10 New-Kid Gym Tips

Face it: gyms are really strange spaces of pride, masculinity, and ritual.  Gyms can be intimidating, confusing, and even embarrassing.  Starting a membership at a gym is a very vulnerable time, like being the new kid at school.  Yes, the whole class is going to look at you, trying to decide if you have anything good to trade at lunch.   They will take in your backpack, your lunchbox, and your shoes, sizing you up to  decide whether your mom will bring cupcakes on your birthday.  It’s true.  But, like on the first day of school, you have some sizing up to do as well.  Who is the stinky kid?  Do you really need an elevator pass?  Who sits with whom at lunch?

My best advice is to just bite the bullet and go—once there you’ll find that you’re not the only one who is new.  But I am not going to lie to you—there is some weird stuff that goes on,  and some unspoken rules you need to be prepared for.  I could write about this topic all day long (and I just might, in a dissertation…), but for now I’ll keep it short with just ten tips.  For those of you who are gym regulars, take it easy on the new people, and feel free to laugh at the funny stuff we do.  Add to the list by leaving a comment!

  1. Monday is Universal Bench Press Day.  I know, this isn’t listed anywhere in the rules, and there is no way you could have known.  But now you do.  So if you’re new to a gym and don’t want to have to figure out when it’s your turn to use a bench, just take my advice and don’t EVER try to work chest on a Monday.
  2. There is no such thing as So-and-So’s [fill in the blank].   If you need a bench, and no one is using it, it’s yours.  Same goes for dumbbells, cables, or any other piece of equipment.
  3. Just because there are no other women in the weight room does NOT mean that women are not welcome.  Claim your space!
  4. There IS an alpha somewhere in the room—but do not be intimidated.  Identify this person; he or she will help you out.
  5. Be very careful about accepting advice from the loudest person in the room—this is the wanna be Alpha, and the noise is meant to confuse and distract you from his or her insecurities.
  6. It’s totally ok to look at yourself in the mirror—but if you’re going to do it, don’t try to hide it.  We see you.
  7. When a random person cheers you on or tries to encourage you, this is a sign of acceptance.  Just in case you were wondering, this is generally a good thing.
  8. Don’t try to talk to someone while they are in the middle of a set.
  9. When someone is about to lift something heavy, do not walk in front of the person, make any loud noises, or cause a distraction of any kind.
  10. Every gym has a Creepy Bastard.  He’s annoying, creepy, and…well, kind of a bastard, but generally harmless.

Bonus tip: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, wash your hands after you use the restroom!!!! People will notice, and they will tell others.  Then you’ll become the Stinky Kid and your life will be over and you’ll basically have to switch gyms

…And the Only Prescription is More Barbell

In a previous post, I suggested that barbell training is absolutely foundational to a good lifting program.  Many people have told me that they are trying to “work up to” barbell training, or that they want to “start out with” other exercises.  Now, don’t get me wrong—there are important uses for dumbbell training, cable exercises, and even stability ball exercises.  But knowing how to use them correctly is absolutely critical to avoid injury and achieve results—and barbell training is the absolute best way to learn the proper form that is necessary in order to correctly perform all other exercises.  Additionally, many beginners who start with barbells and cables are not training  effectively for any significant muscle gain–so basically they are doing cardio.  This post will explain why weight training–specifically compound exercises with barbells–is an effective way to reach fitness goals.

As I pointed out in my last post, many resistance exercises require a basic posture: shoulders back, chest out, hips slightly back (<—otherwise known as a nice arch in the lower back), and feet shoulder width apart.  You also need to know how to properly recruit your lats and delts, how to recognize and avoid overcompensating with your traps, and have at least enough core strength to stabilize yourself against resistance.  Barbell training accomplishes all of these things more efficiently than any other kind of training.

A solid lifting program should include some variation of the following compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and standing barbell rows.   Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups and more than one joint, allowing for more muscle breakdown and subsequent repair (translation: growth!).  While using dumbbells for these exercises has benefits and there is a place in every program for them, I strongly recommend that beginners first learn these exercises with barbells.  For starters, they streamline coordination—they require that your feet remain flat on the floor, and your hands are both doing the same thing at the same time! They also simplify the exercises by keeping everything symmetrical and eliminating extra movements: you move it one way, and then you bring it back.

In my best Arnold voice: “I lift things up, and I put them down.” 

Barbell training is also a means to just about every end—no matter your goal, barbell training can get you there.  For instance, if your goal is to get “toned,” lose weight, and feel more confident, then let me translate that for you: you want to get stronger, lose bodyfat, and tighten up all over by building a little more muscle.  You want to walk in a gym and feel like you belong, and you don’t want to feel weak and awkward.  Maybe you want to change a specific area of your body.

I recently posted the following quote as my Facebook status:
“Squatting—the difference between having a butt and owning an ass!”

One of the very first comments I received was something like, “ok, now tell me how to tighten my tummy and thighs!”  Great news: in a roundabout way, squatting can make those things happen too.  Remember: you can’t spot-treat a specific area of your body, so to “tone the belly” and see changes in the thighs, it is necessary to lose body fat and train the muscles.  So let’s talk about how barbell training is an effective way to achieve just about any fitness goal.

Let’s start with fat loss.  This is not the post where I talk about the importance of diet, nor the post where I weigh the benefits and drawbacks of HIIT vs fasted cardio.  This is more basic than that: to lose fat, you have to burn more calories than you store.  While diet is a key player, guess what your diet will be based on?  Your basal metabolic rate. That is, how many calories your body burns while you sit at your computer and write a blog post.  And your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is influenced by the amount of lean mass you have.  My BMR was much lower five years ago than it is right now, because I have spent these years increasing my lean mass (muscle).

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “muscle burns fat”?  Well, it’s not quite as simple as that but it gets the point across.  Your body requires more energy (read: kcals) to maintain lean mass (muscles) than fat.  So a body that weight 150lbs at 18% bodyfat will naturally burn more calories while doing absolutely nothing than a body at 150lbs and 30% bodyfat.  A lot more.

When I create a nutrition plan, I first estimate to the best of my ability the BMR so that I can then create a deficit—that is, how many fewer calories need to be consumed than burned.  If your BMR is 2000, then to lose one pound each week on diet alone, your diet would consist of 1500 calories a day.  1500 calories is not a lot of calories, especially for someone who wants to lead a normal life that doesn’t focus on fat loss 24 hours a day.  My calories don’t drop that low until I’m half way through my contest prep diet (and at that point my life IS focused on fat loss 24 hours a day).  So when I work with someone whose BMR is in the 2000 calorie range, I don’t like to suggest creating the deficit from food alone.  You can decrease your calories, increase your activity, and…wait for it…increase your BMR by increasing your lean mass!

Have I convinced you to grow your muscles yet?  Now you’re in my world, speaking my language, and you didn’t even know it!  You might have thought you just wanted to lose a little belly fat and now here we are talking about how we’re going to put muscle on you.  Ha.  Now, let’s go down that road.  Curls and front raises with ten pound dumbbells are not going to get you there.  How often do you see someone with HUGE arms, but no back muscles and tiny legs?  If you have, you were looking at a bad combination of chemical enhancement and crappy training—and those guys get laughed at DAILY.  The truth is, the people with the most muscle have that much muscle because they know how to get it: they are squatting, pressing, rowing, and deadlifting. These four exercises work just about everything.

Wait wait wait!  Don’t get scared and run away—I’m not suggesting that you need THAT much muscle, nor am I suggesting that it’s possible to get that big by training alone.  I’m just pointing out that the people with big muscles are clearly on to something and we can learn from them.  Long story short:  You need more barbell in your life if you want to gain muscle.  You need more muscle in your life if you want any significant change in your body composition.  So now what’s holding you back?

Stop Throwing Like a Girl!

 

“You play ball…like a GIRL!”

Does anyone remember that quote from The Sandlot?  That moment really hurt my feelings when I was ten years old.  It’s not just what he said–it was the reaction it elicited.  The horror on the faces of those boys made me realize what a shameful thing it is to be compared to a girl.  Maybe that’s when my Women’s Studies career was born.  The worst insult someone could possibly come up with was to compare them to…me?  So please recognize that I am not quick to use that phrase—and yet, if you’ve ever trained with me you may recall that I’ve told you, “hey you’re throwing like a girl again—focus on your big muscles.”  What do I mean by this?

I borrow this phrase not from the insult but from an essay by Iris Marion Young (1977) in which she breaks down what it really means to throw like a girl and why women often have trouble with things like opening jars.  Young points out that because we are taught to sit with our legs together, keep our arms close to our bodies (how many women drive with their arm extended over the passenger seats?), and not take full advantage of our lateral space, we confine ourselves to using only our small muscles.  Men, on the other hand, have not been taught to limit their movements in this way and therefore take up as much space as they please; the result is that they learn to use their larger muscles.  Essentially, men “put their backs into it,” while women tend to use only our wrists when opening jars or throwing a ball.

I have built on this idea in my own occupation to explain why women struggle with squatting, pull-ups, rows, and other compound movements.  I have observed over and over that male clients jump up on a pull-up bar and naturally recognize it as a back exercise and do pull-ups easily, while women try to curl themselves up and fail.  This same observation applies to rows, pulldowns, etc.  I see so many personal trainers whose clients aren’t anywhere near proper form, and I suspect that it’s not because the trainers suck and failed to teach the proper form.  I think it’s that they tried and eventually gave up because they never understood what was holding the client back in the first place.

Women who are uncomfortable in a gym but decide to give weight training a try naturally gravitate toward dumbbells.  And my gosh do they do some ridiculous stuff with those dumbbells.  I am not judging, so don’t take offense!  But I am observing which exercises seem to feel comfortable for women and which don’t, and sometimes it just blows my mind!  How is balancing on a bosu ball and doing half squats while curling more comfortable than an actual squat?!

Is it a coincidence that dumbbells are easy to keep close to the body, or that “comfortable” arm exercises simulate womens’ habitual use of small muscles, instead of  taking full advantage of the larger, stronger back and leg muscles as the compound exercises would?  I think not.

By sticking with dumbbells and shying away from barbell training, you are holding yourself back on many levels.  Not only will you most likely not come anywhere close to your fitness goals, but you will also never fully develop the confidence that you deserve.  You will never know how strong you are, how capable you are, or what kind of person you’d have been if you hadn’t been forced to keep your knees together in a skirt.  Forgive me, but that is some profound @#$%.

If you look at my client training programs, you’ll probably notice a trend: there is almost always some variation of the squat, bench press, military press, and deadlift.  My plans almost always involve barbells.  Why is this?  Well, I’m trying to brainwash all women into getting bigger, stronger, and more masculine so that I can start a converse-wearing, feminist army and take over the world.  Duh! Or, maybe it’s because I believe very strongly in the MANY benefits of training with compound exercises, and I feel that barbell training should form the foundation of anyone’s understanding of weight training.  Too many people think the barbell is step 2 and for more advanced lifters, but I believe the opposite is true.

Simply put: before we talk about squatting on a bosu ball and adding in a dumbbell curl, we should break that down and learn proper form.  And the best way to do that, in my opinion, is with a bar on your back.  It naturally draws the shoulders back, brings the chest out, and allows you to form the beautiful arch you’ll need for almost every exercise thereafter.

If you know darn good and well you should be training with bigger weights, or that you should be incorporating barbells and compound exercises (squats, bench, deadlift, rows) into your training, but you’re shy, intimidated, or just plain lost, HIRE A PERSONAL TRAINER.  And look, that’s expensive–I understand and it’s the bane of my existence.  Ideally, you’d hire someone for at least the duration of a program (anywhere from 4-8 weeks), but if you can’t afford it then do what you can!  A couple of sessions to teach you how to do the exercises may be all you need.  I’m not recommending that you make a long-term commitment to paying an arm and a leg for someone to stand next to you with a clip board.  The truth is, even as a trainer I see way too many people sticking on with a personal trainer for way too long.   On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the gym who clearly should have let someone help them but never did, and now they have big egos and crappy workouts.  Let us help you get on your feet, get past a hurdle, or achieve a goal, but then go on about your business of kicking ass on your own!

Stop throwing like a girl.  Use your big muscles.  You CAN do pullups, I swear.  The barbells aren’t going to crush you, and you won’t “bulk up” unless you want to.   Trust me, there are plenty of men who ask me for advice on how to do this—for women, it’s much more difficult and can’t be done accidentally. Whether you think I’m “too big” or “just right,” remember that it has taken me five years, tons of HEAVY training, and a lot of eating just to get what I have now—and I’m still growing.  If you need help, hire a trainer even if only for a few sessions.  I can recommend some great ones who live all over the country, so don’t hestitate to ask!

In the next post, I’ll discuss the benefits of compound exercises, how they actually help with fat loss, and why women really really need them.