First-time gym-goer Lee Penfold reflects on some of the key lessons learned from his first two weeks of strength training as a complete beginner…
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Like a lot of men at the wrong end of their 30s, when I look in the mirror I’m not all that happy with what I see.
But with renewed ambition to lose the bulge that sits around my hips, running whenever I can find the time/be bothered didn’t seem to be cutting it.
So I recruited my brother Ben, a personal trainer, to help me out.
For two weeks, I trained with Ben, following his every instruction – here’s what I learned about strength training as a beginner.
Beginner Strength Training: 5 Lessons Learned
1. Know your goals
My main goals are to lose belly fat and build a more muscular physique.
Ben said I would want to do hypertrophy strength training. Hypertrophy focuses on building strength and muscle with increased repetitions. That means I can also workout at home using the basic equipment I have.
If your goal is to become as strong you can be, I learned, you would use heavier weights and do less repetitions. Training at a gym means you could increase loads gradually and work towards greater muscle mass.
Knowing what you want to achieve from the outset is important. I already felt closer to my goals now I had a clear idea on how to reach them.
2. Focus on form
The only piece of equipment I needed during my two weeks training was a 20kg barbell and some light weights.
Initially, Ben said the most important thing to work on was form and technique. That’s to prevent risk of injury and only gradually increase the stress placed on the muscles.
We drilled five exercises: squat, deadlift, bench press, barbell row and shoulder press, working the upper and lower body.
I did 3 sets of each exercise to close to failure, having one minute’s rest in-between each set.
As I mastered extending my hips when squatting, and lowering myself as if I was sitting on a chair, the experience became more enjoyable.
And remembering to press the barbell in a sweeping motion when bench-pressing, following the outline of a letter ‘J’, was a revelation – instead of extending my arms straight up.
The 20kg barbell was light, allowing me to focus on keeping everything tight and my spine neutral.
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3. Remember to breathe
The most challenging thing I found in my first week of training was remembering to do everything when you’re tired and ready to quit.
That’s breathing correctly, maintaining good form and keeping track of how many reps I was doing. If I forgot to breathe at the right times, not getting enough oxygen into the body, everything else soon fell apart.
I worked on getting all these elements working in harmony and by the end of the second week I was performing the exercises more fluently.
4. Be flexible
But without the watchful eye of a trainer, it was harder to correct poor posture.
One particular technique that gave me trouble was hip hinging. Using a full-length mirror and practising that movement repeatedly helped me improve my positioning.
Now I could see my rounded back, which Ben pointed out every time I bent down in the gym. Seeing my reflection helped me adjust my position and straighten my back.
Working out when I first got up worked best for me, but there are no hard and fast rules. “Simply train when you feel most motivated to train,” advised Ben.
And working out to music was a good motivator and replacement for the encouragement of a trainer or workout buddy.
5. Keep moving forward
“As you get stronger,” Ben said, “I would start you on lunges and single-leg work, which requires balance and stability, and more core work.”
Now that my two weeks are up, I look forward to keep working towards my goals.
However, Ben reminds me that to reach those goals, exercising alone won’t work.
In particular, to burn body fat I’ll have to work on nutrition and ultimately burn more calories than I’m eating each day if I’m going to see results.