The information in this article is aimed at lifters new to the gym who have very little experience when it comes to exercising.
So let’s say you walk into the gym, it’s day one and you’re feeling confident. You should totally go up to the free-weight area and start lifting heavy things right? You’ve watched a load of YouTube videos so you know what you’re doing right? Wrong. Dead wrong.
Right now you haven’t earned the right to touch heavy weights. In fact for the next few weeks you shouldn’t be touching any weights at all. After all you don’t even know how to move properly yet and that’s key. You need to be able to move properly using just your bodyweight before you can start loading those movements.
So what are the fundamental movements you need to know?
In no particular order we have:
You’ll notice there are no biceps curls in that list and for good reason. For now you simply don’t need them. The learning curve for isolation exercises is so small you don’t need much practice to get them right. These larger compound movements however require a lot more coordination and understanding of what you are trying to achieve.
My advice would be to master the following exercises:
That’s right bodyweight, not your bodyweight on a bar across your upper back. This is where you need to start. If you cannot go very low without rounding your back then you need to work on your mobility. Here’s a tip, if you elevate your heels slightly using a thick mat or thin weight plate and you can suddenly go much lower without rounding then it’s your ankle mobility or calf flexibility that needs work. If it doesn’t make much of a difference then you’re either looking at poor hip mobility, tight glutes or tight hamstrings. Figure out what is wrong and fix it. A great way to practice is to squat down onto a box, step or bench. Ideally you want to find a bench that is low enough that the crease of your hips are level with, or below, your knee when you are at the bottom of the squat.
Bodyweight good morning
I’m going to put this simply, if you cannot touch your toes then you shouldn’t be doing any loaded hip hinge work until you can. That being said the good morning is a very good place to start. To make sure you are doing this movement correctly stand just in front of a wall. Start by getting your back straight and bending your knees slightly, don’t bend them any more than this though or the exercise will turn into a squat. The next step is to bend at your hips and push your butt back until it touches the wall, and to finish return to your starting position by driving the hips forward and squeezing your glutes. If this is too easy then shuffle your feet forward an inch and try again. Ideally you should feel a very slight stretch in the hamstrings and your back should be neutral (straight). Without a weight this is not a particularly challenging exercise but that’s okay, get this perfect now and you’ll be able to lift so much more over the coming months than you would have otherwise. Plus not getting injured is great.
The push up
Love it or hate it it’s a fantastic exercise for building upper body strength, power, adding mass, improving shoulder stability and increasing core strength. So do it. If you can’t do a full push up (feet on floor, legs straight) just yet that’s okay, drop down to your knees and do a ¾ push up. Do not call it a “girly push up”. If you call it that you are an idiot and you deserve a punch.
If you can’t do pull ups then do chin ups, if you can’t do those do holds and slow negatives. If you’re in a commercial gym you probably don’t have access to resistance bands, which is a shame, you could have used them to provide whatever assistance you needed to be able to do full pull ups. But that’s okay, holds and negatives are a great way to start. Either jump up or, if the pull up bar/handles are too high, use a bench. Get yourself into the top position of the pull up. You should have your chin over the bar (without looking up, that’s cheating, look forward) and your arms tucked tightly in at your sides. A great cue for this is to think chest to bar. Try to hold this position for 5 seconds, if that’s a challenge drop down and start again. Once holding for 5 seconds becomes quite manageable it’s time to add negatives. From the top position you will lower yourself for a 5 second count and start again from here. Do this until you can do full pull ups.
The TRX or inverted row
If your gym has a TRX great, crack on. If not then you’re going to want to set yourself up in a squat rack or even better the smith machine. In my opinion the smith machine is garbage and this is one of the few legitimate uses for it, this way you’re not taking up a squat rack. What you’re going to do is set the bar or handles at chest height, grab hold of said bar/handles with either an overhand or underhand grip. Which grip you choose doesn’t really matter for now. From here you’re going to walk forward so that your legs are straight, arms are straight and you are hanging from the bar in a reverse plank/push up position. All you have to do now is, keeping yourself in a nice straight line from head to toe, pull your chest towards the bar and then lower yourself back down.
Okay so I haven’t got any safe way (handstand push ups are not for beginners) for you to do any vertical pushing without using a weight. The safest way to get practicing this movement is either with a shoulder press machine or using cables. If you’re going to use cables I would recommend being in a kneeling position.
Once you have mastered these exercises you can progress onto loading them with resistance bands if you have access to them or dumbbells/kettlebells. When it comes to core work, for now, keep things simple. Front and side planks are your friends. Do them, they will make your core a lot stronger and maybe even help with hip mobility (look up “Dean Somerset hips” on YouTube).
That’s it. That’s the basics. I will follow this article up soon with how best to progress from this point but this should do the trick for your first few weeks of training.
Author Bio –
I’m a personal trainer and coach based in Liverpool, England. I have been working in the fitness industry for a little under 2 and a half years, in both commercial and private gyms, specialising in strength training and fat loss. I have experience with training a wide range of clients from students, to young mothers - post pregnancy, to middle aged and elderly clients.
For information about 1-1 or online coaching services contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org