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Naturally, most of us experience instant confusion when first faced with a wide array of weights and hard-to-figure machines at the gym. Luckily, The New Science of Strong, a special edition of SHAPE, dives into all your beginner weight lifting questions. Here’s what you need to know to start pumping iron, and you can check out this story and more from the special issue on stands now.
Should I begin my workout with weights or cardio?
If your primary goal is to boost strength and build lean muscle, head for the weight rack first, advises celebrity trainer Jay Cardiello. “If you are depleted from your cardio session, you will be sacrificing form, control, balance, and safety when you switch to weights—all of which can result in an injury,” he says. You can hit the treadmill after you’re done lifting or add a set of jumping jacks between strength exercises to get the best of both worlds. (Related: Does Is Matter What Order You Perform Exercises In a Workout?)
Free weights or machines?
The swing toward “functional fitness” activities like CrossFit and kettlebells means those cable stack machines have gotten lonelier at the gym. Dumbbells and barbells, as well as tools like TRX, do require you to stabilize in all planes of motion, notes Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., an assistant professor in exercise science at CUNY Lehman College in New York City. “Those exercises typically recruit more muscles than a comparable machine-based movement,” he explains. Developing these stabilizer muscles is important both functionally (lifting that heavy bag of groceries) and aesthetically (your abs get a little more defined in these moves too). But don’t turn your back on those weight machines entirely. Machines provide stability and support, so if you’re just starting out training or have limitations, they’re a good option. (Related: 7 Exercise Machines That Are Actually Worth Your Time)
How long should I rest between sets?
Structuring your strength program includes thinking about what exercises you will do and in what order. But the downtime between sets is also key to achieving positive results, says Gabrielle Fundaro, Ph.D., a certified sports nutritionist and health coach and consultant for fitness and nutrition company Renaissance Periodization. If your number-one objective is to build strength, take as long as three minutes between sets to allow your muscles’ energy systems to recover since you’re using heavier weights and fewer reps (five to eight). If you’re more concerned with muscle growth or maintaining muscle while dieting, stick to a moderate rep range (eight to 12 reps) and shorter rest periods (about one or two minutes between sets). A 30-second rest is good if your training for muscle endurance—higher reps (15–25) and lighter weights. Or try super-setting, in which you rest one muscle group while working another (such as doing bench presses followed by rows). Regardless of your workout, don’t “ignore” your rest: You need it to mentally prepare for the next set and stay focused.
How often should I increase the load?
Moving up to the next weight on the rack or machine is always motivating, but be careful you’re not doing too much too soon, says Julia Ladewski, a strength and conditioning coach based in Highland, Indiana. “If you are able to complete all of the reps in a set with a certain weight and without losing your form, you should try to increase the weight next time you do the exercise.” Of course, at some point, you will hit a wall. “If your form breaks, stop and rest or reevaluate how many reps you should be performing,” Ladewski says. Every four to eight weeks, back o and let your body recover for a couple of weeks. (Related: How Often Should You Do Heavy Weight Lifting Workouts?)
What’s the best time of day to lift weights?
Studies have found that pumping iron in the p.m. may help you get stronger since levels of cortisol (the hormone responsible for breaking down muscle tissue as part of its job in regulating blood sugar) are lower in the early-evening hours. Meanwhile, testosterone—key for building muscle, even in women—also dips as the day progresses, but it has the highest ratio to cortisol in the evening. Keep in mind that most of the studies regarding strength and our body’s natural clocks (or circadian rhythms) are done on men, so the same results aren’t guaranteed for women. If you prefer working out in the morning (or it’s the only time you can), then that is the time to get moving. “Some people prefer to exercise in the morning, others like the later afternoon or evening—it just depends on when you feel best,” notes Marci Goolsby, M.D., a primary sports medicine physician with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Her one caveat: “Avoid vigorous exercise too close to bed because it can keep you awake.” And then you’ll never get to the gym when your alarm goes off. (Related: What It *Really* Means If You Like Working Out In the Morning vs. Night)
Do I need a spotter?
“If you’re working with a large and heavy compound movement like squats or bench presses, the answer is a definitive yes!” says Ladewski. Having someone looking out for you means they can help if something goes wrong (e.g., your foot slips or your grip loosens), and just knowing someone is there boosts your confidence to go heavier or do one more rep. If you don’t have a spotter, do your big lifts in a Smith machine or a rack with safety rails to catch the weight—just in case.
How long should I feel sore after a workout?
Those aches you feel the day or two after an intense workout are officially called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). “The idea behind resistance training is that you’re basically tearing something and creating a micro-trauma in the muscle,” says fitness and nutrition expert Harley Pasternak, author of The Body Reset Diet. “When the muscle recovers, it’s going to recover stronger and denser than it was before.” So pain means gain. But soreness that is acute or not bilateral—i.e., on one side of your body but not the other—can be a sign of injury. If you feel normal DOMS soreness in a muscle, ligament, or tendon, you can continue working out around it, Pasternak says, by focusing on another muscle group for a few days. (Related: Is It OK to Get a Massage If You’re ~Really~ Sore?)
Should I train my abs every day?
If you’re conditioned to doing crunches every day, you may want to rethink that. “Like all muscle groups, there is such a thing as too much training; you won’t see additional bene ts by training the abdominal muscles on a daily basis,” says Fundaro. In addition to core-centric moves like planks and bicycles, your abs are targeted through indirect work during movements such as squats and deadlifts. Fundaro’s advice: Keep ab-specific training to three to five days per week, aiming for three to five sets of eight to 20 reps each. And remember there’s no such thing as spot reduction—all the crunches in the world won’t give you a six-pack if they are hiding under body fat. Keeping your diet clean and your workout well-rounded will help get the results you want.
Compound exercises like pull-ups or isolated exercises like rows?
“Both have benefits, but it does depend on your goal,” says Ladewski. If your intent is to build overall strength, do compound movements like pull-ups first so your form isn’t compromised, since isolation exercises tend to exhaust the small supporting muscles that you need to get through those bigger moves. If you are more interested in aesthetics, do the isolation exercises first—they focus on the exact contraction you want and prevent muscle imbalances.
How do I avoid calluses on my hands?
“Calluses are actually extremely beneficial because they assist with grip,” explains Fundaro. Still, you may not want your hands to look like a lumberjack’s. During training, wear gloves or wraps for protection that won’t interfere with your grip. Later, soak your hands in warm water with Epsom salts to soften the skin, then gently rub with a pumice stone. And moisturize your hands daily. Never pick at your calluses—it only makes them tougher and can lead to an infection.
What are the best recovery moves?
You slayed your last strength session. Congratulations! Now the real work begins because it’s on the days you don’t work out that you start to get stronger. “When you exercise, your muscles undergo microtrauma. Afterward, what are known as satellite cells fuse to the damaged areas to repair the muscle fibers,” says Jessica Matthews, senior adviser for integrative wellness at the American Council on Exercise. But this process can happen only when you’re at rest. Most of your “off” days should include active recovery, which means low-intensity movement such as an easy bike ride or walking the dog, as well as flexibility and mobility exercises like light stretching, yoga, or foam rolling. These activities will increase circulation and assist in bringing key nutrients to your muscles so they repair faster, Matthews says. Get your heart rate up slightly and loosen any tightness, but don’t seriously sweat it. (Related: Common Foam Rolling Mistakes You’re Probably Making)