Go to the weight area of your gym and look for the least experienced gym-goers’ in there. Tell me what you see. My bet is at least 90% of these newer exercisers are doing some of the exercises that appear the easiest.
Before I begin I want to add this disclaimer. I highly encourage anyone not already doing so to start a new fitness program any way you like. This post is not about new lifters not being welcome in a gym or any of that nonsense.
Yesterday, I watched as two new members at the gym I go to came in and began their workout. Their workout consisted of tricep pushdowns, leg extensions, and other machines, mostly isolating one muscle per exercise through isolation movements.
Does this sound like your workout? There’s nothing wrong with that. BUT, it could be much more efficient, especially at this stage in your journey.
When somebody begins lifting weights for the first time in their life or after years of not lifting, their body responds much more dramatically than the body of an experienced lifter. This means you can do just about anything at this early stage and see a benefit from it.
This may have you thinking, “Jacob, you ignoramus, you’re contradicting yourself. Why does it matter what exercises I do if my body will respond positively to anything I do?”
My point is that this period of enhanced potential should be used on compound exercises, or exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time. Specifically, squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, you get the idea.
Let’s say you have been performing a single muscle exercise like tricep pushdowns. The one muscle you are benefiting is, you guessed it, your triceps.
Compare this to a bench press. When you perform a bench press, not only are you benefitting your triceps, but also your chest and your shoulders.
Want an even better example? Compare leg extensions to deadlifts. Leg extensions are very good at isolating your quads, and as I discuss later, they have their place. Deadlift on the other hand, is a prime example for a compound exercise. It will fatigue your quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back through your upper back, traps, and many more muscles to a lesser degree.
When your workouts are filled with compound exercises, you don’t even have to worry about isolating your muscles with leg extensions or tricep pushdowns… at least, not until you become more experienced and your body stops responding quite the same way.
Once you’ve been in the gym a year or two you will probably notice how your progress has slowed down a little bit. At this point, those isolation exercises could do you well. Your body can use a little more isolation work to keep it’s growth going strong, but we are getting out of the purpose of this article.
Free Weight Exercises
Contrary to what all of your self-proclaimed fitness expert friends have told you, when it comes to hypertrophy (muscle growth), it makes little to no direct difference whether you do your chest press with a barbell or a machine.
Though, there are numerous other benefits, we will just discuss some that pertain to new lifters. Free weights are important for building your stabilizing muscles, all the muscles that keep your body, well… stable (duh).
This includes your ‘core’ as well as the muscles around your joints. These muscles make sure you are able to keep your balance, stay upright, and not buckle under weight.
Note: Core has many definitions, however I use it here to mean the muscles stabilizing your spine (e.g. abs, low back, even upper back
As you grow it is important that your stabilizing muscles grow strong, too. Otherwise, you will likely injure your joints due to not having the support needed for the heavy weight.
An additional benefit to using free weights is the effect it has on our balance. Using free weights, especially in less stable positions like on one leg, one arm and one leg, or on a bosu ball.
This is important for not only everyday life but also improving our balance will also make man exercises easier, this increasing the weight you can use on them.
Slow Down Your Reps
A trap that not only new lifters but almost every lifter falls into is grabbing a weight much heavier than they should and pushing out 10 reps as fast as possible [and possibly posting it on Instagram with the caption “got 10 reps with 135 ez.”
The problem here is that the only thing being accomplished by these ego driven lifters is early wear and tear on their joints. If you can’t lift the weight in a controlled manner, then your muscles and joints probably aren’t developed enough to move it safely.
Rather, you should be focused on controlling the weight on the way down and up. Take two seconds on the down portion and one second on the up portion of the exercise.
This will strengthen your joints and stabilizing muscles close to the same rate as your major muscles, preventing future injuries.
When are compound and free weight exercises not recommended?
The first time you step into a gym, you may not be ready to put a bar on your back and start squatting. That’s perfectly fine. If you are incapable of performing the dumbbell or barbell variation of an exercise such as squat, you can do a few things:
- Do a machine variation of that exercise such as leg press
- Strengthen the primary muscles for that exercise through isolation movements like leg extensions and leg curls
- Perform easier free weight variations of that exercise such as lunges or step-ups.
But don’t rely on these for longer than necessary. Once you are able to perform the compound free weight exercises correctly, focus more on those and less on the machine based and isolation exercises.
Focus on compound exercises. Base your workouts around exercises that work more than one muscle group such as presses, squats, lunges, rows, pulldowns, and variations of each of these. These will be the most efficient way for anyone, particularly new lifters to add muscle mass to their bodies.
Focus on free weights. Free weight exercises are an important part of developing balance and stabilizing muscles in order to prevent injury and help increase weight lifted.
Slow your reps down. The speed of each rep you perform also plays a huge role in how your muscles, joints, and stabilizing muscles develop. Keep the weights moving slowly and in a controlled manner.
These principles are valuable to not only new lifters, but lifters of all experience levels. If you don’t already, start incorporating them into your workout as soon as possible to get the most out of your time in the gym.
If you are having trouble figuring out where to start or what the next step is in your fitness journey, send me an email and we will find out what the next logical step is for you.