If you read my article last week (Nutrition for Beginners) then you might remember I said that the gym is where we push our bodies to do new things, NOT to punish ourselves for what we ate. That is the most fundamental thing we need to understand about exercise - its purpose is to develop our bodies and to see what they are capable of. Socrates once famously said, “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” I agree with this quote to the fullest extent possible, and I believe it should apply to women as well.
For whatever reason, we humans have been blessed with the ability to do some pretty amazing things. We aren’t the fastest and we aren’t the strongest animals on the planet, but we have the capacity to develop fun and creative ways to train our bodies. It’s our responsibility to find out how we can continue to do this so that our bodies not only become fit, but stay fit for the duration of our lives.
There are two important things I want to address before moving forward. First is that this idea of exercise and the importance of it is a relatively new concept. Prior to the past few decades it wasn’t a thing - people kept in shape because it was how they lived. Mostly all jobs were physically demanding, and recreation also tended to be in the form of physical activity. With the advancement of modern technology and the ability to be more sedentary, the need to incorporate exercise into our lifestyles has become paramount. The second thing I want to address is the fact that the leading cause for individuals to require assisted living is muscle decay. Once your body gets to the point where you aren’t strong enough to do the simple things like care for yourself, pick yourself up, walk on your own, or clean yourself, that is when you’ll need assistance just to survive. If you want to maintain your independence as long as possible, you’ll need to learn how to train and develop your body, no matter what age you are.
If you are a true beginner, you are probably wondering where on earth to start. There is so much to do, so much to read online, so many fitness influencers telling you this and that. Saying it can be overwhelming would be a major understatement. Something to remember is that everything builds upon each other. Just like babies need to crawl before they can walk, and walk before they can run, you too need to learn the basics before you can try the more advanced. If you lack the ability to complete simple movements like an air squat or a push-up, you can’t jump to weighted squats and bench presses. If you do, you’ll either end up hurt or you won’t see the progress you were expecting. There is a simple hierarchy that I consider when I’m dealing with a new athlete:
- Mobility / Range of Motion: This is the ability to take your joints and limbs through their full range of motion, without pain. If for some reason you can’t extend your arms all the way overhead, you need to figure out why and address it. Same thing if you can’t get down into a deep squat. Watch a baby and see all the different positions they can put their bodies in - you should be able to replicate those positions even as grown adults. If you can't, you have deficiencies that need to be addressed before getting into serious workouts.
- Basic Strength: Are you strong enough for the most basic functions, like standing up unassisted from the couch? Or strong enough to pick up something from the floor? How about pressing something into a cabinet overhead? In order to survive as an independent human, you need to have a basic level of strength.
- Body Awareness / Coordination: Are you able to control your body and make it do what you want it to do? Are you able to perform simple tasks like catching, walking a straight line, jumping, ect? If not, you need to spend time understanding the connection between mind and body and how to strengthen that connection. If you can’t control your body, you can’t improve it.
- Cardiovascular Endurance: Assuming you don’t have any major issues with the three tiers above, then you can start to build your endurance, or more commonly known as your cardio. Endurance training basically focuses on pushing your body to a point where your heart has to work harder than normal. Because the heart is a muscle, by forcing it to work harder, it will adapt and strengthen. The stronger your heart is, the easier it is to pump blood and the more work you’ll be able to handle without getting fatigued.
- Strength Training: Strength Training is the practice of pushing your body to lift increasingly heavy weights so that your muscles have to grow and become stronger. As we lift weights it adds stress to our muscles, and the muscles adapt to the new stress by growing and becoming stronger. Through repeated efforts of strength training we are able to add strength and muscle mass to our bodies.
- Metabolic Conditioning: Metabolic Conditioning is a type of training that is done at very high intensity, and focuses on teaching your body how to convert and use energy more efficiently. Endurance training is usually done at low intensity and lasts for long periods of time, and strength training is usually done at high intensity but for very short periods of time. Metabolic Conditioning meets in the middle - it is high intensity done for moderate periods of time, and is the most demanding and most effective form of exercise.
So, if you are brand new and are wondering where in the world to start, I would say that it depends! You first need to understand where you are in this hierarchy so that you know where to focus your efforts. And the trick is that you probably don’t know how to tell where you are if you are a beginner. For that reason, it is super important to seek guidance from someone with experience, whether it is a Personal Trainer, Physical Therapist, Class Instructor, or someone who has been around the block a few times.
You also need to understand how the six tiers of physical training fit in with your personal goals. If you just want to be as healthy as possible, you probably don’t want to do an extreme amount of strength training, and you probably don’t want to do an extreme amount of cardio. Your best bet would be a little bit of everything. If your goal is to get as strong as possible, then you want to do a lot more strength training and less cardio. Again, find someone who knows what they are talking about, and discuss your goals and why you want to get into physical training in the first place.
Once you understand your goals and understand where you are starting at, then you start to craft a plan to start moving forward. But again, just like a baby can't walk before it crawls, you must make sure you are learning to crawl in the exercise world before you start to run in it.