Canadian weightlifter Maude Charron.
Lifting Atlas stones.
  • The basic principle of weightlifting involves stressing muscles enough to cause minor damage. If you give those muscles sufficient time and fuel, they’ll actually grow larger during the recovery process. This means you need to work hard during every workout, but that you can’t ignore diet and downtime, either.
  • There’s a fine line between working hard and working too hard. You might be tempted to push yourself to the limit every set, but that can actually be counterproductive, making it difficult for muscles to recover before your next workout. If you keep pushing you risk injury, which will set you back even further. As a general rule you should always have at least 1–2 reps left in the tank at the end of most sets — don’t go to failure until you reach the last set of a given exercise, and even then you should save enough energy to put weights down safely.
  • Rest time between sets should be no less than 30 seconds, and generally no more than 2 minutes. 1 minute is a sweet spot. Stay off your phone and keep conversations to a minimum.
  • You need to follow a consistent plan to maximize results. Each muscle group should be trained at least twice per week, and simply doing whatever you like, whenever you like may result in too little or too much exertion. Search for the Starting Strength lifting program online — for your first few months, it should serve you well. There are alternatives out there if need be.
  • Expect to train at least 3 times per week. If you’re truly serious, or happen to have the free time, you can bump that up to 4–5. Only advanced lifters should consider 6 or 7 days.
  • It’s important to work every muscle group (biceps, triceps, chest, etc.) regardless of your focus. Beyond aesthetics, the groups often support each other during major lifts. A barbell squat for example recruits not just quads but glutes, abs, your back, and (to a limited extent) your arms. Weak spots limit what you can accomplish.
  • No matter whether you’re bulking or cutting you should always be trying to hit your daily “macros,” short for macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Protein takes the priority, since that’s what muscles are actually built of. A simplified rule is aiming for 1 gram of protein per pound of (lean!) bodyweight, and you really can’t have too much protein during the day as long as you give your body enough time to digest it. Don’t worry too much about fat and carb ratios right now.
  • That said — sugar and saturated fats should be avoided as much as possible, and you should prefer low-carb foods unless you’re specifically lacking. Sugar is only good as short-term energy, and if it’s not used, it gets converted into fat. Carbs are a better fuel source and in fact essential for hardcore lifting, but can still get wasted and deter fat loss.
  • You can use a web-based TDEE calculator to estimate calorie burn as a start. Eventually, however, you should invest in a fitness tracker with a heart rate (HR) sensor for better accuracy. I’d recommend an Apple Watch or Fitbit, or possibly a Polar or Garmin chest strap. TDEE websites offer rough numbers at best and your real expenditures can vary dramatically, particularly on gym days.
  • You need to track calorie consumption daily to see if you’re in a surplus or deficit. The good news is that there are apps like MyFitnessPal, which integrates with fitness trackers and lets you search for foods, scan barcodes, and create preset meals.
  • Normally bulks and cuts should be no more than 200–500 calories distant from maintenance levels, i.e. eating to match your TDEE. Excess bulking adds a disproportionate amount of fat while excess cutting weakens muscle.
  • Err on the side of bulking slow and cutting fast. The exact duration depends on how far you have to go from your current body composition.
  • Weigh yourself in the morning multiple times per week. Don’t fret about every single shift up or down — instead, consider changes on a weekly or monthly basis.
  • For supplements, the first rule of thumb is that if you’re eating 3–5 balanced meals every day, you won’t see benefits from most of them. Save yourself cash and skip the niche ones, especially mass gainers, which tend to be too “dirty” for the calories they provide.
  • There are three core supplements: whey protein, creatine, and caffeine. Whey’s use is obvious, but the other two are worth elaborating on.
  • Creatine maximizes the amount of adenosine triphosphate — energy, effectively — available to muscles. As such it’s worth taking 5 grams every day to keep it loaded in your system.
  • Caffeine produces a temporary energy boost that lets you squeeze out extra reps. The manner in which you take it is up to you, but it should always be consumed immediately before or during a gym session. It’s the main ingredient in pre-workout supplements — and ultimately, it’s the only one that matters. Beginners should take no more than 150–200 milligrams, since even advance lifters should avoid exceeding 300.
  • In the gym, good form always takes precedence over stacking on more weight. This minimizes the chance of injury while making sure you’re working muscles to their fullest extent. Avoid ego lifting. If you stick with good form, big numbers will come soon enough.
  • One weapon in good form is the mind-muscle connection. In plain terms this means not just focusing on the muscles an exercise is intended to flex, but being able to flex them at will. This is essential for chest exercises, since it’s often possible for your arms to inadvertently take over.
  • Keep your back arched and your shoulder blades retracted whenever possible, an exception being some ab exercises. A rounded back is a one-way ticket to injury with deadlifts and squats.
  • If you’re not familiar with a particular exercise, check YouTube. I recommend Jeff Nippard’s videos, but other options are available.
  • It’s only time to increase weights when you can comfortably complete all sets and reps for a given exercise. It’s often possible to push things a little harder, a little earlier, but that almost inevitably results in compromised form.
  • How quickly should you be adding on? Early into lifting, you may be adjusting things pretty frequently as you test your limits and take advantage of newbie gains. Beyond that it depends on the exercise, whether or not you’re bulking, and how frequently you train. Assuming you’re in a bulk and hitting the gym 3–4 times per week, you should probably be aiming to add 2.5 to 5 pounds per exercise, per week.
  • At some point, though, you’re going to run into a plateau with one or more exercises. When this happens it’s time to search for gaps in your programming. Is your form on point? Are you trying to advance too quickly? Do you need to shore up supportive muscles? Could it be that your diet and sleep are off?
  • Regardless, it’s okay to have some lifts plateau for a while. Some muscles are just harder to develop, but persistence generally pays off if you push boundaries when you can. Expect to plateau during a cut sooner or later.
  • Good sleep is critical. Even if you’re in your teens or early 20s and used to running on 4–6 hours, you should bump that up to 7–8 hours for the sake of energy and recovery.
  • Once you step beyond Starting Strength into other plans, remember that barbell, dumbbell, and cable exercises are always preferable to linear (non-cable) machines. That’s not to say the latter don’t have their place, especially when working legs, but free weights force your body to recruit more muscles. For that reason you should avoid Smith machine squats unless there’s no choice.
Quiana Welch.
  • Stick with a plan for at least three months unless there are glaring flaws in it. That’s about how much time it takes to see noticeable results.
  • If fat loss is a major goal, you should integrate cardio into your routine. Even if it’s not, cardio still helps build endurance and conditioning. A simple practice is to include 30–45 minutes of jogging or HIIT (high-intensity interval training) on non-lifting days. Heck, merely walking for 30 minutes is preferable to nothing at all.
  • Stretch! Doing 5 minutes of shoulder and hip stretches will save you grief, particularly as you get older.
  • If you’re not used to eating for gains, your stomach may have a hard time cramming everything into 3 meals. Try adding an extra meal or two, or multiple snack breaks, for instance via protein bars (I recommend Kirkland or Pure Protein).
  • For the most part it doesn’t matter when you eat, as long as you’re eating the right things. That said you shouldn’t go more than 4 hours between meals/snacks unless you’re sleeping or deliberately fasting, and it’s always good to consume something protein-heavy post-workout.
  • I’ll leave you with some popular programs to research once you feel ready to progress: PHUL, nSuns, and 5/3/1. I’m a fan of the Building the Monolith variant of 5/3/1, but that one can be grueling unless you’ve been lifting for years — imagine doing 100 chin-ups in as few sets as possible. You will make it there with persistence!

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