Thursday, August 10, 2006

DF Tip #19: The Ten (well, Thirteen) Commandments of Lifting Weights, Part I

wtsWhen I was but a wee lad, I used to sneak into the weight room at the local college. I'd try to squeeze in as many sets as I could before the beefy supervisor would kick me out (again), rightly convinced that the scrawny kid putting up 23 pounds on the bench press couldn't possibly be a college student, much less a college athlete. The guys in that gym seemed to be from another planet, positioning themselves under impossible weights at every conceivable angle and pushing, pulling, curling, squatting away 'til veins popped and muscles swelled.

Something about the clank of that heavy iron fascinated me. The weights those guys were lifting seemed hopelessly unwieldy, but the athletes' movements were precise and controlled. The work they were putting in was Herculean, yet except for the occasional grunt or pleasantry exchanged, the room was quiet, meditative, and everyone seemed to sense that some very important work was going on.

hercWhen I'd get home after one of these excursions, I'd descend into my basement and attack my own weight set with renewed vigor. Sure, the plastic weights didn't give the same satisfying clank as steel, and in the place of massive, 45-pound plates, all I had were a handful of 15-pound discs, but that didn't stop me. I didn't know what I was doing, really, but I put in some pretty decent workouts with that little DP set, which to this day resides in my parents' basement, much to their chagrin. I'll even put in a workout or two down there whenever I'm back home.

Still, I sure wish I'd had some simple guidance at the time. A distilled, easy-to-follow how-to guide that I could look over in five minutes and understand the basic principles of weight training. A guide that would hold me in good stead from the time I hoisted my first dumbbell 'til I'd done squatted my last squat and pressed my last press.

Well, it's too late for me -- I've run down a thousand blind alleys in search of the world's best workout, sometimes with great results, sometimes ending up in bed for a weekend with a bad back and a steady diet of Advil. For the rest of you, though, here's the list for the newbies -- and not-so-newbies -- out there that I wish I'd had at my disposal 20-odd years back:

1) THOU SHALT WORK THY ENTIRE BODY AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK (AND IDEALLY MORE). Bodybuilding wisdom, as expressed in the magazines, will sometimes hold that you should spend an entire workout on a single muscle group. This is called a "split system," and it can be useful, say, if you've divided the body into two or three groups. But in some programs, you work your entire body only about once every 10 days -- by which time you've missed the optimal window to hit each muscle group again, and keep it growing stronger. Now, some bodybuilders have weird genetics. Some of them -- yes, it's true -- use steroids. For the rest of us, we need to work each muscle group twice per week in order to see the best results.

2) THOU SHALT LIFT WEIGHTS AT LEAST TWICE, AND NO MORE THAN FOUR, TIMES PER WEEK. This is a corollary to the above. It's been shown that lifting weights once a week is adequate for maintenance and twice per week for some growth, but that three times per week is optimal for consistent improvement on a long-term basis. Incidentally, this is regardless of which muscle groups you're working. Something about just hauling iron around regularly, any which way, has beneficial effects on the whole system, to say nothing of the fact that it keeps you in the habit. In my experience, four sessions a week is acceptable if you're fuelling your body with loads of good food and enough rest, but unless you're really trying to seriously bulk up and have little else to do with your time, more than that is really just showing off.

deadlift3) THOU SHALT FOCUS ON BASIC, MULTI-JOINT MOVEMENTS WITH A FULL RANGE OF MOTION. This is an ironclad rule: if you want to make the most of your time in the gym, don't do a lot of little single-joint movements. Don't do a lot of "partials," i.e., little tiny squeezing motions that may produce burn in the muscles but don't do much else. Stick with the basics: squats, rows, presses, pulldowns, deadlifts, lunges. Yes, it's true, these movements are essentially what Günter does, but that's because Günter wants to get stronger. So do you. So get to work.

4) THOU SHALT NOT WORSHIP FALSE IDOLS -- NAMELY, THE MACHINES. I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you want to make good use of your time in the gym, don't spend it on the machines. Yes, they look fancy and shiny and you'll just look cute as a button on the hip extensor machine. But machines are "labor-saving devices." To induce change, you must work hard. So why in the Sam Hill would you want anything to do with a device that saves you labor, eh, Freckles??

5) THOU SHALT STRETCH AFTER THOU HAST LIFTED. Not only does it feel good, it helps to prevent soreness, injury, improve posture, help you move more efficiently, and, I'd wager, just makes you a little bit happier after you've done it. Five minutes is all it takes for a great, full body stretch. Like the rest of your workout, do it with intention and presence of mind and you'll leave the gym feeling refreshed and alive.

6) THOU SHALT USE GOOD FORM. If you're doing the basics with free weights, as I suggest above, do yourself a favor and do them with good form. That means good alignment, good breath support, and good spinal positioning, for starters. If you don't know the right way to do an exercise, buy some books -- there's a million of them -- or hire a trainer. Good form strengthens joints and connective tissue and improves posture; bad form does just the opposite.

wts7) THOU SHALT FEED THY HUNGRY MUSCLES WITH GOOD FUEL. Okay, you've worked out hard -- well done. Now the clock is ticking. After a hard session on the weights, you've got to get some protein into your system but fast. So plan your life so that you eat a good meal -- preferably the largest one of the day -- within an hour after your work out. Impossible? Grab a protein shake to tide you over 'til you can have some serious chow. A good diet is the subject of another column, but I hope I don't need to tell you that you're unlikely to get stronger, leaner, and healthier on a steady diet of Ben and Jerry's and french fries, do I?

Okay, there's the first seven commandments, enough to tide you over for a few days while you organize your workouts and dip your toe into the vast world of strength training. Next time we'll cover rest, workout duration, how to shake things up, and the all important, lucky thirteenth commandment that throws new light on everything that comes before it. Don't miss it.

Have a great week--

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