This piece is designed to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. There is a wealth of information out there that does a wonderful job of detailing what it takes to get fit. However, it often leaves the readers at a cliffhanger; you know the principles of training, but how do you actually turn that into a routine? And that is where this article comes in. Of course, I will give a brief justification of the recommendations I make, but this is more quick-and-dirty than thorough.
If you want to read background information first, I would suggest the following pages:
The "starting out" page on stumptuous.com
The beginners page on ExRx
Mike Robertson's excellent guide to sets and reps
The HST principles on Hypertrophy-Specific Training
And now, on to the routine!
First, I always recommend free weights (or body weight exercises, like push-ups) to beginners. The reasons are as follows:
- Avoiding injury. Machines at the gym (except for cable machines) lock you into a fixed plane of motion that is often unnatural and a biomechanical nightmare. Additionally, the machines are made to fit the largest person at the gym, so if you are on the short side you may not be able to get the machines to fit you.
- Efficiency. Machines tend to isolate your muscles, whereas exercises with free weights, particularly when performed standing up, recruit lots of synergists, as well as weird little stabilizer muscles. Do a few sets of heavy standing dumbbell shoulder presses and your abs will be on fire!
- Functionality. Machines are often rather contrived movements. Let's draw on quadricep exercises as an example. It's much more likely that you will have to squat down or carry something heavy up a flight of stairs than you will have to raise something heavy with your ankles while in a seated position.
- A full-body routine is one that works your entire body instead of picking different days to hit different sections.
- Basic exercises are ones which place relatively high absolute intensity on your muscles. These are the opposite of auxiliary exercises, which place heightened relative intensity on an isolated muscle target. Basic exercises accommodate a larger load which is shared by numerous muscle groups. By way of example, squats are an example of a basic exercise, while the leg extension machine is an auxiliary exercise. While squats primarily target your quads, you also use lots of other muscles; the leg extension machine pretty much only works your quadriceps.
- Compound movements are ones which involve two or more joint movements.
From ExRx's page on full-body routines:
On a full body workout (performing all major body parts in one session on 3 non-consecutive days per week) it is suggested you only perform one exercise per muscle group. When you are starting a program (or even starting back after a long layoff), more exercises and sets are not necessary and sometimes can sometimes be counterproductive. Since the training response is relative to what you are accustom to, which is next to nothing, you will make sufficient progress with a minimal exercises. Keep in mind the greatest gains in strength and muscle mass will occur in the initial stages of your program, seemingly no matter what you do.
As such, when doing a full-body workout, it is vital to choose exercises where you get the most bang for your buck. Otherwise you'll be stuck with a crazy routine doing individual exercises for every stinkin' little muscle fiber. Compound movements allow you to work multiple muscle groups with a single exercise. This also has some psychological benefits; people with long arduous workouts tend to pace themselves rather than exerting their full potential. Additionally it is easier to stick with a routine if it takes less than an hour.
So, here is the routine that I recommend for beginners. This is comprised of basic compound exercises for the large muscle groups.
- Squats (start with just bodyweight, and add weights once you get used to good form)
- Romanian deadlifts (this is a great article on technique)
- Overhead shoulder press or dumbbell raise (alternate workouts)
- Bent rows*
- Wide-arm push-ups (or incline push-ups) at the beginning, switch to bench press when you build up strength
- Modified plank (hold until physical failure)
This will hit your quads, hamstrings, deltoids, back, chest, and core, respectively. I find that cardio is sufficient for calves, triceps are hit when you work your chest, and biceps are hit when you work your back. Since you're using free weights your abs will get hit with most of those exercises because you use them to stabilize your body.
As far as sets and reps, 3 sets of 8 reps, where you are at or near physical failure on the eigth rep, is recommended for building muscle and also making strength gains. However, when you're first starting out you might do fewer sets with more reps, such as 2x12 or 2x15, just to get a feel for the weights. Before you grab a set of pink 2lb dumbbells for "toning", be sure to read my article on bulking vs toning.