I was moved to write this post by something that happened over at another site message board I regularly visit. The members are predominantly men but there are a few women who post regularly. One of the women, who has just completed a 3-month weight training programme put together by a professional PT, asked for suggestions for new exercises to try.
Well, the boys practically fell over themselves in the rush to make suggestions and sound knowledgeable in front of this popular female! Debates broke out on such esoteric topics as which are better, deadlifts or good mornings. There were the usual absolutist pronouncements (“this is what you must do”, “that other thing is rubbish”). Famous names were cited in defence of different views.
A couple of pages later and the original poster was thoroughly confused and somewhat discouraged, even to the point of saying, “no wonder women don’t bother with weight training”! That’s a real pity, but she has since rallied and the thread has calmed down somewhat.
But it got me thinking. What advice do you give to someone who wants to move on from their first weights programme? Where do you go for information? How do you know whether it’s any good? So I will try to answer those basic questions.
Before I start, I will make this disclaimer. The whole topic of weight training is controversial. As the saying goes, opinions are like a**holes, everybody’s got one – and my friend on that other site found this out the hard way. What I’m going to write here is my opinion. I think I’ve been around weight training for long enough that I can make sensible suggestions and offer practical advice. But not everyone is going to agree with me. I welcome constructive comments and suggestions on this article.
Okay, back to business. I am presenting this in the form of an FAQ. It is aimed at people who have completed an initial training programme, probably put together by a PT in their gym when they had their induction, and who are interested in taking it a bit further and getting more into their weight training.
I want to try some new exercises – how do I go about it?
The easiest thing would be to ask someone you trust for ideas and suggestions – even better if they are a fitness professional. But if there isn’t anyone like that around, you’ll need to do your own research.
Fitness magazines are often denigrated by self-styled internet experts but they are a perfectly good place to start and many said “experts” will have started there too. Magazines run regular features containing new exercises and programmes to try, with illustrations and explanations. Women’s magazines are useless for strength training so if you are a woman you need to go for the men’s magazines like Men’s Fitness and Men’s Health. Despite magazines being obsessed with this gender separation for marketing reasons, women and men can do exactly the same exercises. There is also a magazine called UltraFit, which is aimed at men and women.
You can, of course, use the internet but it’s difficult to find what you want out there, so let me break it down a little more.
If you want to stick with your current programme but just swop in some alternative exercises, you could simply look at a directory of exercises and choose one that works the same muscle group. For example, if you are bored of doing skull crushers for tricep, have a look at the other exercises under ‘tricep’ and see what takes your fancy.
The Exercise and Muscle Directory at exrx is what a lot of people use. Each exercise is listed by muscle and body part, so it’s easy to find relevant exercises. They also have a little animation to show you how to perform the exercise. This is a bit grainy and there is sometimes controversy (oo, you surprise me) about the form demonstrated in these clips. But they are fine for our purposes. There are also some great videos over at John Beradi’s site Precision Nutrition. You need to sign up in order to view them (it’s free).
If you need a quick reminder of where all the major muscles are in the body, see this simple but handy diagram.
How do I know which exercises are best for me?
You don’t, you need to try them out. Obviously a professional will be able to make sensible recommendations but if you like the look of a particular exercise, try it for a bit and see if it works for you. Exercises move in and out of fashion. For example, the dumbbell pullover has made a real comeback in recent years, whereas good mornings are not as popular as they once were. So don’t feel that just because everyone is doing a particular exercises that it’s a ‘must have’. It may just mean that it was featured in one of the popular magazines that month or an actor used it to get ripped for a new film.
However, if you want to start creating your own programmes, you will need to dive into the topic more and start learning about different exercises, their uses and benefits. This is out of the scope of this post, but look around the site for more detailed articles.
How do I know whether I am exercising all the right muscle groups?
If you want to make sure that you are covering all your muscle groups, you can use a directory site to check which muscle groups are targeted by the exercises you are doing. Again, exrx directory will do this for you.
As a guide, here’s a really simple breakdown of the main muscles/muscle groups. Obviously there are many more muscles, but these are really the key muscles to work for strength or body building:
|Legs||calf, hamstring, quadricep, gluteus maximus (aka glutes)|
|Back||lats, trapezius (aka traps), erector spinae – see also core|
|Chest||pectorals (aka pecs)|
|Shoulders||lateral deltoids (aka delts), rear delts, front delts|
|Core||erector spinae, abdominals, obliques|
It’s worth mentioning that strength training isn’t just about training muscle groups to lift ever heavier weights. Your cardiovascular system and central nervous system are key to successful strength training. You can also train your muscles for endurance and power, as well as strength. It’s important to understand what you want to get out of strength training so that you can tailor your exercises and programme to suit your goals.
Can I learn technique from books/internet or do I need to be taught by a professional?
The ideal way to learn is to be taught by a professional in person or as part of a class. I actually learnt the basics of weight lifting technique from Body Pump classes, which utilise both power lifts and olympic lifts. You need to supplement this if you want to lift heavy but it’s as good a place as any to start, in my opinion. See my post on how I got started with free weights.
It is also possible to learn technique from a book. For weight training I would recommend Stuart McRobert’s Insider’s Tell-All Handbook on Weight Training Technique as it is really detailed and precise – which you will need if you are teaching yourself on your own. The Stumptuous website also has some great information on the big lifts such as squat, deadlift, pull up etc, all from a female perspective.
If you are interested in bodyweight training (press-ups, pull-ups etc) or the type of training used by boxers and martial artists for strength and conditioning, I recommend highly Ross Enamait’s website and books. The books are full of different exercises, pictures and information. His website has some great video clips as well.
Are there any exercises that are wrong or that I should avoid?
You’ll get people saying things like, “Don’t do deadlifts, you’ll injure yourself” or “I never do bicep curls, they are useless”. But the only exercise I know of that most people don’t recommend any more is the Behind the Neck Press (although some people still support it). Apart from that, there is no exercise that – all other things being equal – you must avoid. If you maintain good form and technique, you should be fine.
I hope this post has clarified things a little for anyone who is interested in moving that step further with their training. Strength training is full of controversy and there’s nothing people like better on an internet message board than having a heated debate. For me, the key is to go with what appeals to you, keep an open mind and try over time to acquire a working knowledge.
Is there anything else you would like to see here? Are there any basic questions I haven’t addressed?
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