Part 1 of a sporadic series.
Let’s say you have a little project going on at home…it could be as simple as hanging a picture on the wall, or maybe it’s a bit more involved, like refinishing a chair you found at a yard sale. Either way, simple or complicated, you need some tools to get the job done. If you’re hanging a picture, you will need a hammer and a nail, maybe a level, possibly a ruler or tape measure. And to refinish that chair? Beyond my scope of experience (I’m more the picture hanging type), but let’s just say that might involve several trips to Home Depot. Regardless of the scenario, the right tools are necessary to get the job done. Could you hang the picture without the level and tape measure ~ yup. Would the job be done as well…probably not.
When you enter the gym, you are working on a “project” of sorts too ~ your own body. Now whether your goals are to “stay in shape,” “lose weight,” or “build muscle,” you are faced with a myriad of tools to use. Which ones do you need to get the job done? Are there tools, like the hammer and nail, that are essential to your “project?” Which tools are nice to have, like the level and tape measure, but not necessarily required? Is this analogy even working? 🙂
Gyms vary a lot in what they have to offer ~ I should know, because locally I have trained at 5 different gyms for substantial periods of time. What every gym is going to have, however, is a vast amounts of machines. These can be very intimidating…who hasn’t looked out over the sea of machines and wondered “where do I start?” Well, this is the easiest question to answer ~ you don’t…skip all those ridiculous machines (actually there are one or two that you might use, but for now, just skip all of them). They are intimidating and, quite frankly, not of much use. Machines typically work a specific body part in a non-functional environment. How often do you find yourself moving or lifting weight in a “real-world” situation while seated with a chest or back support…ah, never. The reality is that working your muscles in this unrealistic environment isn’t going to help in your everyday life because we don’t use our muscles in isolation, we use them together, in a synergistic manner. For example, let’s say you’re trying to pick something up off the ground ~ you might squat down using your legs, pick it up with your upper body, all the while stabilizing yourself with you core. We want to train the body in the gym in a similar manner. That isn’t to say that you will never sit or lie down on a bench, but generally speaking we want your body doing as much work as possible. The other difficulty with machines is that it is hard to make them “fit” your body ~ quite frankly, machines are built for the average male. Women, especially those on the smaller side, just do not “fit” the machines, no matter how you adjust them. Finally, a machine controls the track of the movement ~ if the machine doesn’t fit you, this is bad. And even if it does “fit,” it does not allow for normal variations in movement or stabilizing the movement on your own. So what all this is getting to is stay away from the machines and use the free weights. Ignore the fact that a lot of people are using said machines and that the trainers in the gym have their clients use them…a significant majority of gym goers and trainers don’t know what they are doing.
And so we (finally!) come to the first of my “Top 10 Training Tools” (took me long enough)…
1. Free weights. I get it, these might be just as intimidating. We all understand that you need to pick them up with your hands, but then what? While I do want to talk at some point in the future about programming (i.e. putting together an exercise program), I think the best thing to do is arm yourself with a good book. While there are some good trainers in any gym, it can be hard to figure out which one(s) know what they are doing. I have been going to my current commercial gym for about a year and a half, and while it has one of the best “toolboxes” I have ever seen (outside of Cressey Performance where I train once a week), I have determined that I would only recommend two of the dozen trainers I see working there (more on that in a minute). So quite frankly, if you aren’t sure what to do with the dumbbells, it isn’t very likely that you will be able to spot the decent trainer (and no, going for the cute one wouldn’t be a good failsafe option, at least at my gym). Here’s what I recommend ~ for women, arm yourself with either “The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess” or “The Female Body Breakthrough: The Revolutionary Strength-Training Plan for Losing Fat and Getting the Body You Want.” For men, “The New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle,” or “Maximum Strength: Get Your Strongest Body in 16 Weeks With the Ultimate Weight-Training Program“. If the dumbbells are your hammer and nails, then these books represent that level and tape measure ~ you will have a better end result if you arm yourself with all the right tools (am I forcing the analogy too much?). I have “The New Rules of Lifting.” It tells you everything you need to know to enter that weight room and get started. It tells you exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it. It provides pictures too. And half of the book is about nutrition, which is an essential part of losing weight or looking better. In both “The New Rules of Lifting” books the workouts are written by Alwyn Cosgrove. I have blogged about him in the past (see “The Hierarchy of Fat Loss” and “Halfway to 2012“). “The Female Body Breakthrough” is written by Alwyn’s wife, Rachel Cosgrove, who I have also blogged about (see “Women Have it All Wrong“). And “Maximum Strength” is written by Eric Cressey, the owner of the gym I train at. These are smart people, and you would be well served by starting with any of their books. You won’t find any bicep curls or tricep extensions in their books…but trust me, you will be working those muscles (push-ups anyone?).
If you feel you are a more experienced lifter or you have used one of the above books for a period of time and want something more, then I recommend moving on to either Nia Shanks Beautiful Badass program (I blogged about that here) or Eric Cressey’s “Show and Go.” I have Beautiful Badass ~ a ton of great programs ~ Nia takes all the thinking out of it for you (you are only responsible for the “doing”). She also provides video, which is extremely useful. Even if you are new to lifting, you can start with these programs ~ but in general I would say they are a bit more “serious.”
A note about hiring a personal trainer ~ I mentioned above the difficulty in spotting the “good” trainer in your gym. Keep in mind that personal training is about selling. The cute guy who can charm the pants off you may be the busiest trainer at the gym…it doesn’t mean he is the best (he might be, which would be awesome, but don’t count on it). While you are at the gym, do what I do and watch the trainers. Are they putting their client through every machine on the gym floor or are they using the dumbbells? Watch what they do ~ are they correcting their clients movements? If you want to work with a trainer, you might just have to try one out. However, never commit to a “package” unless you have done several sessions with that trainer ~ I would recommend 2-3. Then you can use Molly Galbraith’s excellent checklist to evaluate “How to Tell if Your Trainer Knows What They are Doing” (Molly is one of the “Girls Gone Strong”).
So that’s training tool #1, in my opinion the single most important training tool in your toolbox. You can get an amazing workout without touching another piece of equipment in the gym. In future posts I will add to your toolbox ~ there are lots of good training tools out there to make your workout more fun and that will add new challenges. Head to the gym and give the dumbbells a try.