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Workout Planning for beginners: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we understood the basics of workout types and benefits. In this article we go into the actual creation of a workout chart.

Workout Chart Creation

For a beginner, a workout chart must take care of the following aspects:

Safety

Warmup

Most people want to skip warmup in the interest of time so that they can get to the actual useful part of the training. The problem is, with muscles and joints that are not ready for the activity, you may end up injuring yourself and unable to workout for next few weeks or even months. Even without factoring in the pain and inconvenience associated with the recovery time, you should figure this loss of training and associated muscle loss in your calculation when you judge whether those 5 minutes of warmup are a useful part of the training or not.

Learning proper form

Motivation is highest in the first few weeks to really challenge your body and see what it is capable of. However, it must be done with low to moderate intensity(weight) with higher repetitions so that your body can learn the proper form and practise it well. With strength training exercises, it is recommended that you understand what you should not do as well as how you should do it. Wrong form might not hurt you right away but as you progress to higher weights, it can cause muscle tears, joint issues and bone/spine problems. You can learn the proper form from reputed youtubers or find a good gym trainer.

Learning the cues to get proper form can also help you identify any mobility issues your body has and address it. This is a major point for increasing functional strength in day to day life. For example: As your kid grew heavier, your form while picking him/her up can make a big difference to your health. So learning proper form will give you dividends in your daily life with heavy objects too.

Intensity selection

Beginners often struggle at judging the proper amount of weight to use for their workouts. The RPE(Rate of Perceived Exertion) measure is not easily judged by beginners. Also, it is possible that for an exercise, the target muscles are not used to full capacity but form suffers ahead of that. This is because other muscles(maybe one of the stabilizer muscles) or joints(due to mobility issues) are the limiting factor. This should not be a cause to avoid that exercise completely. Stabilizer muscles strengthen over time if you keep training and mobility issues can be identified and resolved separately. In such cases, a mirror or a video recording will help you judge the intensity to be used. You can target the maximum intensity and maximum repetitions which you can complete with correct form.

Workout Splits

There are various options available for you to split your workout over the week. It can be selected based on how many days you can train. There is no “right” answer as to how many times one muscle group needs to be trained in a week. The main motive is to maximize your workout volume for each muscle group. Most beginners find a full body workout multiple times a week effective because they cannot use high loads as yet and the muscles do not get completely exerted in one gym session. So training the muscles multiple times a week gives them maximum workout volume.

Sample Full body workout: https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/beginner-to-advanced-bodybuilder-in-12-weeks-phase-1.html

Women have higher recovery typically and can train a muscle more frequently than men can. Read this article by an expert coach to understand the inherent strengths and weaknesses based on gender.

https://mennohenselmans.com/why-women-should-not-train-like-men/

If you have started lifting heavy(85%+ of 1RM), then you can start looking at typical splits like:

These allow you to target one set of muscle groups per session from various angles to maximize muscle growth. You can select one which suits your routine and appeals to you. People have made amazing progress with either of these. There is no single routine to fit everyone. One thing to avoid is to vary the selection of exercises too much. It takes time to learn the correct form of an exercise. If you vary it too often, you will need to spend enough time learning and practising the correct form at lower intensities. If you don’t take this time, you are inviting injuries and if you change exercises too often you are not getting the time to really challenge those muscle groups with the exercises you learnt.

Machines vs free weights

There are often exercises that can be done with machines or free weights. Free weights exercises are those that use any dumbbell, barbell or kettlebell or plates etc. Machine exercises refer exercises using the various machines in gym like a leg press or a pec dec machine. Both types have their pros and cons.

Machines

For a beginner, these are safer alternatives that allow you to target a muscle group with less risk. Some machine exercises can also supplement your free weights exercise. For example, adding a leg press to your routine which includes squats adds more volume to your quad(thigh muscle) workout.

Free Weights

Free weights exercise your stabilizer muscles and increase your core strength because you are responsible for holding the weight steady throughout the exercise. Thus if you have to choose between the two, free weights will give you additional benefits. However, these benefits come with the risk/responsibility of keeping the weight stable.

Compound vs Isolation exercises

Compound exercises are exercises involving more than one joint while Isolation exercises involve only one joint. These exercises therefore; involve more number of muscle groups compared to isolation exercises. They are also inherently more stable because there are multiple muscle groups at work to share the load at various points in the exercise. Then the common question here is, if a single exercise can target more muscle groups, isn’t it inherently better? Also, most of our daily activities do involve multiple joints. If you have to choose only one of the two, compound exercises are better. However, isolation exercises have their importance too. For example, a Lateral Pull down(Compound exercise) will work both Laterals(Back) and Biceps, but it won’t tax your biceps as much as a Bicep curl(Isolation exercise) will. So you should include both types while completing your compound exercises first(so that you can perform at your best for it) and then your isolation exercises.

Customizing your workout

Exercises

As a beginner, the best way to make your own workout is to start with one of the popular cookie cutter plans and splits that you like and then replace some exercises to suit you.

For example, suppose you find the Barbell Squat is too difficult for you. Maybe your gym does not have a squat rack or trainers who will help you get under the bar. Or maybe the empty bar available is too heavy for you to squat. In that case, you could decide to replace it with a Goblet Squat using a dumbbell. What you need to do is find out which muscles are targeted by that exercise and find acceptable alternatives which target the same muscles.

Another example is that your plan has Pull ups which are impossible for you to do. You find a pull down machine in the gym or an assisted pull up machine and use that. This also applies when you have an injury in one limb and you are unable to do a bilateral exercise.

Another reason you may want to change an exercise can be mobility issues. If you have hip mobility issues, you might be unable to keep proper form while squatting. If you are unsure what the problem is, ask your trainer or shoot a video and ask in fittr app. Once you get various suggestions, incorporate those mobility exercises in your workout plan.

If you don’t have access to the particular equipment required for the exercise, that is also a good reason to find an alternative exercise to work the same muscle groups.

To find an alternate exercise, you will have to know:

  • Basic names of muscle groups
  • Find the primary (and possibly secondary) muscle group being targeted by that exercise and find other exercises targeting it.(Eg: Google “Triceps exercise with dumbbell”)

Sets and Repetitions

A set consists of a particular number of repetitions of an exercise followed by a period of rest just long enough for the muscle to recover for the next set.

As a beginner working with low to moderate intensity loads, the set/rep ranges may not be adequate for your body. You should not be afraid of experimenting with these numbers. Try to keep the number of sets below 6 and the number of repetitions below 18. If you are able to do more, you probably need a heavier load.

Similarly, there is no fixed number of seconds of rest between sets. Try to find an optimal number which allows you to do the next set properly. 45 seconds can be a good number to start with.

Judging Progress

We have come to the last section of Workout planning. Once you have made your plans and started working out, you want to know how to figure out whether you are progressing.

Many beginners associate soreness with an effective workout. However, that is not always the case. You need not pursue the feeling of soreness or burn to have an effective workout. Sometimes you will not feel it and yet you may have had an excellent session. So what can you track?

Form

As a beginner, one must always be conscious about the correct posture and form for the exercise. The moment you start compromising on form, swinging your weight or reducing your range of motion, you are exceeding the safe and efficient workout parameters. That is a good reason to stop. You have to be patient and let your body adapt to the routine. Typically, beginners are able to add reps or sets every session. Looking forward to doing so without compromising form is the way to progress.

Volume

This is the primary indicator of progress. If your workout volume per muscle group is increasing, you are building muscle. How do you calculate volume? Volume = Load * sets * rep

If you are increasing the number of repetitions or number of sets or the weight(load) you are lifting, you are increasing your workout volume for that exercise. Every session your goal is to increase any one of these parameters.

Intensity/Load

If you were lifting 2kgs for 10 repetitions last month, but now you are lifting 3kgs for 10 repetitions, you have obviously grown stronger. Whatever you are doing is definitely working and you are progressing.

Do remember to notice your progress and appreciate yourself. There can’t be anything more motivating than watching how amazing your body is and how it can adapt with patience and persistence!

What’s Next

As you start and progress with your workouts, you will get interested in the “What’s Next” aspects of Strength training. Here’s further reading for you in such situations:

Workout Planning for beginners: Part 2

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