the thighs. Think lunges, squats, stability ball hamstring curls, step-ups, and more lunges
Hips: Extensors (that would be the butt, Bob), and flexors (these are usually very tight and mostly need to be stretched). Think squats, more squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, lunges again
Back: Huge muscle groups! Latissimus dorsi is the big one (lat pull downs, pull ups, rowing movements), anything where you pull something toward the center of your body either horizontally or vertically
Chest: Pectorals and anterior shoulder: Think push ups, bench press (flat, inclined), dumbbell flies
Shoulders: Three heads to your deltoid muscles, so they like to be worked at different angles. Exercises here include vertical pressing moves like the military press, with bar or dumbbells, lateral raises (bend over an inclined bench for a different angle), dumbbell forward raise, and my favorite, kettlebell clean and press.
Abdominals: Plank holds (front and side), bicycle, stability ball curls, regular curls, dumbbell or kettlebell renegade row (killer), Russian twist
Arms: both front (biceps): rows, pull ups, biceps curls, and back (triceps): triceps press or kickback, pushups, horizontal and vertical pressing moves
Is your head spinning? Like I said, it is NOT COMPLICATED! Pick one move from each group (some exercises overlap groups because they are complex, and therefore work across multiple joints). Study the precise form from books, YouTube, friends who know, or a trainer before you try each exercise. Start light. Warm up first. Then gradually add weight until the last repetition is fairly difficult. In the beginning, strive for two sets of 10-15 repetitions of each exercise. In exercises where you hold for time, aim to increase your time by 5 seconds each time you do the move.
KEEP TRACK OF YOUR PROGRESS. I know it looks silly. But if you don’t know what you did the last time, how can you progress? You have to challenge yourself by doing a tiny bit more or holding for a few seconds longer than the last time. I carry a workout log around with me. I look to see what I did on that exercise the last time I did it. Then I will either increase the weight, or the number of reps, or decrease the rest between sets. Only a tiny bit. It’s all about baby steps and consistency.