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Let's cut through the confusion and bring the conversation to the basics: pick up heavy objects repeatedly, so that your muscles work hard. If they can, they will respond by increasing their capacity for work.
How exactly you choose to approach this is a matter of preference and ability. If you walk into a working gym, you will see dozens of routines, and any of them may be giving good results. I am not going to endorse any particular regimen.
My perspective is safety, because if you're injured, you lose time. These are a few rules that provide you with a safe training experience without sacrificing effectiveness or results.
I will admit that some of my guidelines will postpone gains in size and power. I prefer to work out safely, avoid injuries (which cost time and money), and have slow, steady gains.
Last word before we get to the substance: if you're just starting out to improve your fitness, please consult a qualified chiropractor before you begin. Call me or email me and I can help you find a provider with the right skills.
*Just a note, in this article I refer to people at the gym as "guys" and "him" and "he". I know lots of women who are serious about fitness and strength. I don't mean to leave women out of it, I wrote it this way for simplicity. Also, women just don't need this article as much as guys, because women have a much easier time staying safe while exercising.
Read this article about aerobic exercise. In that article, I lay out the reasoning and the method for establishing solid aerobic function--the ability to deliver oxygen to the cells. You will not get the results that you deserve if you skip this step. Develop your aerobic capacity first, before you start lifting weights, and maintain it for the rest of your life.
I realize that I am asking you to take six months, potentially, to build this foundation. It is that important. Everything else is based on the assumption that you are aerobically fit. You will have a healthier heart and better circulation, which translates to better overall function, and your strength training will be safer and more effective.
When you have established a routine for raising your heart rate and getting aerobic, you can do 15 minutes to warm up before you go to the weight room. It will get your muscles warm, your heart ready, and open your circulation deep into the tissues, where you'll need the oxygen.
You can do what you can do. You can't do what the other guy is doing. Just today, a few hours before writing this piece, I was at the gym and I saw a guy smaller than me, not looking all that muscled, dead lift 315 pounds, five sets of three, with perfect form. I was humbled and inspired, and I can proudly say that I did not try it myself. I'm nowhere near that.
What is important about the number of plates on your bar is that it is right for you. That's all you need to know. Your weight should be the right weight for you, no more and no less. See rule three.
No matter what you lift, your legs and lower back have to hold it. You will have safer and more effective workouts if your core and legs are stronger than your arms and shoulders.
Two simple and very effective lower body exercises are the squat and the deadlift. They favor the lower back, abs, hips, and legs while also developing shoulder and grip strength. Learn to do them properly. I like the videos and explanations at http://www.stronglifts.com.
When you're ready to start weight lifting, start with these two exercises, every third day if you can. There are others--countless variations of lunges, step-ups, jumps, and so on--all of them are effective if done properly.
This video is a great example. She demonstrates the proper bicep curl form, emphasizing stability of the torso. Without strength in the legs, hips, and abdomen, proper form is much more difficult, and the biceps are harder to develop.
When you can complete your goal number of sets with excellent form, you should increase the weight on your next workout. For upper body exercise, add five pounds--that's two and a half pounds per side. For lower body, add ten pounds, or five per side. If you can complete your goal again on the next workout, then increase again for the workout after that. Realize that your weight increases will not be linear. There will be weeks where you just aren't as strong as you think you should be based on last week's workouts.
If you are cheating on your form to try to complete the set, it's too much weight. Go back five or ten pounds. The goal is excellent form on every rep. See rule four.
If there is fear about the weight, that's OK. Get a spotter, hire a trainer, find a workout partner, or learn how to safely lift alone.
There are right ways and wrong ways to lift. The right ways are safe and efficient. The wrong ways endanger you, usually your lower back or shoulders, and expose you to injury.
It is natural to change your form to lift something that is too heavy. When your brain asks your body to lift something, your body tries to lift it any way it can! If you're dead lifting with a heavy weight and you are getting tired, you will naturally and unconsciously change your form to shift the weight to other muscles. You have to concentrate in order to avoid this. Why? Because the movement is only as strong as its weakest muscle. If you shift your form to spare this muscle, you're not truly building strength.
Trainers can teach you proper form. YouTube is actually a wonderful resource. Not sure about the credibility of a presenter? Or whether the information is right? Feel free to email me your question! Send me the instructions you received, or a link to a video. I love seeing what's out there!
If you can not push or press because of shoulder pain, that can probably be remedied. This is where a good chiropractor or other type of bodyworker can really help you out. They should be able to evaluate the movement and identify steps you can take to improve it, or maybe even fix it for you. But don't just give up.
You might have a knee or a hip that just can't do a squat; there are circumstances where the joint is just too damaged. But even if that is the case, someone should evaluate it and see if there is a way to modify the movement, or some other way to strengthen the area.
Soreness during and after exercise is good. Tearing, grinding, and shooting pains are bad. Numbness and tingling are bad. Finally, any pain that lasts more than three days is something you want looked at. If you don't have a good chiropractor, call me. If you don't live in Portland, find a good one near you, and don't work the area until you know what is going on.
Questions? Shoot me an email.