By Michael Schroth
We are well into February, and with any luck, your New Year’s resolutions are still going strong. If your resolution to start hitting the gym hasn’t worked out great so far, remain hopeful. It’s never too late to start. On the other hand, if you’ve been able to make it to the gym lately, but still feel totally lost—that’s okay, too.
People who want to start going to the gym always ask me, “Where do I start?”
And I always tell them the same thing: “That depends on your goals.”
The most common motivation for gym-goers, especially newbies, is losing weight. So let’s start there.
Losing Weight vs. Building Muscle
Losing weight is a fantastic goal, but it is also one of the most misunderstood. For example, have you ever heard someone say: “I want to lose fat and put on muscle”? I certainly have.
Many people want to put on muscle, and even more, I’d argue, would like to burn off fat. The unfortunate reality is that these things are very difficult to do in unison. Putting on size of any kind requires you to consistently be in a caloric surplus; conversely, you need to be in a caloric deficit in order to lose any size.
Everyone is familiar with calories, those dreaded little fitness-goal-killers. In order to hit your weight-loss goals (and triumph over the calorie menace), you have to hit the cardio equipment and eat nothing but salad, right?
Not so fast.
Fat loss ultimately depends on burning more calories than you take in from food. Therefore, the best advice I can offer is to track your calories.
A quick Google search can tell you what your estimated calorie maintenance level is (the number of calories you need to eat per day in order to maintain your current size). Just make a habit of eating a little less than this number, not forgetting to subtract what you burn at the gym, and you’ll be well on your way to hitting your goals.
For losing weight, WebMD suggests trying to lose 1-2 pounds per week. Losing size gradually rather than quickly makes it more likely that the weight you lose will be fat and not muscle or water. See WebMD’s tips on losing weight safely here.
Remember to always be patient and stay committed. Meeting your goals is a matter of week- and month-long trends. That’s why it’s okay to have cheat days!
For those of you who are trying to put on muscle, make sure that you’re eating more than you’re burning. That’s why I virtually eliminate cardio from my workout routine when I want to put on size. I don’t need to, but it means that I don’t have to eat as much to hit my goals.
I’ve been largely trying to put on size for a little over a year, and I’ve been very successful. This time last year, I was about 30 pounds smaller.
Muscle Groups and Soreness
Gym newbies (and even some veterans) make the mistake of working the same muscles on back-to-back days. If you did leg-training yesterday, you want to avoid doing legs again today. The same holds true with chest day, back day, etc.
We need to give our muscles a break, ideally about 48 to 72 hours. The exception to this rule is cardio and ab training. Feel free to do as much cardio as you see fit—just be sure to always stretch and not overexert yourself.
I often hear people say that they’re “doing arms” today at the gym, and that’s great. What they often mean, however, is that they’re going to focus on bicep and tricep exercises.
The problem with that is that biceps and triceps are involved in opposite motions (flexing and extending the arm, respectively). When you train both intensely on the same day, you’re exhausting your whole arm.
I highly suggest spending each day at the gym targeting major muscle groups. It’s best to focus on just triceps, for instance, since you can do all of the push exercises (push-ups, bench press, shoulder press, etc.) on one day, and still be able to do bicep-heavy exercises (pull-ups, rows, etc.) the next day.
In doing so, you minimize the overall soreness of your muscles. Additionally, you can spend more days per week working out your upper body.
Good Habits and Nutrition
Proper nutrition, meal-timing, and sleep are all extremely important parts of hitting your fitness goals. An hour at the gym is pointless if you spend the next 48 hours making bad health decisions. In my opinion, you should never be at the gym unless you feel on top of your game and ready to kick ass.
Two or three hours before every workout, I eat a substantial meal that is low in fat and high in protein and complex carbohydrates. Avoid fat before a workout—it might make you feel sluggish at the gym. Right before my workout, I always eat a banana for a quick and easy-to-digest energy boost. See Bodybuilding.com’s pre-workout meal tips here.
After you workout, it is essential to refuel your aching muscles. A post-workout meal for me is incomplete without these two items: protein (usually in the form of whey) and simple carbohydrates. As for the latter, white rice, fruit, vegetables and milk are all smart options. You can read Bodybuilding.com’s tips for post-workout recovery here.
If you’re new to the gym (or just haven’t been in a while), be sure to start slow and use low weight. You shouldn’t expect to be squatting two plates on day one, nor should you expect to be able to run for an hour on the treadmill. Set incrementally more challenging and realistic goals for yourself. In addition, help prevent unnecessary soreness and injuries by always stretching.
Finally, remember to congratulate yourself after every workout. You should feel great—tired as well, but mostly great. Knock back your whey protein shake like Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, because you are unstoppable.