Your initial steps in setting up a routine are crucial to your future understanding of working out and creating something that is effective and has meaning to your workout goals. Certainly, it is key to choose exercises that target all of your muscle groups, however, you need to choose exercises that are going to actually be best for your body type and your level of development, as well as choosing exercises that address your strengths and weaknesses.
The biggest mistake new trainees make is to lump exercises together arbitrarily. At first, we suppose, this is common and expected. But once that first 4-6 months is over, you need to, as they say, actually have a method to your madness. One way to make sure you’re accomplishing this is to work with a personal trainer who can help you set up the right program for you and educate you on proper form. If that’s not an option, either because of finances or area, consider renting or buying a workout video. Also, read up on strength training routines as much as possible. Try to ascertain what makes each successful or not, and begin learning how to choose exercises that suit you.
One more option is to hire an online personal trainer. It’s cheaper than hiring a trainer at the gym and you’ll get the same kind of personal treatment as you would at a gym or at home. You’ll have to have a working knowledge of what each exercise does, and some idea of execution of each movement. However, if you have that down pat, an online trainer might just be for you.
Once you’ve made the appropriate consultations or done your homework, begin by putting together a few sample routines. Try them out, each at 2-3 weeks at a time, so that you get a feel for what each does. You’ll immediately see in practice, what you could not necessarily see on paper.
For beginners, choose at least one exercise per muscle group, and combine two body parts per workout. For intermediate lifters, choose 2 exercises per muscle group, and begin composing splits that include 2-3 body parts per workout, heavier weights, more complex techniques (such as drop sets and super sets) and more frequent days off in between intense workouts:
• Chest: bench press, cable crossover, pushups, and pec deck machine
• Back: one-armed row, seated row machine, lat pull downs
• Shoulders: overhead press, lateral raise, and front raise
• Biceps: bicep curls, hammer curls, alternate dumbbell curls
• Triceps: tricep extensions, dips, kickbacks
• Quadriceps: Squats, lunges, leg extension and leg press machines
• Hamstrings: stiff-legged dead lifts, leg curl machine
• Abs: crunches, reverse crunches, oblique twists
But beyond choosing exercises, there are other considerations that bear upon your success…
Sequence and Speed
When doing a series of exercises, you’ll generally want to start with all of the larger muscle groups first. This means using compound movements, such as bench press, squat and dead lift. After tackling compound movements, you work toward the smaller muscle groups and isolation movements, such as triceps rope press, alternate dumbbell curls and cable crossovers. This allows you to do the most demanding moves when you’re the least fatigued, and work into isolative movements when you are less capable of lifting heavy weight and more capable of focusing on specific areas within the muscle group, with quality and definition in mind.
There are exceptions to this rule of compound, followed by isolation, however. For instance, you’re much less likely to lose your balance during a lunge if you do the lunges before exhausting the muscles of quads and hamstrings with machine exercises. Lunges are not a compound movement, but more of a finishing, detail, shaping exercise. However, it’s difficult to perform the more isolative exercises after exhausting the quads, hamstrings and adductors/abductors with squats or leg press. You’ll also use better form on your push-ups if you do them before fatiguing the triceps with bench press. These exceptions are just details that are learned along the way through trial and error.
The speed of the movement is also an important element of each exercise because pace oftentimes dictates either development or condition. A reasonable training pace is one to two seconds for the lifting (concentric) portion of the exercise and three to four seconds for the lowering (eccentric) portion of the move. Fast, jerky movements should be avoided. They place undue stress on the muscle and connective tissue at the beginning of the movement, substantially increasing the likelihood of an injury. Fast lifting also cheats you out of some of the strength benefits. When lifting at a fast pace, momentum (not the muscle) is doing a good deal of the work.
Sets and Reps
A set is a group of successive repetitions performed without resting. A rep or repetition is the number of times you repeat the move in each set. So, if your instructions were to do 3 sets of 12 (3 x 12) biceps curls, you’d curl the weight 12 times in a row to complete the first set. You’d put the weight down, rest a moment and do 12 more in a row to complete the second set, and so on, until you’ve finished the prescribed number of sets for that exercise.
Multiple set exercises are usually done with one to three minutes of rest between each set. Some train using single sets, with high intensity as the key ingredient, but it’s a more advanced type of decision and method. An advantage of multiple set training is that the longer training session can result in higher calorie expenditure.
Resistance and Range
The number of repetitions chosen for each exercise depends on the amount of resistance (or weight) you’re using. Maximum resistance is the most weight you can lift with proper form one time, but this is not practical and certainly not for the beginner. In general, most people can complete 6 repetitions with 85% of their maximum resistance, 8 repetitions with 80% of maximum resistance, 10 repetitions with 75% of maximum resistance, 12 repetitions with 70% of maximum resistance and 14 repetitions with 65% of maximum resistance. Training with more than 85% of your maximum resistance increases the risk of injury, and training with less than 65 percent of maximum resistance decreases strength gains. So, a safe and productive training recommendation would be 8-12 repetitions using 70% to 80% of maximum resistance.
Full range of motion is an important component of proper form. Each exercise should be taken through the complete range of joint movement in a slow controlled manner, with emphasis placed on the completely contracted position. If a weight is so heavy that you have to jerk, bounce or swing to get it to the top of the movement, it’s too heavy. Your form is compromised. Full-range of motion movements contract and strengthen the muscle you’re working (the prime mover) and stretch the opposing (antagonist) muscle. This contributes to both muscle strength and joint flexibility.
Progression and Frequency
Progressive resistance is the key to any well-designed strength program. This means that as your muscles adapt to an exercise, you will gradually increase the resistance or the repetitions to ensure further gains and steady progress. A good rule of thumb is, you should start out with a weight that allows you to do at least 8 repetitions of a particular exercise. Once you can complete 12 repetitions with that weight, you increase the weight by about 5 percent. Now, you’re doing 8 repetitions with the slightly heavier weight. Once you’ve worked up to 12 repetitions with the heavier weight, you increase it by another 5 percent, and so on, and go back to doing 8 repetitions. The idea is to keep increasing repetitions and resistance, at a pace that is comfortable and natural, so that you can continually see results.
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