This is part 2, for part 1, go here.
Getting Started- Lifting Weights
You’re about to embark on possibly one of the toughest journeys of your life. Seriously undertaking a diet and exercise regime is possibly one of the most difficult prospects, in terms of willpower and mental fortitude. That being said, while you may have the drive, if you don’t have a plan, then you’re just going to be spinning your wheels (also known as fuckarounditis).
This entry will be a short primer into crafting a plan to gain muscle and lose fat while lifting weights (sorry, it’s the only way I know how). I write that last sentence with a cringe, because those are two promises that will usually accompany fad diets and marketing campaigns with very little substance. But if you go about it smartly and slowly, then you should be just fine.
Before you begin, you’ll need to know your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). This site is a great way to figure out your daily caloric needs.
When you’re lifting weights, if you eat at a caloric surplus, you’ll gain muscle (and weight). If you eat at a caloric deficit, you’ll lose weight (hopefully the weight will come from fat and not muscle, and we’ll work on how to achieve this later). These two ideas cannot, for the most part, be divorced. It is for this reason that the bulking and cutting cycles exist: you lift heavy weights while eating at a 500 calorie per day surplus and pack on muscle (and fat), then lift heavy weights while eating at a -500 per day deficit to lose the fat and preserve the muscle. The key to this last point is to 1) lift heavy weights and 2) eat enough protein.
Beginning- lifting weights
First thing to do: get over any fear of weight lifting. You’re not going to “get bulky”—not unless you want to spend hours in the gym and eat nothing but chicken breasts, broccoli, eggs, and whey powder. Think about it this way: if all you needed to do was lift some weight once a week, how come everybody who’s ever gone to the gym isn’t deadlifting 500 pounds and boasting <8% body fat?
No, I’ll level with you: weight lifting is a slow process. Noob gains (beginners’ gains) will only take you so far, and then it’s a slow, painful slog from there.
The good part is that it’s not complicated. There are a few programs out there for novice lifters (test your lifting level here) like Starting Strength (SS) and StrongLifts (SL). These two programs make extensive use of the big three compound lifts, press, squat, and deadlift and have you progressing at a rate of ~5 lb per workout until you stall. At that point, you begin to look into other programs, but that’s another article.
The absolute most important thing when weight lifting¾more than protein, losing weight, or pump¾is form. Before you put on 2.5 lb’ers, you had better have your form down, or 1) you won’t get full Range of Motion (ROM) and won’t get the maximum effectiveness out of the movement and 2) you’ll likely injure yourself, usually catastrophically at higher weights.
Form is my pet peeve, so if you only click on three links in this entire article, click on these tutorials for the squat (yes, watch the entire series), deadlift, and bench press. Watch them, digest them, and internalize the messages. One tip I have is to record yourself lifting from a side-on perspective and analyze yourself.
Once you can lift with perfect form at empty bar, you’re free to begin SS or SL. Remember to get adequate protein, which is usually pegged at 1 gram protein per pound of lean body mass. For example, I weigh 184 lb with ~16% body fat, so I try for 155 g protein daily.
This can be hairy and intimidating for people who have never stepped foot into a weight room before. Don’t worry though, I can promise fairly confidently that gym bullies are more the exception than the rule. I’ll address some common concerns that I had when I first began.
I’m scared that people will think me weak.
To be honest, I’m so concentrated on my workout that I don’t notice anybody else. I’m sure that it’s a similar case for other people.
I don’t know if I have a right to that piece of gym equipment.
By this, I mean the thought, “That guy is a lot bigger than me and it looks like he’s staring me down for using the squat rack, should I let him use it?” The answer is no. If you were there first, then he has no more right to use it just on account of him being bigger, meaner, or more pressed for time. You’re welcome to invite him to work in, but likely your weights will be so off that working in is made impractical.
Don’t be. We’re not lunkheads that just lift things up and put things down. But that being said, sounds and grunts are going to emanate. That’s an unavoidable side effect of doing hard work, but it’s not meant to scare off, nor is it meant to be a mating call, so don’t worry.
What if I injure myself?
Lift with proper form. Squat in a power cage with the rails at the proper settings (i.e. ready to catch the bar at the lowest part of your squat). Failing that, squat in a squat rack. Bench with either a spotter or in a power cage with the rails at the proper settings. Learn the difference between discomfort and pain. Keep an eye out for others’ falling weights. This should keep you out of most freak gym accidents.
RE-RACK YOUR WEIGHTS. This is the first rule of Fight Club. Leaving your weights on the bar is inconsiderate to all those who follow you, and most of all to the gym employees who have to clean up after you.
If the gym is busy, try to keep yourself in one station at a time. If it’s deserted, by all means set up whatever circuit you want, although if you’re doing SS or SL, one station at a time is enough.
If someone asks for a spot, do not refuse. If you ask for a spot, you need to tell the spotter 3 things: how many reps you’re aiming for, what sort of help you’ll need (e.g. lift-off, put-back), and what signal you’ll give to ask for help. If you’re being asked to spot, and the lifter does not specify these things, ask.
Don’t be a dick. This covers all dickish behavior, but I’ll share some things I have seen before: laughing at larger people trying to change themselves by running or lifting or swimming. Don’t do a set of 315-lb half-squats and spend 15 minutes resting in the squat rack talking to your bros. Don’t leave your weight plates on the bar when you’re done (yeah, I said it twice, that’s how important it is to me). Don’t curl in the squat rack, do that with either 1) curl bars or 2) the bench press bar. Don’t do seated overhead presses in the power cage when there’s a seated overhead station across the gym.
What To Expect
Once you begin your chosen program, progress should come fairly quickly. If you increase by 5 lb each workout, your squat should be up to 135 by around the 25th session (~8 weeks). Benching might take a little longer: expect to see a bench of 135 in around 12 weeks. And these estimates are based on if you are keeping with the program rigorously and meeting your protein requirements.
Another thing to expect is DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. I’ve come to embraces the DOMS, but if you’re lifting for the first time in years, then expect some pretty serious soreness and discomfort when walking up stairs or sitting on the toilet.
I’ll emphasize this a lot: I’m not big on miracles. That means diets that will “knock off 10 pounds in a week” or workouts that will “shred fat”. No, lifting is slow, but it is one way to a certain ideal of fitness. If you follow SS or SL, your strength gains will be linear up to a relatively high weight. However, that is only strength. If you are looking to build muscle, then you have to eat at caloric excess. If you are looking to “tone”, then you have to eat at a caloric deficit. Both of these processes will take months. MONTHS. That’s why you need to get started two months ago.
In my own experience, beginners don’t need lifting gloves, lifting shoes, or straps, despite what any company will try to tell you. Once you get to higher weights, chalk may help you to better grip onto the bar during deadlifts. Weight lifting shoes will help you to transfer more of your force to the ground, enabling you to lift heavier weights, but any hard-soled shoe will do (e.g. chucks, sambas). I would stay away from straps and gloves, since I think calluses are manly, but they may make your lifting experience more…enjoyable.
Before You Go
One last bit of advice: try to find something you like about weight lifting. This applies to any form of exercise; if you hate it, then you won’t succeed and your goals will be shot. I personally love the ritual of lifting weights. It’s very cut-and-dried, almost robotic and in a weird way, almost zen.
Finally, I have a collection of links down below from people more knowledgeable than me for further reading.